a non-believer's guide to spirituality


Major confession: I'm an atheist who's having a spiritual awakening.

Does that sound the like biggest oxymoron ever?

Believe me, I'm as stunned as you.

I'm a recovering perfectionist who likes to put things in tidy boxes, to classify and organize and explain. My habitual state is people-pleasing. I've been the girl who does what she can to be "right" and takes it to heart if she's not. I didn't major in science, but I'm analytical. I'm empirically minded. I want you to show me the evidence.

I didn't grow up in a religious household. The most time I've spent in churches has been to look at the stained glass. I think I've only been to one or two services and they were funerals, not religious holidays.

I've always been an atheist. I've never really had a spiritual connection in a traditional sense.

But I dislike the term agnosticism in this case, which seems to imply an ambivalence about spiritual matters.

I may not be 100% sure how to express my spiritual beliefs, but I am 100% sure how they feel to me.

When I was younger I tried to feel spiritual, just to see if I was missing something. I went to a Christian camp for a day with a deeply religious friend, but was chastised because I didn't want to spell "WWJD" on my lanyard bracelet. I tried to be Wiccan as a preteen, but none of my spells "worked" and I didn't feel anything. I've read the Bible, but only from a purely Western civilization and literature perspective.

When my mom used to talk to me about "angels watching over us," I would openly scoff or roll my eyes.

Yet here I am, invoking goddess mantras, meditating, reading tarot cards, lighting candles and burning sage.

Do you think that's the biggest load of bullshit?

It's fine if you do. I probably would have thought the same just over a year ago.

Religion and Spirituality are Not The Same Thing

I'm not religious, if that's what you're thinking.

I think skeptics often conflate religion and spirituality, but they're not really the same thing, at least in my personal experience.

From an over-simplified perspective, religion is a system through which you're (hopefully) feeling like some sort of conduit for the divine. Spirituality is more like a feeling, or a connection, in which you experience something greater than yourself.

The root of my hesitation to identify as spiritual is an ingrained resistance to the cultural language around spirituality, as well as the tendency for a select part of the population to be both fanatical and misinformed.

Despite what you may have heard, science and spirituality can play nicely. While spiritual forces and scientific discourse can be at odds because of unsupported claims, neither is inherently opposing to the other.

At its core, spirituality is a feeling of bigness, of interrelatedness, and of synchronicity.

Science as a whole is the knowledge pursuit of the expansive and mysterious nature of the universe, probing at the reasons for why that interrelatedness and synchronicity exists in nature.

Though this is the first time in my life that I would publicly characterize this feeling as "spiritual," I've felt the grand scope of the cosmos, life, this "bigness" since I was a kid and it has never felt like it's conflicted with my scientific sensibilities.

Back then, I just didn't know that feeling could be considered spiritual.

My "Awakening"

One big focus and question of 2015 has been a feeling of divine connection and sway, as well as wondering how to reconcile my newfound spirituality with my scientifically minded, analytical self.

This is especially pertinent because for the first time the spiritual part of myself has felt as true as the analytical side and I haven't felt like they need to be separated.

Becoming spiritual has not been an experience of fanfare. There has been no initiation or ability to pinpoint "ah ha" moments.

It's not even really fair to say "becoming" spiritual because the process has been a shift in thinking and language, not anything truly different in my experience.

Starting with yoga teacher training last January and progressing throughout the year, I adopted a different framework for exploring and experimenting with life.

Since the entire human experience is filtered through our minds, and since we can largely control our own minds (or at least influence them in certain directions), we generally have the choice of we feel in a given moment.

Besides instances that automatically trigger stress reactions in our amygdala or large imbalances in brain chemistry like severe depression, we can control much more of our emotions than we often give ourselves credit for.

Mechanically, my spirituality is repeatedly making the choice to look at life in a positive light and to take risks.

That's it.

Neither my positivity nor my risk-taking are backed by evidence that life is in fact better or that the outcome will work positively in my favor.

All I've done is made the choice to trust that I'm progressing in the right direction no matter what is happening.

It's worthwhile to note that regardless of tangible evidence, I feel happier and like the world is conspiring on my behalf.

"And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -- Paulo Coelho

Faith is trusting in the unknowable.

Unlike the pursuits of my younger days, I've found that you can't go looking for spirituality because it is already woven into your life.

Despite sounding like an after school special, you already have spirituality inside you from the beginning.

If you choose it.

The Spiritual as the Sublime

In literature-speak, moments of expansiveness and wonder are called the "sublime."

As Immanuel Kant explains in his 1764 work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, the sublime is "the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying."

As Kant goes on to claim, "We call that sublime which is absolutely great."

That is, great in magnitude--beyond our capacity for measurement or comprehension.

Sublimity can be both deeply compelling and attracting, yet also alarming because sublime moments feel too big to fully comprehend.

Nature is where I feel mostly deeply and quickly in tune with the sublime, where I feel dwarfed by surroundings and yet also connected to them.

It's a strange dichotomy. In the presence of the sublime you feel both empowered and also completely surrendered to your powerlessness.

Sublimity can have an undeniable draw and simultaneous repulsion.

Climbing a mountain peak with the knowledge that your limbs are all that keep you from a 3,000 foot plummet to your death. Sheer elation as you reach the summit, laughing out loud with pure joy at your accomplishment.

Desperately wanting to encounter a bear in the wilderness yet also feeling terrified at the prospect of getting mauled.

A deafening thunderstorm storm when you're camped in a valley and debating whether to evacuate in order to keep from getting electrocuted. Later, soaking wet and just happy to be alive.

The endless expanse of roiling ocean waves, where your boat could disappear and perhaps never be found.

The sublime is absolute beauty and terror. Completely fascinating. Entirely frightening.

Some people call that God, Nature, spirit, or any number of other terms.

Spirituality--connection to the sublime--is made up of moments that make humans feel completely alive; however, by definition the scope of that "aliveness" is impossible to wholly verify.

And while the particulars of life can't be fully uncovered just based on the sheer size of the universe, scientific inquiry is the continued process of learning to understand as many disparate parts of the world as we possible can.

While I can only truthfully speak from my own experience, I think by virtue of being human, we have all experienced moments of the sublime many times in our lives.

Many of my sublime moments have happened in the wilderness, but nature is not a necessary setting.

Throughout my whole life I have experienced combined beauty and terror and the smallness of humanity in the face of the expansiveness of the universe.

The difference is that now I'm allowing myself to use particular language around it.

Despite the overarching stigma, I'm giving myself permission to use "spirituality" as a term for sublimity.

I realized that I was having spiritual experiences all along, I just thought it was "supposed to" feel differently than it actually does.

From what I can tell, those who talk about spiritual awakening have likewise been having similar feelings, and I think people who scoff at spiritual discourse have had these feelings too. They just call it something else. Semantics, really.

You cannot go looking for spirituality because it occurs in your life just by being human. No assembly required.

And no need to call it spirituality either, if you don't want to.

"All of My Atheist Friends Will Hate Me" and Other Worries

Here's my fear: having spent the majority of my life with science-minded, analytical friends and family, I spent a fair amount of this last year wondering and fearing their reactions. Because of my fear, I barely told anyone about my spiritual change of heart.

Will they scoff at me? Will they no longer take me seriously? Will they think I'm a hypocrite for nodding and agreeing when we talked about crystal-toting no-nothings with no respect for science?

This last year was about coming to terms with simply letting myself feel how I feel and letting it be okay, regardless of how other people react.

One past skin I'm shedding as the new year unfolds is the one that insists on concrete proof to validate everything.

I definitely think scientific inquiry is important and necessary. I also want to make sure that we don't get so caught up in validation that we can't recognize what we feel to be true in its own way.

I know how I feel, how connection with the divine feels.

It mostly comes down to word choice stigma. I can definitely say I've met the words, "divine," "God," "spiritual," and "religious" with skepticism before they've even fully left someone else's lips.

Before this year, I never thought I was spiritual. I couldn't understand why otherwise reasonably sound people would make up religious awakenings.

"I've never felt a religious experience, so clearly they're just delusional."

What I didn't realize is that I had been through experiences that sparked awakening and just didn't know to identify it as the same thing.

Is This All in My Head?

As a quick aside, my own brand of spiritual beliefs don't extend to an afterlife (though it's fine if yours do). I am interested in the here and now and how we can be our best selves in this life. I also think that religious texts are full of fascinating parables for living a "virtuous" life, but I don't take them at face value.

To use my friend Stephenie's phrase, I am an "open-minded" skeptic. Just because I identify as spiritual does not mean that I don't have doubts and reservations around certain practices and belief systems.

Maybe my spiritual practices are pseudo-science? Maybe they only have a placebo effect?

What if my entire spiritual experience is just neurons firing in my brain?

As it turns out, I'm okay with that thought. That's a probability I can live with.

I've realized I don't care if my spiritual feelings are in my imagination.

That doesn't make them any less important in my own life.

Less true, perhaps, in a physical, tangible sense. I get that and I'm fine with that.

I keep thinking of this quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Dumbledore says, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

I remember the first time I read that quote and not fully "getting" it.

Let's say the effects of my spiritual practices are all in my head, that they're not "true" in a way that would be verified by science. What I think still has sway on my mood and wellbeing. The mind, and what's in it, is still a part (and in fact the driving force) of the human experience.

If I'm being truthful with myself, you'll never catch me being dogmatic about my spiritual leanings. Likewise, I try not to be too dogmatic about my scientific inclinations either (because, let's face it, that can definitely happen too).

In any case, taking time to center myself--to meditate, visualize, journal, smudge, sing kirtan, attend yoga for more than the physical workout and, yes, even read tarot cards--works.

I feel better, more at ease, more aligned with my purpose.

Perhaps the main reason I feel better when I'm engaging in the divine is because I'm taking time to be introspective.

That doesn't mean I don't find scientific inquiry necessary and awesome, just that I'm allowing myself to weigh my intuition in matters too.

You don't have to call it science in order to get at your own truth.

In fact, unless this is a peer-reviewed experiment with a decent sample size, please don't call it science.

I'm not claiming that crystals are the secret to healing or that I'm 100% on board with acupuncture.

I think it can be dangerous to make claims that aren't actually founded in science.

However, I do think you can say, "Here is the anecdotal evidence that this worked for me and for x, y, and z people that I know. It might work for you too."

Similarly, I think can be dangerous to assume that our existing science has all the answers. It's unwise to completely discount possibility just because we haven't found the "why" yet.

As part of a yoga teacher training, I was skeptical the first time we were going to engage in kirtan (group chanting/singing). Despite the skepticism, during and after I felt euphoric, connected to everyone around me, calm and yet energized. I've continued to experience the same feelings each successive time I've chanted.

As it turns out, group singing releases endorphins and oxytocin, as well as lowers cortisol. In other words, singing creates feelings of pleasure, trust, and bonding, while also relieving stress. Maybe "group chanting" sounds ludicrous to you, so you're tempted to write it off, but it's just brain chemistry.

For the most part, alternative healing practices are innocuous even if they don't happen to be helpful for you. What's the harm in trying something a little different as long as you take your alternative medicine with a grain of salt?

In other words, be smart. Use critical thinking. And also approach new-to-you practices with an open mind.

I do think that emotional intelligence is a hugely influential player in each human life. I think that knowing about human psychology and using positive thinking can have physical health benefits.

What's funny is that thinking this way has actually given me more agency rather than less.

For me spirituality has just been another a framework of thinking and self-creating.

You Have the Choice to Make Miracles

One of the best compliments I ever received was that I take so much joy in the little things. I remember the compliment giver marveled at the thought.

I didn't realize that trait was noteworthy until it was pointed out. I simply thought everyone was fascinated by the details of the world around them, soaking up the sweetness of the small, making the trivial feel significant.

Not everyone rejoices in life's minutiae, but I promise you it will improve your life if you learn (and it is indeed a learned skill). Healing crystals not required.

Just your brain.

To me, spirituality is the choice to make the every day feel extraordinary.

I make the mundane feel like a miracle simply because I decide it is.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." -- Albert Einstein

Whether you identify as spiritual or not, above all, I urge you to please decide be kind, express ample gratitude, and revel in the splendor that is your life.

You have the agency to decide whether your life is wonderful and abundant.

And given the alternative, wonderful and abundant is definitely how I prefer to live.


Iris Rankin

Soulful questioner, exuberant organizer, here to find the balance between discipline and delicious relaxation. Iris Rankin is the founder of Project Intention, a values-based community focused on living day-to-day with purpose, planning, and heart. Iris encourages women to adopt the self care practices that make them feel divine, the planning tools to hone in on their essential wants and needs, and the emotional resilience to express their most authentic selves.

Want more intentional love notes delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for fourteen days of free permission granting love notes, videos & exercises. You'll also receive weekly insights for living wholeheartedly, wildly and with intention.

Like this post? Please share it with your friends.