Spiritual Faith & Atheism (Psst…the secret ingredient is love)

Move through the world like a gift. Carly Swenson, 2021

Being a spiritual atheist may sound contradictory. However, lacking a belief in the existence of a God–doesn’t actually mean I’m lacking a critical spiritual component. While spirituality can involve religious doctrine or dogma, it’s not obligatory. Spirituality does, however, require some form of faith. Faith, defined as “a strong belief or trust”. Spirituality requires a strong belief in self, love, possibility, and hope.

I have faith that I’m capable of handling whatever unfolds in my life. This sense of faith is relatively new to me. Having lived with general anxiety and major depression for nearly two decades, as appealing as the concept sounded, I didn’t know how to just be mentally in the present moment. It was unimaginable. My lived experience and sense of reasoning couldn’t figure out how it was possible. So, I was stuck in a loop of self-awareness logically knowing it’s a complete waste of mental and emotional energy to anticipate every conceivable bad possibility or over-analyzing past interactions, but unable to fully untangle myself from overthinking. We don’t know the tools we don’t know.

As an artist, I learned in my twenties to intrinsically trust my painting skills. When making a piece things might go wrong, look weird, or get even worse, but I always knew I could handle it. If I stepped away and came back after releasing expectations and pressure, eventually it would work out. And it has. Every time. Intuitive painting made me realize this approach was applicable to my lived experiences as well. When I let go of expectations and the preconceived ideas of success or how that is achieved, and simply trust myself to move forward toward with love, compassion, and purpose, things work out–eventually. If I get overwhelmed, I know to take a step back and get centered. I’ve found faith in myself based on my own life experiences. I’ve struggled, I’ve failed, I’ve made things worse but I still handled it. I do my best as I go and ultimately I get through the challenging parts. And that’s all any of us can really do. My art is better because I trust myself. And my life is better because I trust myself.

I have faith in love. Not cutesy-cartoon-hearts-love (that’s fine too, of course). But the love you find at the end of all your fear. I have faith in the hard fought love of self and humanity that arrives after exploring the uncomfortable inner depths of your own existence. Reflecting on my past, I realized the most basic element of any interaction or decision is the choice between action or inaction–a choice motivated by either love or fear. We can either choose to be brave and vulnerable and risk moving forward out of love for ourselves or others despite the potential for hurt, rejection, or failure. Or we choose to move forward based on fear, which offers an illusion of safety while building actual anxiety that any moment that security can be taken. Fear dehumanizes our mutual and interconnected human existence and keeps us in place, stagnant. Love brings out our shared humanity and elevates all of us. 

Be Still (Detail image), Carly Swenson 2020

I have faith that kindness ripples out through human interactions, and I realize that I am a force for good in the world when I extend compassion to others. This is a basic example, but the concept is broadly applicable. When working in customer service, one ornery customer changes the entire tone of the day regardless of how many perfectly nice humans I’d previously interacted with. In turn, I’ve had difficult times when someone choosing to just be nice about something, instead of frustrated or angry, renewed my faith in humanity. I have faith that moving through the world with compassion matters and expands far beyond me. So, I do my best to choose compassion.

I have faith in hope. Because I now recognize the immense incomprehensible value of hope. Hope is a weapon of love. Love is a lifeforce. Hope is dangerous to systems of injustice and oppression. Love brings equality, community, and acceptance. I know from my lived experience that even when hope feels unattainable, it’s always a possibility. Hope can’t not exist. Because hope always exists, even if only on a technicality. Once the value of good or bad is assigned to something, then there is the possibility of good. If an unknown can ultimately only fall into one category or another, the possibility of either is equal until the unknown becomes known.

A spiritual path is simply one of inner reflection with a willingness to engage with outside support. As humans with self-awareness, we have the opportunity to explore our sense of being, unpack our trauma and insecurities to better understand our unique perceptions of the world around us. We have the ability to alter our objectives and trajectory in this life as long as we are literally still alive. For me, spirituality is about the continued effort to maintain and grow into ever more free, emboldened, and authentic versions of myself, while working to nurture that in others. I don’t need a deity for that, I simply need the unconditional love and faith that others have found within their religious beliefs and traditions.

Paths to Peace, Carly Swenson 2021

3 responses to “Spiritual Faith & Atheism (Psst…the secret ingredient is love)”

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