Growing beyond atheism

Eleven years ago this spring, I participated in a weekend-long mindfulness meditation retreat. Two continuous days of scheduled sitting and walking meditation, dharma talks, and silent meals left me rested and clear, yet inexplicably discontented. On the third and final day of the retreat a choice of activities was offered, including more sitting meditation, attending a workshop, or hiking. I had pined all weekend from my cushion indoors for unstructured time outside in the spring sun, so I chose to explore a trail through the park’s oak-juniper woods.


After walking for some time, I slowed in a sunny clearing of Ashe junipers to admire the the trees, the light, the sky. Unexpected words swelled up, which seemed to roll through my mind and out across the woods around me with the clarity and resonance of thunder.

I serve the Lady. Unexpected, yet undeniable and irrevocable once the thought formed.

Who was the Lady? A goddess? I hoped so. I, like many other women, so desperately needed (still need) the divine feminine. Or was she the woods in which I walked? If the Lady was a goddess, which one? How could I reliably know?

It’s been 11 years, and although I treasure the experience, I still don’t have clear answers to these questions.

After years of studying and practicing modern paganism, I’ve learned that “The Lady” is the stuff of a fluffy bunny tea party, cloying and inherently immature. I’ve learned that, in order to legitimately call oneself a polytheist, one must believe in personal, independent gods who manipulate the seen world from some immaterial Otherworld for which we have no clear evidence. I’ve learned that once deities, symbols, and practices are unmoored from their places and peoples of origin, they become inauthentic, and that seeking to adopt them is cultural appropriation, a kind of theft–just so, I agree. So what’s a European-American with English, Irish, and German ancestors to do? My only options for relationship with deity or spirit, it seems, are problematic ones; I can choose to relate to anemic gods, transcendent gods for which I honestly have no evidence, stolen gods, or racist gods (“folkish” Odinism, anyone?). Or to avoid these problematic options, I can relate to no gods or spirits at all, which is what I’ve been doing for 11 years.

But what about my Lady in the woods? The experience itself remains real, I’d like a frame for interpreting it and other spiritual experiences, and atheism hasn’t helped me build one. Nor has atheism yielded meaningful connections with others; on the contrary, I have observed that if anything, it serves to disconnect.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m rapidly approaching middle age, with its attendant psychosocial developmental crises to resolve. But lately I’m inclined to view atheism, particularly the kind that is hostile to theism and blind by design to what it might have to offer, as a maladaptive response to psycho-spiritual crisis. I know that to resolve a developmental crisis, avoiding problems won’t work. I’ve got to explore new ways of understanding and solving problems, and I’m finally ready to grow.


3 thoughts on “Growing beyond atheism

  1. I find myself in a similar place. I keep searching for that sweet spot between enchantment and critical thought that both nourishes and feels authentic. I have yet to find it and honestly have no clue if I ever will. But if I do, I’m pretty sure it’ll be with my hands in the dirt or listening to the birds welcome a new day or watching a spider spin her web.

    I appreciate your thoughts on the topic. It’s comforting to know there are others who struggle as well. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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