February 23, 2016

Spirituality After Atheism

My transition from Christian to atheist was gradual, rocky, and anything but a direct path from one to the other. I've written about this here many times. What I haven't written much about is what came next. Although I had left gods behind, I was not so sure about souls, spirits, and other possibilities.

I was attracted to many New Age beliefs, considered myself a "spiritual" person, and even sought to explore other religions (e.g., Buddhism). While I can't say that I ever fully believed in karma or reincarnation, I did find these concepts very appealing for awhile. Looking back, I would estimate that I spent at least a couple years as an atheist who had not only not closed the door to spiritual or supernatural possibilities but who was actively searching for alternative forms of spirituality. I was willing to entertain all sorts of woo, and entertain it I did.

Walking away from god belief left me with sort of a void. I am not sure I was aware of it at the time, but I certainly behaved like someone who was searching for something to fill a void. At the time, what I felt was freedom. Specifically, I was finally free to look around at religions besides the Christian faith into which I had been indoctrinated and spiritual but non-religious belief systems, most of which were too loosely organized to qualify as belief systems at all. It did not feel like I was looking for something in particular as much as it felt like I was exploring what else was out there. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I recognize I probably was looking for something.

Buddhism was an enjoyable detour I started and mostly finished while I was in college. It showed me how little I knew about religions other than Christianity, and I discovered that much of it was far more congruent with who I was at the time than Christianity had been for awhile. But despite how appealing some aspects of it were, it did not take me long to realize that while it might be preferable to Christianity, it still wasn't for me. I appreciated many aspects of it, and I still do. I was never able to think of myself as a Buddhist or commit to anything more than learning about it. It influenced me in some important ways, many of which are still with me, but it wasn't what I was seeking.

The non-religious New Age beliefs were interesting but mostly as a curiosity. I mostly explored them during the time I spent in graduate school. I found it fascinating how people seemed to assemble their own belief systems from a hodgepodge of options. The result was often highly idiosyncratic so that it was tough to find more than a handful of people who believed many of the same things. Even when shared terminology was used, it was often used in very different ways. I certainly recognized that far too much of it was little more than wishful thinking, blind optimism, and overpriced woo (e.g., homeopathy, crystals). While I was encouraged to see so many people making meaning without organized religion, it did not take me long to recognize that I was far too skeptical to find a home here.

I would gradually realize that spirituality was not at all dependent on spirits, souls, or anything not found in nature. I would come to understand that feelings of awe, transcendence, and interconnectedness with others were found in our brains and required nothing from any supernatural realm. I did not need gods, magic, meditation, or crystals. The experiences I was seeking were part of me. Atheism, materialism, skepticism, humanism, freethought, and the like did not have to detract from spirituality in the slightest. This was a freeing realization because it meant that I could dispense with all the woo and not lose anything in the process other than a few close relationships with those who had chosen to devote themselves to it.

When someone asks me today whether I consider myself a spiritual person, I first ask them to clarify what they mean by "spiritual." But even if they are using the term in much the same way I do, I usually answer by explaining that even this sort of spirituality is something I find much less important to me today than it once was. I say that because I no longer find myself seeking the sort of experiences commonly associated with spirituality and because I no longer spend much time thinking about spirituality. Of course, none of this means I do not still appreciate experiences of awe, feelings of interconnectedness with others, and the like. I guess I am just more inclined to consider this part of my humanity than "spirituality."
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