Note: This post is a work in progress. I’ll remove this note when it’s done.
Although I’m an atheist, and always will be, I have had a spiritual awakening.
I still don’t think there’s anything “out there”—no life force/prime mover/guiding spirit. It’s just us and the vastness of space (and whatever alien life there happens to be).
But when atheists talk about feeling spiritual, they typically mean this:
“If emotion, awe, wonder, and yearning are considered spirituality, then call me spiritual, for I often feel the same ‘frisson in the breast’ described by Richard Dawkins, a die-hard atheist, as his own form of spirituality.”
—Jerry Coyne, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible
And I mean something a bit more than that.
I came around to this idea because of a book/blog called Meaningness by David Chapman. Chapman says each of the popular “stances,” or perspectives on the meaning of life—like religion, materialism, nihilism, and existentialism—is incomplete. They all fail because they’re all missing something. It took me a long time to understand why.
When I first read Meaningness, I considered myself an optimistic existentialist. If nihilism is “Life has no meaning,” optimistic existentialism is “Okay, but I enjoy my life, and that’s meaningful enough for me to keep living.”
So I was confused as to why Chapman said nihilism and existentialism are two sides of the same coin. But then I got it: One leads to the other. Life has no point (nihilism); but I enjoy it (optimistic existentialism); but still, I must conclude that it has no point, so even my enjoyment of it is pointless—so what’s the point? (Back to nihilism.)
They’re the same philosophy, just with different emotional overlays: one gloomy, one upbeat. A stance that flips and flops according to how you feel in the moment is unstable.
Many of us try latching onto more permanent sources of meaning, like religion. Unfortunately, as Chapman says, religion doesn’t work, because you have to be either stupid or a hypocrite to believe it.
So you might turn to materialism: maximize money, status, and stuff in this world, and ignore everything else.
Materialism provides some comfort about how life seems to lack meaning. At least if you claim to value money, status, and enjoying yourself, and you’re spending your life acquiring and showing off those things, you can claim your life is meaningful. (In a subjective, existentialist kind of way.)
However, things are never meaningful enough. You buy more to fill the void, but the void gets bigger. You end up feeling empty, like in Fight Club:
“I’d flip through catalogs and wonder, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself: this is the last sofa I’ll ever need. No matter what else happens, I’ve got the sofa issue handled. Then, the right set of
dishes. The right dinette.”
“This is how we fill up our lives.”
“The stuff you own ends up owning you.”
(Or worse, like the serial-killer main character in American Psycho.)
The point is that you cycle through them. Materialism on its own is not comforting; it leads to ennui. Religion on its own is not comforting: it’s too obviously false. Like nihilism and existentialism, these belief systems are the inverse of each other.
Religion attempts to pin down meaning; to say “This is what things mean, forever and always.” Since life is transient, you have to pretend things are eternal by believing in an afterlife. To maintain such beliefs, you must blind yourself to reality—and commit to being ignorant, delusional, or a hypocrite.
Religion is obviously in conflict with reality. There are a million things I could bring up—see Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne and A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian—but most damning of all is the fact that bad things happen to good people. For no good reason. All the time.
In our world, a child can be born, live her entire life in misery, and die at age two of diarrhoea.
I would prefer not to exist in the first place than to suffer such a fate. Wouldn’t you?
If you’re religious, you have to say “No, it’s better to suffer.” Religion acts like suffering is God’s will, so attempts to avoid it, like contraception, abortion, and assisted death, are sins. So religious people try to make these things forbidden for everyone. Which is outrageous.
Some religions are okay with abortion, contraception, and euthanasia, as are lots of people who are “spiritual but not religious.” That’s a step in the right direction. But still. Why have religion at all? Why choose delusion over reality?
I think people get to spirituality for emotional reasons. They think “Life feels meaningful; there must be something out there, beyond me, that gives it meaning.” And they call this something “The Universe” or “life energy” or whatever. Even though no such thing exists.
This kind of spirituality turns into monism: “All is one.” Which turns into…
“There must be no differences in value; […] Everyone must be included, all beliefs must be accepted, and everyone is perfectly equal. Except for people who are not politically correct. They must be cast out. Their beliefs are unacceptable and must be silenced. They are ethically inferior; that’s their essential and permanent nature, and no amount of repentance and purification can redeem them.”
And now we’re back to religion, or at least a religious obsession with in-group vs. out-group, sacred vs. profane.
Because each stance is incomplete, you cycle through them, chasing a source of meaning that is always out of reach.
Chapman describes the cycle of incomplete stances like this:
“A lot of the time I don’t know what I should be doing. I mean, regular life is pretty meaningless, isn’t it? I know I must have been put on earth for some reason. I’m an artist, really. I’m not one of those mindless drones who sleepwalks through life. I can see what’s real; that’s the artist’s job. Discover yourself, discover reality. But I’m not sure what my artistic medium is meant to be.
Life basically just sucks, mostly. It seems like there has to be a better way; we can’t be meant to be miserable all the time. There has to be some ultimate purpose to existence.
I guess I do believe in God. I mean, maybe not as some guy up in Heaven, but something way bigger than us. Stuff doesn’t just happen; there has to be a reason for things. I mean, ultimately, it’s all one, isn’t it? I guess you could say I’m spiritual, sort of, but not religious. Organized religion is stupid. It’s all phony niceness. Real life isn’t like that. People walk all over you if you are too nice. You have to look out for yourself.
A lot of the time I think, OK, I’ll do a regular job, I can fit in, I can make a steady salary instead of being a starving artist. I’ve done that, you know? But the corporate world is all rigged against you. You can’t get ahead. We should sweep that away and create a just society, one that works for real people, not the greedy CEOs and politicians. They are the ones making war and polluting the earth and stuff.
I want to make the world a better place. I think most people do. I’ve got some friends who are political, you know, trying to change things. But I don’t see that they are going to make any difference. And anyway, in the long run, what difference could it make? In a hundred years, we’re all dead, and no one’s going to care. Might as well live for the moment, you know!”
But Chapman says there is hope: There is a complete stance. And I get it now!!!
Life has meaning, but what it means can’t be pinned down. As he puts it, meaning is nebulous. It’s like a cloud. Clouds exist, but we can’t hold them; we can’t pin them down permanently and say “Look, there’s meaning.” Clouds are here one minute and gone the next.
I have been reading his work and thinking about these ideas for a long time, and it’s like, within the past six months, it all came together.
I mentioned in another post how reading Return to Your Natural Colors by Christine Scaman was practically a spiritual experience. Here’s what she wrote about the true summer color palette (my best colors):
“This palette expresses nature’s most sensitive and gracious colors; a well-tended and elegant garden near a lake. […] The edges of sky and water merge in a distant hazy horizon. A rose-covered archway welcomes us into the garden. Pathways are wide enough to walk two abreast, laid out in artistic curves, leading to intimate rooms. The garden is designed with traditional materials: a co-mingling of flower, fruit, edible, herb, and shrub. In its beauty and usefulness, we have the sensation of entering a space containing an abundance of food, flavor, scent, medicine, ornament, shelter, and whimsy. Nothing is forgotten.”
I read this and thought, “Sounds nice. But is that all? It sounds rather lonely, like a monastery.”
But then she went on: “Even romance is invited, under secluded arbors and on benches behind tall hollyhocks,” and my soul (figuratively speaking) breathed a sigh of relief.
“Uncontrived color harmonies request only that we feel the joy in simplicity. […] Clematis climbs and arbor in the back, sharing space with the wayward vines of a fully fragranced, pale pink rose. Boxwood keeps method and order around a decorative fountain, and the birdbath in which we see a true reflection of ourselves. The choreography of simple color schemes, like blue, pink, white, and the coolest green, are the relief we were seeking. Only water truly satisfies our thirst. The evergreens are the gray blue-green of spruce. Silvery birch leaves rustle in the breeze. We plan to stay awhile; Why would we ever leave? True summer gives us time to breathe and reflect. Peace is abundant here.”
That is the landscape of colors that look the best on me; where I fit in. Reading it brought tears to my eyes.
Notice I’m talking about colors—which reminds me of the song “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. Which I know is some Disneyfied, colonialism-whitewashing, noble-savage-myth-promoting BS of a movie, but it was one of my favorites as a kid. I chose this song for my piano recital at age eight, and it has lived in my head ever since.
I’m trying to say that reading about my color landscape, and learning more about colors, has been a spiritual experience because I see colors now more vividly than ever before.
And in the song, “Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?” is a metaphor for feeling the full range of feelings… which I can and do feel, now!
(That is, now that I’ve been in therapy for a year and a half. When I started, I didn’t even know how to answer “How are you feeling?” I had to google “words for feelings” and narrow it down to “Mad, sad, glad, or scared?”)
And some other things happened, but they’re too hard to explain. (I’ll come back to this part.)
The point is, all of this came together into the feeling that I have had a spiritual awakening. And that’s what I wanted to share in this post.