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.