Paul grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Tasmania, Australia. He is an optometrist and father.
1. What are your spiritual beliefs? (and) 3. How did you come to have these beliefs?
I blame Lennon for my atheism. Not Lenin ― Lennon, the Beatle.
I grew up in a pretty non-religious household. Not anti-religion, just that religion was kind of a non-issue. I donʼt recall it ever being discussed.
When I was in late primary school, we had Bible Studies. It was optional ― parents were allowed to have their child opt out. My parents asked me if I wanted to do it. I said sure, why not? I had no reason to want to avoid it, and my parents didnʼt discourage me.
So we had these bible classes, and I learnt all sorts of bible stories, and to this day I can still sing a song of the names of the books of the Old Testament. Itʼs won me a few points in trivia competitions over the years.
And I accepted these teachings as truth. Why wouldnʼt I? I accepted that my maths lessons were true, and my music lessons were true. Bible lessons were just another thing I got taught at school. And so I considered myself a Christian, and I believed in God and Jesus, the Resurrection and Heaven and Hell, the Ten Commandments and Noahʼs Ark. And at the end of the year, the teacher gave us each a Bible and said if we were ever in trouble, to turn to it for guidance.
And that was fine. I didnʼt feel any need to go to church or Sunday School. I didnʼt go to extra spelling or maths classes in the weekend either, so why would I go to church? But I lived life with the sense that it was guided by what I knew as Christian principles, and occasionally I prayed, and I felt God was watching over me.
By age 13 though, things werenʼt going so well. My parentsʼ marriage was breaking apart, and I knew divorce was becoming likely. I knew that wasnʼt a good thing, so I turned to the Bible for help. I looked up divorce in the index, and found the relevant chapter & verse. I canʼt remember exactly what it said, but the essence was that once divorced, if my father so much as looked at another woman with lust, he would go to Hell.
Now, I was a 13 year old male. I knew lust was impossible to avoid. My father was doomed. I was devastated. I canʼt even remember what I found about my mum, except that she was bound for Hell too.
The divorce happened. It was really quite a relief, but I was also very sad about the spiritual damage it had done to my family. Heaven had lost a lot of its appeal, since my mum & dad wouldnʼt be there with me.
And then, one day I was building a model aeroplane and listening to the radio. And John Lennon started singing ‘Imagine.’
Imagine thereʼs no Heaven
Itʼs easy if you try
No Hell below us
Above us only sky…
And so I did. I imagined it. And it was like a veil was ripped away. Suddenly the world made sense. With no Heaven, no Hell, suddenly the world was ― shockingly but quite obviously ― coherent. I was terrified. I desperately clawed at my fleeing faith, trying to pull it back. But it was gone, and I felt exposed to a world without those cosy boundaries.
On the plus side, I didnʼt have to worry about the heaven and hell bit anymore (see what I did there? No more capitalisation for them!) But at the same time there had been a real comfort in having guidance, and meaning, and certainty. The loss of that was disorienting and painful and depressing for a long time.
I became a kind of reluctant atheist. At various times I have searched for something to replace that faith, or more particularly to find meaning, to find purpose. Iʼve done a lot of reading into a lot of religions ― I find the whole subject quite fascinating ― but while I have occasionally thought I might be able to persuade myself to believe a religion, nothing has ever clicked, or resonated with me. Nothing has ever felt true.
Iʼve studied a lot of science too. I remember the deep satisfaction I felt when I realised that my various fields ― chemistry, physics, biology and more ― had started to overlap, and I had a rough working knowledge of how the universe worked all the way from the quantum level up through the molecular, cellular, biological, physiological, ecological, geological, planetary and astronomical levels. No, a rainbow doesnʼt lose its mystique when you know how it is formed ― quite the contrary, it takes on a depth that is hard to explain to people who just see the pretty colours.
And Iʼm an optometrist by specialty, so along with that breadth I have a very deep and intimate knowledge of the complexities of one of the most intricate and intriguing parts of the human body ― probably one of the most intriguing things in the world, full stop. If I extrapolate that complexity out to all the other fields in which I have only a surface knowledge… mind-blowing.
A good friend likes to quote Ian Stewart: “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.” The whole universe is like that ― every time you look closer, you find more, and more, and more. We will never, ever, ever be able to take it all in.
Sometimes that amazing tapestry of knowledge in itself seems like a type of divinity. Certainly Iʼm aware of the concept of consciousness itself being a kind of emergent process, inevitably arising from complexity and interconnectedness. In that sense community, humanity and the entire universe become one kind of god. But crucially, itʼs not an interventionist god ― itʼs not something that is interested in me, in what I do and the way I live my life. And it doesnʼt give me meaning, or guidance.
Still kind of cool, though.
2. How sure are you that those beliefs are true?
Iʼm pretty sure. I know even atheism is faith, I get that. But itʼs kind of like this big pile of jigsaw pieces that get jumbled about, and one religion says “If we arrange them like this, that looks nice” and you look and think “well, maybe”, and then another says “My arrangement looks pretty and this is the right way” and you think “perhaps”, and then you look over and see someone else has a whole heap of jigsaw puzzle pieces fitted together perfectly and a beautifully intricate pattern is starting to reveal itself, and the edges arenʼt finished yet but you know immediately that this is the one that works, this is the way itʼs supposed to be. Once you see it, you canʼt un-see it, you canʼt ever fool yourself that the others are anything even close.
On top of that, the fact that itʼs not actually the option I find most appealing seems to support my belief. Iʼm not believing it because I want to believe it, but because itʼs the only one that makes sense.
Which brings me to…
4. What do you wish you could believe (but donʼt)?
An interventionist god would be lovely. I mean, someone I could pray to and he/she/it would help me, that would be cool. (When I believed, I prayed and prayed for a wild west play set. Never got it though. Hey, itʼs no sillier than grown adults who pray for their sports team to win). And heaven would be great ― of course, by definition. But I just canʼt. I mean, it just seems hollow. And I really like the idea of karma, and cyclic rebirth with a chance to do better and better with our lives until we reach something truly marvellous. But again, while it would be nice, it doesnʼt click for me.
But you know, I do have a secret. There is some stuff Iʼd like to believe, and I do. Or rather, I let myself believe it.
There are times that I do feel a sense of transcendence, a connection with something that feels like The Divine. Itʼs almost always when I am alone in the presence of natural beauty. A beach in summer. A hillside with the sound of the cicadas all around me. A forest, with a stream running through it. Watching the sun emerge above the horizon, and feeling its rays suddenly warm on my face. Looking in rock pools, those tiny jewelled sea worlds. Bees buzzing around flowers. I feel it. I really do. It seems like something more is there, something just behind the veil. Something magnificent I could just sink into, become part of. It resonates with me, it feels right and complete.
I only get it with nature, but Iʼm sure it must be the same sort of feeling some people get with prayer, with religious experience. Itʼs exhilarating, restorative, thrilling. If I had it in a church, or while praying, Iʼm sure I would take it as proof that god exists. It would be enough for me to have faith. I can understand people having that feeling as their foundation that all else is built on.
Do I believe itʼs the Divine? Well, no, not really. I think there is something in our programming, in our instinct, that is supposed to find things that resonate for us, to give us those moments of spiritual ecstasy. No idea why.
But I enjoy it. I really like it, and I seek it out. And while I donʼt really believe it… I also kind of do. I want to believe in it, so I let myself, but I donʼt try to fool myself into thinking I really really truly believe.
How does that affect my life? Well, like many people, I find the idea of death terrifying. Iʼve been too close to it for comfort already. Iʼve come to terms with the idea more in recent years ― I know nobody lives forever, and I accept that the price of having a beginning is having an end. Mostly I avoid thinking about death ― my death ― but those rare moments when I look straight into the void still fill me with terror.
So, I willingly and knowingly engage in self-delusion. I find it helpful to entertain the idea that I will somehow diffuse into that divine, the divine that Iʼve experienced when Iʼm out in nature. While not having a properly conscious presence, I like to think that a part of me will still be there as some sort of benign presence, looking over the people that I love, supporting them and just being there for them. Not for eternity, just long enough that I gradually become absorbed into the larger divinity, after the people I love are themselves gone.
And when someone dies, again Iʼm comfortable with feeling that if I want them around, theyʼre kind of there for me, at least a little, and I can commune with them when I want, when Iʼm sitting in a nice quiet spot outside.
Does that make me a hypocrite? A traitor to the atheist cause? I donʼt care. Iʼm not a fanatic. I know what I believe, but Iʼve decided to be kind to myself ― I donʼt have to suffer for my atheist faith.
5. What do you think it means to believe in something?
This seems like a trick question. Is it a trick question? Nobody laugh at me, okay?
I guess belief is something that you think is really true. But then what does “think” mean in that sentence. Isnʼt that really just a clumsy synonym for “believe”?
There you go, I fail semantics…
Letʼs move on.
6. Does this stuff matter to you? Do you think about it much?
Yes, it matters. I think itʼs important. I canʼt quite understand people who just accept what theyʼve been taught without casting any sort of critical eye on it. I understand faith is the foundation of all ― even my own atheism ― so I respect most people with their own beliefs based on faith. But I donʼt get people who donʼt seem to even find it worth thinking about.
At various times Iʼve been very active in thinking about it. Iʼve felt the lack of meaning in my life, and Iʼve actively looked for a religious niche that would feel snug and right for me.
Funnily enough, Iʼve felt a lot more sense of meaning and purpose in my life since I became a father. My boys are 7 and 2 now, and much of my sense of purpose is involved in my desire to help them grow into fine young men (theyʼre doing great so far).
Iʼve come to realise that the meaning of life is in the living of it, not in the destination. And also that meaning tends to come from helping others, rather than thinking primarily of my own happiness.
Iʼve come to terms with my own beliefs, not searching nowadays. (but still curious ― always curious!) Iʼve wondered sometimes if Iʼll have more searching to do later on in life. Particularly when my kids are older, moving off into their own independent lives (hello Dylan!), I wonder if that sense of purpose that has come from being a father will diminish somewhat, and leave me casting about for some new meaning.
We all look back on ourselves from 20 years earlier and think about how little we knew, and we might think how surprised our selves back then would be to see what we now know and believe. But looking forwards, I think we tend to see ourselves largely as we are now, just older. But we wonʼt be the same, weʼll keep changing. And when I look back in 20 years at the Google Historical Archive of 2013, I might laugh at how much Iʼve changed and how much bullshit I spouted back when I was 44, and how little I really knew of belief.
But right now, Iʼm pretty happy with wishy-washy atheist. Suits me well.
All photographs courtesy of Paul.