Dylan is a cartoonist, writer and illustrator in his mid-forties. He lives in New Zealand with his wife and two teenage sons, a dog and a cat. He is the initiator of this blog.
1. What are your spiritual beliefs?
In short, I don’t have any. I’m an atheist. I believe there is no such thing as spirit or soul, no God or supernatural beings. Magic and religion are myths – stories people have (collectively) made up. The universe is not conscious or self-aware; it does not care what happens to us or even itself, because there’s no “it” to care about anything. The universe is simply a vast, complex system of matter and energy that’s driven by the laws of physics. All human values (good, evil, love, fate, beauty, etc) are our own subjective constructions (shaped by biology and culture); they have no objective worth or meaning. Consciousness is an illusion created by the working of our brains and nervous systems. The illusion ends when our bodies die. Eventually, all cultures, species and – ultimately – all of life, the planet and the universe itself will cease to exist. We will not care, because we will no longer exist either. This is neither sad nor meaningful. It simply is.
The fact that I don’t believe in any kind of religious or spiritual reality doesn’t mean I oppose or despise other people’s spiritual beliefs. They may only be human-made fictional stories, but often they can seem to me to be among the most extraordinary, powerful, beautiful works of art people have created. At their best, they have a lot to say about how we experience life, and can enrich and inform that experience. Of course, as ideologies, they can also be enormously destructive and belligerent influences on individuals and societies. But I don’t see them as inherently bad.
2. How sure are you that those beliefs are true?
I believe everything I said above is absolutely, objectively true. However, I am also aware that the basis of that belief may be flawed. How much of it is based on solid empirical evidence, and how much is based on assumptions I grew up with and constructed for myself based on conversations and reading and thinking? One thing about valuing truth (see below) is you’re always open to being proved wrong. And I’m aware that whole paradigms (such as my apparent reliance on “solid empirical evidence”) are also up for questioning.
So, although I believe my atheist view of reality is accurate, I don’t actually know it.
3. How did you come to have these beliefs?
I grew up in a household that was essentially atheist. My parents didn’t actively persuade me to adopt atheist beliefs, but I always knew they were atheists, and I never felt any sense of belonging to a religious culture or community. Religious beliefs always seemed like fictional stories to me, and it seemed absurd that people could believe they were true. At various times, I’ve tried to believe in something supernatural or religious, but I could never take it seriously.
For much of my life, I think I kind of assumed that most religious people, in their heart of hearts, don’t really believe in God either. If they were really totally honest with themselves, they’d have to admit it’s just a made up story that they choose to pretend is real. But over time, I’ve come to suspect I’m wrong about that, which is one reason I’m doing this survey. I find it hard to imagine anyone truly believing most of that stuff, and I want to understand that better.
My parents are liberal secular humanists. They think a lot about ethics and values, politics and social structures. I grew up having many conversations about this stuff, and I feel I came out of it with strong values. But among the values I inherited is a deep commitment to truth – and by truth, I mean objective, empirical reality. Recently, I’ve been thinking that I value truth so profoundly, I almost consider it sacred. One consequence of this is that I find it difficult to embrace a belief that I know – or strongly suspect – is untrue. Sometimes people seem to embrace certain beliefs without any particular concern for whether they’re empirically true or not. I’ve never been able to do that.
I know my own values (including the value I place on truth) have no objective reality, and I know that in a different time or place I would probably hold quite different values. But I also know that values are part of being human, and that certain values seem so deeply imbedded in my view of the world that I’m unable or unwilling to shift them.
Of course, I also know that truth is itself a contested and difficult concept, and that it has no objective value in and of itself (given my belief in a meaningless universe). Truth isn’t sacred. Nothing is sacred. We construct systems of meaning, that’s all.
4. What do you wish you could believe (but don’t)?
I like Animism and Paganism. Those traditions seem much more meaningful to me than monotheist religions – perhaps partly because it’s easier for me to enter into dialogue with them without feeling obliged to embrace a whole lot of baggage. In fact, the baggage they do carry these days (New Age Hippie associations) appeal to me, as someone who grew up in the 1970s. Hippie mysticism has always had a stronger pull on my imagination than any monotheist religions.
I would like to believe that the universe is, in some sense, alive and aware. I would like to believe in magic: in some kind of super-natural reality beyond the one I currently believe is the only reality.
I would like to believe in all kinds of things, actually. And at various times, I’ve tried. But as I said before, I never get very far. In fact, I sometimes describe myself as a “reluctant atheist,” because I think it would be lovely to see the universe as a magical, caring spiritual presence – or at least to be able to enjoy a rich spiritual life. But I don’t see how I can.
I even tried to be a Pantheist a couple of times. But even though Pantheism doesn’t require belief in anything supernatural, I still can’t seem to take that one little step: treating the universe as sacred. Maybe I just don’t have the kind of brain that can experience religiosity?
5. What do you think it means to believe in something?
For me, believing in something means that I’m fairly sure it’s objectively, empirically true. I can’t treat beliefs as a smorgasbord of ideas from which we choose the ones we like.
6. Does this stuff matter to you? Do you think about it much?
It matters a great deal, and I think about it a lot. I’ve been thinking about it all my life. I think it’s part of my obsession with fantasy, and it filters into many of my stories and comics. When I was a kid, I used to go into the bush and silently plead for faeries to appear. I practiced using psychic powers, trying to make my latent telekinesis move small objects or close doors (it never did).
At various times, I’ve gone on reading binges about ancient UFOs, poltergeists, shamanism, tarot cards, runic lore and other “paranormal” and mystical topics. I’ve spent years developing detailed magical and spiritual belief systems for imaginary worlds and cultures (for role-playing games and stories). But I’ve never managed to make it feel anything more than imaginary.
In my twenties, I read philosophy and stayed up all night debating the nature of reality with close friends. Those conversations gave my (thoroughly atheist) world-view the fully-realised contours I described above. In more recent years, I’ve sought out opportunities to discuss religion with Christian, Buddhist and Baha’i friends, seeking to gain more understanding of how spirituality operates in their lives. I’ve read histories of religions, both mainstream (Christianity) and fringe (Scientology), along with ethnographies of UFO cults and books on Victorian spiritualism and Deep Green mysticism.
That’s why I’ve decided to spend this year investigating Belief. I want to explore the question of what people believe, and why and how, in order to unpack what underlies my own beliefs. I’ll be reading philosophy, New Age mysticism, ethnography, psychology, science and who knows what else. I will listen to people’s stories and ideas, seek out unusual experiences and try new things.
I don’t really expect my core beliefs to be any different at the end of the year, but I’m willing to be surprised. If nothing else, I hope to have a better understanding of my own and others’ beliefs, and of how belief itself actually works.
And who knows? Maybe I’ll finally get to meet those faeries…