Sunday, April 17, 2011

Three Seeds of Belief

Last week I shared a very brief overview of how I went from Mormonism to atheism. There was a period of seeking in between there, a period that has recommenced. Along the way, I've encountered sparks of recognition, moments that make me say, Yeah, that feels true.

For me, this kind of recognition feels more like being reminded of something I already knew, having that knowledge brought to the level of conscious thought. My most recent experience of this was while reading Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue. One reviewer dismisses it as "Vague New-Age Schlock." I tend to agree more with the reviewer who called it "like milk and honey for the soul." When I read it, something inside me said, "I've been parched, and this is what I wanted."

I value and respect what can be learned and proven in a lab, but I don't see any reason to set aside other ways of learning. There are people who have the opinion, "If you can't prove it in a lab, it isn't real/doesn't count." I'm more of the opinion, "If you can't prove it in a lab, you shouldn't presume it has implications for the world at large, and quite possibly not for anyone other than yourself."

So, after a time of honestly thinking that there really was not any god, I've reopened myself up to the possibility that there could be. Dismiss me as irrational if you wish. I'm fine with that. If you've met me or read much of my writing, you can deduce that I'm a fairly lucid person.  Here are a three sparks of recognition that are seeds that make me say, Yeah, maybe.

First seed, something Jennifer Fulwiler wrote. A friend posted a link to Fulwiler's blog on Facebook shortly after I had started this blog as a staunch, anti-religious atheist. She was raised as an atheist, and happily so, as she describes it, and ended up converting to Catholicism in her 20s. When I read that, I thought, What?! A lifelong atheist who became a Catholic? That's possible?! And I confess, I hated her blog when I first came across it. I glanced through her Most Popular sidebar, and my reaction at the time was, What's wrong with this woman?! And I'm not saying I agree with her on everything these days, but I've come to like a lot of her ideas, and especially to feel that spark of recognition in what she writes about God.

Her post "Suppressing the Soul" really resonated with me. She writes about visiting a cathedral in Mexico City while on vacation with her family as a teenager and being struck with awe at the place.
As with other times in my life I’d experienced great awe and wonder, something seemed horribly amiss. I had to consciously remind myself not to get too wrapped up in these feelings I was experiencing since, after all, they were nothing more than chemical reactions in my brain. I kept wanting to place more meaning on them than that, but would admonish myself not to be silly. Any sort of beauty or importance I ascribed to places like this were a product only of some neurons firing in my head, and nothing more.
My soul was crying out to be heard, but I suppressed it every time. “Where’s the proof?” I’d think. “Science has not shown that there is something mysterious about this cathedral or something other than evolved chemical reactions driving my feelings of love for my family,” I’d insist, blowing it all off as wishful superstitious thinking.
She writes that one of the things that kept her going when she wanted to give up on her spiritual journey was "the relief that hit me like a waterfall when I finally acknowledged my soul."

I can't say I believe in the soul in anything other than a metaphorical sense, and yet I recognize what she's saying. I've had those same awestruck moments, and I can believe that we evolved to feel those things (though I'm puzzled as to what the evolutionarily advantageous explanation would be) and that it's all neurons and chemicals, but I also think there's something more to it than that. I can't tell you why other than that it feels like that should be true.

Which brings me to the second seed. A poem by Mary Oliver entitled "Terns." Follow this link to read the full poem (it's also found in her New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2). My favorite lines are "Not through the weaponry of reason" and "What else could beauty be for?"

Third seed. A quote from Jane Goodall. Love this woman. In the introduction to her memoir Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey she writes about visiting the cathedral of Notre Dame, shortly after she lost her husband to cancer and was going through a crisis of faith herself. The sound of an organ playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor filled the space:
That moment, a suddenly captured moment of eternity, was perhaps the closest I have ever come to experiencing ecstasy, the ecstasy of the mystic. How could I believe it was the chance gyrations of bits of primeval dust that had led up to that moment in time--the cathedral soaring to the sky; the collective inspiration and faith of those who caused it to be built; the advent of Bach himself; the brain, his brain, that translated truth into music; and the mind that could as mine did then, comprehend the whole inexorable progress of evolution? Since I cannot believe that this was the result of chance, I had to admit anti-chance. And so I must believe in a guiding power in the universe--in other words, I must believe in God. 


Related Post: Jane Goodall on the Daily Show


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.


  1. ' I'm more of the opinion, "If you can't prove it in a lab, you shouldn't presume it has implications for the world at large, and quite possibly not for anyone other than yourself." '

    When we discover atheism, and the change of worldview it provides: naturalism, scientific method, etc, we are so proud to have in the "winning" side, and we disregard others ways of knowing, a feeling best expressed in the xkcd cartoon (, where the awe of a very accurate prediction of a consequence of the big bang make us jump to support team science.
    But, team science can't do everything. Sometime we need solace, comfort, be part of a group, feel better... And I liked another xkcd comic, the continuation of the previous one (

    "I find the courage where I can, but I take my weapons from science..."

  2. Hi there!
    This post resonates a lot with me, and I'd love to understand how you figure some things out. Maybe some background on me helps understand my doubts...
    I was raised a pentecostal envangelical, with all that implies. I found it normal to be in the middle of 200 people hugging and crying our hearts out at an altar. I spoke in tongues, and felt some pretty amazing feelings. But a whole lot of mindfuckery came with it - from believeing gays were sinners to repressing my natural urge to seek out the whys and hows.
    These urges eventually won, I went to college to become a scientist, and for a while I kept identifying as a christian, though I had no time to go to church. Then, I started to realize the stupidness of somethings I believed in, and that I couldn't just cherry-pick the bible to what made me feeel good and forget all the rest. I decided my personal beliefs were more whithin Secular Humanism, and that is a great way to live my life, but some things still bug me.
    For example, I never quite got to calling myself an atheist. Maybe that the idea of dying and there being nothing else scares me even worse than the idea of going to hell, but also, I can't just deny the experiences I've had; I feel the need for something that speaks to me at a deep, emotional level; I crave spirituality. This has me pretty much at a crossroads.
    For one, I cannot go back to agreeing with christian values; but my nagging doubt is that, because I felt so spiritually whole, maybe they were true. If I don't follow that conclusion, then I have to say that the contribution of something to my spiritual well-being does not imply its veracity. Then, I could just choose some feel-good religious phylosophy: being a pagan for example. But the thing is, maybe because I was so brainwashed, no other religion or philosophy resonates as being true. And I can't just pretend t believe in something I don't, if what I'm after is something that makes me feel spiritually whole again.
    So, in a nutshell, atheism resonates with my rational mind, but feels dry and lacking in that amazing ever-flowing love and joy I remember feeling every day. On the other hand, I can't see any mithology as being any more than that, and as so I can't follow them, because I am just unable to believe. The only evidence I have, based on my own experience, is that christian faith (of the particular flavor I was in) gave me what I'm looking for spiritually, but I refuse to follow such a sadistic, hurtful god.
    So I'd like to know, how do you do it? After you decide spirtituality matters, how do you find a philosophy that joins the secular humanism values with some "soul-food", and how do you achieve belief in it without being dishonest with yourself?

  3. It feels true vs. the evidence supports it's truth.
    What value is lost with the first in relation to the second?

    Confirmation bias haunts me. I let it run wild when I root for my sports team. "Ref, you got the call wrong, he was out!" Even my own perception of the runner going down the sideline confirms he is out...but should my perceptions be trusted? Watching sports, I say sure, yeah, I'll trust that, because it is part of the passion of being a fan. I escape into the fanaticism and us/them thinking that's so on the threshold of human group think behavior. There is a psychological result, and it is sort of addictive (hence, massive sport fan armies). But, If I was the ref, seeking evidence of truth, I would not give into "It Feels as though" he stepped out of bounds.

    Which team (literal or metaphorical -- or perhaps none--) are you rooting for when you say It feels like I can learn from the world in ways out of proportion to the evidence?

  4. Hi Leah. The New God Argument might interest you. Google it. Here's a related paper:

  5. This is almost exactly what I feel, that while I understand the chemical processes that speed up my heart and the electrical processes in my brain that make tears run from my eyes, my throat to close, my lip to tremble, my jaw to drop in amazement, I just feel that there really is something different about me. I feel that there must be a reason beyond evolutionary survival for me to not only be in awe of great and magnificent creations, but to have the urge to create. We understand the urge to procreate, to make new life. But why do we have this deep desire to create beauty and enjoy it? I suppose we could say something along the lines of: with the development of the superior intellect that helps us survive, there also grew a need for higher and more complex stimulation in order to not become complacent and waste away. But still. To say that my love for my husband and the rest of my friends and family is nothing but chemical processes intended to help the species survive demeans it, for me. Why would infertile couples, or couple who don't want children, still love each other then?

    Well I've begun to ramble, so I'll end here. Thank you for posting, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm added Anam Cara to my wish list. :D

  6. Edin, thanks for the comics! I'm a big fan on team science, but have found
    some areas of my life where science just isn't the right tool.

  7. Ana, thanks so much for your comment! I know exactly how you feel. If you
    haven't already read this post: (
    you might find it interesting.

    How do I do it? I'm still figuring it out! No guarantees I'll come up with
    any solid answers, but I've discovered a few hints: 1) Let go of
    expectations of perfection. Every religion is flawed. 2) Just
    because myths aren't history doesn't mean they're not valuable. Certain
    stories attain the status of mythology because they tell a truth about the
    human condition that we can learn from. Whether or not they're factual
    becomes irrelevant if you can look at it this way. 3) "Achieving belief" is
    not necessary. This takes a while to sink in, especially if you grew up in a
    religion where belief was paramount, like I was and it sounds like you were.
    A starting point for me was, If God is in my heart and in my head, how much
    does it matter that he's not actually anywhere else? The way I approach
    religion now is much less about believing than doing.

    Hope that make some sense. I may just write a post about this. Thanks for
    reading! I hope you'll stick around. I'd love to hear more of your comments
    or you're welcome to email me.

  8. gg, I don't know that I'd say the first loses any value in relation to the
    second. I'm not sure I ever said this: "It feels like I can learn from the
    world in ways out of proportion to the evidence?"

    I never actually mentioned the word "evidence." The other ways of learning
    I'm talking about have more to do with intuition, which I've heard described
    as something that you know even though you don't know how you know. An
    example would be a few years ago when I just "had a feeling" that I needed
    to visit my grandparents, and two days after I got back from my trip, my
    grandmother had a stroke (
    For my personal life, I feel like this internal guide is often the best way
    to make decisions.

    In a situation where I was called upon to make objective decisions for other
    people--like a ref--I would go on objective evidence. I was as alarmed as
    many other parents were when all the hype came out about the possible
    dangers of vaccines, but I did the research and the evidence all says that
    the benefits far outweigh the risks, so I vaccinate my kids.

    It may be after I do more research into the theology question that I'll
    conclude that there's nothing after all. I just feel like I cut my searching
    off prematurely.

  9. Lincoln, interesting. Thanks.

  10. Thanks, Macha! I think feelings are valuable, and the atheist side doesn't
    do enough to address them for my taste. You'll like Anam Cara :-)


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism