My Tattoo (Redux)

It looks as though I’ll have to go over my tattoo one more time once it heals. There are some parts of it — the intersecting lines, particularly — that didn’t take. Hopefully it will be healed enough to do this weekend.

Since my tattoo is of a bind-rune, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how atheism and spirituality can be combined. In my view, the runes are keys to certain philosophical truths or states of mind without anything more than a metaphorical connection to “gods” or other supernatural beings. Naturally, there are Asatru-folk out there who will completely disagree with me. As an atheist, though, I have a pretty clear view of gods and extra-human beings: they don’t exist.

That said, however, the ideas that those gods represented to people who did believe in them are not to be taken lightly. Those ideas are what I take from the past and bring into my life. Examples that the gods — as characters — set for us in their stories are still valid. Qualities they represent as indicators of both how we should and should not behave still apply to my life. Even if I don’t believe there’s really a gang of blustering, angry Aesir, Vanir, and Jotuns galumphing around the worlds above Midgard.

Humanity on its own is a powerful force that should not be taken lightly. History is filled with non-mythological stories that show this to be true — in positive and negative lights. So how does this all lead to the runes?

To me, the runes were created in an effort to document, represent, and use the forces humans felt that they were able to harness. In the world-view of the people who crafted them gods and giants, elves and dwarfs were all alive and romping about the hidden planes, but after nearly 2000 years we should know better. There are no gods, just us humans. The giants we have to fear are nothing more than our own elongated shadows. The elves and dwarves no longer craft weapons, but we do. The world is different, but humanity’s capacity for power is not.

An atheist is one who does not believe that there are supernatural, extra-human powers in the universe. Hence, I’m an atheist. In the same way a philosopher puzzles over a question of existence, or a priest ponders the idea of original sin, or a Buddhist works towards enlightenment, I will work with runes towards a deeper understanding of myself, my family, and — ultimately — humans in general. In short, I meditate, craft with, and dedicate myself to the runes because I think there’s real truth within the ideas they represent. My tattoo represents this dedication. It does not represent a change in beliefs, or adherence to Asatru or any other reconstructionist/new age fallacy.

The power of the self, devotion to family and clan, the belief that one step is enough to start yourself towards a “destiny”: these are all ideas that transcend belief systems, organized religions, philosophies, and the like. These are all ideas that are represented by the runes. They also happen to be ideas represented within existentialist philosophy and probably quite a few world religions. In other words they are ideas that resonate — as I believe they should — with all humans.

The Awe of Nature

While gathered around our dining table last night, Gabe, Danielle and I talked about the possibilities of the nature of the universe. We pulled out a pad of graph paper and sketched out the various theoretical shapes of the flow of time, the warp of the universe, and the theories that have been proposed because of such things: wormholes, faster-than-light travel, out-of-time experiences, multiple quantum dimensions. The more we talked and sketched, the more Gabe’s eyes reflected a glowing sense of amazement at the possible answers to the question: “How does our universe work?”. Never once did our nine-year old son feel discouraged, lonely, estranged, or depressed about the universe, the world, or his place in it.

There is a frightening tendency to paint atheists as cold, calculating, science worshipers: a group of people who eschew the spiritual for the logical. Some people believe that raising a child in an atheist household is akin to stamping out imagination and murdering the soul. I’ve heard the argument stated that if we use science, philosophy, and logic to find the answer to “How”, we remove our capacity for wonder and awe at the answers we may find. All of these statements are absurd.

Atheism is simply a word that defines us as living without a need for gods to help us feel a sense of wonder and awe. Atheists understand that the way things are put together has nothing at all to do with an outside, super-human force. Rather, nature itself is awe-inspiring and fills us with wonder. Atheism — and science in general — is not capable of providing us answers for the most burning question humans have: why.

Gabe left that discussion last night with a head filled with the possibilities that logic, philosophy, and science offer. Never, however, did he feel as though they were providing him with the reason for existence. And that’s okay. Finding our purpose, we told him, the answer to “Why?” is not something science will provide. The only way to find that answer is by working at it ourselves. That journey to find the answer provides the joy of living.

Our family has tended to eschew the label of atheist because of the vast amount of misunderstanding around what it means. For us, though, being atheist simply means that the human journey is experienced without any assistance from one, three, or multiple “gods”. So far, this has done nothing to diminish our excitement for life, joy of the journey, or wonderment at the universe around us.