Last night before going to bed, I found myself praying the Evening Office from the Book of Common Prayer. I love the book of Common Prayer — I love the poetry and the guiding, inner choreography of the liturgy. As I prayed last night I felt that warmth, presence, and silent awe I’ve felt my whole life when I enter sacred spaces — many would call it the presence of God. Sometime, when praying, I find myself speaking in tongues, a torrent of syllables pouring from me unbidden. It feels warm in my mouth, and it feels like something outside of myself speaking through me. I also still attend church (when I can), and I experience the love and presence of an external, invisible force.
And yet, I don’t believe in God, because I find the tangible evidence for God lacking. Take careful note that this does not mean that I believe no gods exist, which would require its own set of evidence, but rather that I find the evidence for God insufficient, and I therefore have no reason to believe.
How can this be? How can I disbelieve in God but remain a Christian and experience him anyway? Why haven’t I rejected prayer and sacred spaces as supernaturalist and primitive delusion?
From an early age I had tongues and Christian prayer drilled into me. Both carried with them a host of positive experiences including deep peace, stillness, overwhelming compassion, and feelings of interconnectedness. I believed that God was all loving, intertwining us all in a canvas of compassion. Praying to this God made me feel a profound security.
Now, after having lost faith, I still enter that space, and the parts of my brain that experienced prayer and meditation still activate. I find that prayer still makes me feel peace, love, awe and stillness, so I still pray. I also still pray because my family and heritage have prayed these words for centuries. It’s a bloody, ugly history, but I don’t want to forget it, either.
I find one of Science Mike’s Axioms of Faith particularly helpful here:
Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.
(For the sake of clarity, Science Mike defines God in an earlier axiom as being at least the principles and forces that govern, sustain, and generated our universe.)
I feel less like the daily office is a vehicle to the Christian God as an end in itself, but rather than the Christian God is a vehicle to something More – the cosmos as a whole, a lens and metaphor for the forces — personal or impersonal — that shape our cosmos. Jesus is no longer the point for me — he’s now a launch pad for something bigger, better, and more mysterious. Because I have a ready made mysticism, I see no reason to discard it. Why not use my Christian tradition to help me experience my newfound nontheism?
I’m tired of all the old, bullshit boundaries. I’m tired of hearing that religion is just useless superstition, and I’m tired of hearing that atheists can’t be religious, too. I’m tired of hearing that religion requires the supernatural, and I’m tired of hearing that a life with no supernatural is a meaningless life. I’m tired of hearing I can’t have mystical experiences, too. All these old boundaries need to collapse, in no small part because I think ritual, symbol, and transcendent experience make life delicious, regardless of our beliefs about the supernatural.
I sometimes wonder if, to many Christians, I’m the worst kind of heretic: someone who disbelieves in God but refuses to let go of Christianity. I often think many Christians would rather I walk out of the church. But I refuse. And I want to fling open the doors of religion to others like me — to those who can’t accept the existence of God or supernaturalism, but still yearn for liturgy. I want to open the doors to a heretical religion: one in which we can deny the supernatural and yet still have ritual, one in which we can deny God, but still experience him anyway.
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