Skepticism is not the same as disbelief. But sometimes believing feels like a betrayal of the community that most often bills itself as skeptical. To sum up my worldview I call myself a skeptic, a weak atheist, agnostic atheist, ignostic, and humanist. (Which label I use largely depends upon who I’m talking to and the depth of the conversation.) Most people assume that these titles mean that I am fairly certain there is no god, and they’re right, sort of. I don’t believe there is a deity whose existence and discoverable nature adhere to the Judeo-Christian model. And I don’t live under the assumption of an involved, theistic deity (although, as an ignostic, I believe the concept of ‘god’ must be defined before existence may be discussed). But I still feel Something. There has always been a Something, which is why as a kid I often wondered about god’s interest, goodness, or nature, but rarely about his existence. After being certain for so long it seems ironic that I now embrace labels implying disbelief.
Truthfully, I’m torn. My understanding of the world as informed by empiricism, philosophy, history, and theology tells me that the god I’ve been taught to believe is improbable–or at least undesirable. But my heart (something else that defies the definition it sorely needs) still believes.
I enjoyed Sabbath school until about age twelve or thirteen, but by my last year in junior high I found it a bit patronizing and lacking in stimulation. Furthermore, during the following church service I was bored by all the hymns and announcements that preceded the sermon. Junior high heralded the age of rampant food bribery, which kept me in the Sabbath school room for nearly five more years, but in that space of time between the end of Sabbath school and the beginning of the sermon I would go on walks around the church grounds and nearby streets.
During the warm months, when the sky was blue and it was warm enough to take my heels off, I would wonder around and talk to god. Most of the time he seemed to talk back. I didn’t necessarily hear voices or see obvious signs, but I would talk about my day, my struggles, my triumphs, and then I would listen. Somewhere in the silence, in the mesmerizing shift of the fractal sky, I felt as though I were being heard. Answers weren’t the goal of these walks, instead I prayed out of the same flowing need described by C.S. Lewis in ‘Shadowlands,’ and by it I was changed; my sense of center and wholeness were restored.
Prayer has long been an outlet for my chronic mental restlessness, but when I gave up religion I felt obliged to give up prayer as well. I figured there wasn’t any room for sky-chatter in my life while I claimed to value rationality and empiricism. Even if I’d kept praying, I didn’t know whom to address.
I’ve recently come to regard the end of my prayer life as a decision which isn’t necessarily supported by my worldview. My skepticism is about examining the world around me, taking all the available evidence into consideration, and regarding my beliefs and expectations as dependent variables. To deny or redefine my feelings in terms of concepts equally unproven (such as the notion that some brains are more ‘hardwired’ for spirituality as an existentially fulfilling evolutionary mechanism) is a violation of my commitment to skepticism. At the very least, it’s a perfunctory swipe of Occam’s razor which fails to explore the depth of my experience.
I can’t build my life on the hearsay of other’s experiences, hence my rejection of traditionally understood biblical authority and prophetic writings. To quote Thomas Paine, “Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him…and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.” However, when I am the recipient of that first communication, I feel I have an obligation to consider it as evidence and examine it accordingly. Observation is at the heart of scientific inquiry, why should I disregard my own?
- Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (archive.org)