Sunday, September 21, 2008

Three women's spiritual journeys

by writerdd

I change my mind a lot. For most of my life I have been on an involuntary spiritual journey that has led me into and out of Christianity, through explorations of Buddhism, through agnosticism and into atheism. And now I am not sure where I am heading.

This year I've decided that I'm not sure I want to be called an atheist any more, even though I don't believe in god(s). I know according to the dictionary that I am an atheist, but I've become disillusioned with the atheist movement, which largely seems to thrive on making fun of believers and ignoring the desire for spiritual fulfillment that most people feel.

Although I have some Christian friends in America, over the past years, I have found myself viewing all religious people as some sort of monolithic negative stereotype, hell bent on controlling everything and everyone, and teetering on the edge of insanity. I spent the summer in Lithuania where I met people from all over the world, I found that I'd made new friends who were Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Buddhist, agnostic, and "just spiritual." Although we didn't talk very much about religion, we engaged in meaningful and interesting conversations about many different topics. I found myself rethinking the stereotypes I'd come to accept, and wanting to engage more fully with people of differing backgrounds and philosophies. I want to be open to see where my own spiritual journey will take me next, and I am not willing to be pegged down by labels or stereotypes, even those of my own invention.

I've recently read pieces by two other women authors who are in places that I admire. I'd like to share a few of their words with you, below the fold.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, aka The Yarn Harlot, is a well known knitting author who has outed herself as an atheist who can appreciate religion and spirituality.

I attended St. Paul's Cathedral for the Sung Eucharist. Many of you will know that I often say that I am a godless heathen, which is to mean that I do not keep with any particular church, and that I am (gasp) an atheist. This doesn't mean, however, that I don't respect or enjoy religion in general, and as a matter of fact, there is a very great deal I find my personal moral code has in common with much of organized faith, particularly when it comes to the basic rules that almost all faiths.... and all good people, have in common. (It is the interpretation of those rules that defeats me. Stuff like "Thou shalt not kill" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"being interpreted as "Thou shalt not kill unless you happen to think that the other person isn't really a person because of your own rules" or " do unto others as you would have them do unto you unless you think that simply being a human isn't a good enough reason to receive human rights" is a problem for me. I would have been invited to no parties at all during the Crusades.)

I loved the sermon (topic involved how being a good Christian must include being an environmentalist, should you respect the work of God at all) and was profoundly moved by almost all of the sentiment. When I was offered a sign of peace, and made that same sign to others, and the organ swelled and the choir sang, I was filled with an enormous feeling... A respect for the monumental force that is human faith. Although I don't place my faith in a supreme being whom I believe to be sentient, I am faithful. I have faith in the goodness of people. Faith in the love I have for my friends and family, faith in the love they have for me. I have faith that people will almost always do the right thing, especially if they are not hungry or poor or homeless, or worried about becoming hungry or poor or homeless. I have faith that most poor human behaviour is driven by ignorance, not cruelty. I have a mountain of faith, and that was what I had in common with everyone else in that church. Faith. Different sorts of it, but faith nonetheless, and it was a very human and binding experience.

Sharman Apt Russell, another author I admire, has written the new book Standing in the Light: My Life as Pantheist. This book, which I've only begun to read, is giving me a glimpse into another, less conventional way, to explore spirituality -- without superstition.

I am fifty-one years old, sliding toward death, and I don't much like myself. I have failed at so many things--not the very best writer, not the very best wife or friend, not even the very best parent. I don't much like the world either, which is too full of suffering and disease and war, as the world has always been. I am acutely aware of how my country has betrayed itself, refusing once again to fulfill its potential, to be wise and strong. I am acutely aware of how humanity has betrayed itself, poisoning the earth, heedless of the future we create for our children. As a Quaker, I have lost my sense of the Light. I dislike town. I don't feel special. I am surrounded by miracles--the porch step, the blue sky, black ravens croaking and gurgling--only I don't see the connection. What do they have to do with me?

Still, I feel hopeful. My husband and I have a house in the Gila Villey and a new view of mountains. Living in nature will restore me. This time, I will pay more attention. This time I will take along some friends, books I haven't read for many years, some things I have forgotten. I will take along my science, my neglected pantheism, my neglected Quakerism. If I know anything, I know that I do not want to live in a universe devoid of community, mystery, and awe. I do not want to be alone in my brain, my timid and lazy personality, unconnected to the rest of the world. I cast my lot with Spinoza, Thoreau, and Einstein. I want to live every minute in a holy universe, so pleased and grateful to be part of this existence.

Of pantheism, I will ask the questions we must ask of any religion: How can I lead a better and more joyful life? How can I come to terms with my death and suffering? How should we live as humans on the earth? Ho can we be at home here?

These are the same questions we must ask of ourselves, those of us without religion. Desire, it seems, is the beginning of every journey. Whether we love or hate the current state of the world and of ourselves, if we can find the desire to grow and search, then -- as they say in Lithuania -- viskas bus gerai, everything will be all right. My own journey may be just beginning.

Cross posted on de-Conversion.


Kimberly Anne said...

Thank you so much for this post.

I've only been calling myself an atheist for a few months - although I have not believed in god(s) for much longer than that. I fought against the label for so long because I thought I had to jettison anything that was connected to religion and spirituality in order to be a "real" atheist. Even now that I've accepted the label, I still feel uncomfortable with it, and don't quite know how to proceed.

How do I reconcile my deep sense of wonder and connection to the world with the lack of the Divine? What sort of spirituality is open to someone who doesn't believe in god(s)? If there is no truth beyond that which we can objectively measure, then what am I feeling when I look at the sky?

Sorry if I rambled or got off-topic. It's just nice to know I'm not the only one struggling with this.

Darren said...

This is truly wonderful. I've been pondering whether there were other people of like mind on this matter.

I've often described myself as a "taoist athiest" -- I'm an atheist in that I believe that the question of whether god exists is unimportant (the important thing is whether your answer to that question helps you act in a beneficial way).

Even that's ham-handed though, and it's nice to see that others believe it's possible to lack belief in a god (or anything "supernatural") and still see wonder, awe, and spirituality in the world.

Josh said...

Many things about this post really resonated with me. I think atheists (me included) tend to shy away from spiritual language, because the use of that language implies things we certainly don't mean.

If I talk about a spiritual connection with nature, I'm not talking about anything supernatural or superstitious, but a deep emotional connection. The problem is exacerbated because we really don't have another way to describe it.

That Neil Guy said...

I've begun to think of myself as a cultural christian, much like a secular jew might still identify with jewish traditions and thought without being a practicing, temple-going jew.

Christianity, for me, has become a way for me to connect with the infinite universa and the god of einstein and spinoza. It's got a lot of unfortunate baggage, but it's the tradition I'm familiar with and there's still a lot I can gain from it if I approach it from an open-minded non-dogmatic point of view.

I'm a christian in the template of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong.

Chris said...

I don't call myself an atheist because I do not fit the definition -- I don't think I do anyhow.

What I am however, is what I will call a lapsed catholic. Anyone who has grown up that way knows that it is drilled into you way too hard as a kid to fully be rid of it, but I like to think it informs my moral code rather than originating it.

I can strongly relate to the sign of peace comment and it has always been the best part of the service to me. There is a true elevation of spirit in that.

I suppose the pursuit of the ability to retain that moment in perpetuity is what the quest for spiritual meaning is for me. I don't have any answer. Not that interested in finding them. I think for me it is enough to be able to articulate the right questions and let the answers come when they feel like it.

Garkbit said...

"It is the interpretation of those rules that defeats me. Stuff like "Thou shalt not kill" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"being interpreted as "Thou shalt not kill unless you happen to think that the other person isn't really a person because of your own rules" or ..."

I think it is pretty ridiculous to claim an empathy with religious ideals based on mistranslation and cherry-picking of scripture.

writerdd said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. I look forward to discussing more about these topics in the future.

@garkbit, Stephanie was not talking about scripture at all. She was talking about the way people live their religion -- which can be good or bad, just the same as the way unbelievers live. Most religious people are looking for a way to find joy, peace, love, and purpose in their lives, which is exactly the same thing that unbelievers are looking for. I think we can learn something by trying to see what makes all people the same instead of constantly looking for differences and getting defensive. The "us versus them" mentality doesn't help anyone.

You sound like you only think fundamentalists and literalists have a valid interpretation of religion, which is, um, wrong.

Anonymous said...

Hello writerdd,

It seems to me you may just be hanging around the wrong group of atheists. I don't know this for sure, but the folks I hang around are mellower than what you describe.

I think part of the problem is the medium: you're basing a lot of what you define by what you see on the internet, and I've noticed that internet interactions in general, no matter the group(s), can get really vicious. I try not to base my opinions of groups on online posts - it will always skew toward anger.

In any event, I've found meditation (even "simple" meditation using numbers as a mantra) to be really useful in grounding myself and getting in touch with my inner guru.

Barring that, there's always your mind-altering substance of choice with a group of friends.

writerdd said...

Anon, you are right. Mr. WriterDD always tells me everyone on the internet is an extremist. But what does that mean about me? :-)

Kevin said...

I'm very happy to have come across this post. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time. There's no doubt that you can have a completely naturalistic worldview and still pursue spirituality, once you realize that the 'spirit' in spirituality (i.e., the supernatural bit) is just an extraneous belief that gets attached to what is really a completely natural phenomenon.

I think this is probably what Sam Harris means when he talks about the possibility of certain experiences through meditation, but a lot of people misunderstand him.

I'm actually planning a new blog devoted to this and similar topics, so it's nice to see other people thinking about this.

writerdd said...

Kevin, I found the last chapter of The End of Faith that discussed Harris's ideas about a rational spirituality to be very interesting and I hope that he writes more about this in the future, although he seems to have left that topic behind lately.