Just as theism contains a huge number of organized belief systems (and a potentially infinite number of unorganized belief systems), atheism, while not a belief system in itself, includes in its definition a wide variety of beliefs systems as well. A simple lack of belief does not define a philosophy, but once one has rejected theistic systems many secular options become available, including, but not limited to Rationalism, Materialism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Humanism, and secular varieties of Eastern religion such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.
My belief system is Secular Humanism, but I am technically neither a theist, nor an atheist, as both positions are defined by their relationship to “theos” or “god,” a notion so fluid and ambiguous that I refuse to debate existence or nonexistence until it is specifically defined within the context of the conversation. This is why I’m an ignostic. “Atheism,” however, adequately describes my state of worship in that I pay no formal homage to any recognized deities.
There are those in the skeptic community, however, who would like the word “atheism” to mean something more. Some argue that ‘atheism’ shouldn’t just indicate disbelief in gods and other spiritual entities, but a complete rejection of all things immaterial. This is something I can’t do. I am not a materialist, which basically means I don’t believe everything that exists in the universe must necessarily be made of physical “stuff.” Atoms, quarks, strings, all of these things are understood to have an innately physical or ‘material’ nature. These fundamental building blocks are the substance of everything we see and touch. Still, I wonder sometimes if the fundamental nature of ideas, love, will, or consciousness—while expressed through the physical processes of brain chemistry—are in fact fundamentally immaterial. Perhaps this is why a person’s brain and body may adequately execute the processes necessary for life (a beating heart, working lungs, healthy muscles) and still lack consciousness, the “thing” that defines a lively and willful individual. Perhaps there are forces operating in the universe which cannot be reduced to physical processes, but instead exist on entirely different plane than that which may be observed through scientific methods. The universe is a big place.
I am not a materialist because I can’t know that everything—thought, love will, consciousness—is the result of interactions between strings, and quarks, and atoms, and laws. So I feel as though I need to leave the door on the issue ever so slightly ajar, in case one day someone discovers something that, much like the afore listed materials, completely alters our understanding of the universe.
The summer before my sophomore year of college I became particularly acquainted with the supernatural when I joined an urban evangelism program in Philadelphia. Twenty of us, all between the ages of fourteen and twenty, pounded the streets of ghettos and suburbs, distributing religious literature, praying with strangers, and asking for donations. In the context of this program every door interaction, every van conversation as we rode from street to street, every minor hardship and momentary victory was interpreted as a reflection of actions in the spiritual world. If a team had a particularly good day it meant that god was blessing them. If another team was plagued by van arguments it was because the devil was trying to hamper our righteous work. Lost items would be found. A particular book would do well just when we needed it to be. People would be “impressed” to give us donations or offer uncannily appropriate words of encouragement, and we would call it a miracle.
Materialists argue that no phenomena has been compellingly presented which resists materialistic explanation. I agree with this. I still remember what it was like to be a part of a faith community and look at the world through a supernatural filter, but where I once saw providence I see inevitability. Where I once saw miracles I see probability. Where I once saw answered prayer I see comforting ritual and confirmation bias. There are satisfactory explanations for everything ‘divine’ that has happened in my life, and due to the un-testable and capricious nature of the immaterial, notions about its existence are currently bound to the realm of speculation and fantasy.
Even though I am not philosophically comfortable with materialism, I won’t embrace the existence of anything immaterial without extraordinary proof. It’s not enough for me to “feel” things (while I was in the church I was always more cerebral about my faith, anyway). The inner warmth I’ve felt in the past after talking to god, the high people talked about during musical worship services, and the comfort I gained from participating in religious rituals are ultimately “all in my head.” They are real in the same way pain may be real, but in the same way nerve disease can make a person feel their skin is on fire in the absence of physical flame, my past ‘spiritual experiences’ may or may not correlate to any external reality. My emotional experiences need to be evaluated in the context of physical, social, and logical reality. Emotions are symptoms of a greater reality, not proof of a particular reality.
But the universe is a big place.