My husband has a long personal history with religion. While the details of his story are not mine to tell, the relevant bit is that his life was constructed to culminate in an eventual career as a pastor. He obtained a Masters of Theology before converting to Catholicism and accidentally meeting some atheist on a dating website.
Being the type of atheist that I am, this has been fantastic for me. I want to know everything. I want to know why Martin Luther did this or why Catholics still do that. I want to know where prosperity gospel came from and how people reconcile it with a loving god. I have so many questions, most of which lead to more questions, and he always answers them.
Which leads to tonight.
I was exchanging ideas with a friend recently, and I construed that he was atheistic. He clarified that he’s not an atheist, that he’s spiritual with a leaning toward Buddhism. I didn’t respond, because my initial thought was, “Can’t a person be all of those?” And then, I needed to think a lot. I thought a lot, and I didn’t get anywhere.
So on tonight’s run with my husband, I took my question to the source.
Can’t an atheist be spiritual? I asked.
What do you mean by spiritual?
Well, like when I climb to the top of Moose Mountain and I look out at the lake, over all the trees. Sometimes I’m overcome with emotion, this undefinable feeling of awe. Or when I’m in the middle of nowhere on a clear night in July and I look up at the stars, and I feel so small. There’s no concrete explanation for all those feelings.
I don’t attribute those feelings, or this universe, to a god. I just know there are things I can’t explain.
If we approach this from a philosophical perspective, what is spiritual or supernatural is a thing we can’t explain through human reason. And all of those things – the mountains, the lake, how you got there – can be explained through human experience and science. What most people are talking about when they refer to spirituality is when they have an experience that cannot be explained by human reason.
What, like a coincidence? So, in order to have a spiritual experience, I need to buy into the idea that God is leading my coincidences? That’s a let-down.
Well, okay. What are the things that make you think your view from Moose Mountain is a spiritual experience?
The scope of it, the beauty, the fact that sometimes it makes me cry.
These are all very personal things. It’s bigger than you, it’s beautiful to you, it makes you cry. What’s the one thing in common? It’s you. The one thing we don’t understand as human beings is human consciousness. So what’s spiritual is your perception of the experience. Because we can’t explain how humans can perceive those things and experience emotions like we do.
So I’m sitting in the cave, watching the shadow of myself sitting atop Moose Mountain?
Plato might say so.
Can I be spiritual, as an atheist? I can think there are unexplainable things in the world and believe they’re not the work of a deity. Both of those things can be true, and I find no dissonance in believing them.
And I guess maybe it’s less about spirituality and more about humanity. Being capable of having a sense of wonder about the world and not being invested in how it got that way. Just opening your arms and being amazed. It’s beautiful and liberating.
Go be amazed.