Spiritual Atheist Speaks With Theology PhD


My mom, to the nun: “F Off”.

7-year-old me: [watching… donut-in-hand — bewildered]

I cherish this memory – the precise moment Catholic dogmatism collided spectacularly with my mom’s veteran pragmatism. There I was, just completed my “first communion” ceremony, in the church basement for coffee and donuts — donuts I was apparently not supposed to touch yet. As a nun was making this violation clear — my mom SWIFTLY stepped-in, deflecting guilt that might otherwise accumulate and precipitate vivid dreams of hell.

This is how I opened up my conversation with a co-worker, who, studied theology and the Catholic faith all the way to his PhD. I have worked with him for years… he is such an incredibly decent person. I had to know, what did he, this extremely critical-thinking, reasonable mind, believe after studying faith so extensively? I sure as hell stopped taking Catholicism seriously decades ago. (I offered him one more story about a priest telling my religion class, resolutely, dogs have no souls.)

He laughed, quickly acknowledging the ridiculousness of rigid sacraments and rules. What DID he believe, then?

“What is the Truth”?

After completing his electrical engineering degree, and taking a job that was surely satisfying in a material sense, he was left with the deep existential nagging that frankly, lives with all of us. But then he did what many of us don’t do: He made existential questions the most important task of his life. He left his cushy engineering job and went back to school, this time to find out how religion might illuminate the answers.

Fast forward, he got his masters degree, then PhD, then found his way back to engineering, which is how we met.

As for me… I had made this question the most important task of my life, too. Except, I found my answers in a very personal, non-faith-based, way. The best name I have heard for this is “secular spirituality”. In short — the ultimate way of observing circumstances and sensing truth.

Both of us had discovered some kind of satisfaction. How did they compare?

Catholicism in 30 Seconds

Catholicism, essentially, wants people to lead good lives, be good to each other, and spread life* (see footnote on “spread life”). Pretty uncontroversial. But then it comes along with hallmark “strictness” — namely: church on Sundays, confession, penance, sins, commandments, communion, anti-contraception, and more. Things start getting extremely controversial and incompatible fast.

WHY does the Catholic church stick so hard to it’s centuries-old strictness, which, even my coworker admits is unhelpful? In essence, the Catholic church maintains a strong belief of its own infallibility. Although some of these “rules” might need to be adjusted in light of the modern world and rational argument, shifting them too significantly would undermine the “infallibility” premise (after all, if the church were infallible, why would it have to change its rules?).

If my coworker were pope, it sounds like he’d lean heavily into adapting some of the rules. Even so, he respects the faith as it exists. It offers him a sense of moral grounding, and, offers him the possibility of “something more” than just this life as we know it.

Secular Spirituality in 30 Seconds

After many months, I believe this can be distilled into a single question. Who the F are we? Now, attacking this question takes time and there are several angles to go about it. The more angles, the better. Although this journey unfolds differently for everyone, I do believe this is the essence — and — I believe it can lead to an extraordinary sense of what life is, and, how we ought to conduct ourselves. Ultimately I don’t think this “sense” can be put into precise words, other than it’s a feeling that sinks in after considering and experiencing certain things.

Put it this way — at 39 years old I experienced the happiest year of my life, and, it seems this perspective has permanently altered my expectations and behavior. Not euphoric, rather, appreciative and content. I also admit I will be reflecting on this for the rest of my life, so, I am not making any claims of mastery. Simply that the question — “who are we?” — can help anyone unravel their own ball of yarn. (and further, see how “their” ball of yarn is inextricably linked to everyone else’s).

Similarities, Differences

In both cases, “practice” leads toward discovery of what seems like universal truth — i.e. — what it’s like to be a human being — and what are the lessons that we all might learn from? Then, further, how human beings might best conduct themselves in light of these “truths”.

The key distinction is that Catholicism is extremely opinionated and perspective. It offers a list of truths, via scripture, ceremony, rules, and consequences, which you, the adherent, are left to follow (being mindful NOT to eat your donuts too soon!). Whereas, in spirituality, one is left to “feel” these answers for themselves.

While I consider myself an “atheist” — (not a believer in a fictional god and related faith system) — I am not a “antitheist” — (someone who will claim I KNOW your god is not real — I don’t).

So ultimately, despite donut trauma and personal departure from the Catholic faith, I can appreciate its deepest mission — to discover truth and help people integrate that truth into their lives.

In conclusion, after 90 minutes of beautiful and thoughtful conversation with one of the most respected critical-thinkers I know, I can say it was helpful to affirm my own reservations about Catholicism, while also respecting its most fundamental aim.

My co-worker offered two specific sentences that really stuck:

“I see religion as art”.

In other words, not literal, not rigid doctrine, but something that is living, breathing, evolving, trying imperfectly to symbolize the truth.

He quoted Thomas Aquinas:

“All that I have written seems like straw.”

In other words, Thomas Aquinas, a massively influential priest and philosopher, recognized that, although his words might allude to some kind of truth, they can never themselves BE the truth. In short — grain of salt.

Footnote: “Spread Life”

One prominent aspect of Catholicism is opposition to contraception. In the Catholic view, sex is a sacred act and therefore should be reserved to spread life. (as opposed to say, pure pleasure). As my coworker put it — he knows many 10-children families whose lives are quite challenging, and, are at least partially a consequence of this belief.

Separately, I’ve always been VERY interested in the theoretical maximum of humans on earth, and specifically interested in MIT scientists who started to explore this in 1971. (and, continue validating their predictions)

Surely, if everyone propagates in earnest, there is only so much the earth can can handle? If so, what are the implications?

I can agree though, that an attitude toward sex with complete disregard of creating life seems unhealthy. Meaning, if humanity dominantly regards sex as pleasure, and creating an actual human being is rarely in mind, (except for when it is), what are the implications?

Footnote: “The Afterlife”

I noted my worker’s belief in some kind of afterlife gave him comfort.

Personally I take great comfort that this life is a beautiful experience — and when it’s over it’s over… my physical body will most certainly dissolve back into the mystery from whence it came, along with my brain, and my “awareness” will either shut off, or, continue in some form that I cannot possibly fathom. Spoiler alert: neither science nor religion has any proof here, and the most likely possibility is that we never will.

What can we do in the face of this “absurdity”? This uncertainty? I agree with Camus, here… create in the desert while we can. Enjoy the experience. There is nothing to hold on to. Death is nothing to fear. In fact, it has beautiful lessons to teach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

(What is this?…) (Don't Subscribe)

%d bloggers like this: