I had an unusual upbringing for a Christian. My parents were dedicated materialistic atheists. They not only didn’t believe in God – they also thought that anything with a spiritual, psychological or non-rational quality was bogus. I grew up thinking that people of faith were lucky because they could fool themselves into believing that there was a loving God who would take care of them. I wished that it would be possible for me to become a believer. But it wasn’t. I had been too well trained in the dogma of materialism and rationalism to allow anything as weak-minded and logically indefensible as faith to penetrate my mind.
As I got older, I began to feel that I was missing a vital part of the human experience – the sense of mystery or wonder, the sense that there exists something that transcends the material world. Then I became a scientist and embarked on a career in genetics and environmental health research, and though I never gave up my desire to break into some kind of more spiritual realm, nothing really worked for me. But I was always hopeful that someday I would find…something… some path, some form of enlightenment.
I began reading about physics, and found that some of the language of cosmology, quantum physics, and relativity didn’t sound that different from the language of mysticism. I also began thinking about some new ideas in my own field of genetics and evolution, and biology in general, that didn’t quite fit with the purely materialistic paradigm of strong atheism. I became convinced that there might be something….more. But thinking that there might be something out there and actually experiencing it are not the same thing. I remained an agnostic because I had no strong reason to believe anything else.
In my 40s I began accompanying a Catholic woman to church. I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant and non-threatening experience. It was a surprise because I had been taught that churches were the source of superstition, guilt, torment, and hostility. The priest’s sermons were as surprising as the rest of the mass. The theme of this religion, which I had been taught was all about intolerance and power, seemed to be about love. I heard about the power of faith, forgiveness, and redemption, and about how all human beings are worthy of God’s love and how Jesus treated sinners (like me) as people worthy of His love and attention.
This didn’t make me a Christian – I was still on the outside looking in. Then I had a dream. In the dream, I was outside of a walled garden. I knew that in this garden there was to be found everything I had always been looking for, but there was no way I could climb over the wall to get in. I kept going around the walls, trying to climb up, falling down, and getting terribly frustrated. And then a man showed up, and said to me, “What’s wrong with you?” I explained I was trying to get into the Garden, but could not scale the wall. He smiled and said, “Then why not use the door?” and pointed to a door in the wall that I hadn’t seen before. I asked what I needed to do to gain entry. He answered, “Nothing, just open the door and go in.” So I did.
My path has been the opposite of many people’s who have found themselves losing the religion they grew up with. I never had a religion to lose – I had a vacuum to fill. Perhaps because of that, I have a different perspective on atheism than those who have decided they cannot continue to worship a God who allows evil and misery, or belong to a church that committed terrible sins, or maintain a belief in a religion that is intolerant.
We all know those arguments, and I don’t want to discuss them at the moment. Instead, I want to focus on a question of central importance in modern atheism, the question I wrestled with since childhood: is there a spiritual dimension of reality?
Years ago, you could be an atheist and say yes. But, along with attacks on religion, the militant new atheist philosophers have taken the view that spirituality in any form is an illusion, and in fact a delusion, a form of mental illness. In his book Consciousness Explained, Dennett even proposes that human consciousness is pretty much a myth. He “explains” that we are deceived by the neural networks of our brains into thinking we are conscious beings with a clearly felt sense of self, when in fact we really aren’t. Even more remarkable, the concept of free will has come under attack from this quarter. The beliefs of my parents have become popular.
Intellectually, from a scientific point of view, I found the denial of the existence of transcendental mysteries in our universe and in our lives to be untenable. If Hawking can write of imaginary time, if we need to understand that space really bends, and that the uncertainty principle is true, how can we deny the reality of mystery?
So, the question for those who have lost their religion, or never found one, is how do you define the nature of reality? Is there an aspect of reality that is beyond logic, rationality, and a clockwork mechanism? If your answer is yes, why not include some form of divinity in that transcendent world? If your answer is no, my suggestion would be to delve as deeply as you can into the beauty of modern science, see the world for how it is, in all of its majestic mystery, and allow yourself to dream.