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Drinking the Third Glass: A Pagan Looks at Atheism – and Love

Author: Earth Father
Posted: March 29th. 2009
Times Viewed: 3,004

‘After the first glass of absinthe, you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.’ --Oscar Wilde

Atheism has made a spectacular comeback in recent years, with several heavyweight authors dominating the bestseller lists for months at a time. As a committed Pagan, I decided to accept the challenge and picked up Christopher Hitchens’s “God is not Great” and Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” The more I read of both books, the more I found myself agreeing with almost every line their authors had written.

Dawkins and Hitchens effortlessly unmask the pernicious looniness of much religious belief, such as the Immaculate Conception, the cruelties of Sharia law and all the other usual suspects, and pretty much bury the ethical and spiritual presumptions of the mainline churches. Very satisfying! Nevertheless, I set both books aside feeling they had missed a basic point.

The first thing I noticed about the authors was the depth of their knowledge and the sharpness of their wit. This immediately sets them apart from the bulk of “Christian” writers. Hitchens (an essayist and pundit) and Dawkins (one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists) move serenely from science to philosophy to literature without any need to resort to “belief in things unseen” to explain our existence.

Now, it’s fine to think this way if you are as brilliant and successful as our two authors are. In fact, for people of this degree of sophistication an atheist is probably the only reasonable thing to be. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that both Dawkins and Hitchens had failed to understand the nature of religious feeling. For most of us, life is often painful, generally confusing, disappointing, and all too short. If you’re not a scientist or philosopher, what you are left with is what one might call “disbelief in things unseen, ” and that’s pretty thin gruel to those of us who have poor epistemological vision to begin with.

I kept wishing I could point out to Hitchens and Dawkins that most of us don’t always see much point to our existence and we are terribly unsettled whenever disasters, disease, recessions, failure and death shatter the supposed “order” that scientists, politicians, and economists pretend they can provide. Added to that are the perennial questions that science fails to address, let alone explain: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Why should I continue to soldier on, even if my life appears to be a failure?” Or, as Hamlet asked in a particularly dark hour: “To be or not to be?” Without the consolation of religion, things very quickly start to look as they really are, and it isn’t always pretty.

Perhaps scientists and philosophers do indeed have an easier time facing such questions. At one point in his book, Dawkins asks Jim Watson, the scientist behind the Human Genome Project, what we are here for, to which Watson glibly replies: “Well, I don’t think we’re here for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.”

What both authors lack is a sensitivity for the primary message religions contain for us: that we matter. That our existence, our efforts, our suffering, our inevitable death are not just random events but have something to do with the whole. That whatever happens, some entity out there sees “that it is good”. Christian baptism and the mystery of communion make people feel as if they are close to God. Jewish circumcision and the bar mitzvah ceremony reassure Jews that they are indeed God’s chosen people.

In the same way, the eight seasonal festivals observed by many Pagans remind us of our place in the eternal cycle. And while it takes a finely tuned mind to grasp scientific complexities and philosophical nuances, religious stories and practices are as easy to absorb as Mother Goose.

But let’s assume for a moment that our two authors are right and that religious beliefs and rituals are piffle. Instead, let’s look at religion on a more basic, personal level – in fact, on the most personal level of all: love.

Dawkins makes a passing reference to the possibility that religion might in fact be an accidental by-product of the phenomenon of love. After all, once love goes beyond the mere reproductive urge, it is arguably a random and irrational emotion, a sort of personality disorder. While it may well be needed in order to bond couples together until their joint progeny can feed itself, love goes far beyond this function and can have some spectacular side-effects – including, perhaps, its transmogrification into religious experiences.

This certainly resonated with me. For many years, I was desperately infatuated with a beautiful and inspiring young woman (we’ll call her Susan) who made me feel – for lack of a better expression – “born again.” Our affair was brief but tumultuous. Egocentric and capricious as she was, with unresolved family and emotional issues I could only guess at, Susan’s subsequent feelings for me oscillated between moderate affection and complete indifference as she proceeded to bounce along from one abortive relationship to the next. No matter: the less she gave me, the more I worshipped her.

Although there are over three billion women in the world, nothing could dissuade me from my conviction that this particular specimen was the only one for me as long as I lived. That we were “made for each other.” Yes, common sense told me I was being toyed with, as a cat torments a mouse and then leaves it to die. No matter: I was convinced that some day we would be together. When that day came, magic would happen and all questions would find an answer.

After observing this cruel game for a couple of years, a friend of mine took an agnostic position and urged me to realize that my image of Susan was a mirage and that I should just give her up. I responded, with utter sincerity, that while my rational mind realized our “relationship” was a destructive illusion based on nothing but wishful thinking, I would nevertheless go on believing because I preferred to live in a world where someone like Susan theoretically could exist than in one where she couldn’t.

Today, after a decade of yearning and hoping, my feelings for this woman have finally withered away to nothing. Aside from frequent “acid flashbacks, ” she has lost her hold on me. But at the same time I have also lost the capacity for that kind of love. Yes, I am delighted to be free of her spell. I am endlessly grateful that we are NOT together, and I am delighted with my new down-to-earth and supportive girlfriend. And yet, the world has lost its magic.

Women are no longer angels, they’re just women. The future, which once glowed like the rising sun, is just a dark corridor. Today I live in a world where someone like Susan could never exist. In fact, nowadays things look as they really are.

It’s clear to me now that what I experienced with this woman was in fact true religion. She was my savior, my own personal Jesus, whose every word I hung on and interpreted like Holy Writ, who imbued my life and all the suffering I went through with sacred meaning. From a Pagan perspective, I was touched by the Goddess. She was Freya and Venus and Astarte. As long as I had faith in her – even if it was just in the idea of her – I could count myself among the chosen.

Now it’s easy enough to call what I experienced a particularly bad case of self-delusion and co-dependency. It’s just as easy to call Jesus a fraud and the God and Goddess an obsolete fairy tale. But the fact remains that without the consolations of love and religion, our lives lack magic. Many of us still prefer a world where our existence has some sort of transcendent meaning than one where we are entirely on our own.

Despite my admiration for Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s intellects, I doubt that science and philosophy will ever provide a substitute for the pangs of love most of us go on feeling for another human being – or for “the divine spark” within all of us.

Copyright: Copyright 2009 by A. Wallis Lloyd


Earth Father

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