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The Freedom to Be Religious as an Atheist

Tom Waits and Iggy Pop in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

In other words, now that I have become an atheist, I feel free to appreciate and even dabble in various religions. To put this in terms of Waits Paradox: Once one has quit religion, he is free to be religious.”

In the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, Tom Waits says to Iggy Pop, “The beauty of quitting [smoking] is that, now that I’ve quit, I can have one. Because I’ve quit.”

This is a funny snippet of dialogue because it sounds absurd even though it technically makes sense. If one quits smoking, then he is a non-smoker. And a non-smoker does not become a smoker just by smoking one cigarette. 

Call it the Waits Paradox: Once one has quit X, he is free to do X.

I have recently been considering this logic in terms of atheism. I was raised as an evangelical Christian and, for many years, I took the religion quite seriously. At that time, all religious notions that were not fully in lock-step with my own were utterly anathema. Catholicism was a lost cause. Mormonism was laughable. Islam was backwards and dull. Hinduism, nutty. Buddhism, vaguely interesting and non-threatening but also, theologically, a non-starter. 

But since becoming an atheist, all of these strong feelings and judgmental assessments have gradually slipped away. Evangelical Christianity no longer has any special place in my heart. Catholicism is no longer particularly annoying. Mormonism still seems silly, but who cares? Et cetera. In fact, all the various religions of the world now seem worthy of some basic level of interest and attention. They all contribute to the grand saga of humans struggling to understand how to live and how to conceptualize our place in the universe. 

In other words, now that I have become an atheist, I feel free to appreciate and even dabble in various religions. To put this in terms of Waits Paradox: Once one has quit religion, he is free to be religious.

A truly religious person is held in a tight grip by his religious beliefs. Speaking from my own experience: When I was a Christian, God was not just an idea; God was an ever-present friend. Every time something bad happened in my life, God would be there to remind me that things would get better. If I was ever anxious about a big event in my life—a test at school or a job interview—I would ask God to help me do well. And even if I failed, I knew God would still be there to help me move on.

When I lost my faith, it actually felt like losing a friend. It was a profound and emotional experience. Scientists have found that believing in God is similar to being on a drug or being in love. This aspect of religion, I am confident, is gone forever for me. I simply cannot imagine ever again feeling that sort of closeness to an imaginary friend, even if I tried.

And, yet, there is a lot more to religion than this emotional connection. For instance, I am extremely grateful to have a deep knowledge of the stories in the Bible. All great literature helps to make life richer and more meaningful. But the timelessness of Biblical stories makes them particularly valuable. There is a reason why lyrical geniuses such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen sprinkle their songs with Biblical references. With a simple illusion to a Bible story, a line in a song can take on extraordinary amounts of meaning. In a similar way, Jordan Peterson has achieved massive popularity—in part—by embracing the inherent profundity of Biblical stories. 

As an atheist, I can fully appreciate the literary power of the Bible. Guilt free. 

But the Bible is just the beginning of my new-found appreciation for religion. All religions, I now see, have some measure of literary, cultural, or even philosophical merit. I find Islamic art to be quite beautiful. I find Hindu texts to be exciting and challenging. I have never looked too deeply into the cultural offerings of Mormonism, but I am confident there is beauty and excitement there, too.

And this is to say nothing of the more esoteric religions. As an atheist, I have a genuine interest in the symbolism and iconography of Satanism, particularly the version practiced by the Satanic Temple. Satan is the figure in the Christian tradition who stands up to the authoritarian God. Yelling “Hail Satan” is a particularly spicy way to say, “Down with authoritarians.” To be a Satanist is to practice individualism, freedom of thought, and anti-authoritarianism—with some evocative symbolism thrown into the mix.

In a similar respect, I have a vision of Western society resurrecting Greek gods and making them relevant again to our daily lives. The book Principia Discordia is a fascinating example of how this can be done. In the 1960s, a few eccentrics in San Francisco published a goofball “religious” text about the Goddess Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos. This text, “Principia Discordia or How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her,” eventually grew a cult following. Although it is outrageously silly and intentionally befuddling, it introduced a relatively wide audience to the Goddess Eris, and made her relevant (at least in a tongue-in-cheek way) to the modern world.

The West has become increasingly non-religious in recent years. This loss of religion has led to a slew of apparent dilemmas in the culture. If one is non-religious, how does he perform a wedding ceremony? How does one comfort a friend on his deathbed? What does one say at the funeral service? How does one ultimately find meaning in his life if he no longer associates with concepts like “soul,” “higher purpose,” or “prayer”?

The answer to these questions, I have found, is simple. If religious traditions are part of one’s culture, or if there is a religious concept or practice that one—for whatever reason—simply likes, then—by all means—indulge in it. Go ahead and pray. Get married in a church. Say the word “heaven” at a funeral. Even Richard Dawkins freely admits that he likes Christmas carols. If one has actually quit religion, then, similar to Tom Waits and his cigarette, he is free to have some.

Peter Clarke, a frequent Merion West contributor, is a writer in San Francisco and the host of the podcast Team Futurism. He can be found on X @HeyPeterClarke

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