I realized recently that, in all the stuff I’ve written here about atheism, I’ve sort of been taking my atheism as a given. I’ve been writing from a perspective of, “Of course Greta’s an atheist… so what does she have to say about that?” And that’s actually somewhat misleading. I have had spiritual beliefs in the past. Not that long ago, even. I’ve never belonged to any organized religion, but I haven’t been an atheist all my life, and it didn’t happen overnight.
So it seemed like a good time for me to talk, not about why I think my atheism is right and you should all agree with me, but about the story of how I became one, and why.
I wasn’t brought up atheist, but I was brought up agnostic. Both my parents were agnostic when I was a kid, and they let my brother and me make up our own minds on the matter. I remember when I was about ten or so, they asked us if we wanted to be baptized… and when we looked at them like they were high, they explained that they hadn’t baptized us as babies so that we could decide for ourselves, but now they thought they should check with us about it. (If memory serves, we continued to look at them like they were high even after this explanation. It just seemed like such a random, out-of-the-blue question, like asking if we wanted to learn Swedish or paint all our shoes bright blue. No, thank you, and why on earth would you ask?)
In general, religion just wasn’t discussed that much in our home, and I didn’t think about it a whole lot when I was growing up. I went through a brief phase of being fascinated by Bible stories and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but it wasn’t out of belief — just curiosity, which in retrospect I think was somewhat morbid. All that pain and death.
So then I went to college, and started smoking a lot of pot and dropping a lot of acid, and I started picking up a whole passel of woo-woo spiritual ideas and beliefs. Tarot cards, reincarnation, synchronicity, the idea that subatomic particles must have free will since their behavior isn’t predictable… you know, the whole hippie drill. I read a bunch of Aleister Crowley, a bunch of Robert Anton Wilson. I wrote my senior thesis on Gurdjieff.
I should make it clear that these were not metaphors to me. I genuinely, literally believed that there were mystical forces intentionally guiding the Tarot cards as I shuffled them. I literally believed that I had been a king in some past life (although, to my credit, I never believed that I’d been a very important or famous king). I literally believed that I had a practical but passionate nature because I was a Capricorn with Scorpio moon and rising. I literally believed — so help me — that trees taught birds how to sing; that drawing energy from the moon while we were hitch-hiking would make a ride appear; and that the joint we mysteriously found in our apartment had been placed there by some sort of friendly spirit. (As opposed to, say, rolled by us or one of our friends, and then forgotten about.)
What can I say. I was young. I was high. So sue me.
When I left college and stopped taking quite so many drugs, most of the more absurd of these beliefs faded away. An example: My belief that mystical forces were consciously guiding the Tarot cards faded into a belief that I didn’t know exactly what was happening when I read the cards, but it sure was spooky, and there must be something supernatural going on, even if I didn’t know exactly what… which then faded into a belief that the cards worked because they were designed to work, that they were made with potent symbols that applied to people’s lives, and were basically a useful peg on which to hang a conversation about life. (I was, I should point out, uncannily good at reading Tarot cards. I felt kind of sad when they began to slip out of my life.)
But although the goofier details were fading, the broader and not so goofy underlying concept remained. Most notably, I still believed in some sort of soul that survived after death. I’d be walking down the street and suddenly feel the presence of my mother, or my friend Rob Tyler, and it just seemed obvious that they were there. It didn’t feel like a memory — it felt like a visitation.
So now we enter the third phase of my spiritual journey: from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of my childhood, through the credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit of my early adulthood, to the general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things, a spirit that survived in some form after death.
As the years went on and I thought about it at greater length, this notion sharpened and crystallized, into a fairly specific belief:
1. that people were not merely biochemical stimulus-response machines, but had some sort of substance that enabled us to have consciousness and free will — a substance I called the soul;
2. that other animals besides people also had souls;
3. that probably plants had some sort of souls as well, and maybe some non-living objects like mountains had them too;
4. that these souls didn’t disappear when the body died (although whether the soul stayed whole and got re-incarnated as itself or simply dissolved into the World-Soul the way the body dissolves into the Earth, I was willing to leave as an open question);
5. and finally, that the sum of all these souls formed a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts; a whole that had some sort of selfhoodâŠ a whole that I was willing to call God. Although generally I didn’t — I usually called it the World-Soul. I didn’t think this World-Soul was perfect or anything — I didn’t think it was all powerful or all-knowing or all-good. I just thought it existed, that it was part of us all and we were all part of it, and that participating in it and helping it learn and grow and be happy was a big part of what gave life meaning.
As spiritual beliefs go, it’s not totally unreasonable. Certainly not the most unreasonable one I’ve ever heard. (Although of course I’d think that. It was mine, after all.)
But — and this becomes extremely important later — throughout all of these phases, the essential agnosticism I was brought up with never really left me. (Except maybe in the hippie woo-woo phase; but even then, I hung onto it in theory, in a sort of, “Well, if I’m going to be intellectually honest, I have to admit that I don’t really KNOW that a mystical spirit is moving my Tarot cards into placeâŠ”) During my whole “sum of all souls combined into one being” phase, it was very, very clear to me that this belief was… well, a belief. Something I believed — not something that I knew. I even codified my agnosticism, in a sort of series of concentric circles: I felt pretty darned sure about the first proposition in my list, and increasingly less certain about each successive one, like ripples in a pond fading as they fan out.
And then two things started to happen.
This is a serial story in three parts. To find out what the two things were that happened, visit this blog again tomorrow.