The Reluctant Atheist
My sister is a reluctant atheist. I know because she lets slip, on occasion, words like spiritual and soulful, when the staunch empiricist in her knows better. Oh, I know she means them to signify ‘Oprah’s spirituality,’ the kind nonthreatening to middle America, the kind that conjures no images of communes or Kool-Aid drinking. Still, I wonder at the power of language to betray us, to reveal a true understanding of our metaphysical disposition in the universe.
My sister and I grew up in the same crazy household—our childhoods flavored with the chaos and creativity that crafts rich character and deep connection. We also grew up with the same alcoholism and dysfunction that forges ‘bonding in crisis.’ We both read Adult Children of Alcoholics in our youth and compared notes. Decades later, the residual result is manifest in two defining traits: we identify as perfectionists and artists. The first label we can attribute to reading Adult Children at an impressionable age, the latter to the mode of expression we both found that saved our lives.
The perfectionist in my sister took the form of asserting control over circumstances and conditions through religion. In the way of a true perfectionist, she dove into the deep end, taking the structure Christianity offered to the Nth degree. Cut to: nearing the second half-century of life, she wants nothing to do with JC and the Boys, or any preachy book one might find in a hotel room nightstand. I was a bit shocked when she first used the word atheist to describe the worldview she shared with her partner of nearly thirty years, at the time. Their respective worldviews and value systems had evolved over the years, sometimes neck-in-neck, other times on diverging trajectories but always reconvening. Among many factors, disillusionment surely played into their joint decision to turn their back on religion: planting a church and then realizing few were ready for their liberal-leaning message (who would have seen that coming, given their fundamentalist roots?) They learned the painful lesson that few of their sheeples wanted to think for themselves. Both became highly educated during their union and valued convergent thinking and brain plasticity above all else. Nearing half-a-century myself, I found myself characterizing the couple as having grown more, ideologically, than any two people I know and having the broadest arc on the worldview gamut. For this alone, I placed them on a pedestal.
Which meant my sister had further to fall. I was sorely disappointed whenever our worldviews did not coincide. It’s the nature of interpersonal relationships that two subjective lenses will rarely, if ever align. But it was different for my sister and I, wasn’t it? We read one another’s minds, shared cultural references and memories and influences and muses, had identical interests and pursuits and career trajectories. Not to mention like sensibilities in our art and an overlapping sense of aesthetics. In our writing, we often drew on similar themes and motifs, the desert wind and stark, towering Joshuas that had so ingrained themselves on our souls from childhood. This common territory, along with a shared distaste for the lame trappings of most writing groups, meant we found ourselves in the ideal writing group of two. We regularly exchanged our latest works, providing mutual feedback more thorough and comprehensive than one would get in any academic setting. It’s been nothing short of a blessing.
When a demagogue became the arguable leader of the free world, planet Earth went off the rails. My own subjective world quickly followed suit in the form of a brush with death and a diagnosis that changed everything. I survived it for one reason alone: I relied on what had always defined me: my intimate relationship with the true nature of existence beyond mind and ego. I tapped into my core consciousness, or essence, despite circumstances and conditions. All the meditation, the holistic measures and lifestyle regimens I’d taken on equipped me well for the isolation demanded by quarantine when Covid came along. I didn’t bat an eye.
In my life and my work, I’d always touted the value of introspection and reflection. If I had a car, it would proudly display a bumper sticker with Socrates’s words, the unexamined life is not worth living. Though many of my views have evolved, in my youth I recognized that everything I’d ever painted or written had an unexamined intent. Without being didactic, the body of work was meant to enlighten those I saw as sleepwalkers to the many levels of any given moment: the subtext of life. To shake them up and get them to think about the spiritual journey and why we’re all here.
Mid-lockdown, I shared an essay with my sister that posited this strange moment was a cultural time-out. Humanity was being put in a corner to think about what we’d done. The adversity was a crisis disguised as an opportunity to shift old, tired paradigms that no longer served us. Better put, that had stunted our march toward human potential for centuries: capitalist greed, imperialism, patriarchy, exploitation, oppression and marginalization, Manifest Destiny, Laisser Faire, to name a few. I suggested that if we all took this quiet moment of reflection as an opportunity to shift our paradigms, by extension, the collective would evolve. Or at least take one more small step in the march toward human potential.
“That sounds very Pollyanna,” was my sister’s response. “But you come by it honestly.” We’d often spoken about our mother’s rose-colored glasses, the ones that came along with the codependency membership card.
I’d never known my sister to be a pessimist, so to jog her memory of her old self, I whipped out the big guns. “It’s an inside job,” I came back. “All change in the world begins with the way we view it. As Michael Jackson said, we must start with the Man In the Mirror.”
Not good enough. I’d have to put myself in better company.
“Ghandi said, Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Who could argue with Ghandi? Wasn’t he beyond reproach?
I knew that all paradigm shifts, especially those that resulted in lasting, institutionalized social reform, started with a subversive individual who saw through the status quo, envisioned better. Wasn’t that what made her and I artists? Our vision?
I dropped the real bomb: “Martin Luther King said, though the arc of the moral universe is long, it always bends toward justice.
My sister didn’t say it; she didn’t need to: and look where that got him.
The stolen phone chat haunted me for days. What disturbed me were not her political views, nor her take on social reform or policy. I was concerned for her ability to renew hope and inspiration. But perhaps more disturbing, her dismissal of the moral realm—that invisible reservoir of thought forms, paradigms, norms and mores, ethics, morals, codes and …beliefs that must evolve along with our biology, said something. It signaled a dismissal of all that was invisible.
A few years earlier, when my sister had declared she was an atheist, I didn’t buy it for a minute. I knew her too well. I knew that she and her partner had themselves drank the Kool-Aid. Both were college professors submerged in the milieu of academia. Their disappointments and disillusionments had led them toward the staunchly meterialist stance so many take these days that throws out the spiritual baby with the institutionalized religion bathwater. Oh, I fully understand that the bloom has fallen off the cultural rose, given the centuries of institutionalized abuse of religion—things involving bloodshed, like the Crusades and the Inquisition, as well as that unfortunate string of molestations and coverups. I get it. But these misguided human abuses of universal spiritual tenets has little to do with the message itself. With a slight shift in perspective, this recognition can be made. And with a slight shift in vocabulary, we could retire the word atheist once and for all.
My sister and I see eye to eye in so many ways as artists, but it’s been difficult for me to reconcile her poetic, nonlinear, intuitive sense with the pure disillusionment I hear from time to time in her empirical, materialist stance. My sister had been the one to drive me to the emergency room when I was on the brink of death. She was the one person that had tracked my journey back from that ledge and heard the details of my medical ordeal. More to the point, I had shared with her my current metaphysical views, the holistic approach to health that had saved my life, even the mechanics of manifestation and the law of attraction that accounted for my nearly miraculous improvement. It was rarely met with silence, but this disturbing phone call was a new impasse. As was a later comment she threw out when discussing an impending rite of passage: facing mortality, loss, and mourning. Our parents were aging rapidly and facing health issues of their own. In another stolen phone conversation, I made a clear-cut case for the eternal nature and transcendence of consciousness beyond the physical body. I even roped in quantum physics to back the metaphysical jibber-jabber easily dismissed as quackery or magical thinking. The response: “Well, that must be comforting.”
What followed was a gentle tirade on how my understanding was not a night light. She knew I was smarter than that. My sister and her life partner shared a distaste for Hallmark sentiments. When someone said, it was meant to be, my brother-in-law most often thought (or replied out loud:) of course it is; it’s what happened. Similarly they have both, on separate occasions, expressed the resentment that arises on hearing the vapid platitude, she’s in a better place now. For that matter, they were a bit too excited learning that one can quickly and easily turn one’s ashes into a tree. They’re chomping at the bit for the day one can voluntarily end one’s life without ethical or legal repercussions. Nope, not a romantic notion to be found.
What happened to the kindred artist spirit I once knew? Had something rubbed off on her? She was surrounded by academics who identified as staunch materialists with no tolerance for magical thinking—a trendy term that really rubbed me the wrong way. Wasn’t the very thing that made my sister and I artists our keen X-Ray vision—our ability to see through the matrix of social conditioning to the true nature of life? Honoring that very vision that both sends rockets into space and results in social change as prescribed by Ghandi, MLK and the King of Pop? Something wasn’t adding up.
Manifestation is a cultural buzzword of late, as is the Law of Attraction. Like other buzzwords (Storytelling and Creativity come to mind) they get thrown around without context and frankly, misused. Advertisers and political strategists justify their propaganda by backing it with the very tenets of creative expression Aristotle used to fight Plato’s fascist ideas by giving permission to creative expression and storytelling and making them cultural values. When teachers of manifestation speak of metaphysics, empiricists quickly dismiss such talk as woo-woo, ‘out there,’ or magical thinking. It’s this same shortsightedness, this lack of understanding of the role of perspective, semantics and convergent thinking they use to marginalize voices of wisdom like Deepak Choprah. The thing is, they’re doing it to justify their own biases. They’re digging their heels in because they cannot parse the disillusionment over damage done by institutions from the message itself. Using life as a sampler platter, materialists, atheists and empiricists insist on the scientific method as the litmus test for what constitutes ‘reality,’ while still carelessly using words like love or speaking of ethics and morals. In other words, they cherry pick which invisibles to acknowledge—the unquantifiable things that serve them. And yet the very words language uses reveals a much deeper understanding of the universe.
Quantum physics itself acknowledges the reciprocal relationship between the subjective and objective. The observer, in a million ways, reifies data and is the sole determinant of anything bordering on a universal, subjective reality.
My sister’s recent comments gave her away. She could not reconcile the lingo she has often pooh-poohed in podcasts—that to do with Manifestation and Law of Attraction—with her own worldview and milieu. And yet, her degree is in Creativity Studies. It’s her passion, and she’s currently promoting her life’s work—a book on the role of creative innovation in the world. Like many, she lumps together anything uncomfortable—from ancient hermetic concepts, the mystical practice of Kabbalah, ancient Vedanta philosophy and the turn-of-the-century resurgence of Mentalism—the same way bookstores rob each of credibility by creating the awkward section known as New Age. What a disservice that turned out to be; most content therein has existed for thousands of years. Nothing new about it.
The clincher is this: Manifestation and the Law of Attraction’s role in it are synonymous with the Creative Process. Taken further, the creation of the Universe—the very means by which scientists postulate it came into being, followed that very model. Each time my sister unknowingly disparaged one of my reflections on metaphysics (call it a sibling micro-aggression) it was a blow to the very real understanding of the universe’s mechanics that had allowed me to cheat death. I’m well-aware we humans are association makers by nature; all day, every day, we attribute, project and connect dots. We project meaning. We interpret circumstances, conditions and events as best suits us according to our internal mapping of emotional experience. We respond to the placebo effect: what we believe about what we put in our bodies is far more important than what we put in them. Our bodies can produce burns with the mere suggestion, in hypnosis, that we’ve been burned with an iron. Still, what I’d relied on was the furthest thing from quackery or magical thinking. No matter how persuasively I made my case, reconciling my understanding of how things work with hardcore quantum mechanics, it seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Held no water.
My sister certainly wouldn’t be the first to miss an opportunity to synthesize opposing thought forms. We all carry around contradictions. But whether they prevent us from sleeping at night is another matter. Culture is full of opposing ideas; sometimes they create balance, as in a two-party system. When it works, that is. When opportunities are missed to come together on policy, there is strife and divisiveness, the same way there is cognitive dissonance in individuals. The good news is, cultural strife on the macrocosmic scale signals change; this tension is the very opportunity for transformation.
My sister’s religion and mine overlap but are not the same. The tragedy is, it’s strictly due to semantics. To a lack of perspective. If no amount of persuasion was enough, if quantum mechanics and Ghandi couldn’t seal the deal, how could I convince my own sister my take on the universe was not a nightlight, but a truth based on synthesis of scientific concepts with very real life experience via my own trials. That those who’ve not yet experienced such adversity—otherwise known as opportunity for growth and transformation—may not recognize the metaphysical truth beyond the matrix or what’s called the dream spell illusion. The veil put in place by social conditioning and enforced by the status quo. In my youth, I often wrote about the sudden shift that occurs when one experiences loss and suddenly ‘needs religion’ to provide comfort. My sister knows I’m smarter than falling into that trap. And yet here I was, as suspect of religion as ever, but freely speaking of my experiential knowledge of the metaphysical, however ineffable and mystical its source.
What is it to be an artist, if not to tap into this invisible realm? Rather than encapsulating the human condition as so many say, perhaps we artists are approximating our metaphysical disposition in the universe and sharing it with the masses. Perhaps our whole lives are one big through the rabbit hole tale. When we strip away mind and ego, what’s left is core consciousness. Our baseline essence. Another word for core consciousness is love. Isn’t choosing to see life and the world through the eyes of love, rather than fear, precisely what makes it rich? My latest Mythic Fiction novel, The Seeker, is a parable for reconnecting with this consciousness, the very force that made life of biological soup eons ago. Using the code word, divinity, I write of the demigod protagonist’s quest to reconnect with his divine heritage. It’s symbolic for keeping an open line to our source, which, in the end, provides the redemption in life for ourselves and others through catharsis. It’s what artists and poets have done throughout human history along with those luminaries, martyrs and sacrificial lambs we call prophets—from Socrates to Martin Luther king.
My sister seemed willing to live with what I saw as contradiction. My bafflement was nearly equal to that I felt when my own mother turned out to be a Trumper. The same earth mama who’d woven macrame and fired up pinch pots in her earthen kiln, with whom I’d sprawled on the Creative Art Center’s lawn throughout the seventies to the sounds of Puff the Magic Dragon and Aquarius warbling from a transistor radio. Her very own mentors at that arts center—Mr. Reubens and Claude, who sculpted nothing but dragons and fortune cookies, had given her a book that rocked my seven-year-old world: The Zen of Seeing. By aligning with Trumpian ideals, the very creative expression Aristotle touted in defiance of fascism were directly at stake. My own mother was a Trumper. Up was down, down was up, and the sky was green.
My entire adult life, in addition to the many artists and visionaries I was privileged enough to be surrounded by, I coexisted with my share of atheists, materialists and empiricists. One roommate, a playwright, had a lifetime subscription to popular science and hosted an internal love-hate relationship with any notion of a creator. Oh, I myself refuse to personify the absolute by putting him in a robe and a white beard, but Mark took it to the extreme. God was not only dead in his world, but never existed. Why then, did every play Mark wrote center on themes of the question of God’s existence? I came to understand that in the same way pessimists are disappointed optimists, Mark wanted to believe in more.
Another roommate was a sociology professor who often left magazines lying around our apartment, their pages conveniently parted to articles espousing atheist perspectives. The God gene made the case that those who have any spiritual or religious leanings at all do so due to a particular brain chemistry that is genetically inherited. That numinous experiences and a sense of interconnectedness with the universe is a product of that chemistry. In short, our theologians, priests, an dprophets are all crazies. Another article made sure to convince readers that dreams held no significance whatsoever beyond the necessary mechanistic function of the brain to trigger the random firing of neurons to ‘clean the pipes’ while we sleep. Why can’t it be both? I thought. Why can’t there be a dual function—to clear our noodles of plaque and deliver wisdom that results from subconscious germination on life’s survival-based threats and opportunities. Our dreams are symbolic—full of archetypes and symbols—because we are wired for it. Pre-language, we dreamt in images. Archetypes are the language of the soul, outside the ineffectual tool of language.
Well into my animation career, a fellow former Disney artist turned me onto a podcast titled Magical Thinking. This was at the height of political divisiveness that seemed to be tearing our democracy apart. The podcast traced American history from its roots, identifying religion as the basis for cultivating modern conspiracy theories and cultural paranoia. I did not disagree, but sensed he was trying to tell me something. I sensed an overcompensation on the part of my fellow artist. As if the Easter Bunny, in the way of so many estranged fathers, had failed to show one year, and so was excised.
I had to learn that artists are just as diverse as the general population, from different molds—at least those who identify primarily as craftsmen or artisans with little to say. When it came to my own hippie-turned-Trumper mother, I resigned myself to the mystery with a nod to the fact the entire world had gone batshit crazy.
My sister was another story; I was not about to give up on her. We’d bonded in crisis and been spiritual partners for half-a-century. Still, we’d found ourselves on different pages. My abandonment issues would not allow me to give up on her.
What irked me most was that she’d witnessed my journey. Throughout, I’d shared with her the disciplined regimen, the voracious learning and transformation and growth, including the very quantifiable viral load and CD4 numbers that evidenced my measures were working. But she hadn’t heard a word.
As children, my brother and I were the last on our block to believe in Santa Claus. We dug our heels in, even as jaded kids from broken homes let the cat out of the bag, pointing out they didn’t have chimneys or their divorced parents had told them straight out it was all an elaborate lie. My brother and I chose to go on believing. It may have been for the simple reason that when we confronted our mother about it, she simply replied: ‘If you keep believing, he’ll keep coming.’
I guess we wanted the gifts.
Atheists posit that dualistic notions of consciousness or—God forbid—collective consciousness transcendent of our biology, are wishful human thinking. They point to the placebo effect and the human impulse to weave stories as evidence those with the ‘God gene’ are fooling themselves, reducing God to a celestial Easter Bunny. The irony is, they prove the precise opposite: that consciousness, mere energy after all, communicates nonlocally all day, every day, moving particles around. The uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, mind over matter, and spontaneous healing are all alive and well.
Miracles are alive and well.
What our senses take in, our brain interprets, reifies. A dolphin’s experience of the world, via sonar, is likely quite different than our perception of it; likely the same for a fly with hundreds of eyes. A butterfly hears with its wings and tastes with its feet. Even human perception is quickly transformed when neural transmitter balances are altered in the slightest degree, through hallucinogens and chemical imbalances. These facts, combined with quantum mechanics concepts like probability, the observer effect, uncertainty, nonlocal communication, together confirm that what we call ‘reality’ is nothing more than consensus. It’s handy for building bridges and sending rockets into space but in the end is still just consensus. Indians and Deepak Choprah call the illusion of objective reality the ‘dream-spell illusion.’ It’s a comforting place to all meet, considering that in the field of pure potential, a squid could appear in your driveway. So what is the real night light—acknowledging pure potential and metahuman capacity, or blinding ourselves to it and limiting existence to the empirical? Where is the Easter Bunny truly hiding out?
Socrates understood the value of subversive voices, voices of dissent. He knew that thesis, antithesis and synthesis were the way of human dialectic—pendulum swings. He knew our evolution depended on the new, novel thought forms that came with each generation and we now know are passed on through epigenetics. In the same way Socrates touted catharsis to place cultural value on self-expression, we must continue to combat fascist censorship, even when it’s used to silence spirituality and its evil twin, religion.
The compartmentalization of empiricism and faith is an illusion. The two are not mutually exclusive. If we all took the time to practice convergent thinking rather than divergent, to explore perspective, and to understand the limitations of semantics to approximate any form of absolute truth, we could dissolve much of the divisiveness in society. I called the misconception that science and Faith are polar opposites the grand illusion. If individuals, in moments of contemplation like this cultural time out, took the time to reconcile such contradictions, to synthesize thought forms that appear at first glance to be opposed but may not be, cognitive dissonance would be resolved. Harmony would result.
Then, by extension, society might one day begin to find harmony.
Polyanna or not, I will never stop beating the drum of our human potential. If Ghandi, Reverend King, Socrates and the King of Pop can do it, so can I.
Talk about good company.
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