Monday, December 30, 2013

Why I Am Not an Atheist

Apparently some people are quite impressed with themselves when they make the momentous discovery that the God of the popular imagination is no more real than Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.  Having made this discovery they declare themselves to be atheists.  That the notion of God in the popular imagination and the institutionalized churches is not the final word about God seems never to occur to them.

At the level of thought, the reasoning of the atheists, and the support for that reasoning provided by modern science, certainly trumps the feeble attempts to refute that reasoning provided by believers.  That there are ways of knowing outside of such reasoning, however, seems not to be considered.

In the popular imagination, God has a form.  In the institutionalized churches, people who declare themselves ministers of this well-formed God, tell us about his will and suggest that we can influence this will with work and prayers.  They even suggest that God has emotions, that God loves us.  A form requires a limitation in space and time; words require a constraint on possibility, emotions are transient – I will leave what that infers to the reader.

In the realm of art, it is generally understood that average works are not worth much.  It is only the most exceptional works of art that have lasting value.  I would ask the atheist to consider the possibility that spirituality may be much the same.   If you wish to deny God, is it not “reasonable” to seek out the rarest, must exceptional concepts of God, before coming to a conclusion?  There is a problem here though: it takes a rather exceptional viewer to penetrate a great work of art; likewise, it takes a rather exceptional cognitive ability to penetrate a great spiritual teaching.  Cultivating that cognitive ability may take a life time.

Reasoning is a great and very useful item in our box of cognitive tools, but it is not a particularly good tool for penetrating great art and even less so for penetrating great spiritual teachings.  “Restrain the turnings of the mind” – this, Pantanjali declares to be the goal of yoga; it is also, I would suggest, a necessary part of any kind of spiritual approach.  To penetrate a spiritual teaching requires a focused, quieted mind and the act of penetrating such a teaching results in an even more focused, quieter mind.  Spiritual works speak to an intuition in the heart of silence.  This intuition is one of the ways of knowing outside of reasoning that I spoke of above.

And what of God?  There is a Zen koan that tells of a master who holds his staff out and says: “If you call this a staff, you affirm it; if not, you negate it.  Beyond affirmation and negation, what would you call it.”   This is the problem with words.  Every verbal affirmation engenders a possible negation – in that great round that the Buddhists call Samsara, such affirmations and negations chase around like cats and dogs.  To leave Samsara, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven within you, you must find that which is beyond affirmation and negation.

A medieval monk called God “a cloud of unknowing.”  In one way or another, the exceptional teachings all declare the wisdom of “knowing that you do not know.”  They speak of the Mystery that resides at the source of being, and yet of the certainty that presents Itself in the heart of humblest silence – that Thou Art That.  A presence within the humblest silence is not much of an argument to pose against the reams of erudition and evidence put forth by the verbose scribes of atheism – but it has convinced me utterly.  That is why I am not an atheist.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. The analogy to Santa Claus is apt. My own conception of God which failed me as a teenager was indeed a childish notion, akin to Santa Claus. My atheism was defined in terms that seem simplistic and cartoonish to me now — and though it pains me to impugn the faith of others, I confess that's how I saw the doctrines of the church which I rejected.

    This brings me back again to an anecdote about Joseph Campbell, which I heard from a friend but have never been able to source. When questioned on the subject of atheism, Campbell supposedly said, “If you are, I’m not; if you’re not, I am.” Whether he actually said this or not, I think that captures the ambiguity of the atheist label.