Sunday, December 29, 2013

On Being an A-fée-ist

I have a word of advice for people who do not believe in gods or a god: Don’t define yourself (or let others define you) as an atheist. To do so is to bind yourself too closely (albeit by negation) to a particular belief system.

There are many things I do not believe in, but I don’t define myself or my beliefs in terms of them. For example, I don’t believe in fairies; but I don’t define myself as an a-fée-ist. (See the clever pun there?) Defining myself as an atheist would be like defining myself as a non-Frenchman. It is only one of many things that I am not, so why single that one out for a special mention?

What may be loosely called my atheism is a not particularly helpful and decidedly negative way to describe my position towards the world and my relationship to what may be broadly termed ‘spirituality’. Those who have followed this blog will know that I in fact consider myself to be a very spiritual person, but that this has no connection with religion, no dependence on a god of any kind, no connection with an afterlife, nor anything necessarily to do with a ‘higher’ state of being. It is not even very closely connected with morality or ethics. Spirituality has to do with how the right brain perceives (and sometimes constructs) reality. It has a great deal to do with connections and holistic or gestalt perception. All of this has a perfectly natural explanation, although this in no way invalidates the experience.

The difference really enters in when we begin to interpret these experiences. I would say that this interpretation begins during (and not just after) the experience. The experience is already itself shaped to a large extent by prior beliefs and experiences. Once the conscious process of interpretation has begun, there is a vast gulf between how I understand these experiences and how traditional religious and spiritual systems understand them. And I will object strongly if someone asserts (as happens from time to time) that, ‘see, you do believe in God after all.’ I don’t. Nothing is gained (and much is lost) by applying the word ‘God’ to any part of this experience.

Although I have used the word ‘spiritual’ here, I hesitate about its use, because it is so easily misinterpreted. It carries almost as many unhelpful connotations as the word ‘God’. It is difficult to think of a word that is not similarly tainted or cannot be similarly misinterpreted in the context of this discussion. By the word ‘spiritual’ I mean no more (and, just as certainly, no less) than what I experience when I am moved by a piece of music, a great painting, a wonderful poem or a beautiful sunset. These experiences are ‘transcendent’ (another potentially problematic term) because the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts—the parts that would usually be separated and dissected in a purely reductionist view of reality. This reductionist approach is not wholly wrong; it is simply not wholly right either.

In short, I will not describe myself as an atheist, because to do so is to let theism define me.

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