I'll preface this with Senator Moynihan's classic quote: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." So the following is my own opinion. As far as influencing public policy or being a blueprint for how other people should live or believe, it should hold about as much weight as my opinion that Mike Rowe is way hotter than Brad Pitt, or my opinion that red high heels go with everything. Glean whatever is useful or rings true for yourself, and leave the rest.
I don't believe in any kind of god out there, no Supreme Being or creator or entity that listens to prayers or intervenes in human affairs or cares about whom we have sex with or whether or not we worship it. I am an atheist.
Many atheists are content to set spirituality aside altogether, or were raised in non-religious families so never had it in their lives to begin with. That's a position I have no objections to, but that's not me.
Other atheists find non-religious ways to experience spirituality, enjoying and appreciating the natural world and the universe. This certainly describes me. My sense of wonder at the universe in which we live, our planet and the other life forms with whom we share it has increased since leaving organized religion.
But I still find much to love about many religions. I like the stories. I like the symbols. Maybe it's the literary writer in me that has the affinity for narrative and symbolism. In Julia Sweeney's fabulous monologue Letting Go of God,she talks about reading Karen Armstrong's book A History of God.Sweeney appears to reach an epiphany when she reads Armstrong's assertion that what matters most about religious stories isn't whether or not they're historically accurate, but whether or not they're psychologically true. But then Sweeney asks, "But what does that mean?!" She describes sitting in mass Easter Sunday and looking at Jesus on the cross and thinking about death and rebirth. "Okay. I get it. Psychologically true." Then she asks, "But what about Persephone in the underworld? Isn't that 'psychologically true' too?" She asks the question rhetorically, but my would answer would be, "Yes, and I love the story of Persephone every bit as much as I love the story of Christ." I like the stories. I would add, though, that I don't place any higher significance on a story simply because it's associated with a religion. I find purely fantastical stories like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter to hold psychological truths, too.
I like the rituals. I commented a few days ago about missing Mormon temple worship. I usually found the Sunday meetings boring, but I liked the solemnity and the mystery and the pageantry of the temple. When I was 18 and a freshman at Arizona State University (and still very much a believing Mormon), I used to go to the daily Catholic mass services at Danforth Chapel in the middle of campus. I even took their communion (I didn't know you weren't supposed to). I just liked it. Mormon services (outside of the temple) are awfully sparse when it comes to art and ritual. The ritualism of mass appealed to me, for reasons I can't really explain. Perhaps it had to do with mentally focusing on an activity and flow and ecstasy.
I don't think that religious practice evokes any sort of external magic, but I think that if the practitioner is in the right frame of mind, hearing a story, considering symbols or taking part in rituals can create an internal alchemy.
An excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "Gnothi Seauton":
God dwells in thee.
It is no metaphor nor parable,
It is unknown to thousands, and to thee;
Yet there is God.Along those same lines, the Sanskrit greeting "Namaste" has various interpretations which all acknowledge the divine within each person.
I have a place inside me that I call my God-spot. It's a physical location within my body, around my aortic artery, where I feel sensations that at one time I associated with God. These experiences made me feel loved, peaceful, made my life feel more meaningful, sometimes gave me comfort. This is the internal alchemy I'm talking about. I realize that this experience can probably be scientifically explained as some sort of chemical reaction in my body and that it's not really caused by some omnipotent being. I like the experience anyway, and I want more of it.
I don't have this experience as often as I did when I was religious. Now, my religion also included an avalanche of self-destructive beliefs and rules and I'm more than glad to be rid of those. If I have to pick between giving up the warm fuzzies or the depression and hopelessness, I'll definitely let the warm fuzzies go. But I'm glimpsing ways to reclaim the good stuff without swallowing all the crap that many seem to think has to go along with it.
My music history professor said in a lecture a few weeks ago, "Extremists rarely create great art; they just open doors." He was referring to the opera seria compositions of Gluck, which were a reaction against the over-the-top, vocally-showy-without-much-plot opera buffa of the Baroque period. Gluck's operas put the text and the plot first, with the music being an almost purely utilitarian means of delivering the text. As a result, his operas are rarely performed anymore because they're boring. Then came Mozart, who gave great care and attention to the text, but balanced and even enhanced the dramatic concerns with beautiful music. Voilà! The middle way that endures for centuries.
I needed a time to let myself be angry for all the ways religion messed me up and all the damage it's caused--and still causes--in the world, but for my personal life, I want to move passed that now. Strict religiosity did not suit me, but I'm finding strict secularism to be ultimately unsatisfying as well. If I have to pick between the two, I pick secularism, but I don't think those are my only two choices. I think there's a middle way.
I'm still seeking.