I want to believe...except maybe not.
March 24, 2010 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible for a rather hardcore atheist to find some sort of spirituality again? Long, but I attempted to keep it concise.

Me: 23, female, de-converted from your general nondenominational Christian faith about the time I turned 20. I grew up in the South right smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and have since developed a lot of cynicism and vitriol towards religion in the ensuing years. I underwent a huge values change over the past couple of years. My outlook on life changed, my political leanings changed, many of the things I care about in life and for the world changed a lot a lot a lot.

I am happier than I ever was as a Christian. I never felt comfortable being a Christian, going to church and praying and so forth, and felt a lot of guilt for a long time for not being religious 'enough' or faithful 'enough.' Took a creation/evolution class in college, met an atheist dude, had a lot of fights about our lack of religious compatibility, so on and so forth. I started thinking and questioning and not finding answers. I dropped religion, the dude and I sort of fed off the cynicism of each other toward religion, blah blah, ouch my heart, he is now way out of the picture. Though I do not credit that relationship with my religion changes, it was obviously a big influence, and I did a lot of growing and developing as a person during that time which also went a long way toward shaping my sense of self.

I used to be terrified of anyone finding out about my lack of belief, because (and even still) 'atheist' sounds like a dirty word, and it's certainly frowned upon where I'm from. When I finally did admit it publicly, once, while still in college and still living in the South, I got bug-eyes from all my coworkers and went back to shutting up about the topic. But now, having moved Far Far Away for grad school, it has become a sort of defining characteristic of myself. People know what I believe and how I feel about organized religion of the Christian sort, and said religion's influence in the U.S.'s political sphere. It's not a thing I hide anymore although I don't flaunt it in front of my still-religious family. It's part of me--LokiBear does not believe in God.

But now I'm wishing for some sort of spirituality in my life again. I could never go back to believing in God or really any gods or creators, though sometimes I still 'feel' whatever 'God'-like presence I had in my life before. I have a few friends going through some terrible things in life and I have begun a weird sort of prayer for them--not for them to get better or overcome cancer or whatnot, but a prayer for their strength, for their courage, etc.

How does this fit in with my very scientific-oriented lack of beliefs in religion? Do any of you have experience with meshing and melding together two or more religions? I understand that being an atheist is not necessarily mutually exclusive with following different worldviews, such as Buddhism (not that I know that much about Buddhism, it's just an example). But my problem is that, having defined myself for so long as a Christian, and then switched that definition of self to be atheist, I feel almost as if I'm backsliding on the personal development scale if I go back to some sort of touchy-feely interpretation of the world.

I have beliefs. I believe that humanity is, essentially, good. I believe in love, I believe in forgiveness, I have a very strong moral compass (killing is wrong, life is sacred, don't be a jerk, etc). But I want to believe more. I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

Am I just seeking out spirituality again because I'm too much of a wuss to fully believe in the tenants of my 'there is no god or supernatural forces at work' atheism? I know none of you can answer that. I guess it's rhetorical.

What have your experiences been with dropping and adding and merging religions? How did you find a place of spirituality in which you were comfortable? Do you have any advice or resources for me? Do I need to just chill out and quit worrying so much?

Many thanks for your time and consideration.
posted by LokiBear to Religion & Philosophy (52 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This may be a silly answer for such a serious question, but in my case, the Church of the Subgenius fulfills my spiritual needs. It comes complete with dogma, holy books, sermons, days of observance, articles of faith, a creation and end-times story, and of course the Golden Rule ("Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!").

Lots of smart people have devoted a lot of time trying to figure out why humans feel the need for religion - the prevalence of religion seems to indicate that it does do something for us. As an ex-Christian myself, sometimes I do get a pang of desire to just pray for something, before realizing that would be a silly, childish option. For me, having a kind of mythos I can celebrate and enjoy, in the form of the Church of the Subgenius (or, say, Discordianism, whatever takes your fancy) tends to cure my religious cravings.
posted by Jimbob at 11:44 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's natural to seek a framework for understanding the world, especially when you've had one to rely on in your formative years. Generally though, I'm in the "chill out" camp when it comes to this stuff. People who do good things and treat others well are good people.

Thus Spake Zarathustra
To Have Done With Judgement
posted by rhizome at 11:46 PM on March 24, 2010

I have no particular advice for you, but it seems as though you are running into contradictory motivations. Your motivation for truth as you see it (it seems) lead to your dropping Christianity. Now your motivation for "comfort" (your word) is generating conflict with your atheism.

Which one is more important?
posted by zachawry at 11:46 PM on March 24, 2010

I have beliefs. I believe that humanity is, essentially, good. I believe in love, I believe in forgiveness, I have a very strong moral compass (killing is wrong, life is sacred, don't be a jerk, etc). But I want to believe more. I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

I would ask yourself what is more important in your actual life "love, forgiveness and a strong moral compass" or the existence of "good vibes" and an afterlife? Then concentrator your energies on the one you choose.

Also, There is also a long history of non theistic moral philosophy. Try Hume, or if you want something more recent try Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. Even if those books aren't up your alley, there is a long line of people that have been in a similar position to you and have found interesting atheist based answers, if you put in a little work you can probably find someone you can sympathize with.
posted by afu at 11:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read Being Peaceby Thich Nhat Hanh. If it sounds like the sort of spirituality you're looking for, then Buddhism may be for you.

I burned my Nietzche a long time ago, and I haven't looked back since.
posted by shii at 11:53 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was raised Protestant (church and Bible class every Sunday except school holidays) until the age of 18, when I swore off church and Christianity for good. I went through a period of about 7/8 years where I read up on mostly paganism (the whole giant spectrum, some excellent, some terrible) and found a new way of looking at the nature of divinity as something removed from the idea of a "divine being".

During my undergraduate studies at university I did a double major in English Literature and Religious Studies, the latter focusing on subjects like Psychology/Biology of Religion, Mysticism and Ritual.

While I have always found the notion of one "supreme being" confusing and silly, if pressed, I'd describe myself as spiritual or pantheist. By that I don't mean to say that I believe in the notion of deities, but rather than I am a believer in the mystical/spiritual traditions of different cultures, and support the fact that these traditions possess the ability to make significant positive changes in people's lives. I think the general problem starts when a religious movement tries to pin down divinity, to encapsulate it in one dimension of representation. Then you start inviting notions of 'right' and 'wrong' and it's at this point that religion starts getting a bad name.

As for sending out good vibes - I can't tell you how many times I've seen the concept of karma play out in my own life and people I know. Thing is, for me it's not important to analyze or even understand it. some people refer to this sort of thinking as "being in tune" - whatever that means :) But if you want to know more I suggest a bit of light (haha) reading on quantum physics (just do a bit of research to sort the wheat from the chaff); there is some interesting stuff in terms of consciousness and how that relates to spirituality locked up in a string of totally readable and fantastic books. for all we know, God is a particle, or several particles, some of which we haven't discovered yet. Hell, just watching some of those awesome BBC Horizon documentaries about where the universe came from and how we fit into it all will give you a sense of wonder at the fact that here we are, Metafiltering. And if it's science, so what?

Spirituality is such a personal thing - whatever you end up finding, and in whatever way it works for you, that's the right thing.
posted by New England Cultist at 12:17 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

We make our own heavens and our own hells.

Find a faith in yourself. Have strength in yourself.

I have dropped a very strong religion for almost a decade now and have never been more clear on who I am, what I want my life to be, how I want to behave around people, and how I want to react to what is thrown at me. You do not need a "big guy in they sky" to have morals. There shouldn't have to be the fear tactic of some guy in the clouds who will spank you if you are not good to those around you. Fear should not instill good behavior. A good person should behave accordingly because they want to do so, they feel the must, and they believe it is the right way of life. I think that is enough for spirituality (although the very word of it is contradictory).
posted by penguingrl at 1:13 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe you should study more philosophy. It's entirely possible for totally rational ideas to provoke a feeling of wonder and awe, I think. I really enjoyed reading Bertrand Russell's The problems of philosophy, which is out of copyright and available online for free The last chapter on The value of philosophy was great.

Maybe try reading books by those "new atheists" like Dawkins or Sam Harris? I haven't read any of those books, though.
But I want to believe more. I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.
Well, first of all being kind to other people really does have an effect. In fact, what I would say is that instead of seeking to change how you feel about the world, seek to create a world you can feel better about. Find a cause you believe in an fight for it. See the world as it really is, and try to figure out how to fix it. Don't worry about happens to you after you die, think about how your contribution to humanity can live on.

The trouble with having your eyes open is that you can see all the flaws in the world. It can be tempting to close them again. But instead keep them open, and work to make things better. As long as you know that you're making things better you won't have any reason to feel bad about it.
posted by delmoi at 1:15 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

although the very word of it is contradictory

hey penguin - what did you mean?
posted by New England Cultist at 1:17 AM on March 25, 2010

Sam Harris writes a lot about scientific spiritualism.
posted by benzenedream at 1:24 AM on March 25, 2010

After a long abstinence, I recently started reading and enjoying poetry again, especially Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. As an ex-Christian, that's probably the closest thing to a prayer book I have. I read books about science, maths, languages too. I'm not very bookish but I try to make time for this stuff, even though I currently have a backlog of books which are half-read which I keep meaning to go back to. They fill my spiritual horizons in a way church never did, never could do.

This video did the rounds of teh interwebs a while back and is either incredibly cheesy or wonderful, depending on your predilections.

Even without spirituality, I'll take the cold hard facts of life any day over a vague sense of "something out there".
posted by BrokenEnglish at 1:51 AM on March 25, 2010

I'd recommend checking out William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. It's long, but you shouldn't feel like you have to take it all in in one sitting. I'll bet you could find a cheap copy in almost any used bookstore.

America is a funny place for religion. Many people assume if you're not a Christian you must be an atheist. This is patently ridiculous of course. There are plenty of faiths outside of Christianity and let's face it, nine times out of ten your religion is determined by where and to whom you were born, nothing else.

I'm an atheist myself, and some of my relatives think of it as this hugely negative thing and expect me to wear all black and smoke cigarettes. But I think of it as a very positive category, in the mathematical sense -- an active skepticism but also an innate curiosity as to how and why certain world religious traditions developed in the ways that they did. The idea that a giant sky-god pointed his finger at something and made it so just really bores me to death. The world is much more complex, interesting, and beautiful than that.
posted by bardic at 1:54 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Explore your doubts for what they are. Don't presuppose theism or atheism by viewing your doubts through the lens of either one. Instead work at being as unbiased as possible about your doubts so they can lead you to the truth. As St. Augustine said, "Let neither of us assert that he has found truth; let us seek it as if it were unknown to us both. For truth can be sought with zeal and unanimity if by no rash presumption it is believed to have been already found and ascertained."
posted by keith0718 at 2:01 AM on March 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Atheism is a rough go of it. While every other "religion" seeks to offer that overarching, fundamental comfort you seek, atheism just serves you up a plate full of cold, hard reality. It's really a hard sell. Christianity has heaven! An eternity of wonderfulness spent with your favorite people, feeling amazing, forever. Atheism has: you live and then you're dead. Done. Mormonism, if you're in the upper echelons, you get to run your own planet! Atheism: Seriously, you're in the fucking dirt. Until you're not. Muslims believe in paradise and virgins. Atheism: Let's just say you won't be doing much where you're going.

So it's natural to feel that longing and that desire for a greater foundation and sense of stability and a future about the "big picture." Atheism offers a somber future: you live NOW and this is it. I grew up pentecostal and sometimes feel frustrated that I can't quietly "pray" or rely on the "God has a plan" mantra. Instead, I get to get down to it, make the best of what I have right now, and enjoy the moments I have alive. Because seriously, dirt nap is the next stop and that's it! That's all there is! It's rather depressing, but you shake it off and get past it and move on and make the best.

Now that's not to say there isn't spiritualism. People are able to bring about a sense of calm and manipulate their emotions and greater sense of self with things like meditation, seeking the approval of a higher power, and even just the fellowship that comes with most religion. If you're really out there, looking for a spiritual connection to fulfill that need, I wouldn't discourage it. But you're not going to want to fool yourself into believe the dogmatic contortions of organized, theistic religion, because you know better. Find something like Buddhism that focuses more on inner self and working within those confines, take a deep breath, and enjoy the time you have.
posted by disillusioned at 2:06 AM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

What disillusioned said. Read Dawkins and have children if you want to transcend your bodily form. Douglas Hofstadter's take on transcendence is also quite nice, but way more speculative.

The Good Vibes thing? Sorry. I know superpowers would be awesome, we just don't have them.
posted by themel at 2:56 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Consider visiting a Unitarian Universalist congregation. UUs accept a wide range of beliefs, from atheism and humanism to Christianity to Buddhism to paganism, etc. We are not dogmatic, but our religion helps us connect with each other and encounter the awesome and terrible things this world has to offer, God or no god.
posted by rikschell at 3:10 AM on March 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Have you looked into a Unitarian Universalist church? I remember my first experience with them had Christians, a couple of New Age types, and two atheists sitting the back discussing amongst themselves. Seems like a good chunk of the church members are agnostic/atheist but like the social benefits a church can offer.
posted by medea42 at 3:13 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dropped out of church during high school. I was raised Korean Southern Baptist in the middle of northern Cali, and the combination of an extremely socially conscious culture with a strict adherence to a certain biblical doctrine was _a_lot_of_fun_ let me just tell you. My youth pastor, who I am still in contact with today, was American born, football playing, corn and grits eating Korean with an applied engineering degree. I was playing with his 3 year old son one day in a playground and he tripped and fell. He looked up for a moment (is anybody looking?) and saw my pastor standing 3 yards away, just looking at him. He says to him, "Now you're on the ground. What are you going to do?" And his son just gets up and starts running around again without a fuss. (Wow, eh?)

My pastor never made a fuss over me. There were never any calls from him asking about "when was I coming back to church" or "you should come out to bible study". There were plenty of calls from him asking me about school, or how am I treating my mom, you need a good kick in the butt, etc. In my view, he treated me like he treated his son: This is where you are now, what are you going to do?

I became heavily invested in the arts. Music, acting, literature, cooking. In practice, they are all different fields, but the similarity between all of them was that they all expanded my sense of self, helping me to realize that what I did actually mattered in life, that everything that I do has an impact on someone, that I may not always be in control of my actions or others', but I can always be responsible for them. And somewhere in that time I started freaking out because I couldn't understand why I acted like I believed in God but knew I didn't. What was happening was that "God" (or the "Universe", as I like to call it now) was showing him/it/her/self to me through my artistic tendencies, that the "amazing grace" feeling that I used to get in church was showing up in other places in my life that have absolutely no religious context at all. And I was confused, why do I have the same feelings at an Aids LifeCycle kickoff party as I did at church?

And then it hit me: God doesn't have to exist for me to believe in God! In fact, the only way I can believe in God is if he doesn't exist! If God really does exist, than nobody would be asking all these fucking questions would they? There would be indisputable proof! Like that party for the AIDS ride, it's the Church of Cure for AIDS! Seriously. A cure for AIDS does not exist. But there are millions of people who believe it does and act accordingly, and may one day, do the impossible and make it a reality. MLK believed in something that didn't exist and it was eventually made into a reality. LOL _TIANS, trolls say. Look at all those people believing in something that doesn't exist. What assholes. Belief is the only thing that matters.

So hey. I'm an atheist. An atheist that believes in a higher power because I want to be going somewhere when I die. You know what's funny is that I'm a better Christian now that I know God doesn't exist.

Sound crazy? Yeah, I know . Now, it's late, and I'm afraid I might not be completely clear on some of the things I've written here, and I hope Plus it would take a lot more words. Please memail me if you're confused and I can clarify what I said for you at a less ridiculous hour. And yes, maybe I'm crazy.
posted by bam at 3:38 AM on March 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

You sound a lot like a Unitarian Universalist. So you might take a look at them if there's a UU congregation in your area. A UU Humanist group would give you a chance to meet and talk to other atheists who are thinking kind of the same way you are.

(They won't try to convert you to anything, it's against their principles.)
posted by nangar at 3:45 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

'Religion' and 'spirituality' need not have anything to do with one another, and very often do not. Most modern religions are more business than belief system. They seem to have a lot of people convinced that they own the market on spirituality, but this isn't true - if you believe you have a soul, what you do in the privacy of your own soul doesn't require external validation.

Follow your own heart, believe whatever makes sense to you, and if you don't need the religious bits toss them away. If you still need religion, become a religion of one whose borders happen to be the borders of your soul and whose doctrine is what your heart tells you is true. Everything else will work itself out.
posted by foobario at 3:47 AM on March 25, 2010

Am I just seeking out spirituality again because I'm too much of a wuss to fully believe in the tenants of my 'there is no god or supernatural forces at work' atheism?

No. All that's happening is that the versions of atheism you've been exposed to aren't quite the right fit. And that's okay -- spiritualism is a very personal thing for everyone.

My own spiritual path came about by reading up on a lot of other religions, and today I'm sort of a mish-mosh of a lot of different things and I even do THAT haphazardly. I know that I don't respond well to any formal organized service -- if I want to give my spirituality a voice, I'll do it at the moment I want to do it, not just because "it's Sunday and that's what you do on Sunday." I mean, I want to feel like I can do it on Tuesday at 2 in the afternoon, and skip it on Sunday when I'm not feeling it.

And I also dig the idea of Ganesha, the poems of Sufi mystics, the idea of Jesus, the cosmology of Judaism (and especially their views about how all belong in The World To Come), the Deists' view that God just kick-started the world into motion and is now just sitting back with a sandwich and just watching, and I also like the neo-Pagan (or old-Pagan) idea that God's face is female.

Read everything. Things will resonate with you and feel right; that's what you are. Even if it's something there's no word for yet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:52 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have always been taught that when it comes to religion, you take the good and leave the bad. This means that when you join some religious group you don't check your brain at the door. So, believe the things that you find strength in. I'm Hindu, so I don't know that much about Christianity, and I don't really believe in God. Yet, I still go to temple some times. I like the ritual and the community, and while I don't believe in a higher being, I do believe in my fellow humans and compassion for others which is a big part of my experience there. There are a lot of good lessons that religions teach, you can believe those, and chuck all the stuff that's crap.
posted by bluefly at 4:15 AM on March 25, 2010

You are simply missing awe. Genuine awe is the true religious experience.

There will always be a mismatch between what you think and how things are. Concepts are limiting and dictate your experience. Ask yourself why you are not in a constant state of wonder that you live on a rock in the middle of nowhere orbiting an enormous ball of fire. There is plenty of room inside atheism for spirituality. What has happened though is your ideas are dictating your experience. (This happens with the idea of God too. Most people who believe in god are simply dogmatic, not religious. There's a difference.)

My advice to you, based on my own life is to really look at your life and ask "What the holy hell is going on?!" This question is all you need; everything else I'd tell you would be indoctrination.
posted by milarepa at 4:30 AM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Buddhism (especially Zen Buddhism) might be worth looking into. Try reading Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. I have to admit that I'm not someone who cares much for spirituality for the sake of spirituality, but learning how to meditate and how to accept contradiction as a fact of life is incredibly useful for dealing with existential dread (and bonus, everyday anxiety).
posted by oinopaponton at 4:36 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan is relevant to your interests.
posted by jtron at 5:24 AM on March 25, 2010

I've never been religious. I find my spirituality in the wilderness, in being in a big landscape full of quiet. Never felt the need for more but going for long periods without getting into the outdoors leaves me absolutely craving the peacefulness and quiet. It doesn't have to be a major backpacking trip to provide what I need - a simple walk in my local woods will do at a pinch, desert, mountains or large body of water are better though.
posted by leslies at 5:29 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's pretty hard to hold yourself to the standard of complete rationality in all things. It's not particularly human - we're set up to perceive pattern and find causes and effects. While that can lead us to scientific insight, it can also lead us to seeing a world full of meaning that can't be shown to not be there. The emotions experienced in religion, including yearning, taking comfort, and voicing hopes (as in prayer) are part and parcel of being a human being. It's possible to experience them without adopting a dogmatic explanation for them. You might really like attending a Unitarian or Quaker service. Both religions have roots in Christianity, but have come to recognize the individual mind as the ultimate arbiter of truth and life on earth as a process of continuous seeking to understand the world, together and individually. A belief in God or the Divine is not required and not even all that common, but a willingness to engage questions of meaning and right action is. And what's nice for those of us who come from a background in mainline Christian worship is that it's not a huge cultural leap to take part - the constructs are really similar (church on Sunday mornings, coffee and cake after, committees), so it's not as strange as entering a completely different belief system like Buddhism which has different rhythms, routines, and expectations.
posted by Miko at 5:37 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am happier than I ever was as a Christian. I never felt comfortable being a Christian, going to church and praying and so forth, and felt a lot of guilt for a long time for not being religious 'enough' or faithful 'enough.'

So when you're involved in a religion, you feel guilty about not being good enough.

Am I just seeking out spirituality again because I'm too much of a wuss to fully believe in the tenants of my 'there is no god or supernatural forces at work' atheism?

...and when you're not involved in a religion, you feel guilty about not being good enough.

I have beliefs. I believe that humanity is, essentially, good. I believe in love, I believe in forgiveness, I have a very strong moral compass (killing is wrong, life is sacred, don't be a jerk, etc). But I want to believe more. I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

To me it sounds like you are trying to reconcile the belief system that you hold with an uncomfortable allegiance to whatever group you currently feel accountable to.

I suppose I would say this, then:

1. Maybe explore where this guilt-tripping stuff comes from. It is possible that it has roots in situations that seem to be related to the idea of "a faith," when I'm guessing it's really only tangentially related to religious topics.

2. Give yourself time. In terms of your belief system, you don't have to be anything to anyone, at any time. This might feel really uncomfortable given your background (#1).

3. With that said, we all look for a place to belong. If you get to the point where you can do this in a more healthy way, go for it. For right now though, it seems like it's just adding too much confusion to your life.

On the topic of dropping and merging religions, you exist in a world of limitations. Many creeds say one thing on the "wrapper" (be that wikipedia or an official tract) but hold completely different meanings for different followers. You live in a world of limitations, where things can be measured, and you're trying to put yourself in constant contact with the limitless, the immeasurable.

It's impossible to understand what a religion or spiritual belief system will really offer you from the outset; that's why I'd suggest staying as close as possible to your principles (which DO offer such reassurance, fortunately) and meditating (even praying if you like) over what you learn as you continue exploring.
posted by circular at 5:41 AM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding Zen. My introduction was Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up, both of which are quite readable (although not for everyone). Much of Zen practice is very experiential and little, if any, requires belief in supernatural forces. Here's a podcast of "No God and No Soul" by Jeffrey Schneider at the San Francisco Zen Center talking about what makes Zen Buddhism a religion but why it doesn't rely on gods or magic to function. He also has some provocative things to say about the practice of cafeteria shopping for one's spiritual practice.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 AM on March 25, 2010

You are simply missing awe. Genuine awe is the true religious experience.

Untrue! This is my standard answer when this subject comes up:
I'm agnostic. I've said this on here before, but I derive a strong sense of wonder from the world (particularly the natural world) through this thought process: it was highly statistically unlikely that the Earth was going to come into being, and that humanity would evolve to exist. It was even more statistically unlikely, given all the variables, that your parents would have met, and had sex at just the right time for you to exist. You could have been someone else. You could have been no one. Being you, you could have died young, or faced incredibly hardships that would have precluded your sitting around and ruminating over existential matters.

But you're here, despite the overwhelming odds against your being here. If your life is anything like mine, then you probably view your existence as, overall, a Good Thing. Whenever I'm happy--outside, in the sun, seeing how beautiful the world is around me, with people I care about, making love or being loved--I can't help but think, "Damn, existence is amazing. I'm so glad I'm here." This isn't about God, or gods, or a higher power. It's about statistics, and how unlikely it was that I would have been able to experience anything at all, much less something good. This is logical, but it's still both joyful and humbling.
But I want to believe more. I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

I get this. This is the scary part about not believing in an afterlife, or not believing in a God who is personally invested in your life and moral development. It's taken me a long time to no longer be terrified of dying because of the nothingness. I do think that, yes, fear is why many people believe in God when faced with evidence that contradicts it (and I should note here that my personal brand of agnosticism is pretty strong--not only do I believe that I can't know the true nature of God, but I also think it's highly unlikely that any human could know the true nature of God or the universe, whether "he" exists or created us; this is traditional agnosticism where all of this is utterly unknowable. Mostly because I believe that humans just aren't that smart or that special. Bummer, I guess.)

But once you come to terms with your own morality, it's actually hugely comforting. There is nothing out here besides your life and what you do. Of course "sending good vibes out into the universe" has an effect, if by "sending good vibes out" you mean "taking good and positive actions, being a good, kind person" and so on. Because, yes, it's sad that it's true, but you only get one shot at this life. Which means that you need to take good advantage of it, need to make your life as close to heaven as it can be, now, because there's no guarantee you'll find it later. Act lovingly to those you love. Positively impact the lives of others. Because, even if you're not here to see it, people will talk about you when you're gone. Your life will send little ripples through the lives of other people--positive or negative. Make sure your legacy is a good, strong, loving one. Let that be your afterlife.

Keep in mind that there are many believers who live unhappy lives in part because they are comforted in knowing that they'll get to heaven and finally be happy, someday. You don't have that. Your someday needs to be today.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:48 AM on March 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

A religion has "tenets," not "tenants," by the way (although the Catholics own a lot of rental property in New York, so they also have tenants).

I grew up religious, found atheism as the answer for my personal inner life (in which I could never conceive of an intelligence "out there" making me do things, or punishing or rewarding me - it just seemed childish when I was young), and then became an anthropologist who works with people of intense faith. Indeed, someone who worships *with* people of intense faith, fairly often.

For me, the breakthrough came from studying the anthropology of religion, beginning with Emile Durkheim's classic *Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.* I came to understand that even when people believe they are praying to a God "out there," and regardless of the objective truth of that, that they are in fact worshipping their own social relationships, and thus sacralizing the bonds of fellowship, reciprocity, obligation, and service that are the hallmarks of any well balanced community. It felt to me like a spiritual insight, making it possible for me to worship with believers without feeling hypocritical, because we had a point of convergence in what we believed we were worshipping. At its best, religion is a force for healing and mutuality, and I've seen it at its best.

We've all seen it at its worst too. But religion doesn't have a monopoly on evil. Evil -- the denial of mutuality -- is also part of the human social condition, and is also sacralized in human rituals.

Read Durkheim. It might change your worldview.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:56 AM on March 25, 2010

The Path calls to you in many different ways. When I was 17, as part of a field trip, we went to a real buddhist temple. The priest, an old asian man, said: "in buddhsim there is no good or bad." The class gasped. "Think of the rain," he said, "if you want to have a picnic, it is bad, no?" The class murmured yes.

"But for the farmer whose crops need rain it is good, no?" A sort of small collective gasp filled the room.

I totally forgot about it. I became a buddhist 11 years later. One day I was trying to think of why I became a buddhist and suddenly I recalled that little event. It was as if it had been buried there the entire time.

Let me suggest The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:17 AM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Joseph Campbell. Get The Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers. Campbell's work helped make sense out of what seemed to be two mutually exclusive sides of myself.
I recommend listening to the interviews over reading them. The questions Moyers asks and the way Campbell answers them are as important as the content of Campbell's insight.
posted by madred at 6:40 AM on March 25, 2010

Maybe you're a Buddhist atheist at heart.
posted by pracowity at 6:42 AM on March 25, 2010

As a buddhist, for me it's all about reducing suffering. It really doesn't matter what you believe or don't believe; the test is "does it create or reduce suffering?"

My husband is a Christian and we don't believe a lot of the same things, but it's extremely clear to me that for him, believing in Jesus reduces his suffering and causes him to do good in the world. So it's irrelevant to me whether Jesus was a real person, whether he was the son of God, whether there is a God, etc. I see that belief achieving tangible good in someone. For me, believing in God does nothing for me (in a "meh" way, not a negative sense) so I choose not to.

We watch a lot of those dopey paranormal reality shows where the "experts" get called in by a family who has "spirits" in their house. You can probably tell that I think it's a crock of shit. BUT, I do believe that they're being sincere, and that their belief in spirits is causing them suffering. So when the "experts" are able to "vanquish" the "demons," it really does alleviate their suffering, whether or not there were actual demons in the first place.

I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

Then go ahead and believe these things if they make you feel better. There's no way to prove either way.
posted by desjardins at 6:46 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

How does this fit in with my very scientific-oriented lack of beliefs in religion? Do any of you have experience with meshing and melding together two or more religions?

As a starting disclaimer: I'm certainly not an atheist, and I won't pretend to understand the particular evolution of thought that leads you to believe what you believe about the nature of the world--not judging, but my experience and evaluations of reality might be different from yours in a way that influences my answer to this question. It seems, though, that you're going from label to label (Christianity, atheism, next...) in search of a canon that tells you what to think about the world in a way that is consistent with your desires and experiences. That's asking a lot, especially from the more formal/ institutionalized religions.

Further, I don't think that science, as in the knowledge that we get by using the scientific method, is really a belief system, or can provide a basis for a belief system. At most, it is a tool that can tell us what not to believe through falsification. It doesn't demand any sort of belief from its followers except that they more or less think that the method is valid. The views of reality offered by science change constantly--it seems like every 20 years scientific reality undergoes some fundamental shift.

So, what do you believe about science? Do you believe that it locks you into an unchanging dogma about reality? That isn't terribly consistent with my understanding of science, although I can't claim complete understanding about this (or anything else). Ironically though, both science and religious philosophers (see the St. Augustine quote from keith) agree that testing reality with as little bias as possible is a way to find truth.

If you haven't been satisfied with the explanations for reality provided by Christianity or atheism, then you might find similar problems with other philosophies or religious systems that rely on your acceptance of a set of unprovable statements about reality based on some external authority. You may have to construct your own system of values and beliefs instead, which is a fundamentally lonely process that you can't delegate to someone else. To do this in an intellectually honest way, you have to be open to testing anything, and accepting what is true for your experience. So, nthing the suggestion to read, read, read--but read skeptically.

A favorite author of mine wrote on this:
Education teaches the art of skeptical inquiry. The student learns the thoughts of all the great minds of the past, so that the implications and mistakes of philosophy of various schools are not unknown to him. And he learns, first, current scientific theories and second, how frail and temporary such theories can be. He learns to be undeceived by those who claim to know the last and final truth.
posted by _cave at 7:02 AM on March 25, 2010

Unitarian Universalism

Although each "church" is different, they're generally wide-open. They pull all the good stuff from all the major religious traditions as well as from philosophy, minor religion, humanists, and mythological studies. They are very accepting of atheists and agnostics, as well.

Since UU congregations have such diversity, they're each significantly different from another. Some favor more Christian rituals. Others favor more eastern traditions. Some have a very humanist slant.

If anything, they're good places to find other people to help you explore religious experience and to generally do a lot of good. At least, at my local UU church the social and volunteer experiences are very rich.
posted by TheOtherSide at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

These are a few of the resources that I have used to help clarify my own spirituality.

Wikipedia has a good article on spirituality that may help you determine exactly what you are looking for from a spiritual practice.

Belief-O-Meter from beliefnet is a quick quizz that will point you towards groups that believe in ideas similar to your own.

Sprituality for the Skeptic by the philosopher Robert Solomon explores the possibility of spirituality without a belief in the supernatural. It is possible to be grateful without thanking a supernatural being.

Secular Wholeness is an online book that looks at the benefits of religion and offers secular counterparts.
posted by calumet43 at 7:20 AM on March 25, 2010

Former Orthodox Jew, now "rather hardcore atheist."

I think it's worth reading up on Eastern philosophy and religion. You probably won't become a Buddhist, but there are features of Eastern philosophies & religions which are compatible with atheism.

I did not become a Buddhist or a serious Yogi, but I have had feelings that could be described as spiritual while doing casual mindfuless meditation and yoga and I use some form of mindfulness almost every day now.

I have also had such feelings (and had them before learning about Eastern thought) while running in the woods, walking in the sun, lying on the beach, and immersing myself in good fiction. But knowing about mindfulness and having a little experience with mindfulness meditation makes it easier to have that kind of experience on purpose.

For me, spirituality is about being wide open to the world and being a overwhelmed by the beauty. Kind of like that scene in American Beauty with the bag, come to think of it.

All the dogma is irrelevant. All you need is to be present.
posted by callmejay at 7:31 AM on March 25, 2010

Popping back in to say two things:

I believe that humanity is, essentially, good.

Many spiritual people don't believe this. Many atheists/agnostics don't, either. If you get rid of this belief--if you believe, say, like I do: that humans are just another animal without any particularly moralistic leaning--then being a good person becomes a choice. And, if you value goodness, it also becomes a responsibility. This takes the notion of "salvation" out of the hands of a higher authority and puts it back in yours: you'll need to take action to make the sort of life you want. You need to make sure your actions are in accordance with your personal ethics. It's a big responsibility, but certainly worthwhile.

Secondly, I also think you need to be patient with yourself. You're mourning right now. Your faith has been with you for a long time--like an old friend, you've been able to lean on it when you need support. Give yourself time to say goodbye to those old beliefs and time to build a foundation of new ones. Don't worry too much, though. You sound like an intelligent, good person. I have faith (ha!) that you'll get there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:34 AM on March 25, 2010

+1 on the Belief-O-Matic.

I am a Christian, but not a deep-south-bible-thumping-literalist kind. I belong to a church (Presbyterian Church USA) which at times defines my beliefs in terms of my opposition to the official church doctrine (for instance... I don't see Trinity as an essential tenet of faith, but rather as a construct developed by man to make sense of the holy aspects of man and God).

Fortunately the PCUSA has this belief that "God alone is Lord of the conscience" which seems to generally be interpreted as, "Only you can decide what you believe; the church can't do it for you." This works for me; I find a lot of tolerance within my congregation when I go off on theological tangents.

I've moved toward atheism but never quite crossed the brink; I feel there is something out there beyond this realm and Christianity is an interpretation of that realm that I can handle.

I'm not saying you should start believing in imaginary stuff you don't really believe in (at least I don't think I am), but if you grew up in a non-denominational (but Baptist tradition) type of church, you may find other Christian sects that will blow your mind without insulting your intelligence.

Regardless where you end up, I wish you the greatest fortune in your search.
posted by Doohickie at 7:42 AM on March 25, 2010

Yeah... also I meant to mention that it some sense, anyway, I think Buddhism might be a more atheistic version of my worldview. Might be looking into.

One other thing: Go over to BeliefNet and join. Engage in forums that interest you. You will find a lot of good information from people who more regularly think of choices concerning faith (or lack thereof) and philosophy.
posted by Doohickie at 7:47 AM on March 25, 2010

I'm not sure how this applies to your situation, but you seem to be highly motivated by rationalism and science so maybe my experiences concerning spirituality/science can be insightful for you.

I was raised agnostic and never really felt any kind of existential 'hole' that needed religious filling, but when I was about 16 years old, I watched a documentary on modern physics and learned about string theory and quantum theory for the first time. I'm not sure which one I watched, but Brian Greene's Elegant Universe is a good one to start with. These things are entirely outside of our rational everyday experience of the world in many ways---yet, they are part of a non-religious and completely scientific field of thought. I watched and read more and realized that modern physics is just FULL of insane ideas that stretched my concept of reality.
It's hard to explain exactly, but the idea that these concepts were real on some level was so amazing to me that I was brought to tears. For the next few weeks, I sort of floated through high school, thinking about the multiverse and Schroedinger's cat, just generally amazed at the physical world as a whole. I found my religion, and I truly believe that I feel the same thing and stimulate the same parts of my brain by meditating on the wonders of the physical world as others do through prayer and organized religion.
posted by supernaturelle at 7:51 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Spirituality, to me, is the realization and acceptance that there are two forces in the universe that acts on all matter. The creative force meaning that things are pulled together, mountains rising from the sea, squirrels squirreling away their nuts, proteins spontaneously turning into bigger more complex proteins, etc. And the destructive force, galaxies pulling apart, mountains eroding away from the wind, depression, death.

Spirituality is the wonder and amazement and joy that occurs in the middle. We call it a lot of different things, but that's the basis of it.
posted by gjc at 8:15 AM on March 25, 2010

Another vote for Unitarian Universalism. I'm a UU atheist.

But I want to believe more. I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

I find that studying the origins and structure of the universe satisfy that feeling for me. Have you seen Carl Sagan's "Cosmos." It won't help with knowing what happens when you die, but it will fill you with wonder and awe at the world we live in now. There's plenty of "more" to marvel at without resorting to anything supernatural.
posted by diogenes at 8:39 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll admit I didn't read all of the other responses before posting. Now I see that supernaturelle said much the same thing two posts up. I guess that means it's true ;)
posted by diogenes at 8:42 AM on March 25, 2010

Oh, and the Belief-O-Meter is how I found Unitarian Universalism. My wife (who still considered herself Catholic at the time) took the quiz and discovered that her beliefs were more closely aligned with Islam than Catholicism. That still cracks me up. She's a UU now.
posted by diogenes at 8:46 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

The thread that PhoBWanKenobi linked to has a lot of really thoughtful and sometimes eloquent responses to a similar question. I especially liked klangklangston's response, but the whole thread's worth reading.
posted by nangar at 9:30 AM on March 25, 2010

I want to believe that sending good vibes out into the universe actually has an effect. I want to believe that something will happen to me when I die besides absolute nothingness.

This is the crux. As an atheist, I have access to many of the perks of being a believer. I have a moral system; I have a sense of the oceanic; I feel love; I sense beauty...

But there's no way I can believe in "good vibrations" or an afterlife. Those both violate Occam's Razor, so they're kaput for me. You may be lucky enough to reach different conclusions, but to me those ideas are so deeply irrational, I just can't buy them (as much as I would love to), not even for as second. And I am capable of being irrational -- just not THAT irrational.

To be honest, I don't think there's a perfect answer (unless you can find a way to disagree with me that such things are irrational or unless you can somehow learn to ignore the fact that they are irrational). But you can make life easier for yourself.

One thing to ask yourself: why are you spending so much time thinking about the afterlife? Don't you have a JOB? I'm kidding about the job thing. But my point is that most of the time, I'm too busy doing things I love to worry about such lofty matters. I can't think about the afterlife right now, because I have to take out the garbage. Now I have to snuggle with my wife. Now I have to complete a project for work, etc.

If your life is spent worried that "the universe is expanding," maybe that's a sign that you need to find Flow -- that feeling of total concentration that people get when they are deeply involved in tasks that they love.

I think many people feel spiritual angst because they spend too much time watching TV -- and doing other things that don't fill them up. FILL YOURSELF UP WITH LIFE TO THE POINT WHERE YOU ARE OVERFLOWING!

Don't worry about sending out good vibes. Instead, really HELP people. There are even some theists who believe that "good vibes" are a waste of time, and that God wants you to do good deeds.

Here's the real truth: there is nothing to fear except fear itself. If we atheists are right, and there's no afterlife, then it won't suck to be dead. That's really hard to hold onto, because as much as we say there's no afterlife, it's pretty hard to picture "nothing." It's tempting to brood about how horrible it will be to just be stuck there in your coffin. Or to be floating, for all eternity, in a sea of blackness, all alone.

Except, if you're a REALLY rational atheist, you know that's not what you'll be doing. Being aware that you're in a coffin or in some kind of limbo IS an afterlife -- a horrible one, but one all the same. Actually being unconscious or unaware isn't horrible. It isn't anything. There's no THING to feel "this is horrible."

To say it will suck to die is like saying it really sucks for my invisible dog Rover to have to live in such as small yard. Or it really sucks for the baby I will have ten years from now that he can't watch "Lost." No it doesn't, because that dog and baby don't exist. Is George Washington having a terrible time right now being dead?

So the scary thing is THINKING about death -- not being dead. And if you're thinking about it all the time, then get a boyfriend, volunteer at a soup kitchen, learn to play an instrument, etc. Make sure you are continually challenging yourself with LIFE. Are you busy learning your fourth language? If not, why not?

It may be hard to do those things, but at least they are doable. Finding a way to be an atheist who believes in magic and heaven is not doable -- at least not for me.

Oh, and make sure there's ritual in your life. To most people, ritual is really important. And people who leave the church often find their life empty without it. If you hate organized religion, that doesn't mean that your life needs to be or should be devoid or ritual. And the interesting thing is that ritual doesn't need to be about anything. It CAN be, but it needn't be in order for it to have a profound effect on you.

A ritual can be any sort of thing you do regularly that takes a lot of energy and is very specific. It can be playing a sport, for instance. It can be preparing weekly dinners for friends. Whatever. We are ritualistic creatures. Make sure ritual is part of your life, or your life will likely suffer for it.
posted by grumblebee at 10:25 AM on March 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Thank you all so much for all of the extremely thoughtful input. It's comforting to read about the many different paths that people in somewhat similar situations have taken, and I'm grateful for y'all sharing your experiences.

Sometimes it's enough just to have my spiritual anxieties heard, you know? I'm definitely going to be looking into UU and Buddhism, as well as padding my summer reading list (grad school, ach) with all of these great recommendations.

Thanks for giving me so much to think about. ^_^
posted by LokiBear at 11:06 AM on March 25, 2010

I find that secular humanism gives me a sense of awe, hope, and purpose.

I see nothing contradictory or otherwise problematic about your "prayers" for your friends; taking a few moments to reflect on your goodwill toward others is healthy and moving. Most people have these wishes, the difference is that usually they're fleeting throughout the day and lost in a stream of other thoughts. It's not suddenly uncool or unkosher because you take the time to linger on them: the exercise you're doing gives yourself purpose and reaffirms beauties in life. It doesn't matter that no one other than yourself can hear it, and it doesn't matter that no one other than yourself can act on it. And while there is no heavenly broker that accepts prayers and pays out goodwill to the prayee, by making that goodwill a part of your daily thoughts you are necessarily going to make those people's happiness a little more of a priority in your life than you would otherwise. Your goodwill toward them will come through a little more clearer in your interactions with them, since that goodwill is more immediate in your mind than had you not said your "prayers." You will remember to tell them you care about them a little bit more, and you will seem less distracted and more present around them, priorities more solid in your mind.

I think what's hanging you up is that you consider silently wishing for others' goodwill to be a religious thing because the only public display you see of this growing up is "prayer," and it becomes the sole word to define that action. And "praying" is what religious people do. But there's nothing inherently religious about the action itself. Everyone has wishes for themselves and other people, and everyone has things that it makes them feel happy to think about -- those things are not god's domain. Call it something else, if it helps you feel less contradictory: reaffirming priorities, focusing on positivity and the beauty of connectedness, etc. Hell, just call it "wishing" or "meditating" or "meditative wishing" for the sake of simplicity.

It's also worth reminding yourself that when anyone needs a sense or purpose or meaning, it will necessarily require tuning out everything and focusing on the essentials for it to hit home. If you mistakenly put that action under the sphere of religion, then you're going to doom yourself to feeling like a hypocrite whenever you try to feel good. Your problem isn't that you don't have religion, it's that you've miscategorized things such that you fear you might need it. Especially if there is no god, you're the only one that can make sure you focus on the things that make you happy. When you retreat inward to energize or center yourself you're not being religious, you're being human.
posted by Nattie at 11:16 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

A little story... Like you, becoming an atheist improved my life greatly. But for a few years afterwards, I got hung up on ambulances. I'd see an ambulance go by, sirens blaring, and I'd feel the strongest urge to pray for the person in trouble inside, for the driver and for the paramedics, just like I used to do when I was religious. I knew it was silly, but I just couldn't shake the feeling. I had no trouble giving up other aspects of my religion, but this one little thing stuck with me.

Until one day I realised that I was so focused on finding some rational way to excuse an attempt to send mystical good vibes to the ambulance that I hadn't heard a word my boyfriend was saying to me. And he was describing a problem he'd had at work, and wanted my care and interest and maybe a solution too. I was ignoring my nearest and dearest for the sake of people who had no idea I existed and I had no way of helping.

Focus on the life right here, right now, instead of worrying about things you can't change. Reach out to the people you love, help those you can, and know that when you die you'll at least feel that you didn't waste the time you had.

That reading list sounds pretty good too, I've added them to my list too.
posted by harriet vane at 7:10 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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