I used to be a hardcore athiest. Can you be logical and spiritual? I think so

How I found out I was completely wrong about everything (Don’t worry, not trying to convert you)

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Teenage Madelaine

(No disrespect to athiests. I’m sure most of you were less dickish than I was. Also please don’t be jerks to me about this, I respect your cosmology and don’t get militant about mine.)

(I’m not trying to convert you and yes obviously I support a secular government and legal system, I’m not a jerk.)

My earliest memory is standing by the edge of a lavender bush, pulling off the oval seeds with clumsy small fists. My mother is having tea with some tall person across the garden. I’ve insisted on dressing in my best dress and I trip my way towards her. Delusions of grandeur at the age of three, accompanied with a firm belief in fairies.

As a kid, I took daydreaming to a whole new level. I’d paint, draw, write, invent and tell stories every day for obsessive amounts of time. Why don’t you go play? some disturbed nanny or au pair would whisper over my shoulder. I’d look up, confused. I am playing, I’d say back. This is fun.

Even now, like most humans, I sense something far wider and greater and more curious than simply what I see, feel and learn. In a weird way, my stories and drawings were a way of exploring the weird world beyond boring cold school halls and ford fiestas. But fairies became classic myths, and then turned into obsessive religious history study by the time I was 18.

By that point, I studied to get rid of the fantasies in my head and ground myself in reality. The more I knew about Asherah and Gilgamesh, the less I was troubled by what could possibly lie beyond my bedroom door at night. Learning was uncoding the myth. I can still reel off why teleology is a false premise, or how there is absolutely completely nothing out there, but now I realise how completely and utterly wrong I was. I used to be that smug, annoying anti thiest teenage girl who read too much and could twist 3000 years of cosmological theory into ‘why your unicorn doesn’t exist’. I would lean back with my badly cut fringe and list off Ramachandran’s explorations of temporal lobe epilepsy like a fucking twat. I did fantastically well and was fantastically hated by my poor Christian classmates.

Why was I so dramatically, horrifically wrong despite my obsessive academic study into the history of Abrahamic faith? Well, the biggest problem was the fact I had read the Bible, the Torah and the Quran, along with about a hundred other books on ancient faith, and COMPLETELY IGNORED THE 3000 YEAR TRADITIONS THAT FOLLOWED.

None of this really hit home until I, to my horror, had a religious experience. And not one I could explain away through electric currents in the brain, desperation to see something or drugs.

I know I’m going to get a billion comments whining about what ACTUALLY happened and why-doesn’t-god-save-all-kids-then but here you go:

  1. I was crossing Euston Road on a Friday evening

I stood there gaping for around half an hour, then walked home in shock. Why did this have to happen to me? I WAS SENSIBLE. I did a BSc. This happened to other people. Why the hell did an athiest have to see a fucking miracle?

But I did, and that meant I now needed to re evaluate my entire life. I started re-reading the Torah, and surrounding texts, and discovered The Book of Hosea. Now Hosea was a fucking legend. I’d read him the first time round as a delusional camel farmer who was pissed off at his wife, but now I could see where he was coming from. A lot of what he felt was the same way I felt. Why was there such awful stuff in the world? Why does life sometimes kick you in the face? What happens when you just don’t know the answer?

Ironically, this literalist discussion was more comforting with me than the hard line secularist thinking I’d found anywhere else. Hosea accepted life, and God/Fate as something that just was. It just is. And sometimes it sucks, and stuff that happens is ridiclous and unlikely, but you come off better through it if you just work out what is best.

I, deep breath, don’t have all the answers.

We never did. Not in the deserts, not in the caves, not when we were wandering around the savannah. We never knew what the fuck was actually real, and what wasn’t. Even now, with impressive three volumes of Hitchenesque logic, no one really knows.

And that’s okay. I’ve finally admitted to myself, at 21, that I don’t know everything and never will.

The more I study neuroscience, evolutionary theory and ecology, the more I realise those arent about ‘disproving’ the ways we think and feel about the world, it’s about exploring them. I can totally believe that Noah’s Ark is a story, AND go to synagogue and feel the oneness and calmness I’ve never felt anywhere else. I nearly cried when I had my first Shabbat service.

It really was the first place I’d felt right in. I knew all the songs, all the words (although my Hebrew is clumsy af) and I couldn’t explain how, but my throat knew the next key without having ever heard it before. Maybe you can explain that through psychological theory, but it doesn’t make it any less magical for me.

I can do both, and that’s fine. We are all trying to work out what the fuck a human is. I can find that in both my faith and my SNP investigations. Find whatever works for you.

Written by

24 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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