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Why I’m Not an Atheist

December 18, 2013

I don’t really believe in anything. I definitely don’t believe in the omnipotent, authoritative, bearded-daddy-in-the-sky idea of God. I have thoughts and ideas on the subject of (for lack of a better word) spirituality, but I don’t mistake these speculations for confirmed truths.

I also don’t believe that all of the Big Answers can be found by scientists. Please note that I did not say they can’t be explained by science; I said found by scientists. I fully get behind science as a pure and abstract notion, but scientific inquiry is carried out by humans and therefore subject to human fallibility. People who are devoted to scientific research in a dogmatic way, and dismiss concerns about bias, ego, error, corporate sponsorship, and other confounding factors, are just as blinded as religious dogmatists.

Scientists haven’t explained the ultimate origins of matter, life, or existence any better than religious texts. We have the Big Bang Theory, but nothing to explain where the original dense ball of matter came from, nor the energy that powered its explosion. We know that biological evolution was kicked off by single-celled organisms, but nobody knows how the very first animate cells developed from inanimate materials.  Even a “simple” single-celled bacterium — a being that can self-propel and reproduce — requires a minimum level of systematic organization and complexity in order to exist. If biological complexity comes about in small intermediate steps through reproduction, how can it arise when you’re starting with inanimate materials that don’t reproduce?

Whether you’re talking about matter, energy, or life, it seems there’s always a point at which something had to come from nothing. How?

I’m not even going to try to tackle the question of the origins of the universe, especially after watching this video. But I have been feeling compelled lately to flesh out my ideas on the whatever-it-is that makes a person or a plant or a bacterium different from a rock or a vapour cloud. (There is no satisfactory word for this quality — “life” is too broad, “consciousness” is too Deepak Chopra, and “animation” is too Mickey Mouse –so I’m going to call it “animacy”.)

Now before I stick my nose any further into an area I have no professional qualifications for, let me be very clear that all of my thoughts on this subject are pure conjecture, completely unscientific, and not intended to convince credulous people of some theory in order to sell books to them. But like any human being who feels compelled to ponder their own existence, I try to come up with ideas that seem to fit with the limited knowledge I have, and then roll them around in my head for a while.

So here’s the idea that I’ve been rolling around lately: What if animacy exists in the universe almost as some type of element? As dark matter, energy, pure and unadulterated love, I don’t know what. And what if this element, even if it can’t have a measurable effect on the large-scale physical world, has enough influence to cause submicroscopic changes in physical matter – maybe to affect things like the spin of electrons around an atom or the bonds of energy between particles, that kind of thing – in order to guide the arrangement of the first unicellular organism? And then evolution would take its course from there.

babyanduniverse

Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”, and this makes more sense to me than the ideas either that we’re the creation of some completely separate higher being, or that we’re a completely random and meaningless occurrence. It makes sense to me that we might exist as a way to concentrate awareness and carry it around in a physical body for a while, so that it has the chance to learn about itself and experience things like joy and pleasure and sensuality.

I will freely admit that this idea also comforts me on a purely emotional level. It makes me feel more connected with everything. It helps me fathom the concept of oneness that so many cultures profess, which I have otherwise had so much trouble wrapping my head around; how can we all be part of some unified whole, when we are clearly so separate? Why can’t I feel my supposed oneness even with people I know, never mind total strangers? When I think of animacy as an element that… well, animates us, I can see an analogy with a substance like water, that can be held in separate containers and subjected to different circumstances, or poured together back into the same ocean. It comforts me to think that maybe everything we learn and experience isn’t lost when our bodies die; maybe it returns to some kind of ocean. Maybe something of my brother still exists, and he isn’t utterly gone.

So these are my weird ideas, which are not things that I believe, but merely things that I wonder about. I’m not an atheist because I don’t have any solid convictions about anything, one way or the other. And also because the ideas I described here might be some people’s interpretation of God. “God” is just a word that applies to a vague collection of concepts, after all.

My brother was my favourite person to talk to about all of this. He didn’t usually have much to say, but when he did it was about the fundamental questions that matter most. We would sit at the kitchen table late into the night, maybe once every couple of years, and throw around animated theories about the meaning of existence. I miss those conversations acutely. Wherever or whatever he is now, I hope he has his answers.

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8 Comments
  1. David Casseres permalink
    December 18, 2013 11:49 pm

    A thoughtful piece. But Chandra, to be an atheist it is not necessary to be convinced of anything. An atheist is merely someone who does not believe in any god.

    • December 20, 2013 6:34 pm

      I knew someone would say that. :) There are a whole host of reasons I don’t choose to label myself (as an atheist or anything else), but if pressed I’d say I’m closest to agnostic. Though it seems unlikely, I’m open to the possibility that some form of separate godlike being might exist. I don’t think most self-professed atheists would agree.

      • January 16, 2014 2:06 pm

        I have always thought of myself as an agnostic. People ask, “Does that mean that you’re still trying to figure out whether there is a God?” My answer is that means that I think the existence of a God is by definition unknowable.

  2. December 19, 2013 4:54 pm

    Even if life is random it’s not meaningless, otherwise it’s supposed meaninglessness wouldn’t mean something to you, lol. If it bums you out, that’s meaning too. Not all meaning is positive. I think that we can conceptualize ourselves and the universe as part of the same thing and that it is equally logically valid as conceptualizing separate atoms as a table or a chair. I also think that this makes us feel warm and fuzzy because we’re mammals and mammals, being social creatures, usually have an innate desire to be a part of something outside of ourselves. Just as a sheep doesn’t feel right unless it’s inside the herd and a fish probably feels weird outside of the school, we feel weird if we’re alone. And there is no higher sense of not being alone than being one with literally everything. It’s modern scientific concepts being plugged into ancient philosophy and even more ancient mammalian psychology. BOOM.

    • December 20, 2013 6:43 pm

      I agree with your first statement. I’ve thought often that “meaning” is a very human concept, and that we create meaning rather than finding it. I guess a better word for what I was trying to express might have been “disconnected”.

      While it can be true that there’s no higher sense of not being alone than being one with everything, it also occurs to me that if it turns out that all beings are actually one big universal being, that could be kind of… lonely.

      • December 23, 2013 3:01 pm

        Heh : ) True. Of course maybe that’s the reason for the grand illusion : )

  3. December 20, 2013 12:20 am

    Very good read.

  4. Monica permalink
    March 31, 2014 12:02 pm

    “It comforts me to think that maybe everything we learn and experience isn’t lost when our bodies die; maybe it returns to some kind of ocean.”

    This seems very close to something my dad tried to explain when I first asked him what happens to our “knowing self” when we die. While it is a comforting idea, I fail to find comfort in it. Perhaps because, “if it turns out that all beings are actually one big universal being, that could be kind of… lonely.”

    I want to remember these two lines, though. I feel like this is a subject I have been struggling with a LOT more than “normal” people since age of reason or so. Sometimes the fear it inevitably invokes paralyzes me. I am impressed by and grateful for your piece (the ideas and the words with which you explore them).

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