An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: “According to a new Pew survey, 21% of American atheists believe in God or a universal spirit, 12% believe in heaven and 10% pray at least once a week. What do you make of this?”
The Pew poll results could simply be a curiosity. Without a definition of “God” or “atheism,” who really knows the state of unbelief that an atheist feels? If you take the common image of God as a patriarch sitting above the clouds, it’s entirely possible to reject a personal God while retaining a religious spirit. Einstein spent years explaining this as his position, and few understood what he meant. The fact that Judaism forbids physical representations of God and that Christ describes no such image, either, hasn’t stopped the literalists. They demand comforting pictures and mindlessly equate “abstract” with “Godless.” By the same standard Buddhists are atheists, along with non-dual Hindus and many other flavors of Eastern spirituality.
Disapproval will never expunge “the will to believe,” and as familiar as William James’s phrase is, a mystery still hides behind it. Is the will to believe an automatic human trait, part of our genetic package? If so, as some geneticists believe, then what triggers the gene in some people but not in others? One envisions the believing atheists captured in the Pew poll fighting against their inheritance like children of alcoholics against theirs. In the blossoming field of epigenetics, which studies how gene get triggered or suppressed, we are gaining a glimpse of many behaviors being passed down from one generation to the next, not as a matter of survival but because they mean something. In essence the will to believe, which can be traced back to prehistory, spread around the globe like a God virus – it could be as universal as art, another genetic trait that has zero value for survival but infinite value as meaning.
How will belief evolve next? Maybe these believing atheists are showing us the way, along with Einstein, beyond a personal God on to the shores of eternity. Einstein had his sights set on a secular spirituality that, he said, was most closely approximated by Buddhism. He believed that the universe contained a deepest layer of reality that couldn’t be rationally comprehended but only witnessed with awe and wonder. He famously said that great discoveries in science need this sense of wonder before the infinite. To me, that implies a shift in consciousness. The rational mind cannot go beyond words and concepts, but consciousness can expand within itself without limits. Whether accidentally or by intent, I hope at least a handful of believing atheists have set out on the journey that begins with the will to believe and ends beyond images, even beyond thought itself.
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