The Atheist’s Spirituality

atheistBy Joe Perez

“I think that truth should be found by open questioning, which religion inhibits.” “I became aware that religious teachings could not be rationally defended.” “The religious view of the world seems incredible to me.”

These are some of the reasons that members of the Gay and Lesbian Atheists and Humanists give for rejecting religion. According to the GALAH Web site, they are a group of people whose ethics are based on reason rather than ignorance, mythology, and fear.

Approximately six percent of all gays and lesbians are atheists, according to the 2003-2004 Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Census. Officially, the only belief required of the atheist is atheism, or disbelief in the existence of a deity or supernatural being. Unofficially, many atheists also espouse a wide range of positive, humanistic values.

GALAH, for instance, supports a variety of values beyond atheism. According to the organization’s Web site, they support the separation of church and state, equal rights for gays and lesbians, public education about atheism, and the creation of social environments where freethinkers can meet.

When I learned that six percent of gays are atheists, I was surprised that the number was so low. Perhaps more people would admit to being atheist except they fear social disapproval if they admit to disbelief in God.

Sadly, there are many ignorant people who wrongly associate atheism with moral depravity, Satanism, and devil worship. Atheists therefore frequently face intolerance and discrimination.

Atheists often insist that their beliefs are not a religion but freedom from religion and superstition. However, as I see it, there are actually a wide variety of atheistic perspectives. Sometimes atheism represents a positive, healthy step in the evolution of a person’s consciousness. And sometimes, it may not. That’s when atheism becomes as rigid and inflexible an ideology as the worst of religions.

According to developmental psychologists, many folks pass from a mythic way of thinking about religion in childhood to a rational consciousness as a teenager. Teenagers frequently encounter difficulties with organized religion because their churches or synagogues may not understand this passage.

Adults may try to keep teenagers at an inappropriately child-like way of thinking about religion. They may insist that there is only one true religion, and they show no tolerance and understanding for other viewpoints. They may view the goal of religion as converting the rest of the world to belief in the One True God.

At its best, atheism is a stage in personal and spiritual development whereby childish beliefs about religion are discarded and a more mature outlook on life emerges. At this stage of development, we develop the ability to think clearly about life and to express our beliefs. We make an effort to expand our minds by studying science, mathematics, philosophy, or law.

That’s the limit of human development as most atheists are willing to admit. Where I part ways with their company is that I don’t believe rationalism or atheism represents the highest stage of development in consciousness.

Atheism can become an ideology every bit as closed off to reality as a fundamentalist’s religion. There’s a saying that goes, “Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.” Atheists reject the most primitive forms of religion, and then toss out the more highly evolved forms of religion and spirituality with the bathwater.

Atheism may become infected with the ideology of scientism. Scientism asserts that only that which can be scientifically proven is real. Never mind that there is no scientific proof that only that which can be scientifically proven is real.

Spirituality and religion are not restricted to the primitive, fundamentalist and traditionalistic forms atheists reject. Spirituality encourages open questioning and a search for truth. It embraces rationality and the demand for evidence. It does not insist on belief in incredible stories about reality.

Speaking of incredible stories about reality, let me tell you a make-believe story:

In the beginning, there was nothing, except the god Chance and the goddess Chaos. This divine couple lived in separate houses, one in the heavens and the other in the netherworld. They mated and produced the daughter Necessity and put her in charge of the universe.

The gods of Chance and Necessity gifted homo sapiens with a treasure of value beyond measure: rationality. As Chance bestowed his gift, he descended to the earth and walked among mortals as one of us. He was in a mischievous sort of mood, so he whispered to a handful of the very wise: “use this gift wisely to learn the truth and to dispel illusion.”

Homo sapiens used the gift of rationality to create language, tools, and culture. But with culture came childish, primitive forms as well as more evolved, adult forms. In their child-like ways, homo sapiens erected numerous false idols such as primitive superstitions and fundamentalist religion.

In time, Chance and Chaos grew jealous at all these false gods, for they were jealous beings that desired exclusive allegiance. They demanded of their followers a path of maturity: growing from childish ways into more adult forms of worship.

Some atheists insist that their belief system isn’t a myth or religion, but it sometimes seems to me that they insist a little too loudly. I believe the spiritual path of atheists has a certain heroic and mythical dimension.

Atheists are the Heroic Knights who demolish childish idols, battling the demon of illusion. They are Truth Sayers who delight in saying when pretentious religious emperors have no clothes.

Far from attacking atheists, I see them like a hero in a fairy tale. Why? I think C.S. Lewis put it well. He said: “The real life of men is of that mystical and heroic quality . . . And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the Universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?”

(September 3, 2004)

Note: This article by Joe Perez is reprinted with permission from Rising Up.

About Joe Perez

Chief Blogger, Gay Spirituality. Joe Perez is a Seattle-based author, blogger, poet, language creator, and Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Integral Wisdom. His spiritual memoir Soulfully Gay is published by Integral Books/Shambhala. He is an Honors graduate of Harvard University and has earned a Certificate in Integral Leadership from Pacific Integral. [Full Bio].