Peter McCarthy

Do you answer that question instantly, without much to ponder? Many more people do — in the affirmative — these days than in centuries past.

If you answer, “No,” as must people do, stop for a moment and consider this: an atheist, like me, is the most fully spiritual being on the planet.

May I explain?

The Taboo Against Thinking Freely

Are You Atheist Too?
Nobody who hopes to get anywhere, especially in the United States, pipes up about being atheist, do they? Catching the look on my new boss's face when I answered his question about religion — you know, the one they're not supposed to ask — by saying, "None," was enough to make me think twice about openness.

Oh, sure, you have the unable-to-shut-up-because-I'm-tenured-at-Oxford crowd, led by Richard Dawkins (See  The God Delusion ) and Sam Harris (See  The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. But are they really atheists?

How can they justify claims of being nonbelievers when the core of their public campaigns centers on deities they say they don't believe in? 

Why so passionate about something you insist doesn't exist?

"The professors doth protest too much," to paraphrase Shakespeare (badly).

But in a country so committed religion, nonacademic declarations of atheism barely exist. 

Atheism cuts you out of things, except universities and science, both disconnected from day to day experience in the world.

No politician hunting for a majority of votes would ever fess up to atheism. Godless commies, after all, were our dark, evil enemies for decades, the godless part being the most emotional.

To be godless is to be the enemy.

When Bill Clinton Got Faith

All our modern presidents, of course, even the ones responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, like Nixon, a Quaker, and Truman, a Southern Baptist, proclaim their belief in God and a loving God, at that.

(This was not true of our founding fathers, among whom John Adams stood out as one of a minority of ardent believers. Washington and Jefferson, men of the Enlightenment, were skeptics who rarely set foot in a church.)

A fun example of a contemporary expression of faith was delivered in the way Bill Clinton responded after finally admitting he had something legally defined as sex with an intern.

Clinton's people announced that he now had, not one, but three spiritual advisors helping him locate his faith. 

And he showed up for a photo op at church on Sunday, toting a Bible that was brawnier than my first laptop bag when full.

It's good politics to believe in God, especially when you get caught being oh so human.

An interesting thing about religious conscience though is that nearly no one, including the presidents, talks much, let alone debates their faith in detail.

That's a conversation I’d like to see.

"Mr. President, do you believe the meek will inherit the Earth, or will it more likely be billionaires flooding centers of influence with cash?"

 

Atheist and a Lot Like You

But wait, although I am atheist, my beliefs are more like yours than you think.

Are You Atheist Too?
For example, I’m aware of what you may call guardian angels. They are present in my life, helping me out every day.

I also firmly believe that the lives we lead now, the ones that give us names to put on our drivers’ licenses are temporal, part of an eternal life that extends far beyond anything we see, feel or hear in this moment.

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There's one place where we probably differ. I don’t believe there is a God or Gods, whichever is your preference, out there.

What is an atheist really? 

Is an atheist someone who denies spirituality or that we are all connected to something greater than the visible, knowable world? 

Not really.

An atheist is just someone who does not believe in a deity or deities, those divine figures at some distant outpost that inspire, create and/or control our lives without ever really being part of them.

Why I Am an Atheist

It's simple, really.

I don't believe in exclusive or divine experiences.

Are You Atheist Too?
Every religion I've seen, even the not so religious ones, like Taoism and Buddhism, recognize a separation between them and us or, at least in modern times, most of them do.

You always see the line being drawn between our pedestrian lives and a higher plane where things are better in some obscure way.That’s what I believe is false, the line itself. 

And there is no higher or lower.

Those are just value judgments, not real things.

It’s just life in all its chaotic, weirdly kaleidoscopic, dizzying iterations.In Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics, for example, he describes a concept of Eastern mysticism like this:

"When the mind is quieted, the multiplicity of things disappears."

This is a statement about the unity or interconnectedness, the oneness, of the universe, a kind of higher awareness. 

Elevated as this may strike you at first, it’s that multiplicity of things that keeps you and me from walking into trees and dining on clay instead of pistachios.

And as far everything’s being connected, didn’t we already learn that in high school? There are no vacuums, right? 

We link in an intimately interwoven atomic web.

That’s not elevated. It’s common sense. 

When someone claims elite awareness about something we already know, watch out for the magic.

They've got something up their sleeves, and it may be more than entertainment. 

Is Science the Answer or Just Another Belief System?

One of our newest religions, Scientism, pushes overestimations about the value of what we’ve discovered.

No one, even with the most expensive equipment in the most advanced research facility, sees, feels or touches anything you and I don't. 

Those quantum particles you hear incomprehensible stories about are what make up you, me and the lamppost, just the same way they make up Stephen Hawking and salamanders.

There are no secrets in the universe, just different ways of seeing.

That's not to say there aren’t mysteries. We've really only just started down the open road of discovery.

Science has found a way to dig deeper into the details and has brilliantly developed mathematics as a descriptive language for the very obscure. 

That means they are smart, not divine. 

How High Can We Fly? 

To be divine is to be Icky.

There’s one word that always makes my overly sensitive skin crawl: divine.

That’s the big little word that transports happiness, love and spirituality into a place where ordinary people like you and me can't touch them anymore.

It separates us, trucking genuine emotional experiences onto a "higher" plane, one where the majority of us poor mortals can’t get our feet on the ground.

Quoting what Shoeless Joe Jackson should have said when accused of cheating in baseball, "It just ain’t so."

It’s more than a quibble.

When I was a young man, in the good old hippie days, we wanted to get "in the flow" and stay there. In the flow meant a feeling of richness, a full awareness of life's powerful energies swelling through and around us.

We weren't divine. We were just "with it."

Why I Am Atheist, Part #2 - The God Thing

On one of the many occasions when I set out, determined to read the Bible, cover to cover, I noticed that the God of the Old Testament was close, even an intimate presence to His people.

God often had direct conversations with them, especially the rabbis.

Mostly, He seemed loving and generous, but then one day, he ordered the Jews to kill a man who had the temerity to go out collecting firewood on the sabbath. 

That, I thought, was excessive. 

Then, I learned about the horrible blood bath Passover celebrates,

It ended my interest in that particular God.

Iit dawned on me that what I was reading seemed to show rabbis setting things up comfy for themselves. 

Stripped of divine attribution, the books read like religious flimflam, objectively speaking, with the rabbis making a haul in sacrifices, wielding God as the weapon of choice.

It runs like the converse of Flip Wilson's hilarious excuse for Geraldine's outrageous behavior, "The devil made me do it."

Here, it was a different entity, one with serious powers who could not be questioned, not if you expected to live until Tuesday.

Then, to be honest and objective, I had to answer a question. 

Why do so many people believe in the God these texts bring up and the religions that come from interpreting them? Are people so foolish?

No, of course they're not.

Religious people feel a powerful connection to something greater through their faith that is genuine and, from just about everything we learn from anthropology, universal. 

That is, we seem to be born religious.

But are we? Two things are at play and neither separates us from each other or from anything else in nature.

First, we’re pack animals, like dogs and cows and elephants.

We're genetically inclined to be or, more likely, to follow leaders. Being part of a neighborhood, a club or a congregation satisfies a craving. Scratch up even the most committed loner, and somewhere, you will find a leader and a clan, however detached, of fellow travelers.

The other part, the divine part, is our indestructible connection to nature. It's where we come from.

Our roots dig very deep, so deep you have a better chance of becoming the Queen of Siam than you have of pulling them out.

Are You Atheist Too?
But there’s more, and here’s where it gets interesting.

Once we acknowledge our absorption in nature, we accept an endless sea of unknowns that party on with all those things we do know.

There's a rich inheritance, from which flows wonder, inspiration, curiosity, frustration, discovery and a passion to feel something more.

All the Things We Don't Know

Oh, ours was all knowing then,

all generous displaying.

Such wisdom we had to show.

And now there is merely silence, silence, silence saying

All we did not know.

William Rose Benet, the closing verse from his poem Sagacity

I read that poem as a teenager, and it touched something so intimately, I've never forgotten it or gone long without its wisdom reminding me to be humble. 

There is a vast unknown.

That's exciting. It's also down to earth, not off in some divine realm with a puppet master pulling strings disguised to keep us from seeing.

It's here, and it's now

By carting so much of reality off to a misty place where we may one day be welcomed and given an eternal season pass, by blowing off the mysteries as "God's plan," religions close the discussion.

They take it elsewhere, to a place where you can't and never will be allowed to go, not in this incarnation.

Or, you're told that your ego, the inquisitive part of you that wants to know everything, is short for Edging God Out.

Me?

I want to edge God in.

I want to have as much God in my life as I can manage.

Conclusion

So, that’s why I'm an atheist.

My God isn’t a deity. My God is a non gender specific energy that powers the universe.

And not just power, my God comes with a tool kit and a constant, personal presence.

As far as I can see so far, God’s tool kit includes what we call evolution, physics and mathematics. His essence is change, and we are all part of it.

Being part of it makes us engineers and voyagers in unknown waters. Awareness is our greatest gift. It's our inherited Godliness.

The rest, what we know, experience, remember along with the vast unknown, as they say, is just details.