A few days after I got my cancer diagnosis, I had a spontaneous thought that surprised me: a gut-level relief that I no longer follow any organized religion.
The feeling was a surprise because it completely goes against the usual narrative about atheists and life trauma. When bad luck inevitably strikes, we’re supposed to feel a sudden and penetrating fear. We’re supposed to be hit by a fervent desire for traditional religion or for God, who has been waiting patiently for us to grow up and get over ourselves. We’re supposed to realize we’ve been acting like stubborn assholes.
I haven’t felt any of that. Maybe this is because I don’t fit the most narrow definition of an atheist; I don’t believe in any kind of personal god, but I do value a spiritual reverence for the universe. But I think my relief has more to do with a specific difference in the way I think about the universe now versus when I followed a religion.
The theology we learn as members of a religion often has to do with reasons for things: why people sin, why God makes certain events happen, why humans feel suffering or joy. These reasons in turn dictate rules to follow, and specific kinds of meaning for our life experiences. If you get satisfaction out of those rules and meanings, if they weave well into the subtle workings of your brain and self, your religion will help you live a good life.
But if your religion prescribes meanings for your life that you can’t quite swallow, you’re left with a whole worldview that doesn’t make sense any more. You have a whole system of Reasons for Things that has to be dismantled.
My worldview now doesn’t involve much in the way of reasons. I don’t need to know why God created the universe, because I think the universe is all there is (or, to put it spiritually, All there is). If an event is beyond my control, I don’t need to know why it happened. There isn’t always a why.
If there is any reason for my cancer, it’s because living cells are precocious, tenacious little fuckers, and sometimes they do weird things. It’s not a punishment, or an example for others, or a spiritual progress test. There’s nothing to dictate how I have to feel about it, what meaning I find in this experience.
Without reasons to limit its shape, meaning expands to fill the space. Like words on a page, or a breath, or the cosmos itself.