[This post was prompted by Ryan, a Patreon backer. One Patreon backer who gives $5 or more will be selected each month to prompt a story or blog post about a topic of their choosing.]
I’m an atheist with a God-shaped hole inside my heart.
A lot of people take their God-shaped holes to be arguments in favor of the existence of God. C. S. Lewis argued, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
But this is quite silly. Of course there are desires that exist without satisfaction. Some people want to fuck catgirls. Other people want to be catgirls. Still other people want to never die. I myself want to fly. Indeed, C. S. Lewis is talking about desires without satisfaction right now, he has just decided to make up a story about how they can be satisfied really. By this argument, I could prove that all tomatoes are green because, you see, the red ones are actually green in some other world.
But the interesting thing about one’s God-shaped hole is that it often is filled. Many religious people find that their God-shaped holes are filled through prayer, meditation, religious services, service to others, reading their holy books, having mystical experiences, etc. I will call this category “spiritual experiences”, to be as broad as possible.
There is, of course, nothing supernatural about spiritual experiences, because there’s nothing supernatural at all. Spiritual experiences are a thing that brains do. If you take LSD, you can get them somewhat consistently. I myself had a mystical experience at a Cobra Starship concert once, which was very instructive, because while previously I might have converted due to the intensity of my mystical experiences I am pretty sure that God, however mysterious Her ways, does not talk to people in the form of mediocre dance-pop bands.
So, given that spiritual experiences aren’t supernatural, there is no reason to believe that they ought to be the sole property of believers in the supernatural. Spiritual experiences are a human thing; an atheist is as entitled to them as anything else.
Of course, this is easier for some atheists than others. There are lots of spiritual experiences that can be easily transferred to an atheistic context. Taking long walks in nature. Listening to music. Volunteering at a soup kitchen. Listening to music. Reading poetry. Meditating. Attending a UU church. Certain kinds of BDSM and New-Age-y sex stuff. Being a member of an atheist Alcoholics Anonymous group who turns over your life to the Group Of Drunks.
But there are a lot of desires it’s hard to meet in a secular context. You can’t trust that the universe is being governed by someone who’s watching out for you, that even if something’s going wrong now it is all for the best in the end. You can’t talk to someone extraordinarily powerful who loves you and wants what’s best for you. You can’t resign yourself to the will of a deity who doesn’t exist.
I used to pray. I don’t pray anymore.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying as an atheist. You’re basically talking to yourself. If that comforts you, it’s a quite harmless habit. And the sense of guidance one often receives while praying is– like all spiritual experiences– naturalistic. I find that, when I sit quietly and really think about my problems, I often know what I want to do about them; it’s just that in everyday life I am lazy and grouchy and prone to despair, and that makes it difficult for me to do the things I know damn well I want to do. As a religious person, it is easy to think of that knowledge as a grace from God, but that doesn’t mean that’s what it really is.
But I found, over time, that when I prayed as an atheist I knew that God wasn’t there.
For a surprisingly long time, that wasn’t entirely an impediment. It was less satisfying to say “God, forgive me” and know I am talking to myself, but less satisfying is not the same as not satisfying. There was still comfort.
I found that, as I settled more into my secularism, my values changed. Prayers for intercession I did not pray even when I believed; it seemed to me that an omniscient God knew his affairs better than I did. But then I could not praise the beauty of the world without thinking of the senseless suffering in nature, the parasites and the predators and the children dying before they ever lived. Some suffering, perhaps, is a result of human choices and free will; other suffering, perhaps, offers an opportunity to develop virtue and strength. I can see this argument for human suffering. But I cannot see what sort of virtue is developed by a wolf eating a fawn alive, nor how the wolf is exercising its free will if you gave it no other way to eat.
I also developed an ethic of, morally, standing on my own two feet: I desire to do what I want and not do what I don’t want; but because I am a frail human, I often do things the other way around. It grew strange to ask Christ for forgiveness. If I choose my own moral code, my own desires, as the measure against which I test my actions, then the person who is sitting in judgment about me is myself. There is no point in asking for forgiveness from God, because I am concerned about the violation of my own ethics and not his, and anyway he doesn’t exist. My habit of prayer, I worried, reinforced an attitude of failing to take responsibility for my own beliefs.
And then one day I realized that the number of modifications I had to make to prayer to make it work implied that I ought not pray at all. And I stopped, not without sadness.
For me, what helped was finding alternate ways to meet my spiritual needs. I’ve found Secular Solstice to be a tremendous help. I missed singing and ritual with a bunch of people who share my values, and now I get to do that. (Unfortunately, Secular Solstice– in the Bay Area, at least– is still far too white Protestant for my tastes. More call-and-response, please.)
I think part of the reason Secular Solstice works for me is the story.
Secular Solstice has a lot of what one might call mythological elements. The universe does not love us and does not hate us; it is pitilessly neutral in our little struggles. There is no guarantee that we will win. But there is also no guarantee that we will lose. And through courage and rationality and love and all of the other virtues, we have won great victories: the eradication of smallpox; the invention of science; the reduction of the percentage of people living in extreme poverty, over the past two hundred years, from four-fifths of the world’s population to one-tenth. And each of us can play a role, even if small, in advancing these victories: we can eke out a little more knowledge, help people who would not otherwise be helped, support others so they have the strength to keep going.
For me, that fills the same emotional role as the great Christian mythology of Fall and Redemption and Salvation. It fills my God-shaped hole. It also has the virtue of being true.
I do not believe that the myth that moves me will move everyone else; we all have different emotional needs. Perhaps there is no true thing that will fill some people’s emotional needs, and their choice is between half-believing lies and being quite unsatisfied. But I think it’s worth investigating.