27 November 2019




I am an atheist. Have been nearly all my life. And I am one of those who, faced with the old saw that an agnostic is little more than an atheist who lacks the courage of his convictions, I gave it some thought. A personal God, that created and cares for the universe, answers prayer, keeps everything virtuous, etc. Well, nah. Don't see any evidence for that; literally none at all. Pretty sure that isn't the way it is, so I'll commit. Agnostic, no; atheist. But I make a distinction between religion, which to me is a belief in some supernatural agency like this, and spirituality, which does not, necessarily. An atheist is not required to be narrow minded, and to exclude consideration of the magisterium that is normally relegated to religion, just because of semantics. Indeed, an honest examination of one's circumstances, Aristotle's considered life, requires it.


For a time I studied, and gained a lot from, traditional Buddhism. Still think of myself as a Buddhist, albeit a secular Buddhist. There are basic truths, some spiritual and some actually objective psychological truths, in Buddhist thought. The idea that (at least most) suffering is caused by attachment to the delusion of "self" and the happiness of one's own being. That wisdom is not knowledge, per se, but a realistic view, almost literally, seeing  what existence really is. And that from such seeing necessarily flow compassion, lovingkindness, and a clear eyed understanding that one's own happiness is not something you gain by grasping at it, but, just the opposite, that well being of ones's self comes from caring for others and seeking well being of others.


When Buddhist teachers I associated with started talking about having "faith" in "holy beings," at first I thought of them as merely metaphorical paradigms for states of mind that are beneficial to seek to emulate. But after a while, I came to see it more as just the usual regression to norm: people have a strong tendency to seek out comfort and reassurance that the universe is not cold and indifferent, but actually caring and reassuring, filled with superior beings that look after us, answer prayers, etc. But, to me, this is a mistaken view. What Buddhists refer to as "precious human life" is precisely that quality that enables us to honestly perceive, and create realistic mental models of the way things are. So we have to be honest. Clear-eyed. The Buddha himself cautioned his followers not to believe what they were taught, perhaps out of respect for their teachers or the tradition they arose out of; but to believe what they perceived themselves, from their own practice of the proven effective and practical techniques of clearing the mind and really seeing what exists and is real. And, while I can imagine that some people honestly see the world as filled with supernatural, caring entities that help us in our hours of need, I don't. I see the universe as beyond humanity; essentially indifferent; existing on a scale so vast that our existence is of scant importance. The universal compassion, lovingkindness, joy, and balance of view that make up human wisdom are qualities of mind, not of existence beyond ourselves. It is these things that constitute what we call meaning of life; we should not, and will fail if we try to, find meaning in the cosmos, in the externality of our existence. The meaning of our existence is in our own mind, in our own ability to summon virtue, love, compassion, and other states of mind that make human life transcendent and significant. These things are not supernatural. But neither are they external, created by some intelligence outside ourselves. They are, in fact, our essence, our unique existence, available to us if we use our innate ability to develop genuine awareness, also called wisdom, to allow us to perceive the truth about ourselves, and not to wallow in delusion. We, our minds, our being, is what gives the universe meaning. I don't try to tell other people what they should believe, but, well, everyone of course prefers their own view of things, and mine is that the universe is contingent. Life arises from nonlife, over time so vast we cannot imagine it, and, through processes which are not supernatural but which we, as limited and finite beings, do not fully understand here we are. We don't need a magical mystery religion to have a profound and abiding sense of the mystery and wonder of existence, and to have a genuinely spiritual outlook.


Which brings me to Thanksgiving. The "thanks" in Thanksgiving are traditionally thought of as thanks to God. We thank thee, God, from whom all blessings flow, and all that. So what meaning does gratitude have for an atheist? It's a good question. We atheists have to face and address the natural human inclination to feel grateful. And I do. Very much so. My theory is this. We humans have evolved, over the depth of time, a highly developed ability to construct reasonably accurate models of reality. Of course, we easily delude ourselves, but we are much better at this than other animals, and it has led us to the civilization we have, because we would not have it but for our ability to figure out how systems work. Including the whole shebang, the cosmos. Not that we have final answers, but we have more knowledge and ideas about it than any other living things we know of. And what we learn, from personal experience as well as systematic investigation, is that the universe is contingent; that the laws of physics, particularly entropy, make the success that is the enterprise of life on Earth remarkable in so many ways, and unlikely in so many ways, that it is a genuine marvel that we are here, and that we are able to sustain ourselves and live in any degree of harmony at all with the other living systems of our world. And this makes us feel, if we are paying attention, very, very fortunate. Which is, I think, a pretty good definition of gratitude. We don't have to posit the existence of a personal God, or believe in anything supernatural, to be suffused with a powerful feeling of gratitude to be alive, and to be able to experience existence, in a vast cosmos of which we are only a tiny flicker.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


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