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27 November 2002 — Revelations

I entered college a devout Christian and left it an atheist.

In the decade since graduation my atheism has become more profound but less vocal. Nothing that I have seen or heard or read has indicated to me that there is any sort of supernatural world, any spiritual realm, anything other than this physical world in which we live.

I have not turned my back on religion; religious belief continues to fascinate me, has shaped my life, but for myself, I do not believe.


As anyone, I am the sum of my prior experiences, the totality of all that I have heard, seen, read, and done. These experiences have -- for better or worse -- been filtered through the sieve of my mind until what remains is the essence of Who I Am.

But who am I?

I am a non-proselytizing atheist whose personal moral convictions are deeply rooted in both the Mormon and Mennonite faiths, those religions of my youth. My convictions are tempered by personal experience and by ideas from authors as diverse as Charles Dickens, Plato, Ursula LeGuin, John Stuart Mills, Ayn Rand, Joseph Campbell, Milan Kundera, Daniel Quinn, Kathleen Norris, Wendell Berry, ad infinitum.

I believe that one's ultimate responsibility is to oneself and to one's own happiness insofar as this happiness does not infringe upon the happiness of others.

Though I'm a devout atheist, I try not to be an evangelical atheist. Spiritual evangelism is a curse, a blight upon this world. Spiritual evangelism is responsible for most of the Great Evil that humankind has committed: past, present, and future. If your belief system is sound, if your god is the One True God, then others will come to know it through your actions; you needn't foist your god upon them. Evangelism is the telemarketing of spirituality. I deplore it.

I deplore it in atheists as I deplore it in the religious.

I'm willing to share my spiritual beliefs (as I've done the past three days), but I'm not about to force them upon anyone, to espouse them as true for all people. I do not believe the world would be a better place if everyone were atheist. (Well…)

Spirituality is an individual thing. What is right for me may not be right for you. What is right for you is almost assuredly not right for me.


Though I am an atheist, I continue to grow spiritually. (It is perfectly possible to be spiritual without a belief in any supernatural presence.) Reading is my doorway to enlightenment, as it always has been.

Many of the books I read take religion, or spirituality, as a central theme. Why is this? Do I feel some fundamental lack in my life? Do I pine for god, for salvation?

No.

The quest for spiritual fulfillment has been a central human experience for millennia. It is a primary theme in the book of each person's life. Naturally this has lead to an enormous body of literature in which religious and spiritual themes are explored. How can one help but read from this pool of books? Why would one want to avoid doing so?

I just finished Moby Dick: here is a book that is deeply spiritual without being religious, a book with spiritual themes applicable to all people, no matter whether they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, animist, or atheist.

I enjoy reading about characters or ideas with which I disagree. To do so is often enlightening, illuminating myself and others.


I'm evolving. I keep an open mind, consider new ideas. (I see many of my friends and family cling to some idea or other and never let go -- they do not grow or change. This works for them, and that's fantastic. It does not work for me.)

Some of my best friends are Christians. Indeed, it could not be otherwise in this country, a nation in which ninety percent of the population is Christian and ninety-nine percent believe in god. I am friends with these people not because they are Christians, but because of who they are. I don't care what a person's religious belief is so long as they do not attempt to impose their beliefs on me.

The people I most admire are those who have undertaken an intellectual and spiritual journey and have ultimately been able to make that Kierkegaardian leap of faith, and who reveal their faith through actions rather than words. Ken Kauffman and Michael Hampton are two that I admire; they are intelligent, learned, and devout. Paul Jolstead (who, incidentally, posted a comment to yesterday's entry as I finished this one) is making this spirtiual journey, has traded his atheism for agnosticism for spiritualism and, perhaps, religion. His journey is thoughtful and deliberate, stopping at many points to explore ideas he finds along the way. I do not know what point he will reach, but I know it will not be an arbitrary choice, but a result of reading and thought. To an extent, Andrew Cronk is also making this journey.


I try to live a life that adheres to fundamental Christian values (especially Mennonite values), yet a life that does not require a belief in god, and a life that does not focus on the little things. It seems to me that spirituality and religion should not be about the details ("thou shalt not masturbate", "thou shalt not drink strong drinks", "thou shalt not eat pork", etc.), but about the Big Picture instead.

It's possible for an atheist to be more Christian than most Christians. This seems a worthy goal.

It's no longer important to me that I be Right, that I find the One True Way. I don't believe there is One True Way. It's more important that I live a happy, fulfilled life and that my actions do not interfere with the happiness of those around me.


Yesterday's entry has engendered several thoughtful responses to this subject. It's as good a place as any to continue the conversation.

Comments
On 27 November 2002 (12:33 PM), Dana said:

a) "What is right for you is almost assuredly not right for me."

b) "...this has lead to an enormous body of literature in which religious and spiritual themes are explored. How can one help but read from this pool of books? Why would one want to avoid doing so?"

Quote a) answers quote b) quite handily. An unspoken assumption of tolerance of others beliefs and actions is that just because you don't see a reason for it doesn't mean there isn't one. It's wrong or not deserving of respect.


c) "I enjoy reading about characters or ideas with which I disagree. To do so is often enlightening, illuminating myself and others."

I think this is quite interesting, JD. No matter how much you enjoy reading about characters with which you disagree, you seem to actively dislike TALKING to people with whom you disagree about topics where you don't see eye to eye.

I wonder if you would enjoy Aegypt, by John Crowley. It's out of print and my copy got loaned out and not returned years ago. Good book, though, and one of it's central themes is the evolution of the World View of society as a whole. Sort of.


On 27 November 2002 (12:57 PM), J.D. said:

Dana, I cannot follow your first point. Could you rephrase it? I understand that you think A answers B, but the verbiage of the second part of your statement loses me...

I don't think one should avoid being exposed to a body of literature (or anything else) simply because the ideas contained therein might be unpalatable.

I chose a secular school rather than a religious school because it seemed foolish to forego the broader experience. I've learned that I like Chinese, Thai, Viatnamese, Indian, Mexican, Ethiopian, and Lebanese foods because I'm open to new things, even I'm happy with what I already eat. Though I'm happy to sample this food, I wouldn't want to have a steady diet of any one cuisine. "Variety is the spice of life that gives it all its flavor."

Regarding your second point: I do at time avoid conflict, epsecially when I think it is the best interest of the relationship which is affected by the conflict.

In general, though, I believe I'm quite open to discussing controversial topics with people with whom I disagree.

I am willing to allow for give and take. I share my ideas, I listen to what the other person thinks. I may even incorporate some of what they believe into my own mindset. If the person with whom I'm having the conversation is equally open, I enjoy the conversation.

But if the person with whom I'm having the conversation is open, not willing to consider my viewpoint, is only making a show of listening to my points, I don't enjoy the conversation. In these instances, it's like talking to a wall.

Then again, maybe my self-perception differs from others' perception of me...


On 27 November 2002 (01:46 PM), Dana said:

Ah, trying to be too minimal for my own good :)

Your second statement ends with:

"How can one help but read from this pool of books? Why would one want to avoid doing so?."

These questions are written in such a way as to imply that they have a specific answer. The implied answers are that people can't help but read from this pool of books and that there isn't a reason for wanting to avoid doing so.

Are those implied answers true? Are they universal? In my opinion, no. And I feel that the first quote I included gives the reason that those implied answers are in fact not universal answers.

To put it another way, I agree with the first quote about what's right for one not necessarily being right for another. I disagree about there being no reason for avoiding books with religious and spiritual themes. I disagree that people can't help but read from books on this topic.

(Shrug)

That's all. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation or anything :)

On the second topic, I guess I'm probably bringing along baggage from some of our earlier conversations.

I don't think I'm wrong in lumping myself into the group of friends and family who "cling to an idea" and "never change", at least in your view.

Some (many?) of our past conversations have left one or both of us frustrated at how pig-headed and uncomprehending the other person is, even though we both see ourselves as emminently reasonable and tolerant people. We are each perceiving the other person as being the unlistening wall, while we each think of ourselves as listening reasonably to the other and comprehending their point of view.

Clearly, one or both of us is wrong on this.

The last time this happened, I spent a lot of time thinking about the circumstances and my own role in our conversation. You ended the conversation rather abruptly because you felt it was putting our friendship at risk, and that avoiding the convlict was better than having the conflict.

I felt no such risk. Your disagreement with me did not make me feel that you were less of a friend, or that I couldn't talk to you, even if you continued not to (in my perception) get my points.

But clearly either you felt differently, or something I was doing gave you a different impression of how I was feeling.

I guess on some level I see conflict as part of life. Yes, there are times when (and certain people with whom) I desperately avoid it, but on the whole there's no way for it to be removed entirely, and sometimes I accept and relish it.

I see you as even more conflict-avoidance prone than I am.

(Shrug)

Also, I think you tend to argue your positions more from an emotional place than what I what I would call a logical one. You present emotionally persuasive arguments, not necessarily logical ones. Again, perhaps that's baggage from earlier arguments we've had.

I dunno.


On 27 November 2002 (04:55 PM), Paul said:

JD,

I still admire your discussion. I hope what I add will not be construed as trying to sway you or proselytizing in any way.

I knew a girl in College that took a liking to me, I have no idea why because she was very religious (conservative Protestant). We spoke about Religion often and I said that I'm not one to believe but that I wish I could. She was trying to win me over to her side (she eventually gave up on a lost cause). I tell you this because I wonder that if that "wishing" I could believe was enough of a seed that led me to where I am now.

A few years later I starting reading Tibetan Buddhist books starting with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I collected and read a couple dozen of these and read as much as I could. In one of them it said to let the possibility of belief be an intellectual challenge to oneself, 'it's ok if you don't entirely belive now, just try it out for a while'. Pretty shrewd. I went to a sitting meditation once, sitting, breathing for an hour--longest hour ever.

I even started reading about Islam (as unpolitik as that might be right now). I went to a Friday afternoon meeting and felt about as out of place as a person can be.

I credit W. Berry with getting me to realize that I have a home religion, Christianity, and that there is plenty about the heritage to learn about and honor. I wrestled long and hard about what a "native" religion is (what is native to me a Norwegian/Irish North American, why is Christianity more native than Shinto?).

Another conversation: Sitting at a Canby HS teacher BBQ, drinking beer and talking spirituality with L. Kraxberger. Finally he says, "Oh, so you're a dilettante?" Blankly I smiled,at first proud of the title then asked, "What's that?" He said, "Someone who only reads about things but does't actually DO them..."

Ouch.

That same fact came back a few years later, I can read all I want about this stuff but it's just an intellectual exercise until I actually do something, meaning jump in and see what it's truly like.

One of the hardest things I've done is to walk in the door of the church for the first time on my own terms(that is, not because my Mom and Dad were going).

Again, thanks for your candor JD it's given me permission to do likewise. Sorry it's so wordy.

Paul


On 27 November 2002 (07:18 PM), Tammy said:

JD I too admire your openness in discussing this. I just can't help but think of Uncle Steve (your Dad) and I know that he would want me to say the things to you that I am saying. JD the reason Christians are so evangelical is because they believe that when one dies they will go to hell to burn forever if they do not except Jesus as Saviour and Lord of their lives. When one believes in a real hell one must be evangelistic . We do not want our loved ones to go there! I am evangelistic. I am NOT evangelistic because I am an arguementative person. I am evangelistic because I love people and cannot bear to know that they will suffer an eternity in hell. Thats the long and the short of it.
And Paul if you're still reading this I forgot to say earlier that I commend you in your search for God! May you find His peace in your home and in your heart this season! Love to all and especially to my baby cousin JD!


On 06 December 2004 (01:01 PM), Greg said:

JD, thanks for some honest questions. I wonder if anyone spoke to you of Jesus Christ? He claims to be God, The Word and other things. If true, what He had recorded about himself is, by definition, very important, but then maybe He was just crazy. If you read what He says carefully you will find that He could not be half right, as some are wont to say. As is famously said, He is mad, bad or God - those are the only choices. I can understand anyone who makes one of those three choices, but cannot understand how anyone can choose anything different.
Greg


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