Mindset: A Partial Circle

There was a time, when asked whether I was religious or believed in God, I would respond that I was not religious, but I was spiritual. That response felt utterly artificial, because the word “spiritual” felt like a fraudulent disguise for my mindset. That was a time before I was willing to publicly acknowledge my atheism, knowing full well that many people in my small sphere would recoil in horror at such an admission.

Their “Christian” mindsets had been molded and shaped and carved into attractive statues that, on their surface, seemed nonjudgmental and welcoming, if somewhat stiff and unbending. Beneath that smooth surface, though, was a capriciously harsh and dogmatic swirl that revealed itself in their readiness to condemn beliefs that did not mirror theirs. Even by claiming spirituality in lieu of religiosity, I was suspect. When, finally, I admitted to atheism, I was the spawn of the Devil; or something like it.

When I openly acknowledged agnosticism (my tentative exploration of reactions to non-Christianity; I was not agnostic, I was atheist), I was pitied. I was told I was simply “confused” and could easily be made whole and clear-thinking again with just a little curative religion.  But when I crossed the line and admitted atheism, the rejection was swift. Though I do not recall being openly ostracized, I remember the reactions of certain people: “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ll pray for your soul.” That was one of the more compassionate ones.

I am thinking of this history of my transition from secretive to open atheist because it occurs to me that, over time, I came to unwittingly react to religious “believers” the same the way Christians reacted to me. Pity. Scorn. A feeling of intellectual and spiritual superiority.

As my willingness to more and more publicly acknowledge my atheism grew, so did my derision of beliefs in supernatural beings (and in the people who held them). I laughed (usually only in my head) at people who believed the Bible was the literal word of God. I looked on in surprise and with humor as I witnessed people fervently praying to a being I was confident did not exist, nor had ever existed. My reactions to those people and their beliefs included antipathy, condescension, ridicule, and mockery, among others. In other words, the same reactions they had to the Godless heathen who walked among them.

I do not recall precisely when I began to recognize when my contempt for religion and the religious had began to temper. But I recall quite clearly the time frame when I became conscious that my previously steadfast verdict about religion and the religious was softening. It was when I began attending the Unitarian Universalist Village Church. Me, once an almost zealous anti-religious cheerleader, attending church?

The messages of that church—mirroring my approach to humanity so completely—surprised me. I felt that I could have written the church’s principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

It was the third principle, acceptance, that really got my attention. The church willingly accepted atheists, Christians, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, ad infinitum. The second element of the church that appealed to me was the recognition that these principles are attitudes to which we aspire, not necessarily intellectual or emotional accomplishments we have already achieved. The message, regularly, is that by pursuing those principles in our everyday lives, we are constantly in pursuit of creating a better version of ourselves.

Another aspect of the church that appealed to me was the subtle way in which one of its messages found its way into my head. That message was, again, about acceptance. If I wanted to be accepted and encouraged  toward spiritual growth, I had to relinquish the judgmental sword I held over the heads of people whose beliefs differed from, or were directly in opposition to, my own.

But that realization led to more questions. What the hell is spiritual? The dictionary comes to my aid and rescue:

  1. of, relating to, or consisting of spirit; incorporeal
  2. of or relating to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature
  3. closely akin in interests, attitude, outlook, etc.
  4. of or relating to spirits or to spiritualists; supernatural or spiritualistic.

That leads, of course, to the definition of spirit:

  1. the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body or mediating between body and soul
  2. the incorporeal part of humans.

DAMN! I hit “publish” instead of “save draft.” So, I guess I better edit the unintentionally published post. This post will be continued, some day, when my still developing thoughts around the subject coalesce in some reasonable, understandable way. In the interim, it stands as is; a partial exploration of my thinking and how it’s still in the process of making a partial circle toward its “final” perspective on looking at the world. In reality, I doubt my  perspective will ever be “final.” It will continue to evolve and, I hope, become shaped more and more by an intelligent way of looking at the world and my place in it.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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