What Atheists Believe Too, by Trent Fowler

Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Trent Fowler’s exploration of spirituality, mysticism, and religion for atheists.  This essay was originally published on Rogue Priest.  Trent blogs at Rulers To the Sky.

For me atheism is not really an assertion of anything, it is not a confident proclamation that there is no God, no gods, and nothing supernatural. It is a refusal to accept any proposition without good evidence. It’s a refusal to take things on Faith. And one fact that atheists acknowledge which believers do not: there simply are no good reasons to posit the existence of any sort of God.

I’m not going to outline or defend the many reasons I don’t believe in any God or gods today. I would rather discuss what being an atheist forces one to commit to. First, I’m going to offer my own definitions of four sticky terms that are important to this debate.

Spirituality: the search for self-transcendence. It is losing yourself in the vastness of time and space, the raw beauty of nature, and communion with your fellow humans. Related emotions include things like rapture, awe, and love.

Mysticism: the first-person exploration of consciousness. Meditation and introspection are two well-known ways of going about this, with drug use, ecstatic dancing, various rituals, and fasting also falling into this category.

Religion: the community, ritual, tradition, and mythology that builds up around set of beliefs.

Faith: is believing things for which you do not have enough evidence.

These definitions are far from perfect. I am aware that for most people, most of the time, “religion” actually refers to churches, traditions, and belief in the supernatural. Even I lapse into this usage in my debates with believers. But if you grant me these definitions, the most important question for an atheist is now:

Can I find things associated with the world’s religious traditions that are useful but do not require me to believe things without evidence?

The answer is almost certainly yes. Let’s consider each term for its compatibility with atheism.

Atheists are often accused of (and sometimes guilty of) denying the possibilities of spiritual experiences. Part of this likely stems from the fact that the word “spiritual” implies “nonmaterial.” But there is nothing within my definition that forces one to embrace the supernatural in search of spirituality, and there is nothing within atheism that forces one to deny spirituality. Notice that I speak of “time and space” and reverence for the “raw beauty of nature” when I talk about spirituality; nothing supernatural there. Atheists can be open to seeking the most profound of spiritual experiences.

What an atheist cannot do is use those experiences, often attained in the context of some sort of religion, as an endorsement of religious doctrines. As a former born-again Christian, I can attest to the positive emotions that accompany church attendance. But facts about my subjective experiences are not a valid basis for asserting the truth of Christianity.

Humans have had religion for about as long as we have been humans. That’s a lot of field testing, and strong evidence that there is something about ritual that is attractive to the human mind. I find it likely that aeons of organizing our lives around natural cycles and rhythms has played a strong part in shaping the beings that we are today. Ritually tracking things like tides and harvest seasons would have been matters of life and death to our ancestors, who were embedded in nature every day of their lives. We have erected technological buffers which separate us from the lives that our ancestors knew. This isn’t exclusively a bad thing; I very much like having enough to eat, having internet access, books, iPods, and hot showers. But in periodically tuning our lives to a great, cosmic heartbeat, we are tapping into a timeless heritage that is inextricably bound up in our humanity.

It isn’t hard for me, an atheist, to imagine that celebrating the summer solstice by camping out in the woods might be restful and beneficial from a subjective point of view. Other kinds of rituals, divorced from dogma, could also be useful in achieving desirable states of mind. Here is an open question to my readers: Do you think the benefits of ritual are content-independent? In other words, do you think that I would get similar benefits from engaging in Hindu rituals vs. Gaelic rituals vs. Christian rituals (again, not assuming that any of the gods of these religions actually exist)? If not, then why do different rituals yield different results? Would I lose something if I mixed and matched between them, or practiced them all in parallel?

Meditating, like other mystical practices, requires no element of faith. You simply sit and observe the workings of your mind. Hopefully, as you gain a better understanding of this process, you can actively cultivate more positive emotions like compassion. There is debate about whether or not such a practice is useful in studying consciousness, given the fallibility of first-person reports. While we humans can certainly be wrong about our subjective experiences, I see no reason why it would be foolish to attempt such an exploration with the aid of things like introspection. Again, what would be unreasonable is taking insights into the mind to be insights about reality or worse, as proof of the truth of one religion.

The only thing you can’t have and still be an atheist is “faith.” If you don’t have evidence that a given book was written by the creator of the universe, or that there is an afterlife or a soul, you can’t believe those things and be an atheist. Keep an open mind, and be on the lookout for new evidence, but don’t fervently believe something that you don’t have good reason to think is true. This turns out to be much harder than it first appears.

In conclusion, atheism does not require you to throw away everything that usually falls within the purview of religion. Atheists can be spiritual, mystics, or even religious, at least as I’ve defined these terms. Spirituality comes from appreciating the awesomeness of the natural world and our interconnectedness with it; mysticism comes from having a more than casual interest in your own consciousness, and finding ways of exploring it; religion comes from embracing rituals, including things like “Walking Like a God” in order to cultivate spirituality and mysticism.

None of these things requires making bad assumptions or taking anything on “faith.” They resonate with the commitment to rationality and evidence which is the hallmark of both science and atheism.

The author

Trent Fowler

Trent Fowler is an English teacher in South Korea.  He graduated with a degree in Psychology from Hendrix college, where he also studied philosophy and neuroscience, among other things.  Though he considers himself a staunch atheist, he is still very much interested in ritual, meditation, and various religious practices which can serve as a means for exploring and changing consciousness.  As a writer, he has worked for numerous websites, blogs, and small businesses.  He also enjoys hiking, playing guitar, dabbling in electronics with mixed results, and learning everything he can about anything he can.


One Comment on “What Atheists Believe Too, by Trent Fowler

  1. Many good points here. I like your key question about whether the useful aspects of religion can be found elsewhere. For you that “elsewhere” is things that we have evidence for. For me it is the history of living things. I ask myself often, of the things we can appreciate in religion, including consolation in the face of death, some moral guidelines, and a sense of being part of something larger, can we find those in the factual story of life over 3.8 billion years. My search for spirituality along these lines takes me not quite to the vastness of time and space as yours does or to nature in general but to the amazing thing that is the quality of being alive and its energies, struggles, and changes. But I feel our views are, in important ways, parallel. Thanks again.

    Brock Haussamen

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