The New Atheist Guide to Not Being a Total A$shole – Episode 6: Belief

Listener Essay

Posted October 21st, 2016

 In this, the sixth episode of the NAG, join Sage and fellow ‘nobody’ Drew as they explore the concepts of belief, wonder and spirituality as Atheists.  They’ll ask poignant questions such as ‘What is the ultimate truth of the universe?’ not so poignant questions like ‘Do animals believe in god?’ and even questions no one thought to ask like ‘Can you worship a magic motorcycle?’  Enjoy!
Featured tracks:  Cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ by Holly Henry, Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s “The Earth Prelude”

  • Will you be my guru, Drew? This was a great discussion, mostly because I agree with almost everything you guys said.

    You hit it on the head: You don’t have to believe to have “spiritual” experiences. It can simply be the realization that there is something larger than yourself and your puny earthbound frame of reference. Or it can be the realization that there is not anything larger than yourself and your puny earthbound frame of reference. When it happens, the experiencer “imprints” on whatever is at hand, like a baby duck imprints on the first animate object it sees after it hatches and calls that Mom. The spiritual experience trigger can be a Book of Mormon, a Bible, a statue of Buddha, a fuming incense stencher, a mountain pass just prior to a rainstorm on an August afternoon, whatever. The experiencer makes the (usually) erroneous assumption that correlation equals exclusive causation: “This profound experience that happened as I was praying over the Book of Mormon can only be had by praying over the Book of Mormon” That might be true for them, but it probably isn’t, and it definitely isn’t for everyone on the planet. These things happen to all kinds of people under all kinds of circumstances.

    I’ve often thought that it’s not that there is no god, it’s that there is nothing but god. That’s a great answer to give an evangelical fundamentalist, but it doesn’t usually take them too long to realize that “nothing but god” is pretty much the same as there being no god. They need that separate Bronze Age, Judeo-Christian spanking god to make them right (for being on his side) and everyone else wrong (for not believing in him). It’s just no fun otherwise.

    Existence is a miracle. Everything else is inevitable. Throw another shrimp on the barbie and enjoy the show.

    • Drew

      Ralph, I’m glad you enjoyed our discussion. And I like the way you put it: “it’s not that there is no god, it’s that there’s nothing but god. . . [and] it doesn’t take . . . too long to realize that ‘nothing but god’ is pretty much the same as there being no god.” Cheers!

  • Stefanie

    Very good listen guys, thank you.

    I’ve fallen into the camp of obstaining from anything supernatural/spiritual since leaving Mormonism. And it’s been emotionally crippling for me. I’ve felt as if a part of me had died.

    I attributed it to losing my religion, but after listening, I realize that’s not it all. The reason I’ve felt the way I have is because I’ve cut myself off from the “wonder” of life. AND I now see that I don’t need to believe in anything to have that sense of mystery, wonder, and spirituality.

    My big hang up is how to balance the real from the unreal in my spiritual journey. I want to have spiritual experiences again, but I don’t want to buy into anything that isn’t real. Thoughts?

    • Drew

      Hi Stefanie, I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the episode, and I can relate to what you said because I was there once too. Because my spirituality had always been rooted in religion, leaving religion caused me to assume spirituality wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore. I assumed I’d just have to get used to losing the magic I’d felt when I’d believed in Santa Claus. That all changed when I discovered I could still have spiritual experiences in both non-religious and religious settings–something I was not expecting or seeking; it just happened.

      I completely understand your desire to have spiritual experiences again while at the same time having a strong desire to not “buy into anything that isn’t real”. You asked for thoughts about how to do that. Here are some ideas, some of which I shared in the episode and some additional ones:

      1. Enjoying solitude in nature, hiking for example, while pondering the scientific fact that everything you see came from the same source that you came from, and is comprised of the same eternal energy of which you are comprised. And further, that you are one speck on one sphere in one galaxy in a Universe full of tens of thousands of galaxies–you arose from and are alive within an eternal infinity.
      2. Meditation.
      3. I highly recommend “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. To me it’s the perfect introduction to secular spirituality. It is essentially an introduction to secular Buddhist mindfulness and meditation. I recommend the audiobook version because the author reads it and that makes it more engaging. I’ve recommended this book to several exmo friends in hard times and every one of them has come back telling me how much it helped them.
      4. I also highly recommend “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell. It’s a series of interviews Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell, which aired on TV back in the 80s. You can find it on Audible. Joseph Campbell discusses how mythology, both religious and non-religious, is such a powerful expression of universal elements of the human struggle. It enabled me to consider religious mythology from a strictly secular/humanist perspective, and that surprisingly became a spiritual experience.
      5. As I stated in the episode, I absolutely love visiting places of worship. I live in a very diverse part of the country, and I frequently visit Buddhist and Hindu temples and monasteries near my home.
      6. I don’t know what your tolerance level is for ancient texts, but I enjoy reading Eastern scripture. I recommend the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), especially the Stephen Mitchell translation, which the author reads for the audiobook version. The Dhammapada (Buddhist) is beautiful; it’s the equivalent of the “Sermon on the Mount” for Buddhism in distilling it down to its essence; the translation by Eknath Easwaran is very good. I also love Hindu scripture, particularly the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads; the Eknath Easwaran translations of those are very good. Surprisingly, an atheist will find very little objectionable in all of those books of scripture because the East does not believe in a Biblical/Koranic type of God. In its original form Buddhism had no God; The Tao Te Ching is focused on understanding the natural Tao (Way) of the Universe (i.e., natural law); and Hinduism’s “most high God” is the impersonal Brahman–the eternal energy of the Universe that manifests itself in infinite forms–and all the embodied Hindu gods (the ones with elephant heads and ten arms) are simply mythical superheroes that symbolically exemplify the various powers and expressions of Brahman.

      If you have any questions about any of this or are interested in more ideas, feel free to message me. Sage, Glenn, Matt, Scott, and Randy know how to get a hold of me. Cheers!

      • Stefanie

        Thanks Drew! Your thoughtful response is very helpful. (Hugs)

    • Couldn’t agree with you more. I avoid “spirituality” in all ways, but this episode got me thinking more about it. It’s easy for me to get hung up on the semantics more than the abstraction sometimes.

      • Stefanie

        I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, the best approach is going to be to cherry pick from other traditions and cultures to create a “spirituality” that feels right for me. AND allow it to change and transform as I do.

  • Cliff

    This was a fantastic discussion that really spoke to me. Keep up the good work Sage, I love this series. And Drew, I loved your perspective. Its one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and am really coming around to.

    • Cliff

      And I’m downloading The Greatest Show on Earth now. Thanks for the recommendation. I have avoided Dawkins and other books from prominent atheists mainly because it appeared that the primary objective of their works were more directed at disproving the existence of God. I don’t really care to analyze the existence of an anthropomorphic, all powerful God on a scientific basis. But I am interested in finding meaning and inspiration through science. I was blown away by your explanation of the world and how everything can be traced back to that tiny electron before the big bang. Everything was in there, it just hadn’t been realized yet. That’s inspiring and its a lesson I plan on teaching my children to hopefully inspire them to live life to the fullest.

      • Drew

        Cliff, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the episode. I too have been surprised that my departure from Mormonism and my foray into atheism and science have led me to a new sense of science-based spirituality. A heads up about The Greatest Show: Dawkins can’t resist the occasional jab at creationists in that book, so there is some of that tone and content, but the overwhelming majority of the book is simply an explanation of how life came to be on this planet, and how the earliest living things evolved into the beautiful, diverse array of life that now exists on Earth. It’s mind-blowing.

        It’s worth saying that the “creation story” the scientists tell us is every bit as “miraculous” and “magical” as the Genesis account. The idea that the entire Universe once fit within a single point smaller than an electron, for example. It seems impossible. And yet, in our Universe, the seemingly impossible is possible, and there is no end to the mind-blowing manifestations of this eternal infinity in which we reside.

        Cheers!

  • This is my favorite episode of this series so far. Made me think of spirituality (Spinoza’s god) in a way I never have before. Nicely done guys!

  • Lloyd

    I’m very much enjoying this series, and this was my favorite episode so far (and by far). Thank you Drew for your insights. Very timely, and very helpful for me.

    Keep ’em coming Sage! (But maybe invest in a new microphone, or turn up the gain on yours. Very hard to hear you at times without cranking my volume up all the way!)