Religion, Spirituality

Nontheism and Anxiety


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I’ve been fairly vocal about my journey into nontheistic religion, and the response from fellow Christians has been a tremendous amount of anxiety. I’ve found myself in twitter disputes over faith, and I’ve had more awkward coffee dates with concerned Christians than I’d prefer.

I have to empathize with the anxiety. My gradual deconstruction process felt, at times, as if it was going to crush me. There were times when I had to block it out completely, because gazing into it too long felt like staring directly into the sun. It hurt too much. Having friends who dared to question in ways that I wasn’t ready to yet compounded the anxiety.

In an attempt to more fully understand this anxiety, I sent out a tweet to my followers:

I’m trying to understand why materialism, agnosticism, atheism, are so threatening to so many. I felt the threat myself when I believed more fully in the supernatural, but I’m wondering if other people could help me articulate the pushback against materialism/atheism.

The responses I got back were fascinating.

Buzz responded: “Many of us feel there is more to this existence than the purely material realm. Challenging that precept in any fashion can cause anxiety.” And Erin added,

For me, part of it is the idea that I will never see my dead loved ones again. The thought that a person just … stops existing in any form … is anathema to me. I feel there’s something more to a person than just the physical — more than atoms and chemicals and synapses.

Of all the things nontheism has left me with, this is, perhaps, the hardest. I lay awake in bed next to my partner and try to wrap my mind around the high probability that he will just stop existing completely one day. That’s hard, and I don’t know how to process it. I’m coming to terms (sort of) with my own mortality — that my conscious universe will vanish and will be no more — but the total disappearance of those I love? I don’t have a way to deal with that yet.

Matthew, I think, got to the heart of the problem:

I think belief, and particularly a specific set of beliefs, is a fairly tenuous thing. Believers (and I count myself among them) believe specific things about a God who is both invisible and silent. That fear that we’re just imaginitive meat bags, can only be buried so far.

Goodness, yes. One of the most liberating things about my current place in life, despite my big questions, is I no longer feel the overwhelming need to put blinders on, for fear that if I were to look at something too long, my faith would start to crumble. My faith had already crumbled, so I can read, learn, and explore to my heart’s content. I recently ordered a whole library of books on the occult, Satanism, and theosophy. Why? Because I can.

Johnny had a critical perspective:

Materialism destroys the foundation of reason by making us into meat robots ruled by chemistry. Logically consistent atheism is nihilism. Agnostics? Depends on whether or not they’ve adopted a solipsistic mindset. So yeah, these ideologies should be viewed as threat. Fair take?

While I disagree with him here (and I will have to save that for another post) I think his statement that these ideologies are a threat makes intuitive sense for a lot of Christians, and it made intuitive sense to me. I think this intuition is something to take seriously.

I also think we’re seeing a rise of this sentiment in culture at large: Jordan Peterson is arguing a similar point, and a central theme of far right leaders seems to be a terror of the loss of central, guiding narratives and faith. This intuition is so deep that it might be guiding the next wave of authoritarianism in this country. I don’t think deriding it is the way to go — we need to respect that people experience this as a legitimate fear and treat it as such.

Kyle, perhaps, had the most fascinating response out of anyone:

I can only speak for myself. I don’t so much feel threatened by physicalism as I don’t understand why anyone would believe it. My feelings towards it are similar to that of my feelings towards (ironically) creationism.

When I asked Kyle if this means he thinks materialism sounds as unreasonable, absurd, and unfounded as creation, he responded simply, “I would say they are pretty close.” He went on to say that physicalism contradicts our most basic experiences of reality, and can’t give a suitable explanation for things like numbers and the transcendentals.

I’m sure there is much more to unpack here — more than we have time for now. But I think Kyle’s statement here demonstrates the huge chasm between worldview. To me, it is obvious that the physical world is probably all there is. To Kyle, my intuition is delusion and absurd. I’m reminded of a point Carrie Poppy recently made on her podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie.

She says, and I’m paraphrasing, that in many paranormal films and television series, there is always the skeptic. The classic example is Scully from the X-Files. Within these fictional universes, the skeptic continues to disbelieve even when legitimate evidence of the paranormal is presented to them. Therefore, the skeptic in these stories becomes the unskeptical one, the irrational one. As the story progresses, it becomes absurd not to believe.

I think the fact that this goes unnoticed in popular culture betrays the fact that this is what many people think of skeptics. Belief in the supernatural, higher power, God, what have you, goes so deep, is so obvious, is so intuitive, that in the minds of many believers it is forgone conclusion that it’s the skeptics who are really the blind and irrational believers.

The lesson from all of this, I think, is that we have a long way to go before we can all see eye to eye, and that we should converse with each other more empathetically, carefully, and graciously.

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