When I was in my teens, I took a church class with my grandmother where the teacher, one Greg Boyd, explained how he had spent several years corresponding with his dad, a non-believer, about becoming a Christian. If you follow the link, you’ll see that eventually he won his dad over, but at the time this process was still ongoing.
As part of his communications with his father, he offered what he felt was proof of the existence of god. He shared this with us, and at the time, it really rang true for me. It basically breaks down like this:
Every need human beings have can be met in the natural world. We get hungry, there’s food; we thirst, there’s water; we get horny, there’s sex (Okay, I added that last one, but it’s the same idea). We as human beings feel a profound longing for truth and connection to something greater than ourselves. This is the proof that god exists, because nothing else can truly quench that particular thirst.
Now, again, at the time I was a devout believer already. I took it for granted that nothing else would meet that particular need, and I certainly agreed with the existence of the need itself. Since then, my outlook has changed significantly, but interestingly, I had to deal with this argument internally before I could resolve my own beliefs, because I do still believe that we as human beings crave spiritual sustenance.
Before I go on, let me define what I mean by “spiritual”. I could use a lot of words like “profound” and “cosmic” to try to obfuscate my meaning, but I’ll try to refrain and instead be as clear as possible.
For me, spirituality is a term that describes my own personal longing to feel a connection to things that are greater than myself, to contemplate and attempt to understand things that I feel are beyond my understanding, and to relish my part in things that span inconceivable distances or periods of time.
The other day, I was telling a good friend of mine (for the first time) that I was an atheist. He took this in stride (which is why he’s a good friend), but when I said I wasn’t as certain about whether I believed in the soul, he scoffed. “You can’t have it both ways.”
I’m not so sure of that. I’ve settled on the fact that I’m an atheist because I don’t believe the “evidence” for god is compelling – in fact, I don’t really believe there is much evidence for god at all. It seems to me that most of the arguments for believing in god boil down to guilt, threats, or laying odds. But the soul itself is a concept that seems to transcend the boundaries of a lot of major religions and philosophies. I think, at a minimum, there is a shared human need to reach for the unattainable and contemplate things we don’t understand. That doesn’t mean we all have souls, necessarily – that driving desire could easily just be a shared racial trait developed through evolution, and it probably is. But there is something in common there, and it makes me wonder.
The things that used to slake my spiritual thirst were worship and contemplation of god (or at least, I thought they did, but I’ve since realized that they really didn’t). What slakes it now is my love for my children, or contemplating the origin and nature of the universe, or being captivated by a really good piece of music. All of these things are just as amazing and incomprehensible to me as the notion of god was – in many ways, even more so. I won’t lie: I long to believe that there is something inside me that is eternal, but I no longer believe that merely wishing for something will make it so. I know I don’t believe in the traditional notion of heaven or the afterlife.
But at the same time, I know that matter and energy never go away; they only change forms. This concept staggers me. It hints at an entire universe whose workings I truly don’t comprehend. This will sound like so much New Age bullshit, and I apologize in advance, but really, the “stuff” that comprises me never does go away. I don’t believe my consciousness survives my own death, but there are enough wonders in the universe that if I were wrong in some sense, I wouldn’t be surprised. It makes me wonder about religions that believe in multiple lives, even as I reach a point in my life where I feel a fundamental disdain for religion.
(Alex is actually a pretty good attempt to capture this sense of contradiction that I feel. I’ve called it an “atheist ghost story”, and this is why. Ian is an atheist, but he wants too badly to believe his son can return to him to outright disregard the possibility that the boy has a ghost. And of course, there are multiple interpretations of the events in the book, just as there are multiple interpretations of real life.)
Ultimately, for me, there seem to be enough things about the universe that I don’t understand to remain agnostic on the issue of the soul. I sometimes think that maybe this will change over time; maybe my atheism will “mature” and I’m just clinging to this particular agnosticism because I’m not brave enough yet to let it go. But, as my friend also told me – sometimes, the bravest thing you can do is admit you don’t know.
One important distinction between my spiritual belief now and my spiritual belief as a Christian is that I’m not willing to accept anything on faith. I can’t be certain the soul exists, so I don’t necessarily believe in it – but I also feel that the arguments against it are not conclusive. I suspect science will be able to prove or disprove the existence of the soul at some point.
But when it does, I think we may be very surprised.