Parting Thoughts

What I Believe

Posted 25 April 2016

When someone asks your religion, how do you label yourself?

An Atheist Jew

Curiously, it is being in hospitals that has prompted me to label myself as an atheist, since I get asked as part of the admissions process what my religious preference is.

The staff always looks a little surprised. In a recent Pew survey, only 3.1% of Americans identified themselves as Atheist, so clearly I am, unsurprisingly, well out of the mainstream in my views.

My parents were Jewish, and they were raised in moderately religious households. By the time I was born, the youngest of three children, my father was an atheist and my mother an agnostic — terms I learned as a questioning adolescent.

I am unquestionably Jewish in a racial sense (96.1% Ashkenazi Jew according to 23andMe), and I have a strong interest in and compassion for the history and fate of the Jews. I have never really engaged with the Jewish religion, though.

When I was growing up, we had the occasional seder and hanukkah celebration, but otherwise the Jewish elements of our household were mostly culinary: bagels, lox, new york rye, matzah, kasha, gefilte fish, rugelach. God didn’t enter into our religious life, such as it was, in any explicit way.

The Great Mystery

Like “faith”, God is used to mean so many different things that a meaningful discussion is possible only if you know what the speaker means.

At its most all encompassing, God is sometimes used to mean “the mysterious force that ties everything together”.

At its most traditional, God is a human-like figure who created the world and who attends to your prayers.

Personally, I don’t use the word, because I find it too loaded with unintended meanings. I don’t believe in a personal God that pays any attention to me, nor in a human-like figure, nor in an intelligent creator.

This leaves me with sayings like “the great mystery” for whatever it is that ties everything together, yet is beyond our understanding today.

Spiritual But Not Religious

The label of “spiritual but not religious” is the best I’ve found for my personal views — but I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

For many years, I felt nearly as uncomfortable with “spiritual” as I did with “religious.” “Being spiritual” still feels, to a large degree, like it is “not me.”

As I have thought, read, and talked about these subjects in recent years, and especially in recent months, I have developed a sense of what being spiritual means to me.

Going through our day-to-day lives, much of what we do is focused on our own individual needs, desires, and accomplishments, and those of a small circle of friends, family, and coworkers. However, this mode of being doesn’t create much of a connection to the natural world, or to the extended community of mankind.

Most religions take people beyond this secular world by providing a sacred set of beliefs, typically presented in settings, such as churches and synagogues, that are dedicated to religious life.

This just doesn’t work for me, though I can see how it does for many people. I’m not looking for a new set of beliefs, nor am I interested in a tradition-bound interpreter of an ancient set of beliefs. I am seeking answers by looking inward, talking with friends, reading, and thinking.

For me, that is spirituality. It is gardening, being with my family and friends and animals, enjoying the beauty of nature, marveling at life in all its forms, and thinking deeply about the big questions. It is a feeling of quiet connection to the world, as well as awe and wonder at its endless variety, complexity, and beauty.

Foundational Beliefs

There are a few foundational beliefs that I find to be very powerful.

  • Treat others as you would want to be treated
  • Be compassionate
  • Make a contribution
  • Follow your passion
  • Embrace diversity

This simple set of beliefs (really goals) provides a clear, powerful, and intuitive set of principles that guide my life. You’ll find these in some form in many religions, but I find no need for the religious dressing. There’s no need for a prophet, a creation story, a priesthood, or the supernatural.

I am not asking you, or anyone else, to endorse or accept my beliefs; these work for me, and everyone needs to find their own way. Embracing diversity is one of my foundational beliefs because without it, there is no way to really appreciate any but your own perspective.

What I Don’t Believe In

Any belief system that rejects open inquiry, requires certain beliefs to be held, or that views all non-believers as the enemy is unacceptable to me. For this reason, I see most religions as interesting objects of study, but not as belief systems to which I could subscribe.

More broadly, there are many concepts that I have a great deal of trouble believing in, such as:

  • A personal god
  • Heaven and hell
  • Satan
  • Sin
  • Souls
  • Reincarnation
  • Judgement day
  • Saints
  • Miracles
  • This God is the only true God
  • This way is the only true path

I believe that these concepts are largely artifacts from a time when little was understood about how the world works, combined with a desire for control over the populace. The set of beliefs, whatever it is, is reinforced as religions use tribal dynamics (you are one of us or you are not) to build and retain their followers.

Creation Myths and Holy Books

There are so many creation myths, I find it hard to understand how anyone could get attached to any particular one as the ultimate truth.

People love stories. They are the best tool we have to pass along information, preserve history, and provide guidance. A shared set of stories creates a powerful bond that can unify a community. And we don’t like mysteries; we want explanations for how things came to be the way they are, and why things happen the way they do.

The very strength of stories can become their biggest weakness: they stick around for too long and become a fossilized version of “truth” that is subject to endless reinterpretation. They also lure us with emotional appeal, which can easily cause us to accept stories that lack objective truth.

I believe that the Bible, Koran, Torah, and most other holy books suffer from this syndrome. Creation myths, holy books, and other kinds of cultural stories are valuable if they are taken as what they are: ancient starting points, written for a vastly different world, and modified through the centuries by many editors and authors.

I Believe in Science

There is an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I can’t speak for the experience of a true battlefield foxhole, but I can say that from my medical foxhole, I remain comfortable in my atheist views.

While science certainly doesn’t answer all of the questions today, and probably never will, I believe it offers a far sounder basis for understanding the world than does religion. I am interested in theories that are proven to be true in repeatable experiments, and can evolve over time as new discoveries are made, rather than in the endless dissection and interpretation of ancient books.

Nevertheless, I remain intrigued by the persistence of religions, and in the third and final part of this series of essays I will explore the strengths of religion and how it could become a more valuable part of the future world.


Kent J.

I’ve noticed that most people, later in life, circle back the religions they were exposed to as a child, even if there had been an extended period of estrangement. So it is significant that, far from investigating the spiritual vestiges of a Jewish childhood, you are even more fervent in your pronunciation of having no religion. I believe this shows a strength of character — rejecting the widely available balm of spiritual rituals that guide the end of many people’s life journey. Not that these rituals are without value for believers, but I applaud your consistency in maintaining the rigorous thinking that defines who you are.

Michael Heumann

Michael I want to thank you for your help with the project (the KnowledgeFilter and Open SourceBook tools for combining and filtering collective wisdom). It all started with an attempt to integrate science and spirituality- both updated to incorporate the other is what I believe we need now as a species. I too like the term ” the Great Mystery”. In a Native American language what we call God is called ” grandfather (ultimate source) of the great mystery.”. One of the first Open SourceBooks is called ” formulas for Living” exploring the biological basis of spiritual truth. I’ll send you the pre Open SourceBooks manuscript. I agree with Joseph Campbell who says religion and myth is true in the way that poetry is true. Religion just needs to be update in the light of modern science. Formulas Echoes many of the thoughts in this great essay. Interesting that religion is one of the very few absolutely universal traits found in every culture ( per EO Wilson “The Meaning of Human Existence” ) Thank you for opening the topic in such a meaningful way.
Thank you for the light you continue to bring to the world!

Donna Schaffer

This essay epitomizes why I have always admired your intellect. I may adopt it a personal religious philosophy but will give you credit whenever possbile. Embracing diversity might be my first foundational belief. But I really want to experience the list of beliefs and see if over the years there’s additions or subtractions. Thank you Michael.

Josh Woodlander

Thank you fellow Atheist! I could not have articulated my own “spiritual” beliefs more accuratley than you have written about yours. I especially appreciate this thought of yours, “For me, that is spirituality. It is gardening, being with my family and friends and animals, enjoying the beauty of nature, marveling at life in all its forms, and thinking deeply about the big questions.” Precisely the truth.

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