For someone who doesn’t believe in God, I think about God a lot.
Exploring Texas, where megachurches are more common than oil wells (and probably more profitable), lately it's made my mind itch a little more than usual. I was raised a Pentecostal Christian, and these places remind me of the intellectual darkness I experienced inside the stifling walls of organized religion. That a hundred million of my fellow Americans believe these buildings are their best gateway to the Ultimate is heartbreaking indeed.
In my early teens, based on instinct and little else, I rejected fundamentalist Christianity and stopped going to church. My mother was (thankfully) open-minded about it and accepted my decision. I wasn’t sure why it felt so wrong to me, but even at that age I realized that my natural mode of inquiry was incongruent their systemic resistance to questioning and self-examination. Growth and challenging one’s faith was heretical and an invitation to doom. Accept the faith as it is or meet eternal damnation. I knew I had to move away for the sake of things much more real and valuable to me: my own intellect and personal experience.
This oft-tamped instinct of the young to grow intellectually, to question the underpinnings of their inherited faith, to attempt to integrate it into what they see and know - is well-described by M. Scott Peck, the late Buddhist-turned-Christian:
“In a very real sense, we begin with science. We begin by replacing the religion of our parents with the religion of science. . . . There is no such thing as a good hand-me-down religion. To be vital, to be the best of which we are capable, our religion must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality.”
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins challenges the social acceptability of children inheriting their parents’ religion. At PopTech last fall, he described the religious practice of early indoctrination as a violation of childhood innocence with superstition. I agree with him entirely. I’d also take that thought on a (perhaps less atheistic) tangent to say that if you have the same spiritual convictions as your parents, chances are you’ve exposed the issue about as much intellectual light as your choice of socks this morning.
Fundamentalists of all faiths blindly accept a version of God that was handed to them, and one that is no less ridiculous than the Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster of Internet fame. While most of these people have the clarity to see the absurdity of such deities (if perhaps missing out on most of the joke), they remain reliably blind to their own phantasms. This is because the truth can be so scary that the mind will do anything to shield you from it. For many, a life without their cherished version of God - or being forced to peek into the abyss that is the Infinite Mystery - is simply too scary to contemplate.
I’m attracted to Sam Harris’ sense that we need to be more intellectually honest and tackle such delusions head-on. Spirituality is saddled by fantastic beliefs that, were they not at the core of two billion earthlings' identities, would be more at home in a fairy tale.
Throughout human history, empires have risen and fallen, wars waged, religions birthed and extinguished, treasures created and lost, trillions of interpersonal dances danced - all in the quest for these truths. While perhaps nothing is more important - fear prevents most people from even peeking behind the spiritual curtain.
I started by saying I don’t believe in God. Explaining this is where we get into the definitional trickery of spirituality and the limits of language, but I’m uncomfortable with atheism due to many of its adherents’ aggressive rejection of Greater Truths. Many tend to believe that we are witnessing All There Is, that consciousness is just an illusion, and there’s no point looking any deeper. I reject that view as wholeheartedly as I do the view that there is a guy in the sky with a kingdom of gold.
For me, the problem of pure ashes-to-ashes atheism is that I believe I’ve had direct cognitive experience of the Great Mystery from which we all arise. Not that I could comprehend or explain it - our minds are simply inadequate - but I’d bet my life that I’ve at least feebly touched the hem of its dress. And it’s nothing like what the Christians, Muslims or Jews have in mind.
What have I learned while sipping from the ocean of the mysterium tremendum? Well, to butcher the words of Wei Wu Wei, I can’t be the moon, but I can point. I am a spiritually fulfilled person. I feel blessed to have lived as I have, and every day (ok, almost every day) feels like another drop into a cup already brimming. But my spiritual fulfillment has derived from direct personal experience of a world that feels - in its every detail and unfolding - like an infinite, interconnected, breathtaking miracle.
I’ve learned a lot about life and how to live it. I’ve learned that it’s possible to be both perfect as you are, yet still have a lot of growing to do. I’ve learned how important honesty is. But the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Universe wants to experience itself, to become itself. The meaning of life is not in figuring it out, but in the figuring itself. The infinite miracle is the process of discovering, seeing, and evolving. If you know this, you are well on your way to spiritual fulfillment.
Inquiry brings us much closer to Truth than any conclusion ever could - and this is why the brainwashing of theistic western religions is a tragedy and a group crime perpetuated en masse, all day, every day. To prescribe (and proscribe) religious belief while discouraging the process of evolution is antithetical to truth. Rather, it represents the ultimate in institutionalized darkness and repression.
This exploration is more than a little important; it’s literally the hunt of your life. At this stage in my life, I find myself subscribing to a personal brand of mystical atheism; an entheogen-steeped brew of Buddhism, pantheism, and the sciences of cosmology and quantum mechanics.
But that's me and where I am on my road. You need to be committed to making your own journey. And there will be, in your pursuit, countless mistakes, meanderings, squabbles, misunderstandings and imperfections - for without them, the journey will have been pointless.