“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it.” Terry Pratchett
I was born in the age of reason, the information age. From my early years, I worshipped people who argued that belief in a god was for the weak of mind and the needy of spirit. I absolutely agreed with those who sniggered at believers, pointing out the foolishness of Americans who thought the world was only 3000 years old and endlessly quoting Bill Hick’s famous one word question to them,
I hated that wars were fought over whose imaginary friend was more important, and I blamed their belief in a god rather than the astounding capacity in humans for cruelty. I saw the insane behaviour of ‘believers’ everywhere who threatened authors’ lives over books like The Satanic Verses. Who burned books like the Harry Potter novels and the Timbuktu Manuscripts. My mother was working as a book conservator in Cairo when the Institute D’Eygpt was set on fire in 2011. She was part of the team that worked tirelessly to save the books and journals. If there’s any unifying set of higher beliefs in my family, it’s that all books are sacred.
As soon as someone admitted that they believed there was anything higher than the laws of physics, I would immediately launch my own, personal inquisition – often harrying them into devastated silence or furious diatribe. Both of which would immediately lead me to the conclusion that I was completely right – instead of just a bully. I completely failed to see that I was engaging in the most offensive behaviour I frequently accused religious people of, that anyone who had as much as read a ‘spiritual’ text for anything more than further arguments against them was not worthy of my time or respect.
I also thought I was open-minded because I supported equal rights for everyone. I am pro marriage regardless of your sexual proclivity, pro choice, pro equality for all regardless of race or sex. I believed that I supported all those who were marginalised and oppressed.
One day, about ten years ago, I was confronted with a right wing, anti gay-marriage, catholic man who was in trouble. I walked away without doing anything, telling myself that his beliefs had got him into trouble and he would now learn to be more open-minded, albeit with a slight limp.
It was pointed out to me, in controlled fury, by someone I respected enormously and who I had told this story in all my mighty self-righteousness, that I was not open-minded, but broad-minded. That I was horribly closed minded to anyone who didn’t believe as I believed. That I was completely unkind and uncharitable. It was a horrible blow to my ego, and one that I sat with for quite some time. And then it struck me in a moment of startling clarity.
I was a fundamentalist atheist.
Not an atheist, you understand, but a fundamentalist atheist.
I see them everywhere nowadays. It’s become the new socially acceptable enclave of a strict adherence to the basic principles of a system. Like dogmatists everywhere, they are the only people who are right, regardless of what brings others peace and joy.
Something I used to say all the time is,
“The onus isn’t on me to prove there isn’t a god, the onus is on you to prove there is a god.”
I had rigidly declared that this world didn’t need any god to explain it. And then I misquoted spiritual texts and cited the craziest of religious believers to show that I was right, rather than seeing I was skewed by my own dogma and prejudice. That people of belief all over the world (not all, but many) were engaging kindly, compassionately and lovingly with each other, probably in the same proportions as non-believers. That it didn’t matter whether their belief ‘made’ them behave like this. The results were positive, so why did I feel the constant need to tear them to shreds?
After my experience with the catholic man, I started asking people questions about their beliefs. At first with a sneer, and gradually with a genuine interest. And the answers I got in return weren’t the idiotic responses I was expecting. People who I liked, who also happened to believe, spoke of kindness, of finding a space of peace when life was heartbreaking. They spoke of compassion, and understanding. They talked about the person I wanted to be.
Whenever I brought up the subject of my inability to believe in a god, they would say,
“You don’t have to believe in a god. This isn’t about what you believe. This is about what you do.”
I started to read religious and spiritual texts. I read a lot of them: Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist. I read books by Catholics, Anglicans and Quakers. By Sunnis and Sufis. By Transcendentalists and Pagans. By Socrates and Confucius. I tried to keep an open mind and an open heart. It was hard at times. To this day I find my literal modern mind often misinterprets the human condition behind the words, and scoffs at particular assertions.
I’ve come to realise a few things about ‘spiritual beliefs’, although I’m sure that none of them are groundbreaking for anyone but me.
The first realisation for me was that those who honestly search for a higher power don’t seek in black and white. I always thought that, in the same way that 2+2=4, you either believe or you don’t.
But for those who genuinely seek – whether it is our human conscience, God, Jehovah, Allah, Ganesha or the Goddess – the act of seeking seems to be the point, not the arriving. I’ve come to see that it is only when I stop thinking I have any of the answers that I begin to live in a space of compassion and true tolerance.
Today, I continue to have a distrust of anyone who thinks they have the solution to the human condition. But these days I’ve included dogmatic atheists in that distrust.
You could even call me a fundamentalist anti-fundamentalist. A whole new strain of fundamentalism…
These days, when not waiting impatiently for the new Dresden Files book with one of my favourite protagonists in modern literature, I more frequently read writers of comparative religion, like Karen Armstrong and groups like the Theosophical Society. They perceive our search for a higher power as a search for the best of ourselves, as a journey of mysticism and wonder, never achieving certainty but instead, like the best of scientific exploration, discovering better questions. And that the relationship with a higher entity can only come from within ourselves.
May be it’s time for another spiritual revolution. May be we can relearn that no religious text is written to be taken literally – in the same way that Harry Potter is not actually the story of a magician who can expelliarmus (much to my continuing sadness), but a story of a boy who ultimately gives up everything for those he loves. May be if we reread some of those spiritual texts in the light of compassion, as the Jewish leader, Hillel the Elder, said when he encapsulated the Torah in four sentences,
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
then we will begin to see a promise of love and tolerance and unity; rather than rules, dogma and rigidity wrapped up in different paper.
I sometimes believe in all the gods today, and at other times in none of them at all. I read Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’ at least once a year. At the moment, I’m finding inner walkways in books like The Seven Storey Mountain, The Spiral Dance, Prayer, and The Prophet. And at all times I still absolutely love and believe passionately in science. I’m currently loving The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast. And Tim Minchin continues to be awesome in practically every way.
I think I now would call myself an
‘agnostic seeker with occasional glimpses of a higher consciousness’
It sounds far grander than
“haven’t got a clue, but isn’t it all sparkly and amazing?!”
Phew, that was heavy… Let’s lighten up with a dessert, shall we?
Mousse today, partly because it’s light and airy, unlike the press of words above. And partly because I think it’s currently about the same temperature as the surface of the sun where I live, and I don’t want to turn on the stove or the oven!
- 125g dry roasted and salted pistachios, shelled
- 6 Madjool dates, stones removed
- 50g caster sugar
- 15g fresh mint leaves
- 100g dark chocolate (I use one with 70% cocoa solids)
- 200ml double cream (heavy cream)
- Whites of 3 large eggs
Put shelled pistachios and dates in a blender and blend until crumbly and well mixed – about 30 seconds
Divide the mix between 6 single serving circular rings
Leave in the fridge while you make the mousse
Put the caster sugar and mint leaves in the (cleaned!) blender and mix together until the sugar is green and minty fresh
Break up the chocolate and either melt in the microwave, or if you insist on turning on heat… a heat-proof bowl over barely simmering water (making sure they don’t touch)
Leave to cool
Whip the cream with about half of the mint sugar until soft peaks form, place in the fridge until ready to use again
In another bowl, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form, add the rest of the mint sugar a little at a time until soft and glossy
Add the cooled chocolate into the egg whites, and fold until almost incorporated
Add the whipped cream and fold until smooth and no traces of white are left
Chill for at least 1 hour until set
Decorate with a mint leaf and a pistachio