This is a GUEST post. Every now and then we’ll get another writer in to take on a topic that’s been on their mind. This article is the fourth in a five-part series by Vanessa James, writing about her spiritual journey of doubt and deconstruction. If you missed the earlier parts, here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Vanessa James is a film/TV composer by day, singer-songwriter by night, radioactive at lunch, and trespasser by derelict buildings. She lives by the sea in Brighton but was born by the main road in Bradford to a wild Colombian mama and a polite English papa, which keeps her confused, but multi-coloured.
Hi fellow truth-seekers! I know I’ve said it before but I feel it’s important to say: these blogs are not for everyone, they’re not intended to pick holes in anyone’s faith other than my own, and please read the journey from the start if you’ve not already, for proper context.
I began writing these blogs a couple of years ago as my way of personal purification. Purification from conditioning, expectations, culture, environment, traditions, my own biases. I wanted to see God naked! Not clothed in things us humans have made him out to be in an attempt to grasp the ungraspable.
I’ve still not reached my present day status yet where I feel I’ve come to the end of my cycle and reached somewhere beautiful, but we’re not far off. For now, this is the penultimate phase leading up to that: Part 5!
TOP 10 HIGHS & LOWS OF ATHEISM
Tut tut… it’s been over a year today since I last wrote in. Sorry to have left you hanging, been too busy living! Having lived in quite an intense state of searching and knowing during this series, it’s been good to spend time just being.
So what’s happened in the last year? Well, it’s a bit Gok Wan to say but I’ve become a whole new me! The most real, multi-dimensional, multi-coloured, liberated ‘me’ I’ve never known. Like I’ve clicked with every piece of myself. Like I’m resonating with my own frequency. Even harmonising with my own doubts. It feels delicious.
My last blog ended with finding my feet on atheist soil, and although that was the window I was best grasping an understanding of the world, myself, and the knowledge I’d acquired over my explorations, I never felt comfortable to say: ‘I am an atheist’.
Because I am not any thing…
I am Vanessa.
And there it is… my first outing without my undercover name shield (Red Raven). This is also the first blog I’m writing with an awareness that people I personally know are listening in (since publicly ‘coming out’ with these blogs). Luckily I’m in a very non people-pleasing place these days so I’ll be finishing this series as blunt and honest as I started, for my own good.
About six months ago something very significant happened to me, which majorly changed my outlook on things. I’ll feature it all in the next blog which will bring things up to my present day status, but for now I’ll fill you in on my observations leading up to that point from from mid-2015 where I finished the last blog.
So without knowing how else to lay the last year out, here’s…
Vanessa’s Top 10 highs and lows of being an atheist!
High 1: Seeing it’s not God that makes me good inside, and knowing it’s not because I’m ‘daughter of the King’ that I’m worthy as a person. Locating that belief in myself has opened up a new capacity of self-love, self-worth and self-respect. I really love myself <3
High 2: Not defending an outside creed but instead digging deep for what I really think on things. ‘What do YOU think about that, Vanessa?’ is a question I’ve not asked myself enough: I’d been too busy holding up fortress walls. I love not feeling like I need to know the answers or win points for Team Christian, but instead chiselling out my own opinions, then holding them lightly as ideas, not beliefs. Tuning into myself, trusting myself with doubt, and exercising that ‘What do YOU think?’ button has been the kindest and most powerful thing I’ve done for myself. I believe in me. (Get away Gok!)
High 3: Not diluting the here and now by expecting a heavenly destination. There’s no better way to get your congregation all gooey than for the worship leader to describe how mind-blowingly beautiful heaven will be for us when we get there. That God has this way greater place in store for us. Why let a potentially mythical land diminish the beauty we can be sure of now? Have you opened your eyes to this planet? This is heaven! This is paradise! (Well, the parts where humans don’t get in the way). What more do you want, you brat?!
High 4: Not being so intense! I have Christian friends seeking Gods voice on whether a relationship is the god-one, one is deliberating whether a job is their ‘calling’ or not, another isn’t sure whether a certain friendship is rooted in destiny enough to invest in it more, and another is paralysed by not knowing whether an adventure they desire is in alignment with Gods plan or not.
Mistakes aren’t gonna kill you! If anything they’ll help you find what’s right for you and grow you wiser along the way. And if it does goes titties up, then change direction! Trust yourself. Every day is a gift to enjoy, so if you’re alive, have fun with it! Dress up like a mermaid and try out singing for no real reason: I did! Live a life you’ll love to look back on.
High 5: Having an outside view on things. Distancing myself from things like focussed belief has granted me a wider perspective. Zooming out gives you more to look at, which has unlocked a new wave of understanding and wisdom in me. When I stopped focussing on the pencil lines that we get all religious about, I started to see parts of a very beautiful picture.
High 6: Getting away from the us-and-them culture. Hard beliefs can create this tribal thing: entrenching people in their own beliefs to the point they seem uninterested in learning any one else’s way of seeing the world and how they personally find fulfilment via their own belief choices. It stinks of cultish thinking. Of course not all believers are like that, plenty have a healthy desire to understand things outside their own heads. However, here’s a conversation I got caught up in – one believer was telling others about their ‘God encounter’ with an atheist at some event:
‘It was amazing: he was an atheist but was asking me loads of questions about Christianity and what I believe, like he really wanted to know about faith!’ she said excitedly, stirring the others up as they heard those Christian jackpot ker-chings.
So I asked:
‘And what did you learn about them?’
‘Why would I need to learn from them?’ she asked, confused, whilst I sat wishing for a cold trout to slap across her face. ‘I know the truth. That guy was still looking for it… but I have it.’
And there it is: that ‘us and them’ thinking; and it’s not for me. I think it’s immature and rude, and I believe certainty and arrogance are the biggest growth killers.
High 7: Feeling fully human. Without a belief in the afterlife or a belief that God will sort me out in tough times, I’ve had no band-aid to cover those really human feelings like hopelessness, pain, fear, loneliness and all the other barrel of laughs. But strangely, it’s in those lowest times where I found my humanity – or a deeper connection to it. My compassion grew within stark hopelessness. My values carved deeper into me inside naked fear. My capacity for joy was enlarged inside dead-end sorrow. Feeling life raw to the bone with no band-aid has been tough on my once very stable emotional balance, but maybe I’m just addicted to feeling human, maybe I just want to feel everything that can be felt.
High 8: Witnessing that blessings aren’t just for Christians. I’ve had just as many open doors, provisions and wonderful things happen to me as an atheist. Actually…maybe more. Maybe God loves atheists too?
High 9: Seeing things just as they are. Christians often navigate and decipher God by reading into events, attaching meaning to emotions, seeking ‘His voice’ in everything. And that’s great: we all need those guiding lights, but SOMETIMES SOME THINGS JUST MEAN NOTHING, OK! Chance happens! Getting romantic over it can lead to dumb moves (I lift my hand). For me, not having so much ooo-la-la in my vision has actually made my choices feel more secure. Anchoring in thought-through reason rather than destiny and mysticism means I don’t get swayed into something that essentially just charms me. It also means I don’t feel disappointment or confusion when the mystic halo evaporates because it just didn’t work out. I follow wisdom these days, not goosebumps, or signs of three doves in a row. Sure, I’m aware of spooky coincidences, but they’re not exclusive to Christianity y’know. Add to that, statistically, coincidence void of meaning and significance happens more often. We just like to forget the times it doesn’t pan out don’t we? Reality… euugh.
Let me give you a quick coincidence story of mine to balance out the spooky ones:
‘The day San Francisco stalked me’:
It began one morning with a ‘Visit San Francisco’ poster at the bus-stop. Next, a stranger on the train talks about his San Fran trip. My friend then calls to say he proposed to his girl in San Fran. On my way home I buy bread – the featured loaf was San Francisco sour dough. I get home, switch on the TV, a big ‘San Francisco Hospital’ sign hits the news screen. I settle in for whatever movie is on that night, it’s set in San Frickin-sisco. I remember searching myself and asking what God was trying to say through it all…I didn’t want to move to San Francisco, I knew no one there at the time, I knew nothing about the place, and there was nothing happening there that needed praying for. Yep, that string of coincidences meant NOTHING.
High 10: Not raising my hands on the cymbal swell in the chorus.
So life as an atheist has been fruitful and fulfilling in many ways, but it’s not all been plain sailing. At times I’ve felt unable to function at full capacity. A lot of it is down to re-adjustment issues, but some of it has felt deeper than that: like I’m missing an un-replaceable force that comes with having a faith. This leads me to:
Low 1: becoming less of a risk-taker. Reason is more sensible than faith, and since losing my ‘God’s got ya’ safety net, I’ve also become more sensible. There’s a dampener on my original boldness and my ridiculous moves done in faith. Maybe this is good. Maybe now I won’t die by breaking up street fights because I felt that invincible (< true story).
Low 2: Feeling anxiety for the first time. The knowledge that I’m 100% responsible for my own life has, at times, paralysed me.
‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.’ – Kierkegaard
I feared making mistakes! Luckily the anxiety is reducing after failing a few times recently and noticing I’m not dead.
Low 3: Not feeling connected to that ‘something greater’. In the mundane moments of life, I missed those transcendental goosebumps that reminded me I was part of something bigger than my reality, that I was more significant than I really was. I’ve managed to find that connection amongst nature and the unified human spirit, like at a concert, football match or just sharing a beautiful experience with others. It’s just…when the subject of that unity is something as mystical and otherworldly as a supernatural God, then a game or song can’t quite compete. Fantasy is a real killer and can de-sensitise us to the beauty in reality and real human experiences, and I often worry if I’ve over-exposed myself to a fantastical perspective. Hollywood verses Scunthorpe – that kind of comedown.
Low 4: The occasional worthlessness pits. I mainly manage to find my sense of existential purpose and self-worth within myself and the things I create, but in tested moments it’s clear to see that I am not as solid as the God I once put in my control centre. It’s made me see that, even if it’s not real, the Christian God is a genius design: fulfilling so many of our psychological and anthropological needs in such a solid way. We all need a ‘point’ to our lives – it helps keeps our head above the water – and God (by nature or design) is an unshakable constant to hang yourself on.
Everything else (music, relationships, love, career ) is transient, ever-growing, ever-changing. God is not. And when you’re out on a midnight stress-walk after composing shitty music all day that you take personally, making you feel worthless to the world, and you look up at the Godless stars and exhale ‘I feel so pointless’, it’s then you realise how great it was to have the biggest backstop in existence. Plenty of atheists would love the idea of a constant, loving God to be real. Who wouldn’t?! So atheism isn’t some defense against God and the spirit world, it’s just that we can’t believe in the God that religion puts out there.
(By the way I wrote a better piece of music the next day and felt like The Fonz again ☺)
Low 5: Missing my imaginary friend. Yes, my lifelong bestie was an invisible friend who knew me inside out and listened to all my rambles, hopes, woes, and who had the power to do something about them. Sure, there are lots of things in this wonderful world to replace the gaps that faith once filled, but that super-cosmic relationship connecting me to ‘something greater’ is not an easy one. So although I wouldn’t want to fill my new wine-skin with wine that no longer suits my pallet, I still miss that one.
Low 6: The lack of free mental stability voodoo. With no ‘God has a greater plan’ for when you fail, and no ‘God knows’ when you’re feeling out of your depth, I’ve often wondered how atheists do this thing! Maybe world-class friends mixed with anti-depressants? How else do you download free hope to balance the chaos that comes with the unknown? I know I’m a baby atheist but I can’t help feel that we all want God on some level, whether we believe in Him or not, we all need rescuing from reality from time to time, to have something outside of reality that keeps us going. That belief (and it’s hope side-effects) is like a wonder drug for mental stability. Maybe I just need time to find replacement supports that feel true and real to me… like friends?
Low 7: I miss the cosmic quest. I miss believing everything is encoded with meaning and purpose, and that life is this wonderful, mystic and opportunity-filled maze! Navigating my way via the universe’s language of signs, clues, synchronicity, coincidences and other hidden messages did not only make everyday life more exciting, it was also a great comfort and confidence to the steps I chose to take into the unknown. Even if the outcome isn’t what I believed it would be, the fact is I moved. And all whilst feeling purpose-driven, significant and pretty fearless for having universal back up. Something to be missed.
Low 8: Not being able to hang my hat on certainty – because my human-ness likes to look at complete jigsaws. But what if it’s only delusion that makes things appear complete? We’re all just becoming, never reaching, so maybe completeness and perfection is a myth? A mirage? Maybe we can only be certain of uncertainty. Maybe we’re all meant to learn to live with not knowing because that’s what keeps us growing. Maybe we’re trying to figure out a never-ending puzzle but missing the point: it’s not to win, but to grow new ways of thinking as we try navigate around the obstacles of emptiness. Maybe Shakespeare had something right in saying:
‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking it makes it so’.
Ooo no absolutes!
Low 9: Not being able to hope on a prayer. I miss that feeling of prayer being like your field agent, out doing the work when you can’t do anything about a situation. I’ll let my diary entry illustrate from the week I moved city:
‘I lost Miguel [the cat] for five days! He doesn’t know these grid-system streets. Is he calling out for me? Lost? Is his leg smashed? Is he stuck in a ditch feeling abandoned? Oh the places your brain will take you amidst the unknown! It’s almost not worth housing the negative chemicals. I can’t even pray a desperate prayer to get that hope, trust and faith that helps you sleep at night. If stress really is a killer to your body then, without hope, my cells are on death-row.’
You’ll be relieved to know that Miguel returned home (even with no prayers sent!)
Low 10: Disconnection from a global tribe. Once you’ve spent a lifetime inside that powerful unity that comes with shared belief, and having available access to that instant community wherever you go in the world, you start to notice the gift of that when you face the slog to find that sense of belonging and tribe when you move city without it. Not that I want to return to it all, that would be jarring for me and I’d probably feel even more alone in that setting now. So I suppose I’ll have to go the long route on this one. Salsa class anyone?
So there we go. There are highs, there are lows. You win some you lose some. The ups have a flip side. But maybe all in a Yin Yang kind of way where one brings life to the other, like there’s a great balance brought between two contrasting forces. I think that’s true for me.
I have a few more interesting observations from living on both sides of the fence, but I’m gonna gather those up in the next blog to give you ADHD kids a little party break.
– – – – –
9. FAITH THROUGH HUMAN EYES
Having embodied two different world views and felt the ups and downs of each, I’ve been curious to see how my old faith looks from this distance. What would my old spiritual rituals look like through atheist eyes? Would I see anything to gain in faith now? Would it move me somehow? What would faith look like through these humanist eyes?
No better place to start than…
A RETURN TO CHURCH!
I saw it as a good sign when the idea of returning to my old church brought no worry or anxiety. When you’re connected to your truest and most honest self, I suppose nothing can threaten your identity or beliefs, or seduce you into something that doesn’t ring true through your whole body. Not even the emotionally charged alter-call for lost souls to return to Christ that I knew was coming.
I took sermon notes for you:
‘I feel like a wolf in sheep’s clothing being here. But I have to say, with the lack of spiritual frills in my vision, I feel like I’m looking at rather divine human behaviour. Here’s what I’m seeing:
I’m seeing struggling people feel secure enough to lift their hand, accepting the prayer time being offered.
I’m seeing others answer their call-for-help by laying a gentle hand on their shoulder and whispering words that clearly set hope into their weary bones.
I’m seeing the lines in peoples faces fall away as a new option is placed before their old viewing window of broken relationships, financial problems, hopeless dead-ends, illness etc.
If I get past the occasional chandelier-swinging, Pentecostal behaviourisms that you just don’t need, then, through these non-spiritual eyes, all I can see is kind-hearted humans coming to help someone who’s got lost at sea, helping to lift their heads above the rising waters with this transcendental hope.
Can you only access that level of healing hope through such literal belief though? Like some sort of positive delusion that (real or not) does work.
Whatever the case, to witness these old rituals without my spiritual belief in them, well…I’ve never admired faith more than this.
Maybe the divine isn’t out there, maybe it’s created between us.‘
My visit gave me a whole new respect for my church upbringing. Being that I was a bit of a weedy kid, to have known that emotional support, and to have been fuelled with hope and confidence for leaping higher, counted for a lot.
Life’s tough enough and if faith can give you that 24/7 access to hope to move your mountains, well that’s pretty great. Even if hope is an illusion, the strength it gives you is real. It moves you forward, keeps you upright in the waves, keeps you looking up and out and not in and down. With human eyes, I’m really seeing how faith is a gift.
Does that mean you want your faith back?
No. I know I’ll find my own iceberg to float above life’s rising waters in a way that’s as real for me as it was for those believers in the prayer line. I’m not sure any of us are really built to live life without some form of self-delusion, we’re only human, we all crumble, so maybe we all pick our poison (or coping delusions) in some way.
It’s easy to see why the Christian poison has worked for generations of crumbly humans. It provides instant escapism from a dreary reality, a hope and relief that keeps you as high as the heavens (as long as you keep taking it), and it’s all strengthened by the fact it’s trusted and practiced by millions around the world.
So what’s my poison these days?
Well, it’s something that comes with the belief that death means dead. Nada. Show over. Time up. Yes… Death is my poison.
A fear of dying with more what if’s than oh wells has been the energizing force that’s helped me smash through my greatest fear this year. The bonus strength in it all is when the conqueror’s credit doesn’t go upwards, it’s goes on the pat on my back, which helps develop my self-confidence, self-belief, and self-love, and muting my old belief that I am only half a man without God.
I’ve found myself exploring the idea of doing this Christian detox backwards: a retox!
Not that I particularly want to believe again, as much as I’ve come to respect my old faith much more, atheism is still the window I see clearest through and where everything I’ve learnt can hang out with my inner peace and happiness. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what I might find on the the steps from atheist to believer. But can a genuine atheist just turn genuine Christian like that?
Honestly, I didn’t have the faith for it, but I had the curiosity!
I started with trying to send up a heart-felt (but brain-surrendering) prayer, but soon realised I just couldn’t genuinely pray without my mind kicking up a fuss and unsettling me. It wasn’t happening. Maybe I needed a dark, desperate moment to break me. I’ve heard it said: “Everyone finds their faith on the battlefield”, except I wasn’t on a battlefield, I was in my garden flat kitchen trying to peel a quails egg. #FirstWorldProblems
So then I tried asking myself a series of questions to see if I could find any seeds of faith in me somewhere, things like: “Would you call for Jesus in a spiraling plane crash?” But when my answer was an honest: “No, because that’s as worthwhile as calling for Batman,” I soon realised that this retox might not be so possible for atheists like me.
There seemed to be no portal back to faith. How had I got this far?
‘My brain seems to be in the habit of reducing every bit of mystery down to its material state – to science and psychology.
Like everything that flies under my nose is subject to dissection.
Like the engine that’s been running to strip religiosity from me won’t stop.
Like I’m over-dosing on critical thinking!
Feeling this self-aware is satisfying and actually feels healthy, but it’s also kinda taking the romance out of things. Even love is starting to look like a cocktail of brain chemicals followed by a commitment that comes out of shared anthropological needs.
It’s all got very animal-y in here.‘
I’ve asked myself: What will it take for God to convince me he’s real?
A divine messenger? A series of signs? A series of coincidences? A life-saving moment? A miracle? But any option I came up with only convinced me more that nothing would convince me because I’d got good at talking away spiritual ‘proof’ with new things…
Things like patternicity (the tendency for our pattern seeking brains to find order in random chaos), or in acknowledging the negative coincidences (like cot death) amongst divine seeming ones, or with knowing how our brains like to interpret information to confirm our beliefs, or the many other ways we can be fooled.
And we’re very good at fooling ourselves… especially when we want to be fooled.
If, however, God revealed himself so physically and clearly that I could measure him in some observable way, then yes, I’d believe in Him. Except evidence makes belief obsolete: you don’t need to believe if it’s proven. So that’s when I realised: I don’t think I’m capable of believing at all!
I’m belief handicap!
‘It seems nothing fantastical can get past my ‘mind purification’ filter. At times I feel a little trapped in a two-dimensional world, and as an artist that doesn’t feel too inspiring, because reality isn’t very inspiring.
But what else can you do when you’ve heard all the mystical arguments and still your atheist mind keeps winning and filling the gaps way more solidly than any spiritual belief could do.
And when the Christian argument keeps ending with: “Because He’s God”…well, when you answer the unexplainable with another unexplainable, it doesn’t really explain anything at all. You may as well just say “Magic!“‘
I’ve been wondering if this sanitized, purification level I’m on is actually the naked base-line, and that any belief is just an “add-on”. And if babies haven’t been exposed to these add-on’s, opinions, beliefs and religions, I’ve been wondering:
Are we all born atheist?
Some neuroscientists say that belief is good for the brain, so what if atheists just wanted a life of faith, except just couldn’t believe? Like me. How can analytical types access faith? How do we deal with the contradicting information in our heads that prevents us from connecting to a faith?
One solution I heard from a group of such atheists: Pretend.
Yes: pretend instead of believe.
Sounds a bit Cowboys & Indians doesn’t it! Yet it seems to be working for some. I’m not sure it’s for me, but then again never have I felt so good believing I was more ‘Hi-Ho-Vanessa on her lilac unicorn‘ than just ‘Vanessa at a bus stop’.
(Fig: 1.1. Christianity for atheists)
So it seems this is my resting place, and it’s become that because I have tried and tested it. Luckily, I like it here: I feel like my original, untarnished self (the one before I let man-made beliefs get printed on me). I feel raw and real, pure and tested. I feel like I have a new maturity and humility for leaving uncertainty as it is: uncertain. The unknown is unknown and only heaven knows if heaven’s real.
I’ll leave you with a Tim Minchin lyric:
‘Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’
Just two final things that I want to address for the Christians quickly…
For any believers taking my new thinking and direction too personally:
Just because I think differently to you does not mean I think you’re wrong.
I believe the choices you make to find your place of peace is exactly right for you. One shoe doesn’t fit all. It’s crazy to think we should all believe the same thing in the same way when we’re all so uniquely individual.
The minute we start chanting the same thing, I’m ringing the cult alarm bell. Why would we aim to turn each other the same colour, or judge each others colour choice, it’s colour! And sometimes we change our colours and that’s ok because that’s what living things do! We change, transform, evolve, grow, expand…everything is in the process of becoming.
I’ve heard this a lot: Maybe you never really were ‘saved’.
Did Jesus not do his job right with me or something? How could I have been less ‘saved’ than ‘saved’? When I mean something, I mean it, and I lived it well for nearly three decades.
Just because you’re not in relationship with someone you once loved doesn’t mean you never loved them, in the same way that just because I’m in a different place now doesn’t mean my faith wasn’t 100% real and wonderful to me at that stage in my life. It’s just I’ve now found other ways of explaining things that sit with me better. I’ve not denounced anything, I defend nothing, I just follow where truth hums with me.
I’ve been wondering if this means farewell for us, with me completing this detox to the point of testing the door backwards and seeing it doesn’t open for types like me. Except there’s a few things I have left to say, so let’s save our au revoir‘s for next time.
Till then, amigos!
So there we go: an attempt at covering the beginning part of last year. We’re still not up to the present day yet although it’s easy to see why I thought this would be my final resting place.
But then something happened. I didn’t want it to happen, but it did.
You can read the fifth and final part of this series here!
If you enjoyed this, you might want to check out this MINI post : ‘Why I Stopped Going To Church’.
Or take a look at our main series of articles, in-depth looks at big topics related to faith, doubt, science and the universe:
Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make