When we talk about what people get out of religion, there are four main themes; community, a sense of morality, an explanation for the unexplained, and spiritual fulfillment. Atheists argue that you don’t need religion for any of these. The first three have secular equivalents that are as good, if not better, than what religion can provide. You can base community on any number of things, from family to fandoms. Morality that relies on somebody wielding the afterlife as a stick and carrot from on high… there’s something hollow about that. It doesn’t give us enough credit for our innate altruistic impulses to take care of each other. And why make up an explanation for something mysterious when you can investigate, and find real answers?
The last one, spiritual fulfillment, atheists tend to treat as begging the question. It’s saying we need religion because we need religion. The vague, self-referential definitions provided make it hard to quantify, and in atheist circles, if you can’t explain something in objective, rational terms, with concrete examples based on externally observable reality, it is not real.
That never sat well with me. Too much of my life has been shaped by things that I felt intensely, but took some time to explain rationally. If it wasn’t for that self-trust, I would not have paid attention to the signs that something was wrong in the religion I was raised with. I would not have become an atheist in the first place. I also would not have come out as trans, taken charge of my mental health, worked through hard times with my partner, learned to connect with the behaviorally challenged kids I used to work with… you get the picture. All the best things in my life started with trusting a feeling, even before I could fully explain it. So, when I started having feelings that pulled me towards a kind of spiritual practice, I listened. I owed it to myself. I had earned my own trust.
That said, just because I can’t scientifically explain the pull towards spirituality, I can at least try to describe it without talking in circles.
Hoo boy. Okay, okay, I can do this.
When I look back at my experiences of spirituality, a common theme has been a sense of bigger-than-ness. I have wanted to connect to something larger than myself. I have wanted to see my place in that biggerness. I have wanted to know how to use it to take care of myself, and also how to use myself to take care of it.
Yeah, ok, I think I did it. There’s a little more to it, but I think that’s a decent nutshell explanation.
I also think, for many atheists, this need is met by science. Studying the cosmos, exploring nature, practicing medicine, pushing the boundaries of mathematical knowledge… the list of ways to meaningfully experience “biggerness” without appealing to a mystical supernatural force is impressively long.
But I also think those experiences, while enough for some, don’t fulfill everybody’s needs. I think part of spirituality is understanding your unique place in a big world. If your circumstances, natural talents and personality all align to make, say, the study of rainforest ecosystems your perfect place, that’s wonderful! It was not the path for me, and why is another entire blog’s worth of content.
For right now, I just want to acknowledge the irony that, without atheism, I probably could never have experienced authentic spirituality. The religion I was raised in clogged my head with so many insecurities and falsehoods. I needed to learn that I did not need to go to church to experience community. On the contrary, I could connect more authentically by developing diverse social outlets. I needed to learn that I did not need my church’s image of God to teach me right from wrong; in fact, their morality had become corrupted, and my own inner compass just needed a polish to point the wrong way. Most of all, I needed to be reassured that life without answers was all right. Wondering what happened after death, and being prepared for the answer to be “nothing,” was better than pretending I had knowledge that I did not.
It was only after this was cleared away that I could see the true purpose of religion and spirituality. What’s more, I could see that the religion of my upbringing was not spiritually fulfilling in the slightest. It shrank my world, rather than expanding it. It was using community and morality and simple answers to cover up the fact that it was failing in its most fundamental role.
I absolutely could never have become spiritual without first using atheism to purge myself of religion.
In the next few days, I’ll write about how I am learning to express my own personal spirituality (teaser; it overlaps a lot with mental health). Until then, thank you for reading, and take good care of yourself!