How Faitheist is Restoring my Faith in Atheist Writers

Atheism is one of those mindsets that I have had a hard time reading, despite my intention of opening myself up to multiple viewpoints on spirituality and religion. Even more surprising, it’s in spite of my lack of investment in the belief of a deity. I have come to think of myself as largely agnostic, believing in some things because I want to, not because I think they are definitely right, so atheism never struck me as a perspective that would bother me.

Atheists as people are fine for me. I have enjoyed getting to know many and have rarely encountered any whose atheism seemed problematic. They all have, mostly, been along the lines of Chris Stedman. And maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I choose to believe rather that there are more of him than not out there.

But atheist writers…damn if they don’t tend towards the same trends they claim to loathe. I’ve tried reading Richard Dawkins and stopped because I was just too revolted by his prejudice and too thrown off by the logical fallacies he commits in his quest to demonize all things religious.

I’ve made it through other books, like The Atheist’s Way, which were more tolerable and had some great moments, but I was still uncomfortable with how much the slippery slopes, broad generalizations, unbacked assumptions, and disdain for “other” resembled the fundamentalism which I left.

It’s actually kind of…funny, I guess, that the two camps would look at each other as the worst while being so damn similar, but I digress.

More recently, I decided to give it another go. I wanted to have at least one book by an atheist author that I didn’t want to burn along with my theology books from the IFB.

Enter Faitheist.

It’s more of a memoir than anything, and much of it covers the coming out journey of the author. (And full disclosure, I haven’t finished it yet. I have maybe a fourth left to read).

But it’s a beautiful book—perhaps not in spite of being a coming out memoir, but because of it.

Stedman values story-telling and didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, though there’s plenty of philosophy peppered throughout his story. He carefully details his own conversion and deconversion process and the struggles of realizing he’s gay while being part of a tradition that taught that gay is a hell-bent identity.

His loss of faith is poignant, something I can deeply relate to. His search for a reason to keep believing equally so. His subsequent disillusionment and anger towards Christianity is, well, pretty damn familiar.

But what makes this book stand out to me is that he doesn’t stay in that place. He realizes that his hatred of Christianity (and religion, in general) is reliant on stereotypes and caricatures of the worst sides of religion, missing the incredible complexity of belief and meaning-making that exists within any given path. He also recognizes the way that certain sections of the atheist community resemble the close-mindedness of religious zealots.

In other words, he is able to look at what he dislikes about the other and recognize its presence within himself.

His story of atheism is a personal one. He recognizes that it’s right for him right now but that it isn’t necessarily right for others. He recognizes that people who aren’t atheist are able to be good, even intelligent people and that they can have common goals towards which to work.

His goal isn’t to eradicate religion, as Dawkins and that ilk would want, but to work towards eradicating injustice and building bridges of commonality.

Some of the criticism of the book has expressed doubts about whether he’s a “true” atheist and suspicions that he will become religious or spiritual again. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what he believes down the road. There’s always a chance that each of us will change our minds/beliefs for any number of reasons. But throughout the book, I can see his atheism grow into the atheism of someone who doesn’t need to believe in a God and, thus, doesn’t need to debunk other’s beliefs, which makes me suspect that his atheism has a better chance of being lifelong and genuine if he’s not holding to it in opposition, anger, and fear of religion.

I would love for others to read this book. His journey is one that we can all learn from, regardless of what path we ultimately choose to walk.

 

Advertisements

The Pagan and the Atheist

I go through cycles in my spirituality. Sometimes I’m more focused on meditation, being still, calming my mind, enjoying the moment, etc. Other times I’m all about the visions and trance journeys, dreams, scrying, and working with guides. Still other times I pull out my spellbooks and get down to business with working some magic.

And then there are periods when all of that is fairly quiet and my agnostic side is dominant.

I never worry when a piece of my path recedes because I know that it will come back around again whenever it’s needed; however, I hadn’t realized why my agnostic side felt so disconnected from the rest of that cycle until I read two very different books: The Spiral Dance by Starhawk and The Atheist’s Way by Eric Maisel.

One was a very well-thought perspective that blended a deep respect for the author’s own beliefs and experiences with a kind of casual take-it-or-leave-it attitude. The author could clearly laugh at themselves, recognized that there was a certain level of absurdity to things, and wasn’t invested in anyone else believing as they believed. They expressed a healthy skepticism about the world along with some deeply held values, and they encouraged readers to make sure that reality testing worked with their own belief system as well. They addressed social justice issues and the way their worldview contributed to that. And they demonstrated respect for the whole person (rational, emotional, conscious, and unconscious).

I hardly expected to be blown away by either book, but after I finished the first, I was quite impressed.

The other book, in contrast, had the opposite effect.

From the first chapter, the author exuded classism and prejudice. They demeaned anyone who did not ascribe to their beliefs and presented humans as having to fight against their very nature and to uproot anything not in line with the presented worldview. Even worse, they used progressively religious, fear-mongering language in favor of the strict form of belief presented, warning of “backsliding” to those who dared stray from their path. All in all, they presented some of the most blatant slippery slopes, straw men, unaccepted enthymeme’s, and naturalistic fallacies I’ve seen in a book, religious or otherwise.

Would you believe it if I said that the latter was written by the atheist?

Despite stating over and over that his readers had the freedom and power to choose what they wanted to believe about the meaning of life, it became clear that there was only one acceptable choice in Maisel’s mind.

I guess up until then I’d never realized that I’ve carried around a mild shame over my chosen path. In my personal dialogue with myself about my beliefs, I’ve always said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not because it is nurturing my psyche and helping me accomplish growth.”

But in conversations with others, I’ve always felt a need to hide my beliefs just a tad, especially around atheists.

It was sort of like I saw this hierarchy of spirituality.

Not being tied to a religious tradition out of fear felt like a step up from where I’d been, but not believing in gods at all seemed like the “better” more “rational” stance. (After all, I had basically chosen my own beliefs partially because they seemed more fun than believing in a non-magical world.)

But the truth is, I’d be much prouder to be like Starhawk than like Maisel.

Maisel’s atheism hasn’t made him more open-minded or more logical. In fact, I dare say that atheists like him and Dawkins are closer to religious fundamentalism than they would like to think. That’s not the kind of person I want to be!

I certainly don’t think all atheists are like that.

When I no longer have a bad taste in my mouth from this last book, I look forward to reading more atheist writers to round out my experience.

At the same time, I also no longer feel the inferiority of choosing to believe in the power and value of my own path.

Maisel was right, I do have the ability to choose the worldview I want to give my life meaning. What he failed to realize is that atheism is not inherently better. As Starhawk reminded me, my spirituality can enhance the meaning I find, strengthen my social justice commitment, and create harmony between my rational and “child-like” self.

Even if it’s based in make believe, I think that’s better than a worldview that cuts me off from parts of myself, makes me fear my own spiritual longings, and participates in systems and patterns of oppression.

 

 

 

 

Playing in Possibility (Step Two to Spiritual Freedom)

Back in January, I wrote about embracing uncertainty and sitting with the discomfort of deconstructing my worldview. It was a terrifying but important part of leaving the cult. At the time, I knew that “The Freedom of Uncertainty” was what I would consider the first step to true spiritual freedom, but it wasn’t the last step. I hinted at the next step towards the end of that post.

“I began to play with ideas, trying them on like clothes, seeing how they fit. I allowed myself to start exploring and creating my own spirituality, choosing what made sense to me rather than what I was too scared to reject. Suddenly the journey to find what I believed was a wondrous, fascinating, and exhilarating journey, rather than one of terror and pain.”

Play.

I know I’ve written about it several times already, but it seems the more I look at it, the more I feel its importance. But how can I codify this idea of play into a meaningful philosophy? I don’t know if I can, but I’m going to give it a playful shot.

To start I want to look at two fields in which ideas are treasured, science and philosophy.

I find many people worship science as the concrete body of knowledge upon which they can rely. By worship, I don’t mean they think of it as a god. I mean they treat it like a god—with the same rigid certainty that other religions treat their religious texts.

In reality, science is far from certain. Every published study contains a discussion section at the end which should list weaknesses, ways in which the hypothesis could still be wrong, and areas that need additional research, even if the overwhelming evidence of the study was in support of the hypothesis. Of course, when news stories cover a popular scientific or psychological study, they try to leave that part out. They try to make it sound like the results were “proven.”

In science, nothing is proven; it is merely supported. One of the first things I learned in my research methods class is that scientific knowledge is only as good as what we think we know. Every hypothesis can be torn down by a single new discovery.

Now, before people get angry with me for denying science, I’m not.

I love science, but what I love about science is that it isn’t about knowledge. It’s about exploring the unknown and testing the known.

To some extent, I want to say by testing the known because one of the strengths of science is building off of evidence. But I left the “and” there because the other great strength of science is that it constantly tests itself. It takes imagination to look at an experiment and see what can be built off of the results, but it takes even more imagination to look at an experiment and envisage how many other ways the results can be explained. Scientific “knowledge” is constantly in flux, changing as technology improves and understanding deepens.

It’s a beautiful dance between imagination and experience.

Science pushes the boundaries of the world to see what we can do. It’s a form of physically playing with possibility, but just because something is impossible for science in this moment doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That’s where philosophy comes in.

Philosophy and science always seemed at odds to me. I actually hated philosophy passionately when I was getting my undergrad degree in psychology. Philosophy doesn’t have to demonstrate validity or accuracy. As long as the philosopher can coherently connect her/his line of reasoning, it’s a valid philosophy. It seemed like such a scam compared to the rigorous experimental method that science and psychology had to go through to get a hypothesis or theory widely accepted.

I don’t know when my opinion of philosophy officially changed, but at some point I realized that without philosophy we wouldn’t have science. Before we can get down to testing anything, we have to first imagine something. Ironically, what I find most frustrating about philosophy is also its greatest asset—the ability to consider an idea and follow a line of thinking without regard to whether it’s true.

Every discovery starts with a “what if” question. As I pointed out above, science is limited to our current understanding and abilities, but there is so much more out there right now that science can’t even begin to touch—and scientists know it.

So does that mean that what science cannot test and verify doesn’t exist? One philosophy might say so. 😉

But we would be in sad shape indeed if we limited our exploration of ideas to only what we can physically play with. Not only would philosophy be out (along with all the yummy philosophical ideas that exercise our brain’s understanding of reality), but so would certain kinds of math and science.

Two seemingly opposing bodies of “knowledge,” but together they encapsulate the essence of play.

David Eagleman has this fantastic TEDtalk on Possibilianism. He describes how the universe is full of  infinite possibilities in the unknown, and he encourages people to embrace them. When I watch the video, I get excited that there’s a man who knows how to embrace uncertainty and play with possibility (there’s a man who’s faced down his fears).

But he contradicts himself! He says that possibilianism doesn’t mean people can believe in ESP because, as far as science has shown, there’s no evidence for it.

I agree with him partially. We do need to work with our worldview to incorporate the evidence that we have surrounding us.

But the part that ESP isn’t a possibility is only true insofar as our technology and understanding work today. Given a good imagination, someone could still formulate a worldview in which ESP is a valid possibility without contradicting the evidence that we currently have. The only way in which ESP is definitely impossible is in the way that we have imagined it to function in the past.

I can imagine some are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh, great. Pseudoscientist over here who believes in ESP.”

But that’s oversimplifying it!

I don’t believe in ESP, per se. I believe in the possibility for a valid worldview to exist in which ESP fits.

Eagleman does a brilliant job of showing how science and philosophy can play, but I think there needs to be another layer to this idea of playing with possibility—that of being comfortable with relativism and multiple layers of truth. This is actually very much present in philosophy, but we forget about it when we step into the arena of “knowledge,” which is really just another human construct like time.

This is where true spiritual freedom comes together. It’s one thing to be willing to test your beliefs and figure out if they “work” in the real world. That’s important–necessary even. It’s even better to consider the value of a belief whether or not it ends up being true. But when you combine the willingness to play with ideas with the recognition that truth comes in many shades, then you truly have infinite possibilities. You can find exactly what works for you and appreciate the level of truth that it represents to you without feeling the need to deny evidence or prove that everyone else needs to believe the same.

The Freedom of Uncertainty (Step One to Spiritual Freedom)

I’m not a huge fan of new-year resolutions or of the whole farewell, time-to-assess-my-life thing that tends to dominate this week for others, but I have to admit that this year has been a wild one for growth. It’s been three years coming, but this year in particular has been the one where I even blew myself away.

Looking back on who I used to be, I barely recognize myself—in a good way. These have all been changes that I needed and growth that I wanted, even if I didn’t like the means of growing at the time. I’ve been trying to pin down what has been the most important lesson or change this past year, the one that kick-started all the others. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing this year would have happened without the less-astounding, more internal lessons of the previous year—learning to sit with uncertainty.

When I first began my baby steps out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, I never intended to go very far. I wanted to get away from the abusive environment that dominated those churches and “schools” and find a church that held onto the “truth” of Christianity without all the bullshit.

For a while, I clung to the core of my religion as my anchor while allowing myself to question the things around it. Some fundamentalists warned me that if I started down that path, I would lose my faith. But I told myself that if my faith couldn’t stand up to questioning, it wasn’t worth having. I felt certain that I would eventually find my answers.

But for every answer I found, another question appeared. They got bigger and bigger until even the core seemed unstable. All the books and scholars I found couldn’t fully reconcile the doubts and contradictions I had; the answers only covered the surface, never getting deep enough to reset the foundation.

I was faced with a choice. I could turn away from my questions, push away those who reminded me of my doubts, shut my mind off, find reassurance in the imperfect answers that had reassured me before, and live the rest of my life in a religion I was too scared to leave.

Or I could let it all go.

I’ve never been very good at ignoring cognitive dissonance, so I let go.

I wanted to start studying other religions and belief systems immediately to find a new one that I could rely on, but I knew that if I did that, I wouldn’t be doing it because I actually believed in that religion. I’d be doing it because I’d needed to fill the vacuum left by Christianity. I made some tentative attempts at engaging other religions, visiting a Buddhist Temple and talking with some Mormons, but my own desperation scared me.

Probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life was choosing to be “agnostic.” I’m not talking about the softer form of atheism that claims agnosticism or even the agnosticism that finds answers and comfort in not having answers. I’m talking about confronting my doubts and embracing the fear that maybe there really were no answers to my questions. It was an agnosticism that denied myself my need to explore spirituality until I no longer felt the need to run from the possibility that this was all there was.

For almost a year I held myself to this agnosticism, refusing to even attempt to come up with answers to my questions. I started collecting books, attempting to fill my bookcase with at least one major book about every major belief system I could. But I didn’t read them. I merely let them sit there, their presence reminding me that each of these religions or non-religions (atheism/agnosticism) claimed to be “the truth.”

It was torture. There were days when I just sat in my apartment, crying and rocking, trying to pray to a god I didn’t believe in anymore, trying not to pray to that god. I felt like my world might crumble and disappear right in front of my eyes.

But the world didn’t end. I didn’t cease to exist. Life around me continued on exactly as it had before.

And I learned the lesson that set me free: even though my worldview might make me feel like it holds the world together, in the end, it doesn’t do anything.

Without the preconceived notion that “I’m right,” any worldview had the potential to be right. Some seemed more believable than others, but there was absolutely nothing that was self-evident. There was always room for questions. Always room for other answers. Always room for new discoveries.

Eventually I did get to a place where the doubt felt almost like an answer—not the answer I was looking for. It didn’t solve anything. But learning that it was okay to simply not know freed my mind in a way that nothing else could have. I began to play with ideas, trying them on like clothes, seeing how they fit. I allowed myself to start exploring and creating my own spirituality, choosing what made sense to me rather than what I was too scared to reject. Suddenly the journey to find what I believed was a wondrous, fascinating, and exhilarating journey, rather than one of terror and pain.

It is because of that year of uncertainty that I have been able to sprint through so much internal work this year. It’s because of the year of unidentity that I’ve been able to make so many strides in creating my identity into who I was always meant to be.

Part of me would have liked to return to Christianity, and I admire the friends I have who took a similar journey and found a place for themselves within Christianity. But I honestly don’t think I was meant to be a Christian. My spiritual life now feels so natural and so fulfilling, an expression of the things that have always been inside of me waiting for permission to come out.

As I head into the new year, I’ll ignore the pressure to make new-year resolutions as usual, except perhaps the resolution to continue to live the full breadth of life, facing down fear, embracing uncertainty, and finding myself through it all. And I encourage others to dare to take that journey themselves.

It’s worth it; I promise.