It's hip to be an atheist 

But what if the religious impulse is inherent?

It is easy to despise religion these days.

There are the jihad-crazed murderers of Islam, of course. But there are also the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who have turned the United States into a nation whose president sanctimoniously vetoes popular legislation supporting stem-cell research because he thinks it's ungodly. The life of a few cells is more "sacred" than those of the people whose torture he has authorized or whose deaths in Iraq, thanks to his lying, far outnumber those caused by a genocidal despot during the last 10 years of his reign.

Given the influence of the Christian right, it's not surprising that an atheist countermovement has arisen. In the last few years, a handful of books by atheists have become best sellers. They include Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

The books have provoked an avalanche of essays. But even in the most liberal publications, such as the New York Review of Books, reviewers have been critical of the authors' oversimplifications, whether it's a failure to specifically analyze theology or to consider that science has its own limitations. Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times, for example, argues that scientists have "faith" in their method. It's a stretch for me to compare evidence-based empiricism with belief in an invisible deity, but he has a point.

Most of the atheists refuse to draw a distinction between moderate and radical religious groups since they both employ, in circular logic, an invisible deity to justify sometimes unethical actions. (Bush is a prime example, believing he is directed by God.) It is true, too, that less conservative Christians and Muslims rarely criticize the fundamentalist fringes of their religions.

Believers who do acknowledge the problems of religion often seem to take a rhetorical step to the side. They claim to be "spiritual rather than religious." And just about every believer, moderate or radical, now calls himself a "person of faith" rather than "religious."

To me, these semantic differences matter little, and atheists miss the point in the same way many of the faithful themselves do. They take literally what should be read as metaphorical. Although there is plenty of reason to believe that Jesus lived, most of the Bible is in the same vein as mythology, and its appeal is to the imagination, just as prayer is an evocation of the imaginal world.

The question is whether the imagination includes a specifically religious impulse given with human existence. Atheists deny this and blame acculturation. I'm not so sure. My own life has seemed instructive in that regard. For reasons irrelevant to this discussion, I grew up with only episodic exposure to religion and that was to a highly ritualized mystic-based faith. Indeed, I recall going to services at a Baptist church with fellow Cub Scouts and finding the entire experience disturbingly mundane.

But by the time I was in my 20s, I had begun collecting campy religious kitsch. I later came to wonder if this was a natural religious impulse trying to find expression in my favorite literary form, satire. Then, around the age of 30, I landed in the hospital very sick and had a classic near-death experience – leaving my body, moving toward a light, feeling blissful, knowing I was dying but not caring.

Around the same time, I was assigned a magazine story on psychics and had a series of experiences with so-called discarnate entities. I was offered a contract to turn the story into a book, but was so freaked out by my experience that I declined the offer.

Later, a well-known medium named George Anderson came to town to promote his book, We Don't Die. I was editing CL at the time and he came by the office to demonstrate his skills. Not only did my dead ex show up, sharing confidences, but a friend who had been murdered in an especially grisly manner began talking through Anderson in a code we had used. It was one of the most emotional experiences I've ever had.

I could go on. The point is that I did not consciously seek such experiences. Was God seeking me since I never sought him? These experiences enriched my life even though they ran completely counter to what I believed. I've never thought of them as proof of God's existence or an afterlife. Instead, they convince me that we exist in the world of the imagination as well as the natural world, and that their interface, a mystery, is what we call religion.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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