It doesn’t take much reading of books and articles on differing views about the existence or nonexistence of God, or watching many video clips of debates between holders of these different views, to soon realize the term “atheism” gets a bad rap. Many believers persist in saying atheists claim to know that God does not exist, and then happily point out atheists don’t have evidence to establish that claim. Atheists try to counter by stating, over and over, that atheism means only lack of belief in a God, with no claim to know the unprovable — God’s nonexistence.
I sometimes imagine a scene where, as the animals were boarding Noah’s ark, one of the lion pair asked the venerable patriarch to please assign the lions to a berth “next to the sheep or a nice, juicy gazelle.”
Clearly this must not have happened, or else Noah figured out ways to prevent the lions and other predators from eating their fellow passengers — we don’t read about major reductions in the passenger list when the voyage ended. Some cagey captain, to solve so well the problem of making sure his huge menagerie got along together throughout the voyage. (He was, though, following the direction of an all-powerful God, so maybe I should not be surprised.)
Just about every time I hear someone question whether or not atheists and other freethinkers can be “spiritual”, or someone seems puzzled why an atheist or freethinker would even be interested in the subject, I can count on hearing in the atheist response — as an illustration of being spiritual — a description of how atheists too can be moved by the sight of some marvelous scene in nature, some breathtaking view of the Grand Canyon or a star-filled view of the sky on a cold, clear night.
Nothing wrong with that since it’s certainly true atheists are just as likely as any other humans to be thrilled by powerfully experiencing nature. But, for me, that’s too easy. That’s too limited an illustration. To find a secular spirituality that will satisfy us in a deeper sense, we atheists and freethinkers need to go beyond just experiences like gazing at the Grand Canyon.
Lately, whenever I see a sports team huddled in prayer during a game, or think of all those moms and dads out there praying for their son or daughter’s team to win the game they’re watching (or praying for the son or daughter to score a goal and make the family proud), I can’t help thinking about the Hubble Deep Field and Hubble Ultra Deep Field observations. Let me explain.
In his popular 2004 book Don’t think of an elephant!, professor of linguistics George Lakoff described the power of “frames” – the mental structures that shape the way we see the world. According to Lakoff, “You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’.” They are, in effect, images that are automatically evoked in our brain without our being aware of the process, but which shape the way we reason and what counts as common sense.
To prove his point to his students, he gives them a simple exercise. He tells them: “Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant!” It’s not possible, of course:
“Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame.” (p. 3)
de Botton’s TED talk
About a year and a half ago I came across an excellent TED talk by Alain de Botton entitled “Atheism 2.0”. De Botton wastes no time arguing whether or not God exists, but starts from the premise:
“of course there is no God. Of course there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let’s move on. That’s not the end of the story. That’s the very, very beginning.”