Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Raised Atheist

I'm one of the very few people I know who was raised atheist. Atheists are plentiful, even in America: they make up, depending on how you count, about 5% to 10% of the population. But far fewer than 5% of children in America are actually raised atheist, with a sort of atheist catechism, as I was: when faced with questions about death or the reality of Santa Claus from their kids, most atheists tend to mumble incoherently, go to the kitchen for a drink, and let someone else do the talking. So kids of American atheists generally grow up with a sort of double vision: the emotionally reliable but stupid people believe in God; the people who are smart, but who can't be counted to give a straight answer, don't. But my Dad could always be counted on. He answered questions firmly and clearly. God was a made-up story. You die quite dead and stop being a person. I could deal with that. It made sense.

As most people do, I rolled along pretty contentedly with my parents' story until I hit ten years old or so, and then I began to have doubts. The God of fundamentalists, who ran the whole show from beginning to end, who created people bad and then punished them for being so -- he never appealed to me, then or ever. The world appears to me, quite obviously, to be out of control. Nobody remotely like me designed this place or runs it. If someone with a sense of right and wrong is directing this play, their sense of right and wrong is so different from mine that I find the idea more frightening than comforting.

So my doubts never ran in that direction. No, the doubts seeped in, in a quite different way. There was a whole realm of experience that my materialist world-view didn't equip me to talk or think about, but which seemed to me to encompass the most fundamental and important parts of life. I was irritated -- I still am, and always will be -- by religious people, but there was no one else to talk to. There are moments of transcendence, of absolutely overwhelming beauty that can bring me to my knees, or at least to standing stock still on a sidewalk, gazing at a water-droplet on an iron railing. It can be an intellectual experience: the moment when I first got differential calculus was the same kind of joy. It can be -- most often is, for me -- an erotic experience, like Dante's glimpse of Beatrice. A woman's presence, whom other people may think quite ordinary, will unseat the world, will resonate in me as though a vast gong, unheard by anyone else, had been rung right beside me. And the materialists have never really had a word to say about any of it. If I wanted to understand these things, if I wanted, more to the point, to cultivate or integrate these experiences, I had to talk to religious people. I was sorry to betray my childhood faith, but these things were too important to ignore.

There are other, lesser things that drew me to religion. Dead people whisper to me sometimes. Other presences make themselves felt, vast nonhuman intelligences going to and fro. These are interesting to me, but not really compelling. I'm perfectly happy entertaining the hypothesis that I “just make them up,” although the capacity, the propensity, for doing so is surprising and interesting. But in any case, materialist and religious alike advise me to not to take these things at face value, and I don't.

And very late, as a direct result of practicing the Buddhism that eventually became my religion, I realized that my basic political and environmental views were based on an inchoate but very deep sense of the sacredness of living things and of places. The reverence that came so irresistibly to me in the case of water droplets or calculus or beautiful women was actually the proper response to nearly everything: it could be the response to nearly everything, if you really learned to see. Or maybe, who knows? -- to everything. So, at least, I'm told. I don't know. But a world-view that doesn't admit this sacredness seems to me to veer ineluctably to into perceiving an Ayn-Rand-ish world, in which the few excellent, noble, just-like-me people are stymied at every turn by the worthless flotsam of the crowd. And under that perception, in turn, is despair: because if anyone is worthless, then we may be worthless; we're certainly on our way to being worthless. And if we become worthless the moment we're dead, aren't we worthless a tenth of a second before we're dead? Or maybe even an hour, or a month, or a decade? It takes you rapidly into deep waters, but the Buddhist concept of which I was initially most skeptical, “basic goodness,” now seems to me the only conceptual structure that makes placing any value on any life sane.

At the same time, the idea that my life began with my birth and ended with my death -- that it was bounded in time -- and that my self extended to the last millimeter of my epidermis and stopped short -- that it was bounded in space -- made less and less sense to me. As I worked my way forward in the Buddhist project of deconstructing the solidity of the self, I saw it less and less as a mystical idea and more and more as the hard-nosed fact. Biologically we express the DNA given us; psychologically, we absorb the culture we're born in. Moreover, our bodies are hosts to a huge array of cells that aren't technically ours at all -- all kinds stuff grows in any human body, and a human body can't live even for moments severed from these "foreign" cells, nor from its environment of pressurized air. Interdependence is not just some religious idea: it's the facts of the case. The very mitochondria that keeps all of our cells chugging along may have been, in origin, an alien virus. Similarly, almost all of the ideas and phrases floating about in my mind I got from someone or other, whether I know it or not: ghosts of Plato and Emily Dickinson flit in and out. The more I learn, the more I discover that my exciting new ideas actually came from other people: I may never have had an original thought in my life. I find this a wonderfully liberating idea: that I don't own any of this stuff, neither my body nor my thoughts: that my "self" is a haphazard, highly-filtered collection of illegitimate reifications. I don't have to be me, this idea whispers to me. I don't have to be anybody. I didn't pop magically into existence and I won't vanish magically out of it. I have nothing to prove and nothing to fear.

There are people who will say that I'm not, even now, “religious,” and that “atheist” is still the correct word for me. Maybe so: I don't really care. For many years my response to someone asking me if I believe in God has been a cautious: “well, you tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it at the moment.” But in general, with a few exceptions, the people who self-identify as “atheists” are the people I find most difficult to converse with. There are just so many taboos to observe -- so many experiences you're not supposed to admit to, so many feelings you're supposed to dismiss -- to stay in good standing with the atheist club. I can't manage it.


jeneva said...

I love, love this post. Everything borrowed. Or after Donne: all a part of the continent, a piece of the main. Never think to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Of course, he was pretty religious.

I was waiting for you to mention the mitochondria.

NT said...

This is pretty much my experience as well (I was also "raised atheist").

Thanks for laying it out so clearly.

[LOL, captcha="comin"]

Zhoen said...

I come from the other end, from the absolute, concrete religious, that denies the "sacredness of living things and of places" unless it conforms to the strict dogma of the faith. And I live in much the same place you inhabit. From being told I would be certainly resurrected or damned for all eternity, to the dire realization that there would be nothing, to the light that both are equally right, and wrong. More, both are asking the wrong questions.

I prefer agnostic, which rejects religion defined gods, but not the sacred experience. And I agree, the atheists are as smug and cranky as the evangelicals.

christopher said...

Me too with jeneva. When I learned that the mitochondria was probably a foreign bacteria or virus that paired up symbiotically with another larger single cell to make a community out of the cellular structure of life before complex organisms even began, my whole sense of my self changed. It is very possible to turn this thing on its head and say that we are vehicles driven by the mitochondria and all that we do is gravy given to us, our pay or punishment while we serve them.

Anonymous said...

I'll simply say, re: "the atheist club": Not always.

Fiona S said...

Lovely post. I'm happy to be made up of borrowed and evolved parts. I'm also happy to say I'm an atheist because I know I don't believe in any deity. However, I am part of no club. I don't believe in pixies either - does that mean I'm part of the anti-pixie club?

Lucy said...

Marvellous, one of your yes yes yes posts. I so often feel straw-manned by atheists, one way or another, I prefer to keep quiet with them. If I could articulate a tenth of what you do here I suppose I might not.