The Atheist and Her Soul by Caitlin E. Adams
I have a soul, a spirit, or whatever you wish to call it, and I am an atheist. I do not think these concepts conflict. I have recently and enthusiastically embraced the label of “atheist” because I simply don’t believe that a god or gods exist, and I am fed up with the bad rap those who don’t believe in a deity get (I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog). While defining something by what it is not is weak and reinforces the exclusion such labels aim for (the term “atheist” was a pejorative used the condemn those “without god” in ancient Greece), I know no omnipotent conscious being is out there. Thus, “atheist” suits me.
I find it jarring when someone talks of god (as if such a thing were real) or of praying, as if this is normal, because it is foreign to me. I can’t recall ever having believed in such things. I have always loved the stories of the ancient gods of Egypt,India,GreeceandRome. How cool would that be? Omnipotent beings with specific, particular responsibilities? But I knew these were myths, though I can enjoy them as personifications of natural phenomena, a way to explain the mysterious. I do believe in science, process and natural rhythms. The idea of Mother Nature is lovely.
My paternal grandparents gave me a gorgeous, colorful book of illustrated Bible stories when I was a child, and I loved those stories, too. My favorites included Noah’s Ark and Sampson and Delilah. But they were the same to me as D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I do believe Jesus was a real man, a good man, a man whose ideas could have changed the world for the better, but just that. I’m with Billy Joe Armstrong, who sings in Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia,” “No one ever died for my sins as far as I can tell.” Jesus as the son of God is a myth, as sure as the pagan gods were.
My family background is Christian. Long ago, my mother attended some sort of Anglican church (I think); and my father was Episcopalian (though his father was born into a Mormon family and later converted). As a young child in 1940s Australia, my mother was traumatized by talk of hell and damnation when she went to Sunday school, and her mother did not force her continued attendance, which was very progressive and thoughtful for the time. My impressions of my parents’ religious upbringings are vague because neither was religious by the time I came along, and I never attended church. I remember so little talk of god, Jesus or Christianity. Maybe growing up in New York City sheltered me. Yes, I think born-and-raised New Yorkers come with their own style of naivety.
As both an undergraduate and a graduate student, I studied the middle ages. My master’s work focused on medieval art and philosophy, which were religious almost by definition. I wrote my thesis on how two twelfth-century thinkers reconciled secular time and with divine eternity. Fascinating stuff, seriously. I loved the puzzle of it all. I still do.
And how I love cathedrals. One of my favorite places ever isSt. Johnthe Divine inNew York, just three blocks from my home for the first 28 years of my life. What an awesome space. I would go there for the light, the shadows, the smell, the peace, the quiet. In 1998, I traveled alone throughEnglandandFrance. Visiting the medieval European cathedrals of Saint Denis,Chartres,YorkandCanterburymade me so happy, fed my soul. I still treasure the photos I took. (Those are the last photos I actually stored in a photo album, instead of tossing them in a box or saving them on a hard drive.) To this day, I use the keychain inscribed with theChartreslabyrinth that I bought on that trip. The image resonates for my spirit, somehow.
I do believe our spirits are what make us each who we are, the homes of our identity, but I am dubious about the soul carrying on in any way after death. I think connections between people are powerful and can be, perhaps, supernatural. I believe my ancestors, including my mother, my grandmother and my first catClark, watch over me in some way. My aforementioned doubt of an afterlife provides some conflict here, but my sense of their presence may be inside of me, the part of my soul that was connected with theirs. I don’t have to know how it works or even be sure it is “real” to find comfort there.
I think of “The Rainbow Connection,” sung by Kermit the Frog in the opening of The Muppet Movie. The song presents two sides: a rainbow is an optical illusion, or a rainbow is magic. It is both. I love the latter: the magic that is the connection between the “lovers, the dreamers and me.” The song offers a line that gives me a shock of recognition: “Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?” Which sounds kind of crazy, even spooky, for a song intended for children, and it is perfect for my amorphous connection philosophies.
Once, my grandmother called my mother first thing in the morning. She was unable to sleep because she heard me crying. She was worried. But I was in the States; she was inSydney,Australia. I had indeed been on the phone with my mother, who was in her own home inSydney(a twenty-minute drive from my grandmother), and I had been crying about something (probably a boy, some tragic heartbreak that I cannot recall). I believe my grandmother heard me, somehow. She was special that way, and though I saw her only every few years and we lived on opposite sides of the Earth, we were tied together.
In one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester makes a speech to Jane when she talks of leaving that makes me shiver: “‘I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you — especially when you are near to me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.’” (Chapter 23) I feel like this with those I dearly love who are dead or far away. I am not always sure if I am still knotted to them or if the cord has snapped, though it sometimes feels stretched to the breaking point, sometimes I feel like I am bleeding inwardly from the loss.
I treat my mother’s things—her writing, journals, jewelry and art—almost as relics. They are a way to have her with me. You could argue that an atheist should not invest objects with spiritual meaning. Maybe all I mean is that I bring my spirit to these objects, that part that connected with my mother. Before a meeting that would determine the educational future for my seven-year-old son, one which had been a year in the coming and had caused great stress, I wore my mother’s thistle ring bought during a trip to Scotland in the late 1970s (I have many of her rings) and the bracelet my grandmother gave me when I was about my son’s age (brass-colored metal, with an enameled bluebird on a lock dangling from it). I wore the grey enameled earrings with a black outlined image of a swallow on each that a dear friend had recently given to me and the necklace my husband just given to me on a whim. I girded myself with these items that connected me to loved ones, two of whom are dead. And they all made me calmer, stronger in the meeting.
Perhaps all this is as ridiculous to some atheists as the idea of a deity. But there is probably no such thing as a “true atheist,” because there is only one definition of the label, and lots of wiggle room for other ideas. The spiritual connection feels more real to me because it is small-scale, personal. It is not one set of rules, patriarchal, organized or codified, and it is part of what defines me. The personal connections are part and parcel of our souls no matter what we each believe.