Saturday , 20 July 2019

Belief matters…or not? What is faith to an atheist?



It’s commonly perceived that atheism is a lack of faith. That a person has no deeply held beliefs. Even that spirituality is wholly lacking from the atheist’s life. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lack of a, ‘big beard in the sky’, is no impediment to faith, belief or spirituality.

For instance there is something that could be said to take the place of faith in my life, something I believe in passionately, something I take actively into my daily life and that informs my activism, as well as providing a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself.

It’s called Human Rights.

From what I know in my state-Christian education religions tend to instruct the faithful on how to live good and moral lives with the added attraction of some benefit after death for doing so. Take away the afterlife aspect and human rights do exactly that too. Perhaps more comprehensively than religion in these modern times because they are a compact humanity has made with itself in only the past 75 years. This contemporaneity means human rights aren’t burdened with historical prejudices like (for example) Catholicism’s prohibitions of homosexual acts that seem so out of tune with the modern world.

I believe in Human Rights and their necessity to human well-being every bit as much as an adherent of a religion believes in their deity or pantheon of dieties.

However there isn’t much spirituality to be found in human rights beyond that of sharing ones belief with others. They are a temporal and definable thing, and that is the antithesis of spirituality.

So perhaps there are other places to look, for deeply-felt connections that have personal significance? Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, I found my spirituality in science. Studying geology changes you in profound ways. Professor Iain Stewart described his perception of it as not knowing if those he teaches will become exploiters or custodians of the Earth and it’s resources – I came out of geology as a custodian who cares for our environment and biosphere who is deeply concerned that the biggest net process of change on the Earth’s surface is humanity. Another part is how you see the world. To most people Edinburgh Castle is built on a big rock you have to climb up to reach it. I see a process of fire and ice and land and sea taking  place over the entire history of the Earth. I see sediment drifting to the bottom of a warm sea, I see the violence of a volcano erupting, and the slow relentless grinding of glaciers to reveal the landscape of today – which is itself still changing and evolving. When I look around I see deep-time imposed upon the present. Everything is a process happening around me and nothing is immutable.

Apart from maybe one thing. Something irrepressible that remains despite constant attempts to erase it from the Earth’s history. It’s life in all it’s forms and expressions. It’s easy for me to feel that the sum of all life upon the Earth is greater than it’s individual parts and that the Earth that nurtures us is part of that life in very real ways.

So I don’t eat meat, despite being fundamentally a carnivore because I don’t want to be part of destroying other life.  I see history far outweighing humanities own part in it all around me. I see reflections of our humanity in the intelligent animals we share the Earth with like dolphins and crows. I cried when I saw a reconstruction of what Lucy (A 2.5 million year old Australopithecus afarensis who is our oldest known human like ancestor) because I saw me in her. I learned that she has another name in writing this, ‘Dinkinesh’, which means “You are marvellous” in the Amharic language and I’m tearing-up again at that. I’m drawn to boundaries in nature – especially the one between land and sea. Most important of all I have a childlike sense of wonder at the spectacle around me. Not needing to have a creator-figure is no handicap. What there is is more than enough wonder for me.

And that’s how an atheist can have faith, belief and spirituality. We’re not always as far apart from those with religions as fundamentalists from the camps of both the religious and the atheistic would have you believe.

About Johanna-Alice Cooke

Johanna-Alice Cooke
Johanna is a passionate equality and civil-rights activist. An 'out' transwoman, she focuses upon transgender issues from medical provision in the NHS and legislative equality, to fighting society-wide issues such as hate-crime. In her spare time she is working towards qualifying as a clinical-psychologist. A Scot by enthusiatic self-declaration, she's crawled over a lot of the country in a previous life as a geologist and loves knowing why our country looks as beautiful as it does. Currently fostering two cats, Johanna loves felines of all kinds despite being a recovering-carnivore herself.

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  1. Kevin Crowe

    Interesting article. I have some atheist friends who look aghast when I tell them that atheism is as much a faith as Christianity or Islam or Judaism. Most of them deny they have any faith, so your article was much appreciated. To believe there is nothing other than the universe is as much an article of faith as to believe in a God or in an afterlife or in reincarnation.

    One of the best sermons I have ever heard was at a Mass on Skye, where the priest preached on faith and said that even atheists had to have faith – otherwise they wouldn’t feel safe driving their cars or wouldn’t believe that the lights would come on when the switch was pressed. So, yes, faith is universal, and can mean anything from having faith the sun will rise in the morning to believe in a God.

    Just two points, both relatively minor, and both from the paragraph “From what I know…” The carrot heaven as a reward for leading a good moral life is rarely expounded today (though it used to be used as a form of social control). Most theologians and preachers these days would say that doing good, living a moral life, etc is something we should do regardless of whether there is a God or an afterlife: doing good and avoiding evil should be a human imperative.

    The second point refers to your example of Catholicism and homosexuality. I was born a Catholic, and remain a Catholic today, attend Mass on Sundays (unless circumstances beyond my control prevent me) and on Holy Days, take Communion and I am out within the Church. For centuries there has been an uneasy relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the behaviour of rank and file Catholics in the pews, whether that be around homosexuality or gender (including transgender) or sex before marriage or contraception or other such like issues. Increasingly, Catholics are rejecting the Church’s teachings on such matters (for example, the majority of Catholics in the UK support same sex marriage) and increasingly the hierarchy is turning a blind eye to our behaviours. Also, things are beginning to change within the Church, particularly as we now have a more liberal Pope. Similar tensions and resolutions are happening in other denominations too.

    Apart from that, a fine, wonderful and moving article (though I could never be a vegetarian!).

    X Kevin.

  2. Intereseting article. Keep going!

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