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What Atheism Means to Me

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 1)

SOME TIME AGO, when I first put a scarlet A from the Out Campaign on my site, I also posted a brief explanation of what I meant by it, at the time.

Since then I've had to reconsider—not so much to change my views as to sharpen them. But I do see things a bit differently now.

Partly, this is a result of conversations with Christian friends. Most of the Christians I know are relatively liberal, and very intelligent. I'd like to think the two go together, but, unfortunately, I know some intelligent conservatives as well. The world doesn't always satisfy our deepest cravings.

In these conversations, I get asked an interesting question. It would be meaningless to anyone who hadn't, at one point in their life, been a very, very, serious Christian. But I was, and so I understand it.

After learning that I am no longer religious, or that I now self-identify as an atheist, they ask me about "my relationship with God".

The question doesn't bother me. (Well, not in any cosmic sense. It usually causes me a bit of discomfort in a social sense.) What does bother me—in the sense that it has made me think about exactly what I mean by "Atheist"—is my answer.

Because, in the moment, I do know exactly what they mean, and I have no trouble reassuring them that my relationship with god is better than ever.

An odd thing for an atheist to say? An even odder thing for an atheist to believe?


Regular readers blessed with sharp eyes may have already noticed a hint of the explanation. The word "god" in my response is not capitalized.

That doesn't mean I don't consider it important—quite the opposite.

I've made something of a point in these pages of distinguishing between Capital letter terms and small letter terms: between "Truth" and "truth", "Patriotism" and "patriotism", "Belief" and "belief", "Morality" and "morality".

The basic difference, in each case, is the difference between Orthodoxy and reality.

Not that Orthodoxy absolutely excludes reality. It's an impediment, not a complete barrier.

In fact, the experience of having a real (small-"r") sense of welcome and open connection with myself, my world, and the—excuse the theological expression—ground of my being is what I experienced as my "relationship with God" when I was in my friends' place.

I wouldn't have put it that way, then. I had different models, a different vocabulary. But that is how I would describe it now. And that sense has only gotten deeper.

In fact, I wonder, sometimes, if it is possible to fully enjoy that experience without a little Orthodoxy.

Note to my atheist friends: if the last sentence bothered you because it sounded vaguely heretical from an atheist point of view, you qualify.

But let me rush on to reassure you. I don't mean that atheists don't experience this connection. I think the connection is inborn, and the normal state of affairs, in all of us.

What I do mean is that it may be harder to notice if you've never had enough Orthodoxy around to disconnect you from it—to make you feel separated and out of touch with yourself, your world, the ground of your being. (And I might add that not all Orthodoxy is religious.)

If you've never experienced that disconnect you may be too much like a fish in water. You may not notice the connection, even though you have it.

That brings me back to the sophomoric title of this series: "What Atheism Means to Me".

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 2)

IN MY FIRST POST, I outlined some of the things that caused me to refine my ideas about atheism, which brought me back to the sophomoric title of this series: "What Atheism Means to Me".

What I've come to see, since I put the scarlet A on my site, is that it's not really about whether or not someone or something called "God" exists. It's about knowledge, how we get it, and how we know which ideas to trust.

"But there is no evidence that this designer, even if one exists, is anything at all like a human being, let alone an ancient near-eastern king."

I didn't get here by the normal road. I never rejected God, or even the idea of god—and there is a sense (which I'll get to) in which I still haven't.

I was surprised, in fact, to find myself an atheist one day, when I caught myself thinking about it clearly.

It all came down to the meaning of the word "God"—which has two referents, even in a religious context: the inner experience which some Christians (and some atheists and members of other religions) have, which I outlined above, and an exterior, Orthodox, cultural definition and collection of knowledge which lays claim to being objective.

The orthodox definition shows up in all those "proofs" of God's existence. They each have holes you could drive a Buick through, of course, but I won't be dealing with that here.

Rather, if you just take them at face value, without questioning, what do they really prove?

Some examples:

1. The argument from a first cause:

It claims to prove that there had to be a beginning cause of everything, and usually ends with something like "this cause is what we call 'God'".

So, even if the proof works, it hasn't proven that Jesus rose from the dead, that Mary was assumed, that "receiving Jesus as your lord and savior" will get you into heaven, or even that there is a heaven.

It hasn't proven that "God", as defined by the proof, is anything like a human being, that he is fairly represented by any given religion, that he has a will, that he has desires, that he "acts", that, in fact, he is a "he" or "she" and not an "it".

Even if the proof is sound, it demonstrates nothing that is not currently being considered in the realm of physics.

2. The argument from a prime mover:

Much the same situation. It claims there has to be a source of movement, or energy. It then says "this we call 'God'".

And, again, what would that prove? Certainly not whether abortion is right or wrong, or even whether such a thing as right and wrong exist.

Nor does it prove that this "prime mover" is identical to the "first cause" of the previous argument. It merely gives them the same name.

At most, it would demonstrate something that properly belongs, as in the previous case, to the realm of physics.

3. The argument from design.
This is the argument that there must be a "designer" since the universe is so beautifully designed. But there is no evidence that this designer, even if one exists, is anything at all like a human being, let alone an ancient near-eastern king.

Even if we were to (quite arbitrarily) toss out evolution and other natural processes as candidates, there is no guarantee that such a 'designer' would be anything like the normal, culturally accepted, idea of "God" as defined by religion, or have anything to do with a "first cause" or a "prime mover".

But I came at all this from the other side: the interior, experiential side.

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 3)

IN PARTS ONE AND TWO , I described some experiences which caused me to refine my idea of atheism, and some of the problems with claims to exterior, objective, knowledge about God.

"I began to think that perhaps it was a little dishonest to use the word in a way in which almost no one else used it."

But I came at all this from the other side: the interior, experiential side.

I began my journey as a believer. I've left the "b" in lower-case, because I really did believe in all I was taught, not as a cultural stance, but as a basic world-view. That, I think, is what saved me. (pun, I'm sorry to say, intended)

Since I always assumed that "God" was a term that designated something real in the world, and not just the accepted mumbo-jumbo of my tribe, I was always open to the possibility that the ideas handed down to me, Orthodoxy itself, might be flawed.

And so I struggled mightily, to reconcile what I was taught about God with what I knew about the real world and also with my own, internal, experience.

The result, which was over thirty years in the making, was an understanding of God as the totality of existence, which included myself, and person I was talking to, the person I had never met, supernovae, my dog, Hitler, Jesus, the quantum field, the mosquito biting your arm (hey, it's my list), the anthrax virus, and even George W. Bush.

I used to say, jokingly, to my friends that I was God, but that they shouldn't be alarmed, because they were, too. This didn't, of course, mean that I expected to perform miracles, or raise the dead, or claim to know what was right or wrong for others.

I arrived at this view precisely because I was so dedicated a theist, and because I wanted nothing more than to understand God as well as I could, and to interact with God as a reality, and not a mere cultural fiction.

I'm only talking about my own journey here. I can't claim that everybody who takes that stance would end up in that place, or where I ended up later.

Because it didn't stop there.

The bigger God got for me, the more inclusive the idea became, the less power Orthodoxy had. God was real, both in my experience and in an objective sense. Everything physics or chemistry or any of the sciences proved was more information about God.

And that was when god lost the capital "G". The idea of god had become completely real for me, and in doing so had lost all connection to tradition and authority.

There was no longer a distinction between god and anything else. By this time I no longer had a connection to religion. I was living a completely spiritual, and completely secular, life.

And then Dawkins had to spoil it all. He started the out campaign, and made me think about things a little more clearly.

What, exactly, did the word "God" mean?

I had to admit, that for most people, "God" did not equal the sum total of a secular universe. And I began to think that perhaps it was a little dishonest to use the word in a way in which almost no one else used it.

So I put a scarlet A on my site, and wrote a post, explaining my position.

But I think I'm a little clearer about that position, now.

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 4)

I BEGAN THIS RAMBLING ESSAY with a question which my Christian friends have asked of me, now that they know I am an atheist—what has happened to my relationship with God?—and with the fact that my most common answer is that it's better than ever.

Along the way, I've pointed out that there are two referents for the word God:

1. The internal, subjective, experience, and

2. The set of beliefs which are taught to believers, and which claim to be objective knowledge about the real world.

And I've given a brief account of the evolution of my understanding and experience, until I came to the place where I put a scarlet A on my site, and wrote a post explaining my position.

But I think I'm a little clearer about that position, now.

I now think that the real point is not about God, or god, at all. It's about reality with a small "r", and about the relative value of Orthodoxy and experience.

It can be summed up in the answers to two questions:

1. Is there "something out there", which we can be in relationship with, and which is "bigger than all of us", and yet remains a mystery?


It's the real world, and we are part of it.

We relate to it, both objectively and subjectively, constantly—by using the best models we can find for interpreting it, by being true to our own inmost nature, by relating to each other, by taking care of the planet we live on, by doing science to learn more about it, by feeding the cat.

In fact, we can't avoid relating to it.

You can call it god, if you like, but the name you give to a reality doesn't change that reality one whit. (You can call an electron a "wave" or a "particle", but you're only naming the model you're using. The electron remains itself .)

2. Is there any evidence at all that any one of the thousand and one Orthodoxies that can be found in almost any state or nation has any claim to knowing more about ultimate reality than the average person on the street? Is there any way at all to judge which one has better models than another?

None whatsoever.

Your pastor, priest, or favorite theologian has no reason to believe that he or she has more insight into the nature of the "first cause" or "prime mover" than you do.

Their pronouncements on that subject, like an ancient Roman priest's pronouncements on the nature and desires of Zeus, are about culture , not ultimate reality.

As such, they may be useful, even extremely valuable in some cases, but they shouldn't be taken literally—and definitely shouldn't be taken as infallible.

Insofar as theology claims to be the source of objective knowledge about external reality, it has been clear since the enlightenment that science was the new theology.

What has all this got to do with my answer when people ask me about my "relationship with God"?

Why do I answer that it's "better than ever", and why do I believe what I say?

It's got to do with the difference between reality itself and the models we use to perceive, and talk about, reality.

The "relationship" they're speaking of is a real thing: the awareness of a connection with life, the universe, and everything—and the act of embracing that connectedness.

I'm actually grateful to my Christian background, since it's where I learned the importance of that stance.

But I've also found that Orthodoxy gets in the way—stands between a person and reality by dictating the models that must be used, and the conclusions that must be reached.

So, paradoxically, it was my very seriousness about Christian spirituality that ended up leading me away from the church.

It was that relationship, that connection, that brought me here. And I'm more aware of that connection, more at home with it, more connected than I was in the church.

The difference between me and a theist doesn't lie in the reality itself, but in our models, our interpretations of that reality.

I no longer interpret life, the universe, and everything through the model of a larger than life, invisible human being—both because of the peculiarities of my own internal journey and also because I just don't think the model is a very likely fit, from a practical point of view, given what we really do and don't know about—well, about life, the universe, and everything.

But the reality, the experience itself, I now find to be better, and deeper, more real and satisfying, than when I called it "God".

Which makes me believe that "better than ever" is the most honest, and relevant, answer I can give to their question.

At least, that's what I think today.