1. “Here be dragons.”
It’s the enigmatic message of warning scrawled across the Southeast Asian coastline on one of the oldest globes in know existence. Look closely at this one-dimensional reproduction, and you’ll see it:
Housed in modern times at the New York Public Library, the Hunt-Lenox Globe represents one of humanity’s first attempts at creating a spherical representation of our shared planetary home. The globe itself is tiny — a mere five inches in diameter — and it was manufactured circa 1510, just after the “discovery” of the New World.
Some 600 years later, historians still argue spiritedly over the colorfully cryptic message, and what its (unknown) author might have meant by it.
Probably, it served to remind explorers of the peril of their undertakings, of the fact that some parts of the world remained abidingly uncharted, and therefore, deeply dangerous.
What we know for sure ends here and goes no further, it seems to say. Beyond this are things we haven’t yet imagined, and they might well be beastly to behold.
The globe portrays North and South America as large scatterings of individual islands, and Southeast Asia as a still-wilder, as-yet-unconquered corner of the earth — and, yes, back then, in the minds of many, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, the earth still had actual corners.
Astronomers who dared argue otherwise were excommunicated or beheaded for their efforts. Somehow, it was easier to believe in the existence of mythical beasts than it was to get one’s mind around the premise of a world without edges.
Belief in edgelessness would require more than mind-bending mathematics; it would require the kind of proof visible to the untrained eye. Because that’s just how we humans are.
These many lifetimes later, it’s easy — too easy? — to chuckle at the grand guessing games our predecessors played when the world still felt this profoundly flat and unmappable. We snicker at the grizzled mariner who, in his darkest nightmares, accidentally sailed off the earth’s ever-loving edge and went tumbling into a pit of snapping dragons. We scoff at his inability to grasp something so basic to our cosmology as a world you can travel round and round without ever needing to worry about falling off.
And yet, we modernish humans, too, flirt daily with the fantastic, arguing endlessly over the oldest and most feared mythical creature of them all: God.
And, too often, when the conversation turns to his relative believability, we fall back on the same old flat-earth society refrain: prove it, and if you can’t, it’s because God definitively doesn’t exist. Discussion over.
2. “Everybody’s got to believe something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” -W.C. Fields
Let’s clear up one thing right away: I am an atheist. I believe in not believing in things as a matter of course. Especially if the thing in question is God.
Having no God can render the solar system a rather lonely-seeming piece of cosmic real estate, but because I additionally believe it is not terribly productive to believe in something simply because doing so makes us feel better, I deal with it.
I deal because I also believe it downright dangerous to elect to believe in something simply because somebody smarter or richer or more powerful told us we ought to. And let’s get real: 99 percent of the function of any formal belief system is to prop up some pretty appallingly unlikely stuff.
- that our dead friends and relations have not rotted into irretrievable lumps of organic matter, AKA, worm food, and instead await us in regenerated form in the Great Gossamered Beyond.
- that a cosmic scale exists upon which everybody’s good works will be weighed against their shitty, self-serving misdeeds, and that if we are being treated poorly by our government or our family or our community, we should comfort ourselves with the knowledge that a great reward awaits us.
- that our time on this earth is to a greater purpose as opposed to being a silly, pointless and incidental interlude between bouts of obsolescence, engineered to further the replication of DNA strands and nothing more.
- … and, the biggest Hail Mary of them all: that somebody is driving this godforsaken ship … and also that he’s got a divine destination in mind, plus a finished map, a really fucking stellar sense of direction, and a solid plan for beating back any dragons that may cross our collective path.
Don’t get me wrong; despite my skepticism, I’ve got dreams and premonitions and intuitions and a general sense of wonder at my own vanishingly improbable existence, just like anybody. I consider myself rather spiritual. I like to think about the big stuff, the Great Mystery of Is-ness and all that.
I spent early adulthood seeking a belief system that could abide the inherent contradiction of those twin instincts: disbelief that left room for the possibilities. I began my search with a careful study of Buddhism, taking two high-minded upper-level college courses and spending a decade reading everything I could get my hands on about the Buddhist thought system. (Along the way, I got a bunch of pretentious Buddhist tattoos, too. Whatever. I still like them.)
In my late 20s, my piety faded into an undifferentiated brand of New Age Spirituality, modeled after that uniquely wishy-washy late-20th-century North American model — a photomosaic of soothing-but-questionably-efficacious rituals and ablutions pulled at liberty from various traditions, interspersed with semi-regular meditation and occasional curious pilgrimages to the world’s holy sites, just, you know, to see.
In my 30s, through the series of requisite existential squalls that so often define this season of life, I’ve lashed myself to the mast of a porous brand of Spiritual Atheism, and though I’ve become increasingly convinced that God most certainly doesn’t exist, my longing to connect with meaning grows more earnest by the year.
That probably makes me a pretty questionable spokesperson for the pure atheist cause. After all:
- I do not believe in God with a capital “G,” but I sometimes wear crystals in pouches around my neck and frequently invoke new age-y concepts like Vibes — believing that energy flows around us and can be directed with proper effort and intention.
- I still occasionally pray to the Buddhist and Hindu gods and goddesses and even, in fits of nostalgia for my Catholic childhood, to Jesus himself without ever really stopping to wonder if it’s my right. And I remember to meditate like four times a year.
- I feel comfortable and even serene in the clothes of a pilgrim, and I count a long-ago morning spent at the Sistine Chapel, along with three intensive, multi-day retreats at Buddhist temples in South Korea among the most transformative experiences of my life.
- I like the idea of blessing and anointing things, and I never turn down an offer of prayer from a person of any religion. Not so much because I have much confidence that the act will impel some divine force to intercede on my behalf, but because I figure I can use all the help I can get, and really, it can’t hurt, right?
- When I dream of a dead relative, I view the encounters as true visitations infused with deep significance and not merely as wishful nocturnal brain farts. Also, in waking life, I believe in (and deeply fear) ghosts and believe I’ve encountered them several times. (Ask me; I’ll tell you a crazy story!)
- I do not believe that I have a soul, so to speak, although I would like to believe in reincarnation, and, in line with the Buddhist tradition, would like to believe that some essence that is the sum-total of all my accumulated karma will be brought along with me when I pass on and leave my body behind.
- I’m painfully shy about expressing my disdain for Western religions, especially to Christians themselves. I love some pretty Jesus-y folks, and I really do hate to make them worry over my eternal damned soul. Coming out as an Atheist requires every ounce of courage I contain, every single time. Just thinking about it right now makes me sweat.
III. “I had only a little time left and didn’t want to waste it on God.” –A. Camus
I guess you could call me “Atheish.” As in: an atheist who’s waiting.
Waiting for signs of any sort to confirm my suspicions in either direction.
Waiting for more information and detail.
Waiting for time to go to work on my worldview, to mature and whittle it down to the truest essentials.
Waiting to see if some major life event will show me the figurative Dieistic or non-Diestic light. (I had a baby last year… she’s awesome, but her arrival hasn’t inspired any sort of Come to Jesus Moment. When I gaze into her eyes, I see a perfect expression of … something? Whatever it is, though, it’s got nothing to do with God or science.)
Are there others out there like me? I suspect there are, and I suspect many of you also struggle to clarify your claptrap and occasionally contradictory worldviews, too. I think we should talk about this more, but not too much or too seriously, because I also think that all of us Atheish folks would do ourselves a catastrophic disservice if we were to attempt to mold ourselves into a full-fledged flat-earth society. We’re better off working from the edges of the ontological room, with occasional affirmative nods tossed out over the crowd, just to remind each other we’re there.
This is not to say we ought to abandon our hard-fought skepticism; let us Atheish folk persist in that skepticism so long as it feels like the truest and most serviceable expression of our experience. But, anytime we start feeling to smirky or too fancy, let us recall the Hunt-Lenox Globe and its doomy warning. Let us recall it the next time we feel tempted to commit the grave, silly error of assuming that just because we cannot imagine something, it cannot possibly exist.
Let us, the doubters, leave within ourselves a little room for doubt. Let’s keep asking ourselves gigantic questions and devoting our energy to unraveling, collectively and individually, what we do believe. Because everybody believes something, even if it’s just believing that believing in stuff is a metaphysical time suck. Let’s be hypocritical. Let’s go back and forth on our word. Who gives a fuck all if the cosmology of our atheism is inconsistent? Let’s acknowledge the arrogance of our demand for proof, and then let’s keep on demanding it, but let us never construct our arguments against God entirely around the simple fact that we’ve yet to see any proof.
In any era, sweeping away doubt is a great ontological mistake. It gives rise to pompous, small-minded theories about our own inflated irrelevance or importance. It flattens the earth. And before we know it, we’re breeding baby dragons in every poor-lit corner when we ought to be building philosophical bridges across those murky pits instead.
The world’s well dark enough already, don’t you think?