My younger self wasn’t sure of much about my future, but I was sure I would always be a believer.
Of course, what I believed in changed several times. In my pre-teen years, I was convinced of the existence of a Protestant God and spent most of my time devouring and re-devouring the works of C.S. Lewis. (My original inspiration to become a writer was actually the hope that one day, I would write books that were as glorifying to Jesus as Mere Christianity… that didn’t work out as planned).
My Protestant belief slowly morphed into 20th-century deism through my later teenage years before taking a sharp turnaround back into outright Protestantism in my early college years. My bookshelf during early college contained such classics as St. Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and one of my favorite university courses was a biblical history course taught by a Christian professor.¹
At the end of college, my belief took a weird zag into witchcraft. I was no longer convinced of Jesus’s resurrection or the divinely inspired nature of the bible. In fact, I was so unconvinced of any claim that I pretty much accepted whatever people said about their beliefs to be true. You tell me Persephone speaks to you? Or Satan himself? I believe you. Who am I to argue.
It didn’t take long for my post-graduation religious beliefs to settle into something usually called “spiritual but not religious.” I wasn’t convinced a deity with a personality or any particular will for the universe existed, nor was I convinced about an afterlife, but I was convinced there was something out there that was the source of goodness and love. The theologian in me could not let go of the idea that there was a watchmaker behind this watch, nor could they stomach the idea of moral law without a law-giver. If you had asked me even as recently as last month, that’s what I would have told you my religious beliefs were. A conviction that The Universe is, while not a human personality per se, something that co-experiences our lives with us, and loves and is interested in every atom of existence. I would have said that we are The Universe experiencing itself.
My favorite metaphor was of the drop in the ocean: If The Universe was a waterfall rushing over the edge, our consciousness was a drop of water in the spray. When we reach the bottom, all the water comes together again. We will not cease to exist, I would have said, but rejoin the whole.
I would have sidestepped the Problem of Evil by saying that what feels completely undesirable to our consciousness at the moment is still an important experience for The Universe. I would have sidestepped questions about who created God and the universe by saying God is not separate from The Universe, that consciousness is a property of matter, and that God is merely the name for the consciousness of The Universe (hence the capitalized “The Universe”).
This flexible belief system accounted for everything I’d ever experienced in my life.
- It gave me an explanation as to why there were so many world religions that differed about so many things (God’s name, nature, and origin) yet agreed about so many others (that murder, rape, and theft are bad) — that they were all man-made religious impositions on what was essentially a relatively benign universal experience of loving consciousness that couldn’t be said to “want” anything.
- It gave me an explanation for my personal spiritual experiences, the spiritual experiences of others, meditative experiences, and the experiences of people who trip on psychedelics — they are tapping into the universal consciousness.
- It even permitted me an explanation for why some people find spiritual refuge in astrology and crystal work, why ancient prophets saw communication in burning bushes, and why Tarot card readings feel so meaningful to me — because universal consciousness can only reach you in the ways you are prepared to accept it.
Best of all, this religion required no proselytizing. If someone were a Christian, well it must be because The Universe wanted to, in this person, be a Christain. The same goes for the practitioners of any other religion. The only “sin” in my mind was to try to fight the way of the universe (or as Taoism calls it, the tao).
As recently as a week ago, I felt quite secure in my beliefs. But while I was reading an intellectual book the other day, the framework of my belief collapsed.
The book I was reading didn’t “deconvert” me. It wasn’t even about religion. It was about something else entirely, but it did cover critical thinking and scientific inquiry. (I’m not naming the book because I don’t want anyone to avoid reading it for fear they will be “turned atheist.”) I enjoyed this book a lot. I was nodding along eagerly, refining my reading list for the next few months to include more intellectual and well-cited academic works about a variety of subjects.
And in the middle of this, quite out of the blue, it occurred to me that if I truly value reason and scientific inquiry, I must acknowledge the truth: My spiritual beliefs are total nonsense.
Scientific inquiry has consistently failed to demonstrate that intercessory prayer, tarot cards, and astrology have any effect on the world whatsoever. There is nothing in contemporary science that indicates that certain kinds of crystals have spiritual power.
There isn't anything in contemporary science that suggests it’s likely that a universal consciousness or a divinely inspired source of morality exists. That kind of belief is only acceptable because it is widespread, not because it is rationally the most likely to be true.
The only scrap of anything resembling scientific proof for a belief in a universal consciousness is an arcane hypothesis from some philosophers that consciousness is an inherent property of matter. But the preponderance of the evidence suggests this is not true. At this point, it’s more likely that consciousness is an emergent property of neural activity in biological organisms. It’s impossible to measure the presence of consciousness in a scientific way, but it seems reasonable to think that a cat experiences a kind of consciousness because it has the neurological wiring that would make such a thing possible and it acts as if it were. It does not seem reasonable to posit that an electron has consciousness because we know of no mechanism that would give rise to consciousness in an electron and electronics do not act as if they were.
And even if universal consciousness does exist in this way, there is nothing to suggest it is “loving,” or “good,” or the source for all morality, or cares at all about the fate of humanity and humans, or indeed, is even capable of caring in the first place.
My spirituality was never founded on what is most reasonable or most likely to be true anyway. Like most people, my spiritual beliefs were the product of what we like to call “spiritual experiences,” a moniker for any kind of experience which feels like direct contact with or proof of supernatural power. The term spiritual experience can be applied to anything from a mushroom trip to the feeling you had when your first baby was born.
But unfortunately, scientific inquiry has by now come up with compelling materialistic explanations for every kind of spiritual experience. These explanations mostly have to do with brain chemicals and cognitive biases, of which humans have many and of which they are mostly unaware. If the placebo effect is powerful enough to shrink the size of cancerous tumors, it’s certainly powerful enough to give you the impression god exists.
What’s more, many atheists and other non-religious people report having the same kind of experiences — a feeling of oneness after a ‘shroom trip, a feeling of ecstasy standing on a mountaintop—without getting the impression that they are proof of supernatural forces.
Even if spiritual experiences were compelling evidence in and of themselves, the principles of sound reasoning tell us that a handful of seriously subjective personal experiences is far from enough evidence to come to a conclusion about whether you should trust the telephone salesman, let alone the existence of loving universal consciousness.
It seems to me that when you actually look at the evidence, the evidence suggests the atheists are right. There’s no need to posit a supernatural force (or forces) when naturalistic explanations have so far been more than adequate.
Spirituality is even further discredited when you consider that many people are biased in favor of believing in spirituality. That is to say, we get something out of it.
Consider me. My adult life has been riddled with challenges imposed by my mental illness. I’ve been at the end of my rope many times. When I’ve felt like there’s nowhere left to turn, prayer has given me solace. I could tell myself that even if there was nothing I could do, God had the matter well in hand. When I didn’t know where to turn next, divination via astrology or tarot cards helped me decide what my next step was. And when I laid in bed crying, the notion that there was a God who loved me helped ease the suffocating, crushing feeling of being alone in my struggle.
But all those fuzzy feelings mean nothing. In fact, they mean worse than nothing. Like a battered wife who clings to the memory of good times with her husband, I clung to the times religion gave me solace, even when the blunt fact of the matter is that praying has never, not once, been a miracle solution for any of my problems. When the solution finally arrived, it was always thanks to a book, therapist, or some other material reality, not the universal consciousness reaching into me and fixing me.
Upon letting go of the fantasy of spirituality, though, I’m discovering atheism is a pretty wonderful philosophy to have.
First of all, I don’t need to depend on a supernatural force to intercede in the world on my behalf. If there’s something that upsets me, I can act to change it — and unlike intercessory prayer, my actions have a real and demonstrable effect.
- If I spend an hour praying for good mental health treatment, I’m no better off than when I started, but if I spend an hour phoning local nonprofits looking for free group therapy programs and get on to several waitlists, I’m much better off.
- If I spend an hour doing tarot card readings to try to understand what I should do, I’m a little better off than when I started (tarot cards are good for stimulating thought). If I read a book on my problem and talk to my therapist to work through the issue, I’m much better off.
- If I tithe to my local church, some of the proceeds will go to charitable purposes, possibly, and I’ve made the world around me a little better. If I donate to a cause recommended by Effective Altriusm, a much greater amount of my donation will go to charity and that charity will be far more effective in the world, and I’ve made the world around me a little more better.
I’m also surprised to find that atheism offers a solace no religion ever can.
Without a fantasy of perfect, supernatural love to compare my experiences to, I’m able to more fully appreciate the real love offered to me by the people around me. I’ve always struggled to feel loved by those around me, and the idea that there was this supernatural, “perfect” love I could access but wasn’t tormented me. Without this invisible standard hanging above my head, I’m far more able to accept the love of my loved ones as it is.
I’m also facing a great deal less pressure. As a spiritual person, I felt keenly the weight of my responsibility to my creator to pursue truth and goodness. This question of “How can I become wise and good for the sake of my creator and my created purpose” has guided every decision in my life, from my decision to become a writer to my decision to go to Ohio State University. My goal was to do my level best, in the hopes that when I died and faced my creator, I could say “This is what I did with my life. Did it make you proud?”
As a nonbeliever, this pressure doesn’t exist. There’s no one to make proud — not even myself, if I don’t care to. If I spend my entire life playing video games and pass away without remark, I have done nothing wrong. The desire to be good and help one’s fellow man is a great desire, for sure, but I no longer feel the pressure of an immortal and judgmental god behind it. If and when I do things that make the world a better place, it will be for their own sake, not for the sake of the immortal creator.
Also very significant is my impression of the world. As a spiritual person, you’re called to believe the world is essentially ordered for some purpose. Even if that purpose is just the universe experiencing itself, you are called to believe that the universe wants to have these kinds of experiences, or that all experiences serve a purpose. This is a comforting thought, but it raises difficult questions. “Why does famine exist?” “Why does Joseph Kony exist?” “Why did COVID kill my mom?”
An atheist worldview brings me some measure of comfort. Suffering doesn’t exist because God mandated it for our salvation or because it’s a necessary prerequisite for goodness or even because the universal consciousness wanted to experience it — it exists because that’s how the universe happened to develop according to the laws of physics, biology, and all the rest. There’s no one to blame.
And if there’s no one to blame, then there’s no one to attack. There’s no one to make wrong. We can just all come together and work to find a solution. (And since we’re relying on evidence to see what works, instead of ineffective spirituality, we’re more likely to find it).
I have no idea how this article is going to be received. It could be a total dud. It could be wrong. Many people could find it offensive. I don’t mean to offend anyone, of course. This article is nothing but a sincere attempt to explain my thought process over the past few days and weeks. If you disagree with me about something, have evidence to present to me one way or another, or just want to open up a conversation, I would love it if you responded to this story to do so.
Either way, if this story helps even one person understand themselves or their life, it’s worth it.
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Endnote: This is an article about religion, and I know this subject can rile people up, but I expect my comments to stay a respectful and safe place for people of all religious beliefs. Disrespectful, trolling, or hateful comments will be deleted.
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1: No, I did not attend a Christian college. I loved Jesus, but I also loved academic rigor, and there are very few Christian colleges that value academic rigor the way secular universities do.