Experience for the Atheist


I was reading my religion and society textbook today, and the book briefs the concept of religious experience, that ineffable phenomenological moment that people feel brings them closer to God. In a world shifting away from religious rituals and rites that are meant to transfer us into an understanding of a higher being, it’s weird to think that the experience of the blending between self and awe will eventually dissipate in the ever rationalizing, mechanistic world that we are experiencing. One of the ways sociology will always fall short is in its ability to transcend the empirical method and to interpret the ineffable (semi intrinsic in the concept). When I was reading this text though, I began to feel the beating of my heart, my breathing became heavier, and I became more entranced. I was remembering all of the times I had felt that moment with this breathless wonder. As atheists it can sometimes feel like that world will be lost to us, because of our lack in God the magic is somehow gone from the world.

I imagined myself trying to explain one of these stories to my classmates, try to explain to them the feeling of when I hugged an 800 year old tree in Cedar Grove on the way to Tofino BC. My mind was awash with how I would go about this process. How would I explain the tears that welled up in my eyes, the feeling I had when I realized that this tree had been around longer than colonialism? I would never be able to capture my feeling of insignificance in comparison to this tree. Even at 6 foot 5 I felt so small, and yet knew collectively we were so powerful. We abused that power, and that’s why this tree was the exception of the forest instead of the rule. All of these thoughts ran through my head. I was breathless, and I felt the weight of every thought about the grandeur of the world. I was experiencing the Buddha’s Lotus Sermon, and it was as if the metaphorical Buddha was holding out the lotus and I smiled at him.

While we as atheists are apart from the large portion of our society who feels they speak to God, I would argue we still have access to these spiritual moments of wonder, that stomach churning, “combination of fear and fascination” as Huston Smith (Author of World Religions of Man) puts it. I am not saying that the tree was my way of evaluating some spiritual beyond, or that I met God. To say so would be to go against my atheist predilections. Instead, what I am trying to say is that Awe is not limited to this experience of God, although I imagine the interpretation with God is highly correlated. That like Mohammed being hugged by Gabriel, or Arjuna seeing Krishna’s true form, or the Buddha finding enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, that my act of love for this being that was part of my cycle of existence filled with me with a passion to want to keep being inspired, and for others to also have that experience. I could no more linguistically explain that to you, then the Buddha could explain enlightenment to Mahakasyapa the experience of enlightenment.

As atheists we are most attuned to experience awe in this form, to really grapple with that fear and fascination, because our phenomenology’s of the world are going to be grounded not in God, but in these experiences we have with the material world, and the things that build us up and tear us down, whether that be the sight of mountains, or the water shimmering sparkling light at night, that feeling you get when you feel like you are the only one on the dance floor, that moment when someone’s breath and heartbeat sync with yours, or the one you feel just lying face to face with a lover or a friend. Those moments matter. They’re all we have.

After I wrote this article, BrainPickings came out with an essay based on Sam Harris’ new book. A lot of the themes are similar, so I would recommend checking it out Here!


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