I’m visiting in my parent’s house for the holidays, and last night I started skimming through one of my old Wicca books. I often pick them up quickly when I visit, but don’t usually read them for very long. For most of my adolescence, I identified as “agnostic,” but for a period (especially when I was younger, like 13 or 14) I thought of myself as a sort of “agnostic Wiccan.” Eventually, I traded this out for just “agnostic,” then “agnostic atheist,” “weak atheist,” and finally just “atheist.” Atheist is still probably the label that fits the best, but some people don’t like that label.
“So, you think there’s no God?”
“I don’t know if there’s a God.”
“Well, you’re not really an atheist then, are you? You’re more of an agnostic.”
Some people get the heebie jeebies around me when I tell them I’m an atheist – I think they imagine that an atheist is the reverse of a religious fundamentalist, or that I’m going to start chastising them for their religious beliefs. However, as Richard Dawkins pointed out, the strongest atheists aren’t usually as attached to their atheism as the strongest religious folk are attached to their theism. Usually, the strongest atheists say “I don’t believe in God, but would be willing to change my mind if I saw evidence suggesting there was one.” The strongest religious people often say “I believe in God, and if I saw conclusive evidence there was not one, I would view this as a test of my faith and still believe in God.”
My own personal atheism is sort of, “I haven’t seen any strong evidence I should be part of any religion, but I’m willing to experiment and try things out, and if other people are religious I am willing to believe they may have had a personal experience that makes their choice reasonable for them.” I have no interest in converting other atheists, but I do like calling *myself* atheist because I think their is significant overlap in my own viewpoint and the viewpoint of many other atheists. Agnostic is a less used label, but if you don’t like atheists, I’ll happily be an agnostic for you. It’s accurate.
However, I think there is one big gap in atheism. Confronting the void is fucking terrifying, and the most comfort atheists offer on this point is “isn’t it great being right?”
Sorry, no. If I could pick, I’d like a few lifetimes of reincarnation followed by an eternity of eternal bliss rather than “being right,” mmk? Thx. The problem is, you can’t will yourself to believe the most fun sounding religion. Heaven sounds great, but I don’t have faith in it.
In fact, what I realized after reading my Wicca books, is that I had internalized some of the rituals in them and called on them in my darkest moments. Atheist philosophy provided me nothing in this respect. When I was scared, or lonely, I resorted back to some of the meditative visualizations I had learned when I was 13, and I had no idea where I’d picked them up. In fact, it was sort of unsettling to read one of my favorite Wiccan books last night. I saw instructions from visualizations that are extremely similar to the ones I still use – it was like someone had read my mind and wrote it down, but actually, my mind formed around these teachings years ago. Even now, every night when I fall asleep, I imagine myself laying in a shallow stream of light until all the emotion of the day is washed away and replaced by a sense of calm. This visualization of is the basis of showering ritual I must have learned about 15 years ago.
Atheism, particularly the kind I faced at tech school, often has this sense of bravado about it, “who is the most willing to face the cold truth that when we die our consciousness ends?” But, have you ever tried to imagine that? To feel what it really means to have your consciousness end? It’s hard! I think most atheists haven’t, and instead just don’t think about what it’s going to be like to die very much. Yet, that fact alone makes them a little untrustworthy – I don’t think they’ve faced the truth their own belief system implies. (To be clear, these are just the ones I met – not all atheists.)
The best instruction I’ve personally found for facing the void has come from Zen Buddhism. Basically, you just sit there, with your mind, and just see what’s there. The zen teachings I have read, or seen in Dharma talks admit it can be scary, and difficult, and painful at times – and that’s ok. The zen teachings I have received also claim it is inadvisable to believe anything you haven’t experienced yourself, which I also agree with. The biggest issue I have with Wicca, and why I probably will not adopt it as an adult, is that they talk about things like there being “energy” which you can pull into yourself, or direct. This ideology eventually drifts into spell-casting. The thing is, for me, because I don’t already believe in this energy, it would be like having faith in Heaven. It would require a period of sort of trying to trick myself, or brainwash myself, into believing it before I could work with it. If, somehow, someone already believes or “feels” this energy, and it and this works for them, great! But, I don’t. However, the rituals and the visualizations that don’t require faith from me work pretty well, no matter where they come from.
It’s OK not to believe. It’s OK not to know.
I’m not an atheist, but I don’t believe in an afterlife. I actually find it weirdly comforting to think that my consciousness will simply come to an end. It gives my life a useful kind of urgency, and alleviates the concern that I might somehow still be responsible for things once I’m dead. Afterlives–the way most people, especially other Wiccans describe them–have always just sounded kind of exhausting to me.
(I kinda forgot you had started this blog — I’m working through older entries as I have the time to do so.)
Oh god, atheism and atheists! I’m at a love-hate impasse regarding atheism these days. Here’s why: like you I consider myself a “non-militant” atheist, which is to say that I’m open to all religions — technically speaking — but as yet I’ve seen no compelling evidence for this or that supernatural belief system. Agnosticism by default, in a certain sense, which I’ve also seen called “weak atheism”. However my uncle Greg is what you might call a “militant” atheist — he actively disparages a variety of religions when given the opportunity to do so, especially the monotheistic ones like Christianity and Islam. This didn’t used to bother me so much, but now that he lives in Missoula, I’ve discovered that it’s literally all he talks about, and tries *way* too hard to come up with a militant-atheist angle for whatever the topic du jour is, be it technical, sociological, etc.
Like me, Greg was raised Catholic and rebelled against his religious upbringing later in life. However, I still think he’s beholden to a certain type of pseudo-Christian thought — the idea that there’s a certain system of belief that is *right*, and that all other systems are *wrong*, and his job on this earth is to actively attempt to undermine/convince non-believers of the truth of his ideals. I’ve seen this type of framework called a “religious sensibility’ or a ‘civil religion’, depending on where you look. He’s replaced “belief in God” with “belief in the moral rightness of Western science/scientific progress”, talks wistfully of human beings eventually leaving the Earth to explore space the same way that a believer talks about ascending to Heaven and Judgment Day, and deifies the Western ideal of “progress” (ever more technology and removal from the natural world) the same way a Jehovah’s Witness might deify his task of proselytization. There’s a Druid website I still read (strikingly similar to Wicca, actually) that talks about this type of thinking as believing in the myth of progress. Super annoying.
Anyway. Take home point: a lot of atheists I know diametrically oppose every facet of their belief system against their old childhood belief system, but fail to reject the underlying religious framework of “belief” in a particular doctrine. In a certain sense, Greg is still very much a Christian, and peppers his talk with references to God (albeit in a negative sense) even more than Christians that I know! I’m singling him out, I know, but it’s a case study for a certain class of belief types, and fully encapsulates exactly the type of bravado that you’re describing. Like, “my cut-down of religion X is more brutal and starkly honest than yours”. Whereas my “brand” of atheism doesn’t reject any particular thing a priori, and I despise the type of one-upmanship that I’ve overheard in a variety of convos on atheism. Yet we’re both atheists, of a sort.
Agree that Zen is the only “system” (and it tries so hard not to be!) that offers a true and clean outlook on the void, bereft of love or fear. This comment is getting overly long, so I’ll talk about Zen later. Quick aside: have you read anything by Alan Watts? Easily the most approachable Zen philosophy out there, although written from the POV of an outsider, i.e. a Western psychologist writing during the 60s/70s.
I also forget I have this blog sometimes, but I think I’ll keep it for a bit. I like it whenever I remember it.
I found your story about your uncle super interesting. I think you’ve articulated a point I’ve been struggling with for a while – which is that many ex-Christian Atheists never get over the Christian structure (aka, appeal to a higher authority.) When god fails, it becomes science or whatever – but there’s always a search for outside confirmation.
It reminds me of this quote of what an imaginary little girl is saying to her father:
“You have taught me that there is always an appeal to a higher authority. Meanwhile, your cynicism has split my loyalties, you’ve made me highly suspicious of individuals in authority, yet simultaneously reflexively obedient to symbols of authority as long as there is no defined individual attached to it. And when I get old enough to see you’re just Willy Loman, I’ll start looking for a more abstract, omnipotent, father, and his name will be “Someone Else’s Ideology.””
I have not read Alan Watts, but perhaps now I will. Thanks for reminding me.
Man, that’s a tricky article to understand. I love TLP, but a lot of the time reading his articles is like visualizing the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. But I think I have it. This next point is a little off-topic but I’m going to turn it into an analogy. First, a quote from that same article:
“The vast majority of the people complaining about the Big Soda ban don’t buy big sodas, and those most enraged about the Buckyballs ban either already have them or would never want them. So the reaction has nothing to do with the products themselves, the rage is on a theoretical level, “I don’t want government intruding in my private choices.” But they already do this in a gazillion different ways, bigger, more important intrusions. The difference is that those are invisible. You know you can’t value the risks in airplane safety or radiation leaks so you trust them to do it, but you think you can value the risks of a soda and hate that they try to do it for you.”
This is something that militant Christianized atheists, libertarians, and conspiracy theorists who believe the government did terrible thing X (fill in with random genodical/violent activity) have in common: the personal, subjective belief that the belief-holder has total, 100% control over their thoughts and actions. Like, I have a friend who *genuinely* believes that the US government is building FEMA death camps to eventually corral and kill a large percentage of the population, just to pick a random example. Yet he blithely trusts that the FDA, which is also the US government, is correctly monitoring the safety of his food and water (when this would be a far easier way to kill people).
I think these are all cases of selective belief, wherein the believer holds Belief X because it makes them feel better about themselves — whether it makes them feel smarter, more aware than the general populace, part of an exclusive subculture, or w/e. I think there are hints of selective belief in the language people use as well: conspiracy theorists that refer to the public as “sheeple”, or atheists that lord their cold-hearted lack of belief over all the idiot Christians with their (as the atheist would put it) silver-lining can’t-we-all-get-along trumped-up ideas of heaven and salvation.
I dunno. I think there’s something even deeper going on here that I can’t put my finger on. What do you think?