In my own experience, no attachment has proved more meaningful to me, and helped more to create in me a sense of genuine social identity, than that to my own spiritual belief system. Like many others, I found it necessary to search my own conscience in that matter, as I was unwilling to simply accept my family's received (Lutheran) faith in what seemed a matter of great personal importance. I could no more do that than accept on faith the stereotype of American "exceptionalism," or the convention that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting "to keep us free."
As it happened, my own powers of insight and creativity led me to my present status as a spiritual a-theist, a non-believer in a personal God or gods, who nevertheless acknowledges a universal creative spirit that gave birth to, and continues to sustain, creation, including the creative powers of man.
For several reasons, I couldn't buy the notion of a personal God or of a literal belief in the tenets of any theistic faith. It was certainly not a novel insight, but it seemed obvious to me that many religious tenets were inherently implausible, as judged by the evidence of history, anthropology, and the physical sciences. With the help of the mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, I also saw that the widely various religious narratives and imagery around the world, while impossible to accept as history or literal fact, were nevertheless figurative of unmistakably universal human motives and needs. That led me to the judgment that religious belief systems are not based on truths revealed by a personal God, but are instead symbolic projections, or myths, that originate in the human unconscious and represent man's own intuitive understanding of the ultimate order of things.
At the same time, I saw that, despite the seeming rationality of the conclusions I had drawn, the three great monotheistic religions continued to claim a literal, historical truth for their narrative and imagery, and, with it, the conviction that the sectarian beliefs drawn from them are the only right ones. What's more, many of their most devout adherents were in fact willing to fight to the death to defend those beliefs. That seemed to me to mix the beliefs with an unseemly interest in domination, making a mockery of the lip service paid to goals of universal peace and justice.
In spite of these insights, however, and the conclusions in favor of atheism to which they drew me, they did not in the least diminish the importance I attributed to the place of religious belief systems in the life of mankind. On the contrary, they elevated it. I saw that, when understood as symbolic projections from the creative center of man, religious narratives and imagery offer mankind profound spiritual support -- and without the divisiveness inherent in the belief that they are literal revelations of a personal God.
As we read in the psychology of Carl Jung, the human unconscious can itself be viewed as a conduit for the universal creative power, and its symbolic projections may therefore offer reliable clues to the mysteries of man's relationship to that power. Those clues are clothed in different ethnic, social and cultural traditions -- as we find reflected, for instance, in the Ten Commandments. But like poems and stories that originate in one place but have meaning and are enjoyed around the world, the religious metaphors too are in fact local embodiments of a universal creative spirit. Understood as such, they can serve as powerful forces for unity, not as sources of conflict.
My view as a spiritual atheist is that, through the religious myths projected from his own creative center, man has embodied the only true "spirituality" there is. It reflects a state of evolution beyond that of the lower animals to a level of consciousness that allows self-awareness, imaginative creativity, and a compassion, or love, for all of creation -- including men with other, even conflicting, values and interests. With this understanding, I have made a meaningful attachment to my own Christian inheritance and can experience a genuine spiritual identification with it. I now view the human capacity for love of the Other as the very meaning of Christ, who represents for me, in sacramental, or iconic, form, the immanence of universal spirit in ego- and time-bound man.
Many individuals are moved by this spirit to do what they can to create conditions that will foster health in nature, prosperity in society, beauty in civilization, and opportunities for other human beings to also fulfill their inborn creative potential. Compared to some scriptural passages from the world's God-based belief systems, steeped as they are in bigotry, ignorance, and even the cult of death, the very human and rational orientation of such a spiritual atheism would seem to offer a much more hopeful basis for building a better world.
Throughout history, humans have already applied their inborn creative powers to producing works of beauty. That endeavor will continue. However, the grandest and most joyous rewards of man's spiritual endowment are still to be attained. One of these will surely be a more general recognition that man is in fact connected to a universal creative power, and that all humans and other forms of creation derive from that single source. That recognition will set us free from the bondage of group divisions and the suppression of our spiritually inherited gifts of creation and understanding. And from that liberation in turn will flow the most precious of all gifts of the human spirit: the ability to respect the values and aspirations of the Other, and to care for him in his need, as one would a brother.
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