Why I Am Not An Atheist

(cc) jpellgen.
(cc) jpellgen.

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 of much worth.  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 similar.   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 lifetime.

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.


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10 thoughts on “Why I Am Not An Atheist”

  1. It is a tautological argument. the writer says, basically, "you will agree with me if you are really smart and special. and presumably if you do not agree with him, then you are not really smart, special and perceptive. he writes:

    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.

    Thus there is no refutation. if one doesn't spend a life time developing "exceptional cognitive ability" one will not agree with him. and if one does not agree with him one clearly does not have "exceptional cognitive ability". His argument about the presence in the quiet space is an interesting one for why it convinced him. however it would be much more effective/interesting if it focused on him without the intellectual superiority/snobbery argument. Atheists can also be similarly overbearing and i suppose that this is a normal reaction from those who are a bit under siege lately. but i think it would have been an overall more effective and interesting essay had it dropped the "i'm right because i've got a special cognitive ability that it took a life time to develop and if you disagree you presumably do not" strain of argument. but rather focused more humbly and interesting on what/why he came to conclude what he concluded and his path in doing so.

  2. Belief in the existence of god is unwarranted, as there is no good evidence for the existence of God. Atheism is a logical position; esp. when referring to specific gods, such as Jesus, Zeus, Yahweh, Ganesh, etc. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Otherwise, you are just choosing randomly where to place your faith (Mormonism, Catholicism, etc).

  3. Many atheists also experience the Silence, but deliberately choose not to use theistic terminology to describe it's fruits so as not to muddy the waters. Consider the misuse that accompanies Einstein's use of the word God. It is quite possible that, in the final analysis, we are simply discussing brain chemistry. But, all in all, a very interesting essay that takes the God theme way beyond the usual (boring) biblical based discussion

  4. To Andrew: Have I made any claims about my abilities or have I asked people to agree with me? I don’t see where. If one thinks, as I do, that the statement “God is a cloud of unknowing” is a pretty accurate assessment of the situation, than claiming any special knowing or asking for assent would be rather foolish. If you disagree with the point that spirituality is like art in that there are various degrees of excellence and sophistication, I would love to hear your reasons.

    To Bernie: Atheism may be a more logical position in relationship to any specific or parochial claims about God, but those are not the only kinds of claims about God. Also, as I state in the article, reasoning is a useful tool for many things, but not for spirituality. The adherents of the Perennial Wisdom claim that the experience of non-duality is the universal spiritual experience. In pursuit of non-duality, logic, which can only operate by divisions and dualisms, is worse than worthless. In claiming to be a non-atheists, I have not put forward the claim of being a theists, I am nodding at, like the Zen monk I refer to in the article, that which is beyond A and not-A, beyond affirmation or negation.

    To Mark: That you for your positive comment. Obviously there are huge semantic issues around the words “atheist” and “theist.” Atheism and theism seem to have the form the Aristotelian logic of A and not-A, in other words they seem to include all cases. My point is that they don’t — between theism and atheism there is a whole realm of positions, for instance many forms of Pantheism.

    One person I communicate with about this uses the terms “hard-core” and “soft-core” atheism, and by this he means that a hard-core atheist rejects not only all ideas of God but also all spirituality out of hand; a soft-core atheist rejects literal interpretations of God, but accepts that there may be a kind of truth in symbolic representations or in non-anthropomorphic concepts of deity like the Tao, and also in the efficacy of spiritual practices. Based on that, I am probably close to a soft-core atheist, but not quite.

  5. I have heard many conceptions of god, not just the popular ones, but I have yet to hear a claim about god that convinced me of its existence. Even the "rarest, most exceptional" god-claim has yet to provide the "rarest, most exceptional" evidence. Without that proof and evidence (and it would also be nice if you defined whatever it is you're claiming), there is no reason for anyone else to be compelled to believe.

  6. Reply to I,J: I agree with you in seeing no reason at all to believe in God. Nonetheless, when I seek the depths of my being I find only the depths of a being other than me — to that I ascribe the word "God." If your experience is different, you certainly should be true to your experience.

  7. Excellent thoughts on the subject of 'atheism". Curiously, just a few degrees of separation (and this is good and healthy) I have are: 1-your definition of 'intuition' and 'spirituality' specifically being above or beyond any connection with / affirmation and negation? 2-You also say that intuition /spirit a way of 'knowing'? 3-that you have been convinced by 'a presence within the humblest silence'? How then have come to these conclusions without REASONING, without LOGIC,without sound SKEPTICISM?

  8. Donald asks: "How then have come to these conclusions without REASONING, without LOGIC,without sound SKEPTICISM?"

    First, I am a most skeptical person. I am skeptical of religion and ideology, but also of science, logic and all human reasoning. At the same time I am radically open to all these, except ideology. Because of my skepticism I speak in this article only to that of which I do not believe. I do not believe in atheism (as to any positive belief, I'll remain silent). As to the reasoning behind this not believing, I will not say here, but I will challenge anyone that I can come up with as good of reasons, as sound of logic, for not accepting atheism as anyone can come up with for accepting atheism.

    I am not, however, particularly interested in such reasoning. My goal in life has always been to experience existence as fully as possible. Reason can be a tool toward that end, but it also can be a hinderance. Like any tool, reason is something you should use appropriately. For instance, when engaged in sex, reason should be tossed into the closet — it can only hinder orgasm.

    Orgasm is, or at least can be, a very powerful experience of being. Unfortunately, it is also quite ephemeral. I find deep meditation to also be a very powerful way to experience being, not quite as intense, but much longer lasting, much more dependable than orgasm. And as with sexual orgasm, reason is (in the end) a rather worthless tool for meditation. Indeed, every tool in the ego's tool box is in the end rather worthless for meditation (though they have their place in the process of learning).

    It's funny though, when the tool box is empty, when the ego is empty, there still is something, a great Otherness that is there enjoying its Being. Of that great Otherness, Lao Tze said "it can't be spoken." Yet this thing that can't be spoken is why I speak of myself as not an atheist. Now how unreasonable is that?

  9. I was directed here via a friend's Facebook post and, as an atheist, or more accurately an anti-theist, this article naturally caught my eye. I have to say I rather enjoyed both it and the comments which I found to be as interesting as the article itself. The answer to the Zen Master's Koan seems rather obvious and I'll share it as my last thought. Like most non-believers I am coming out of a religious tradition; my atheism is a conclusion rather than a belief. One of the many positives I found as a result of that conclusion is the numinous, like morality, is not the exclusive possession of religion. My experience of the relationship between reason and the numinous has been the complete opposite of yours, however. For me, reason is the key to the door that opens to the numinous in a far grander way than anything religion or the ineffable can offer. Consider for a moment the atoms/elements that make up your body. These were forged billions of years ago in a titanic explosion of a star and over the billions of years subsequent to that event have now managed to come together and are conscious and discussing this issue in the form of you, me and the other readers of this post. The very contemplating and crafting of these words evokes feelings of wonder and awe in me and it is all driven by the engine of reason. Viewing a supernova in the night sky does the same; viewing our sun each day, a mundane object to most, but a matter creating machine to me, matter which may one day become conscious, greets me every morning with those very same feelings. Again, all driven by the engine of reason for it is reason and its fruits of understanding which gives me and everyone else who cares to take the time to learn about it that connection with the numinous. What is most important to this view is that the source of all this is not limited to a first-person, subjective experience but is available to all as it is real and objective, or as it is called, inter-subjectively verifiable. No years of spiritual discipline needed; a five minute explanation of what a star actually is and it's life cycle combined with a simple walk outside is all that is required. Then think about it as you experience basking in its light and warmth. You'll be amazed at what starts to happen. Finally, my answer to the Zen Master's Koan regarding his staff beyond calling it a staff or not a staff: "Yours" Thanks for a great article and the opportunity to respond.

  10. Richard, thank you for the articulate response to my post. I understand and appreciate your sense of awe at the cosmos. However, you seem to imply that the awe you feel is a direct consequence of facts about the cosmos, and to this I certainly can’t agree. Such awe is subjective. Some people feel awe at the cosmos, others feel despair even nausea – including such reasonable people as Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre. Facts do not entail emotions or values, only elicits them.

    As much as I like the music of Joni Mitchell, the fact that I am made of stardust makes no emotional impact on me. But in the spirit of that oh-so reasonable one, Mr. Spock, I do find certain things about that fact interesting. First, the fact that the universe has stars at all strikes me as very curious. Among the many things required for a star to exists, one is that the ratio of the strength of gravity to the strength of the electromagnetic force has to be roughly in the proportion that it is — the electromagnetic force is about 38 magnitudes stronger than gravity. Thirty-eight magnitudes is a huge number – something in the order of the number of atoms in the planet Earth. Of all the proportions available to nature, that it should have that particular one is certainly interesting.

    Even more interesting, perhaps, is what happens after you gather enough gravity together to overwhelm the electromagnetic force. New elements are forged, and huge quantities of energy are released via E=MC2. But for new elements to be forged, there must be available another force strong enough to overcome the relatively powerful repulsion that protons feel for one another. The strong nuclear force, which is roughly 137 times more powerful than the electromagnetic force, allows this, and allows nature to develop about 90 stable elements.

    What use the universe has for so many elements is any body’s guess, but without a rich diversity of elements, we wouldn’t be here (make of that what you will). Being so powerfully attractive, you would think the strong nuclear force would pull everything together in one big lump. But despite its great strength, the range of that strength drops off steeply, so steeply that it is not felt beyond the atomic nucleus. Could a force be designed with more perfect specifications for the task of creating a multitude of different kinds of elements? That, of course, is a terribly unscientific way to frame the question. Nonetheless, I think it is just the kind of question that a curious person might be inclined to ask.

    Our universe seems to have been born (if one can be permitted poetic language here) with the proportions of its forces already set – we might even think these forces are something of an analog to the genes that guide the development of an embryo into a fully realized creature. Why these proportions? There are many theories (though I don’t believe any of them are either falsifiable or provable).

    One such theory that currently is popular is the idea of infinite inflation. To give the briefest sketch of the theory, it posits that the so-called big bang and ensuing period of inflation that created our universe is just one of countless such periods of universe creation. Most such periods result in a sterile univerese, but by the sheer force of numbers, some of them have what it takes to create interesting universes and even beings that find such universes interesting.

    Note that this theory (and I believe all such theories that involve a multiverse) requires an infinitely potent entity, the multiverse, to create an infinite quantity of universes. Consequently, the multiverse must not be subject to entropy, indeed must be dis-entropic. But if it is, than we simply cannot assume it is naturalistic in any sense we understand that term, for entropy is absolutely core to our own understanding of nature. How the multiverse operates is beyond anything we currently can understand. It is pure mystery.

    Now I find all this very interesting, and I do not draw any conclusions from it. But it does strike me that an omni-potent multiverse has something of the characteristic of a God. I might even say that when it comes to the great mystery of the source of it all, theism and atheism have about equal status, which is to say they both purport to say more than a reasonable person ought to say.

    The rest is silence…


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