I’m not happy that it’s come to this, but I finally have to get some things off my chest about atheists. I’ve stated here before that I think it’s a good thing that atheists are speaking up and gaining more visibility. I think they have an important humanitarian message to share, and their voices are a long-needed counterbalance to the overwhelming, and often destructive religiosity of the U.S. But damn, they are really starting to annoy me.
For the record, as much as I would like to be, I am not personally an atheist. I’m not a Christian, although I was raised Catholic, and I don’t believe in a sky-God or think there is some grand entity “out there” looking down on humanity and performing divine interventions. But I’ve had multiple unexplainable experiences that lead me to describe myself with that vague and lazy phrase atheists detest—“spiritual but not religious.” I suppose in short, I would describe myself as a mystic, a strange, archaic word which I like a lot and am considering claiming unabashedly.
I recently read this interview in Salon with “The Age of Atheists” author Peter Watson. This snippet of the interview really set me off:
“I’ve attended numerous so-called “Atheist Church” services over the last year, and I notice words like “awe,” “mystery,” and “transcendence” floating around a lot. They make me cringe. Does it seem to you that a new wave of “Atheists” is trying to reclaim an awe or mystery that is actually rooted in early monotheism?
I’m very much against the concept of transcendence. One problem we have is that many religious words, like “salvation” and “transcendence,” are firmly embedded in our vocabulary. Some people try to make secular equivalents, which I think is a mistake. Rather than going back to the old religious vocabulary, we should go to a new one.
But yes, I think there is a sort of midway stage with some people; they’re not religious, but they are probably mystical. That said, I do think that a lot of the New Age people are basically religious. They don’t buy the great monotheisms, but they seek some sort of otherworldly feeling, which I don’t think is available.”
I found this exchange to be extremely condescending and dismissive. What is so patently offensive and cringe-worthy about the concept of mystery and transcendence? And what does Watson mean when he says that “some sort of otherworldly feeling” isn’t available? It’s very available to me. But I don’t talk about it much anymore and definitely not with atheists because when I have conversations with them about my spiritual experiences, they tend to be very aggressive about defining them as "delusions" or "neurological blips" which is very frustrating to me. It feels like they're telling me I'm too stupid to understand my own experiences, or that I’m imaging them. (Believe me, I wish I had imagined some of them.)
As I’m writing this, I’m struggling very hard with describing the exact nature of my beliefs, and I realize it’s because I’m very uncomfortable stating them, which makes me sad. I used to be braver about these things. I was deeply wounded by my involvement in a spiritual community a number of years ago, which further complicates my feelings about “spiritual people”, who are just as capable of heinous behavior as anyone else. As a result, I have spent a number of years in a kind of semi-exile from spiritual activities, but always maintained a belief in humanity’s essential divinity.
I won’t apologize for being someone who believes that humanity has a higher purpose beyond pro-creating and base survival. And for being the sort of person who must believe it, because if I didn’t believe there was a meaning beyond mere survival in this vale of tears and suffering, I would find life to be unbearable and I’d kill myself. Unlike Watson, I don't find the concept of transcendence to be problematic--I find it to be essential.
It’s commendable that atheists have to the courage to live decent lives with the belief that this all there is, but I can’t. And those of us who can’t aren’t stupid or weak-minded. I would ask that atheists to be open to the possibility that people like me experience the lifting of the veil; see beyond the limits of physical reality, connect to something beyond the scope of our scientific understanding. Could these experiences and intuitions simply be the illusions of an overactive imagination or the fever dreams of a high-strung poet? It’s possible, but I don’t think so. I honor the experience of atheists and I don’t extrapolate about their character or intelligence based on their beliefs—I would just ask the same of them.