14 October 2007

Why I'm not an Atheist

There were two defining moments, where nothing much interesting happened, and yet they redefined how I looked at the world. I don't even remember for certain which even happened first, though I can hazard a reasonable guess.

When I started college at Colorado State, I considered myself an atheist. It might be more accurate to say that I considered myself "not Christian" and didn't have a good alternative besides atheism. I've mentioned some of this before, but with a different focus. Anyway, so there I was, freshman in college, and one Thursday afternoon, I found myself walking back from class.

I can still picture the scene vividly. East of my dorm were several rows of parking, separated by grassy divides. Evergreen trees grew at the southern edges. Cool, crisp October air drifted across my cheeks. I wore an old grey jacket that always reminded me of Captain Picard, for no obvious reason, and carried a blue and black backpack that survived all four years of college.

I looked up into the sky, towards the evergreens, just as I stepped onto the second grassy island away from the dorm. Clear, blue sky above me, with a few wisps of clouds, and it was somehow perfect. It was as if all of creation had come together in that place, in that moment, and I was there to see/feel it. At that moment, I became convinced that there was something more to the world than just the observable, physical shell. It would take me several more years to give a name to it, but I stopped calling myself an atheist on that day.

The other event I think must have occurred the following summer. [Actually, the more I think about it, the more it feels like a dream.] I know that it was at home, in my parents' kitchen, back when I could still say "parents" and have it mean something, but it feels like it took place outside of time, somehow. Especially since the kitchen drifts between yellow and blue in the memory: it was yellow when I was growing up, but was painted blue sometime while I was in college.

I was just sitting in one of the new kitchen chairs, staring at the counter, and thinking. Not really thinking about anything in particular. The chair could swivel and roll, so I occasionally took advantage of these features, but mostly I just sat still. Thinking and not-thinking. Thinking and being, maybe. It's hard to put the not-quite-thoughts into words...

Imagine looking out the window on a grassy yard. In one moment, you see all the colors, the life, the...essence(?)...of everything: trees, grass, rocks, flowers. In another moment, all the color, the life, everything drains out of them. The first I called the "living world"; the second, the "dead world." The dead world was the world as I would see it as an atheist. The living world was the alternative. It was as if I was being given an explicit choice between them in that moment.

Now that I think about it, this may not have been an event: it may have been a dream I had sometime after the first event. And yet, even now, I can still find both those worlds in my awareness. It really is like seeing the color and life drain out of everything in my field of view, out of me. The world becomes an empty shell; I become an empty husk. It's as if...there's some extra "sense" that I would have to give up to be an atheist, and what I'm feeling is what happens when I shut down that extra sense.

But even though I'm not an atheist (by my definition of the word; some might argue with me on that point), I'm also not a theist. If I've got to give the "life" behind the universe a name, I'll call it Tao. The idea of an external, controlling deity behind the observable universe is, well, no more appealing to me than the dead world. Everything is still empty, only now there's a puppeteer pretending to fill them; the life pulled out of the universe and placed within that deity, instead. As soon as you separate deity from the universe, you make the universe redundant and meaningless. As for Tao, Tao is both distinct from and one with the universe. How could it be otherwise? `/^


John said...

"I wore an old grey jacket that always reminded me of Captain Picard, for no obvious reason"

Captain Picard's 'civilian clothes'
often included a gery jacket.

John said...

dammit! grey! GREY!

Qalmlea said...

That may be why, then...

Just out of curiosity, am I the only one who despises the Americanized spelling of "grey" as "gray"?

John said...

I can't say that I despise it. But I very much prefer 'grey'

Heh. word verification = "wtfxb"

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for sharing this personal story. I think that it is experiences such as these that are at the heart of "religion" in general, as well as particular religious traditions. This is one reason why mystics in various traditions have tended to recognize they have something in common with mystics in other traditions, sometimes moreso than with those in their own tradition who have never experienced such things.

I have posted a few things on my blog that you may find interesting, recently on Buddhism and secular humanism and a while back on why I am a Christian.

On another note, I wish I had a Capt. Picard jacket...

Qalmlea said...

Amusingly, I found your blog through Pharyngula. Seems an odd place for mystics to run across one another. `/^

I loved your post on Enlightenment, but had nothing as sophisticated to add as your extant commenters. The short version of why I'm not a Christian is that I never felt any profound connection through my childhood church. Still don't. On the occasions when I wind up going to help my mom with something, I usually disagree with 90% of what gets said/sung/recited.

And the jacket has since worn out, unfortunately.