Atheism, Religion

The Religious Atheists

Photo credit: "Así es María" by Elisabeth D'Orcy

The first atheist I met was a deeply religious man.

Yes, he was totally certain he was an atheist. 100% sure. There are no gods; he was anything but wishy-washy on this point.

However he was also a Buddhist. He explained to me how some Buddhists do believe in souls, gods, spirits and the like—but others view them as tricks of the mind. Illusions, which may or may not be useful at any given time.

For a long time I thought this was just his personal view. I was skeptical that other Buddhists shared it.

Then I met Lama Pamela Holtum (“Lama La”). When I visited her monastery—the one where I might live—I bowed to the shrine there as she showed me. I asked her what she did if people refused to bow.

“Nothing,” she said. “Gods are just patterns in people’s minds. They’re useful if you know how to use them. People who don’t approach with respect don’t know how to use them.”

Not All the Same

This type of atheism always fascinates me. Most people—including most atheists—are only familiar with a compartmentalized type of atheism. The type where “God doesn’t exist” means “no point in worshipping God.” This is often a view of former Christians. Christianity treats faith as a pillar of religion. So if you don’t believe, religion has nothing for you. (But then, religions are like apps.)

The Buddhist atheists go a step further. Their question seems to be, “If there are no gods, then what do all these people get out of worshiping their gods? Is there something useful here?”

Photo credit: "Meditation at Bayon" by willposh

Practicing Without Faith

There are many reasons why I spend time with my gods, even though I don’t know if they are real.

  • It’s peaceful and satisfying. Time spent facing the altar is time that takes me beyond just the stuff in my own head.
  • The gods represent what’s best in us. When I contemplate their example and their stories, I think about how I could live up to the same ideals. In many ways that’s the whole point of the Heroic Life.
  • They give damn good advice. You can say that the voice of the gods is nothing more than my own unconscious mind—but if that’s true, my unconscious mind is never so insightful and useful as when it’s pretending to be a god.

The fact that my religious practice is incredibly helpful to me is at least partly because of how I view religion.

I don’t pray to the gods to get a promotion or be healed. I don’t expect that prayer will fix all my problems. Instead, it’s the relationship that I value.

My gods are like mentors or old friends. I simply enjoy their presence (real or imagined) and the wisdom they share.

Because I don’t ask them to do things for me, I also don’t shove responsibility off on them. There is no “It’s part of God’s plan.” No “God told me to do it.” I take my destiny in my own hands.


28 thoughts on “The Religious Atheists

  1. I love the concept of the Net of Indra–this idea I got from J Campbell that the universe is like a 3D spiderweb. On each vertex is a gem/pearl. Every gem reflects every other gem. “The whole thing gears together like a symphony.” Meditation on these kind of metaphors is really listening to the oracles that are everywhere.

    That said I’m kind of an existential theist. Kind of the opposite of your friend. I appreciate theophony more than theology. I believe, with the anarchist, that the “best illumined church is a burning one.” Of course this, too, is a metaphor.

    God is unknowable…there are whispers, metaphors, and thirst. I know that from time immemorial, people have had a thirst to worship, listen, engage with the immaterial.

    I think listening to God’s symphony (theophony) and contributing to the conversation is relationship. I would be really sad to think I were worshiping metaphors…this part about your friend eludes me. I love the rites, blessings, and music of meditation and liturgy, but I can kiss, taste or touch a metaphor.

    What do you make of this?


    • Hi Mark! Welcome to Rogue Priest and thank you for commenting.

      I think it’s important for me to clarify that my position is very neutral. I’m not convinced the gods are objectively real—but I’m not convinced they aren’t, either. I have no way of knowing so I abstain from judgment.

      This neutrality fuels a lot of what I say about the gods. It also means I refuse to argue one way or another or spend my life trying to prove it. But, although I am unconvinced, I continue to sense the gods. Theophany, as you say. And I still treasure relating with them.

      It’s such a treasure, that I realized I would keep doing it even if they are just in my head. They’re worth it no matter what They may be. This is why I’m OK with the idea that they may just be metaphors, an idea that unsettles a lot of religious people. To me it doesn’t matter what they are, I value the experience of communicating with them.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Really good stuff here, Drew. I’ve shared it with several friends already. You speak for me in several places. I find solace and help and good counsel in sitting with my gods, whether they exist or not, and I don’t know whether they do. I find it a no-longer-necessary question. The better question is the one you’ve raised and commented on–is the relationship with the gods helpful.

    • “I find it a no-longer-necessary question”—this exactly sums up my feelings :)

      I think that if I were to found a religion one of its main tenets would be “never debate about religion.” To each their own and all that. If you can have a long and fun conversation with a friend, where you both explore each other’s ideas, that is awesome. But arguing about invisible things? Less so.

  3. I would indeed find it strange for anyone to call themselves a-theist, with the alpha privative, and pay respect to the gods as “patterns of the mind”. Though I say, “projections of consciousness”, not just the mind. I should say they are paying respect to the only gods who exist in reality.

    Also, faith and belief are not about intellectual assent, but indeed, respect and love.

    I mentioned both of these again in my latest post too… get outta my head :D

      • They are the same thing! But if you mean purely intellectual belief- as in, I believe that if I jump I will fall back down to earth because of gravity, I suppose it is possible. Though I think it would be a stronger love if you had greater knowledge of reality and still loved it anyway.

        • That’s totally fair Korakaos. For me personally, I don’t think I can ever have reliable info about the gods. So I don’t base my love of them on my belief in them :)

  4. Yes! This is very close to how I relate to deities – both Lama la’s view of gods as patterns in the mind, and to some extent also your view of gods as perhaps the best of all voices in our heads.

    Strangely, I just posted on a similar topic – over at Lilies and Cedars and Corn, I finally gave an introduction to Humanistic Paganism, a way of life different but still quite similar to what you describe here.

  5. Kate Jacob says:

    I like what you have to say. As a previous Catholic I have tried for a long time to figure out what makes me want to be a good person with a need to help others, if not the Christian teachings. I have a personal god who I spend time with too and who is always with me, but I believe it is more of what we call ‘conscience’.
    I like to be treated with kindness and respect and so I treat other people that way. In my insignifcant belief system this is the one truth. Kindness and a sincere willingness to help others. Strictly Christian? No, I think more an evolved human.
    Now, I sound like a Christian, as this is what Jesus taught. He was right as far as I can tell.
    But most people can figure it out, if they can move a bit outside of themselves and see with a different perspective.

    • That’s beautiful. Thank you for commenting and sharing it!

      It’s interesting to me that you say you are a “previous Catholic.” From our other conversations I thought you still considered yourself Catholic and Christian. What made you decide you aren’t?

      • Kate Jacob says:

        For me it’s not what you call yourself or the beliefs of a formal religion. I try to be a good, kind and caring person.
        Compassion, that’s what I believe in. Oh oh,the most important element of Buddhism! I certainly do relate to that belief system.
        I am a ‘mongrel of faith’! Ha, that is a perfect definition! I take what I need from other religions.
        Now I must go out and search the snowy woods for the puppies I heard last night! Hopefully not wolves.
        May all of the gods be with me!

  6. I grew up Pentecostal. Spent a few years as a bored agnostic. Fell in love with the Emerging Church. Went to seminary for two semesters. Became an angry atheist.

    A year later, I suppose some would consider me more “New Agey” than atheist. But I still consider myself an atheist because I’ll never worship a deity again or entertain thoughts of eternal damnation or reward.

    But there is a mystery to life here and now that I can’t escape or name. I don’t think it can be personified, and I don’t think it’s as cheesy as universal love because love is obviously not universal. I just think it is whatever it is. I enjoy not knowing, but also not fearing that it’s out to get me.

    • Thanks for commenting Chase. A question for you – if this divine thing cannot be personified, then how do you view the many worshippers who do personify it? Are Zeus, Indra and Yahweh not personae of it?

  7. Wes Isley says:

    So well said. this is essentially my approach, too, although I can’t quite get around to using the word “gods” just yet–too much Christian baggage!

  8. Randall Jennings says:

    Thank you for this exploration!
    I do think of “faith” being something more akin to “faithfulness,” rather than the anemic, reductionist take on faith. And I’ve come to think of the ‘mental templates’ the gods represent as something we inhabit as much as they may be something ‘of the mind’ (I think of ‘mind’ and language as something we’re in as a shared space). Given that these templates (arising in everyday conversation) really grant us our range of being, some are more cramped than others, and some ‘eat at us.’ The ‘gods’ that really impact our lives definitely feel bigger than us, and inherited, like “The Economy” or “Progress.” The inquiry could look something like – where do these gods take us, or leave us? And, if our holy ‘individual spirituality’ has divorced itself from these concerns, then what kind of ‘god’ is this one?

  9. Religious atheism is much more plausible, and existentially relevant, than reactive or “flat” atheism. Religious atheists reject the monarchical view of God, but may find value in panentheistic understandings of God. However, they will want to approach the Thouness of God, conceived panentheistically, as a metaphor, not an actuality. My question is: What is the difference between the two? If you have a relationship with a good friend, is that person a metaphor or an actuality? Would the richness of the relationship be the same whether that friend is metaphor or actuality? Looking forward to your response. PS For explanations of panentheism, please see

  10. Kristofski says:

    The problem is though that you can say that about anything, even conciousness is just a pattern in people’s minds. Actually a great example of this is language, language has no meaning beyond what we attribute to it with our own minds, yet noone would claim that language doesn’t exist. Another example; “red” doesn’t objectively exist, it is simply how our brain responds to and organises a specific light frequency. But to our own subjective experiance, red does indeed exist.

    I think the issue is that things like this can be real or unreal on different levels or in different situations. From one perspective, gods/esses do exist, from another they don’t. From one perspective they are all individual seperate personalities, and from another they are all facets of a greater being (the same could be said for people/everything else as well).

    I think the main problem is that most people use the term “athiest” when they really mean “materialist”, so a word that means a lack of belief in deitiy has come to mean a complete rejection of anything other than the material world.

    • Kristofski says:

      I tried to be clever and put a quote at the beggining of that post but it didn’t seem to work. That comment was in direct response to this:

      “Gods are just patterns in people’s minds”

    • I think you make a really good point Kristofski. Other things, like language or math, only exist as pattern in our minds as well. We don’t say that those things don’t exist.

      But, we also don’t say that those things are made of indestructible celestial stuff and are living an objective life in an alternate universe beyond the clouds. Savvy?

      The religious atheists I’ve met would never deny that gods are every but as real as consciousness, language, math, or any other abstract concept. They would agree with you. But they wouldn’t say the gods exist outside of our minds, either.

      Myself, I’m on the fence. I have a deep reverence for my deities, and whether they are in my psychology or they live as immortal spirits doesn’t really affect me.

  11. Kristofski says:

    I guess I find it hard to agree with your argument simply because I don’t believe that anything exists objectivley, so if someone said that deities “are made of indestructible celestial stuff and are living an objective life in an alternate universe beyond the clouds” then I would strongly encorage them to rethink their position.

    I guess my idea is that you can’t really have this idea about deity but ignore the fact that it also applies to the rest of existance; if I decide that deity is just a product of my brainwave pattern and therefore I identify as an athiest, then why do I not identify myself as whatever the equivalant term is for someone who doesn’t believe in colours, as I know that my experiance of colour is simply a product of my brainwave pattern?

    But then I’m coming at all this with the assumption that there is no such thing as objective reality (or, more accurately, the fact that there is no way for anyone/anything to ever actually experiance the universe objectively means that such a concept is completley useless), and the people you’re talking about don’t necessarily agree with this.

    “Myself, I’m on the fence. I have a deep reverence for my deities, and whether they are in my psychology or they live as immortal spirits doesn’t really affect me.”

    Personally I would say both is probably true. I believe these being exist on a different plane, in a way that we can never fully understand (most likely created, at least in part, by the thoughtforms of humans). When they come to you, you are not actually experiancing them as they are, you are experiancing your brain’s interpretation of them with it’s limited resources, tied down as it is to physical existance. This is why many people can experiance what is supposedly the same entity and have completley different experiances of it. It’s also why both sides can be convinced they have God on their side :)

  12. Toby Baxter says:

    I just read the article “The religious atheists” as the title makes no sense, if a person is 100% an atheist what religion would interest them, you would have no time for religion surely. Then you speak of a wisdom you receive and the beautiful calm you have whilst sitting with your Gods that aren’t there?? Human precept’s (as a gifted therapist) can be achieved this way but knowing The Saviour and sitting in the Holy Spirit which I have been blessed with, is just a totally different thing.

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