Atheist Spirituality

by Richard Packham

I am often asked (as are many atheists and agnostics, I am sure), But without religion, without the "revealed Word of God," how can you find meaning in life, how can you raise your children to be moral, how can you not despair, how can you have standards?

Even those who have decided that the particular doctrines of their religion (such as Christianity or Mormonism) are false, and who now tend to doubt all organized religion, may be wondering about "spirituality," "moral values," "meaning," "Truth," etc.

I had the same subject come up recently in a private three-way correspondence between me, an evangelical Christian, and a prominent (almost "official") Mormon apologist. The Christian and I easily agreed that Joseph Smith was a fraud, but then the Christian and the Mormon quickly agreed that, since I was an atheist, I had no ability to understand "spiritual things."

I'd like to share a few thoughts that might be helpful to others who are struggling with that apparent contradiction between atheism and spirituality/morality.

A new atheist (former Mormon) was recently talking about how awed he is at the miracle of his child growing in his wife's womb, and he wondered if the awe that he felt was somehow a contradiction of his disbelief in God. Others have expressed similar thoughts. Here's my opinion, for what it's worth.

One can admire and feel reverent toward the awesome powers of nature, the amazing way in which life reproduces itself, the sheer immensity of time and space, without necessarily imagining that there is "somebody" running it all. It is amazing. It is immense. It is almost beyond human comprehension - although little by little we humans are beginning to understand something about how it works (thanks to science, by the way, and not to religion!).

I live on a large piece of land. We have our own forests, hills, meadows, trails and roads, located in an area of Oregon where the climate is very mild. We raise cattle and timber. We are right now in the middle of the spring calving season, during which we will have about 30 calves. We should be used to it, nonchalant about it, by now. But every new calf is a thrill, an excitement, to see it emerge, find its legs, and find the milk. What a miracle! Every element of it is a miracle, and awe-inspiring.

To me, it seems over-simplification to suggest that there is somebody who is overseeing every step of this process. It happens by itself, following the patterns that have developed naturally over countless millennia. And it is a neutral process, neither good nor evil. Every once in a while we get a deformed calf, or a dead calf. We don't presume to blame that on "God," which we would have to do - logically - if we thought God was overseeing the production of new life.

When I wander in the woods, in the silence broken only by the sounds of the birds and the breezes in the treetops, I find great peace in looking at a wild flower or a tree and realizing that the difference between them and me is so minimal. The purpose of the flower is to be, to grow, to reproduce if possible. Or perhaps it really has no purpose. Nobody cares about it, but it doesn't seem to mind. There's nothing wrong with that, for the flower, or for me.

Someone recently mentioned C.S. Lewis' book "Mere Christianity." I am a great admirer of Lewis. He is a talented writer and a great apologist for Christianity. His own life was a model for the "good Christian." However, sometimes (actually, quite frequently) his arguments are faulty. Early in that book he tries to prove that we have an innate sense of being sinful, because we all realize that we fall short of perfection. And if we are not perfect, then we are sinful. I look at my animals, my trees, my rocks, my flowers, my hills. None of them are perfect, none are ideal. But that does not make them sinful in any moral sense. They are all the products of the forces that produced them. And so am I. The bent sapling may try to grow straight, just as I may try to overcome my innate faults. But I am not overcoming any moral fault. I am just struggling to be a better tree. The tree has no reason to feel shame, nor do I.

I resent suggestions that, because I don't believe in "God," I cannot possibly have a reverence for life, for the beauties of the mind, for the powers of nature, for the incomprehensibilities of our immense universe, for the mysteries of what we don't know yet and cannot see, that somehow I am to be pitied because I refuse to accept one of thousands of contradictory "revealed" answers to these great mysteries.

It's better to go through life without an answer to such questions than to base one's life on a false answer.

A friend recently shared her views on this topic with me, and I have her permission to pass them on. She expresses my feelings exactly. This is a beautiful expression of spirituality, by Melissa Hardy:

I think we often look too far away for gods and miracles, and ignore the ones all around us. We want to think that we, as a species, are different, that somehow we are endowed by god(s) to do whatever the hell we please with this world. But the world was not created for us (if it was 'created' at all). It exists FOR ITS OWN SAKE, not as a proving ground for future gods or a stage for a cosmic struggle between good or evil, or a playground that one species is meant to use as its personal possession. It is vaster by far, and wilder, and more beautiful than that. There is an elegance in the life cycle of salamanders, of diatoms, of trees, of beetles. In a growing embryo there is more complexity and beauty and holiness than in ten thousand thousand hymns of praise or prayers for sanctification. If you listen, every organism, every species, every cell has its own song, a hymn of praise and holiness more deep and fierce and beautiful than we can even comprehend. And, here is the clincher, the priceless gift of the cosmos. WE ARE PART OF IT! We BELONG here....we are not strangers or sojourners, or even "spiritual beings having an earthly experience." We belong HERE, with our siblings, our relatives, our parents -- the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and the plants of the earth. We are they, and they are us. Each atom in our body is on loan to us from the world, and each atom has been part of innumerable organisms, and will be again. We have been the diatoms. We have been the tulips and the polar bears and the lemurs and the ants and the grass. And we will be the deer and the tiger and the wheat and the E. coli and the penguin. We belong to the system, tangled beyond extrication with every other living thing. Isn't this enough holiness and beauty for all of us? The gods of this earth live in the mitochondria, genes, synaptic gaps of our body. And they live in the grasslands, the deserts, the rivers, the mountains. We are they, and they are us. You are god and gods and parts of gods. We are descended from gods and give birth to gods. They are us, and we are they. We live in a world filled to brimming with gods, and yet we still look beyond the clouds, beyond the stars, beyond ourselves, for a cosmic Easter Bunny who can make all our little dreams come true, when, in reality, we carry the kingdom of heaven within us every moment. It is there, peopled with enzymes and nucleic acids and glycolipids and ionophores. And, although it is within us, we are part of it as well. Heaven is here. The gods are among us.
Can an atheist pray? Why not? I don't believe in God - at least not the God as described by the majority of theists - but I DO believe that there is plenty of evidence that we human beings can summon up powers to help us in difficult times. I don't venture to guess whether these powers are within us or outside us, but I don't think it matters what their source is, they are there. And we can benefit from them.

Those who believe in God summon up these powers by calling upon God in prayer. Those who do not believe in God use other methods - meditation, visualization, altered states of consciousness, whatever. They work for the believer, and because they sometimes work, the believer's faith is strengthened, because the prayers are answered. They work just as well for the non-believer.

I guess what I am saying is that one doesn't have to give up one's access to these powers just because one has given up belief in God. They are still there. I use them, all the time. Whereas I used to address a prayer: "Dear God, please..." I now simply place myself in a meditative state, relax, and put my feelings into words (sometimes only mentally) addressed to whoever or whatever may be listening. Even if it is only some part of my inner self, something happens to bring me peace, self-assurance, confidence. My fears are calmed, my sorrows are soothed, and I am reminded of my unassailable right to my tiny place in the universe, and that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end, or, if it doesn't, it won't really matter.

At one time I was participating in a Twelve-Step program, and at the end of each meeting, the group would join hands and recite the "Lord's Prayer." It always bothered me to be addressing "our Father" when I did not believe in such a being. And yet I did not want to remain silent. So I wrote my own prayer, and no one noticed that the words I was reciting were slightly different from what the others were saying:

Our Powers are within,
Whatever be their name.
What they have done, what still may come,
This Earth can yet be as Heaven.
Live then this day, and without dread,
And forgive your own trespasses
As you forgive those who trespass against you.
And be not led into temptation,
But flee away from evil,
For Time is the Healer,
With power to restore me,
Forever and ever,   Amen.


©  1998 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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