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.