In my last post, I promised I’d write about how to not be sucked into a toxic form of spirituality. I have started and restarted this post more than any other in this little series, and it has had stiff competition for that honor. There is so much that can be said on red flags for cult leaders, techniques that pseudo-spiritual con artists use, and the basics of a skeptical approach. I could write a full post on each of those, and at some point I probably will. But whatever I wrote on that topic, I kept wondering, is it enough?
There is an overwhelming amount to learn, and no matter what you learn, you can’t get past the ultimate advantage of any con artist; anybody can be fooled, if they want to be. I have seen the most intelligent people excuse away a stream of red flags and drive right off a cliff, just because they wanted to be on the right road more than they wanted to see the warnings. When it comes to spirituality in particular, the human thirst for it can overwhelm any conventional defense against lies.
I don’t think even atheists are immune to this, and no, I’m not about to start spouting some nonsense about “evolution and science just being another kind of faith.” Science fundamentally isn’t spiritual. It’s about facts that can be tested and established, free of value judgments. Spirituality is about meaning and connection. It is nothing without value judgments. They are opposites. That is the problem. Evidence based scientific progress can never replace spirituality, any more than a military can replace a garden.
As a human being, if nothing matters to you, then, well, nothing matters to you. Apathy is the purest form of misery. Atheists, in my experience, mostly still find a kind of spirituality, in that they give meaning to something concrete in their lives. For some, this is connected to science; not the pure data, but the work of pursuing scientific discoveries, or the challenge of educating the public about what science can reveal, or the application of science to make the world a better place. For those who are not career scientists, their meaning comes from personal relationships, artistic projects, or some type of activism. Because of this, many atheists are kind, driven, and simply wonderful people. Learning to find meaning in these things was a key part of my atheist detox.
But among atheists who are anti-religion, a common line is that is that finding meaning in those things makes them immune to all the dangers of blind faith. Bullshit.
A relationship can be abusive. A cause can be misguided. Science works slowly, and the answers we need can be generations away. Art can be poor quality. Anything you attach meaning to can find a way to disappoint you. Choosing meaning, in a flawed and fallible world, is always a risk, whether invisible sky gods are involved or not.
When I left religion, I thought that at least secular meanings would wreak less havoc on a person than religious ones. I no longer think that. Instead, I think the most harm is done by the people who abuse your trust. At the same time, the most profound good is done by the people who earn and respect your trust. The source of the trust does not matter. This leaves us in a dilemma. If we cling to meaning, staying loyal to groups and causes and institutions no matter what they do, we end up supporting and enabling abuse, or even perpetuating it ourselves. If we try to ignore our need for meaning, the hunger grows until we are unable to defend ourselves against even the most corrupt and poisonous movements.
The way out, I think, is in faith, but not just any kind.
The loudest voices calling for faith tend to be looking for blind faith. They want rigid commitment in every detail, without room for transformation and discovery. I grew up with that definition of the word faith, and I ran from it for a long time. Then I came to understand this other thing; where you choose an abstract sort of belief in something deeply life-affirming and good. When life throws something in the path of your search for meaning, you might need to stop and sort through it, or even backtrack completely. But that does not mean you have to abandon the search. You just let yourself adapt.
Believe that healthy love exists, and keep trying to understand what that means until you find it.
Believe that our actions transcend death, whether that is in an ongoing journey of our souls or just the ripples of our choices from one generation to the next.
Believe that things can be improve, and you can be a part of that growth. Adjust your expectations of what that looks like, as your life changes.
That’s what you need to get out of toxic situations, and stay out. If you need to believe in something that is ideal and perfect, right now, there will always be this undercurrent of desperation. That desperation, in turn, will make you an easy pawn for the con artists of the world. All they need to do is sell you on the whole picture up front, and once you’re hooked, you won’t be able to let go when things start souring.
But if you have faith that meaning and goodness exist, without needing to see exactly what that looks like, you can be detached and critical about the details. You can try things without making up your mind 100%. You can adjust and work on flaws as you go, and you can see whether things are actually improving, or just wearing you down until you adjust your expectations.
Which why, for the moment, I’m a witch. For those who have been dying to know exactly what that means, I appreciate your patience as I unpack all this other stuff. Answers are coming up in my next post, which will wrap up the series on my latest spiritual transition.
Thank you, as always, for reading, and I hope you come back to read more soon.