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I was such a devoted atheist I almost missed out on a spiritual life

I’m an atheist. I grew up with parents who had varying degrees of faith — my mother was part of a disbanded religious group (one might call it a cult), and my father was serious about Christmas Mass — but we never had a regular church. When I did find myself in Sunday school, I badgered the teacher with gotcha questions about who did and didn’t get into heaven.

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In high school, I called myself a Christian “but not that kind of Christian” as I saw them become affiliated with anti-gay messaging. Later, I downgraded further to a believer in intelligent design. I disapproved of religions, which I viewed as harbingers of great moral evil. Eventually, I realized I didn’t actually believe it anymore. Once I stopped trying to explain some kind of man in the sky, the world made a lot more sense. And poof: For me, God was gone.

From there, atheism became a kind of guard against irrationality: I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything science does not acknowledge as real.

But recently, that has been ringing hollow for me. I’ve been picking up books on Buddhism, breathing deeply in my yoga class and setting up an altar of candles. In December, I was visiting a friend in Seattle when I saw a deck of tarot cards. Those look really cool, I thought. Then immediately: But you’re an atheist. You don’t believe in that stuff.

I’d already grown uncomfortable with how much I was enjoying my yoga classes, which emphasized meditation, noticing thought patterns, feeling emotions. It seemed polar opposite to the world I’d been living in made of clear right and wrongs, logic and certainty. I experienced a kind of spiritual whiplash when I’d find comfort in a new practice — a sense of peace when I put my palms together in prayer hands, a drop in consciousness in meditation. I struggled to reconcile the fact that I couldn’t prove their effect with exactly how relieving I found them.

I like this, I’d think, and then: Oh, no, am I still an atheist?

I felt like I was looking over my shoulder. I hoped my atheist friends wouldn’t catch me as if I were going to be kicked out of the club.

I was becoming what some are calling a spiritual atheist, and it felt lonely. I knew I didn’t fit into the traditional Christian religion, but I also felt uncomfortable with the New Age groups around me that still spoke of God. I wanted a group to explore these feelings with, but as I broached the topic with fellow atheists, I could sense their discomfort.

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John Halstead, author of Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, says there are plenty of people like me out there. He told me a lot of atheists feel caught between theists, who say that a lack of belief in God means spirituality isn’t possible, and the New Atheists, or antitheists, who might argue that religious practices are just leftover irrational thinking. “[They’re] looking for a community that doesn’t require them to believe anything specific and yet hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater, hasn’t thrown out all the religious symbolism and metaphors and rituals that speak to the other parts of us that also make us human,” he told me.

Part of the issue is the word “atheist” itself. “It triggers images of people aggressively arguing with them and denigrating their religious practices and beliefs,” Halstead said. “I’d like to reclaim it just to mean what it means, which is a nonbelief in gods.”

Curious, I asked atheists in my friend group to talk to me about their beliefs. They all agreed it was simply a matter of not believing in gods. But none of them admitted to having spiritual practices, and most shied away from the term “spiritual atheist,” though many also talked about a kind of reverence for the vastness of the universe, even an awe, as well as regularly hiking, meditating and other activities to get there.

A woman in her 30s who had left the Mormon Church said: “I’m not really spiritual anymore. I catch myself blocking that type of thinking altogether.”

A daughter of a pastor said, “I think people are very prone to superstitions, and they don’t appeal to me at all.”

It may be a problem with the word “spiritual,” which means “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” I’m not sure I believe in a literal soul or spirit, but I’m also not sure what a better word would be. I am attracted to the metaphor of a soul, a kind of core essence in each of us, and then exploring what that space feels like, regardless of whether it’s manufactured by chemicals in the brain, objectively measurable or empirically true.

But not everyone who contacted me was skeptical. One woman wrote: “I believe that things really do happen that can’t be empirically established or observed. I believe in psychic abilities and spiritual or informational exchange during dreams.” She said she didn’t consider herself a spiritual person.

“Just because you don’t believe in gods doesn’t mean you’re not religious or spiritual,” Halstead said. “A lot of us, at least, seem to need poetry and ritual and beauty and to connect with something we feel is larger than ourselves.” It’s why he and so many other people have turned to paganism, even as atheists.

When I first started exploring my newfound spirituality, I was desperate to find a group of like-minded people. I wanted someone to show me a list of things that I could comfortably believe, a set of practices that would put me at ease. I found very few, and none that fit just right. I felt alone but unsure of who to talk to about it. Now I’m trying to be less concerned about whether my beliefs or practices fit into atheism. I’m accepting that I’ll have to build my own rules from the ground up, borrowing from traditions that speak to me. I’m trying to remember that I don’t have to fit into a box — that atheism is supposed to fit me.

Lately, I have been curious about experiences. I am less concerned with knowing, certainty, proving or disproving any one thing. What’s true for me is true for me.

Here is what my atheism looks like lately: Every morning, I wake up and meditate. I light candles. I pull a tarot card. I spray a mist of essential oils. I go on with my day. I try to sink below my thoughts. I try to stay in the present moment. At night, I go to yoga or on a walk or a hike. I try to be less afraid. I try to remember how small I am and how big, too. I write it down. I say thank you to no one in particular.

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