It’s questionable how useful a statement of convictions can be, if it’s only that, and not a stimulant to further reflection. I am here undertaking a clearer definition of my views on theism, atheism, and spirituality, not because I benefit through such an act of definition, but in the hopes that I can aid readers in finding their own way through these issues and perhaps gain some wisdom along the way.
Atheists don’t seem to spend a lot of time defining what theism means. Most of the literature I’ve seen attacks traditional religious texts and beliefs in a piecemeal fashion. It’s no wonder, really. I’ve often remarked that people generally assume that they know what we mean by the word “God” when such questions are asked as “Do you believe in God?” or “Are you religious?” When we get down to actually asking folks to define God, the diversity of the answers is often astonishing.
The general conception, however, if I had to summarize it, is of a being or entity that is all-powerful and created the universe. Since it is a being or entity, it is separate from us in some way. Even if we allow for the idea that the being is “everywhere” and is beyond space and time, there is still the assumption that this being is greater than, and not the same as, people and things.
If we define theism, then, as the belief in this general concept, then I am an atheist. For me, such a being or entity is logically impossible. I also consider it morally impossible, on historical grounds. I have no intention of presenting the full range of this argument here. I would point curious readers to David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for starters.
There are two prominent aspects to the current debate. The first is that theists put forward “God,” and the attendant religious texts and doctrines, as explanations for natural events, and as ultimate explanations for nature itself. In other words, they claim scientific truth for theistic beliefs. Atheists, along with scientists in general, challenge this, as they must if they are to retain the integrity of reason and method in science. For complex reasons, evolution has become the focal point for this struggle, but it really encompasses all of science, and particularly its fundamental reliance on evidence, demonstration, and logic. There can be no compromise with an approach that relies on an a priori acceptance of authority outside of reason.
The second aspect is actually more comprehensive, although it gets less attention than the struggle over science and evolution. Theists put forward “God,” and the attendant religious texts and doctrines, as the absolute authority on human conduct and sociopolitical organization. Here we run into the issue of separation of "church and state," and all the problems involved with religious groups attempting to implement their religious convictions as public policy. Atheists challenge this, of course, favoring a secular society in which freedom of belief and opinion is absolute and government is not affiliated with religion in any way.
In both aspects, I stand with the atheists. Religion is not science; it never has been, and it’s a dangerous folly to try to pretend that it is. And the social and political authority of religious groups has proven vulnerable time and again to the common human maladies of greed, cruelty, domination, and self-destruction. The age-old appeal to blind obedience is a terrible dead end. Even propagated by well-intentioned and virtuous people, it stifles human freedom and understanding—and increasingly, the most prominent voices of religious authority are neither well-intentioned nor virtuous.
My experience, however, has led me to part ways in crucial respects with the mainstream of atheist thought. I don’t believe that religion is just superstition, or that it is inherently wrong and destructive. I am convinced that the religious impulse, for lack of a better term, occurs in human beings because of a vital and central truth.
Many atheists seem only to comprehend religion as a failed attempt to explain natural phenomena. In this paradigm, reason is awakened through science, and therefore no longer needs religion, since science explains everything adequately. But in fact, religion has never been primarily an attempted explanation of natural phenomena, but only marginally so. A mythological creation story, for instance, doesn’t function as an answer to a curious mind looking for the how and wherefore of the universe. It is, rather, a metaphorical formulation of a shared cultural perspective within a community. As such, it reflects whatever values and necessities are primary in the tribe or group, both conscious and unconscious. Many themes are intertwined in the mythopoetic tale, and usually they are connected to ceremonies and celebrations involving central aspects of life for the group, such as the finding or growing of food, sexuality and procreation, life cycle stages, family dynamics, authority within the tribe or group, and the entire world of nature surrounding and sustaining the community, especially animals and plants. Social cohesion is achieved through metaphor, along with levels of self-awareness and personal development that increase through time. The ultimate source of wonder and awe in human society is subjectivity itself, the very fact of experience, which is inherently ineffable because it is the precondition of human life. Culturally we find at this source the shaman, and later the holy man, mystic, saint, or guru. The poet is the direct descendant of all these, although this heritage has often seemed obscure to modern eyes.
My contention is that this religious aspect of life, which I prefer to call spirituality because the word is less contaminated by literalist or authoritarian influence, will never go away. Human beings would die without it, because it is essentially the intuition of meaning, and there is no society without meaning. I get the impression that many atheists believe reason and science is a substitute for spirituality, and that we should work towards eliminating religious belief altogether for the good of humanity. On a practical level alone, this is naïve. It’s the same mistake that proselytizing religions make when they work towards everyone believing the same way, i.e. their way. There’s just as much chance of humanity becoming all atheist as there is of humanity becoming all Christian. None. But I go further and say that such an outcome would not even be desirable. We need metaphor—poetry and myth—and metaphor ultimately always points to an intuition of eternity, the absolute and unconditioned reality as symbolized by subjectivity itself, or what we call spirit, soul, or self, albeit these words have implications that become problematic for us.
If you, the reader, are at all familiar with my writings, you know that I reject all literal interpretations of religious symbolism and consider such interpretations as nothing but methods of domination by authoritarian groups. But you also know that I find religious metaphor to be meaningful in the context of subjectivity, as symbols of self in all its journeys, suffering, discoveries, and fulfillments.
The secular viewpoint on social and political organization necessarily involves freedom for religious people to practice whatever religion they may choose. So it’s not a question of trying to force a more enlightened point of view onto people who choose to be literalists, fundamentalists, or religious believers of one sort or another. The problem involved here, as any atheist will tell you, is that religious authoritarians are not satisfied in practicing their faith undisturbed—they want non-believers to be converted to their beliefs, and they want society and government to conform to their views. This aspect, then, presents a purely social and political problem that needs to be dealt with on that level.
My concern here is of a different sort. What does spirituality look like when one has renounced theism? What meaning, if any, does the word “God” have from a non-dualistic perspective? What would a healthy relationship between spirituality and science look like, and what is the role of reason in spirituality? Can one find wisdom and spiritual nourishment from the various religious traditions without succumbing to group-think, obscurantism, or other kinds of irrationality? What is the purpose of spirituality anyway? Is there a social purpose as well as a personal one? Rather than dismiss spirituality out of hand as some sort of aberration, I seek to understand it better, and to follow the strivings of my understanding as far as I can, without fear.