[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
I’m hoping you can help me. I’m a passionate atheist and one of my best friends is too. I’ve known him since we were six years old and I love him like a brother. Just last week, he got married. He hired a non-denominational minister to conduct his ceremony. Everything was going fine until the minister said, “We are gathered here today, in the presence of God, to unite these two people in matrimony.” I tensed up as soon as I heard the word “god” and basically spent the rest of the ceremony fuming over the fact that this minister snuck the god thing into my friend’s special day. The whole thing was tarnished. I never really mentioned how upset I was to my friend or anyone else, but I can’t stop thinking about it and feeling like I should’ve spoken up. I really hate religion and that religious people always need to force their dogma into everyone’s lives. Just because they think everything’s being controlled by some bearded sky-daddy doesn’t mean they need to insert their faith into otherwise beautiful parts of my life. I’m the kind of person who stands up for atheism. I’ve made a commitment to fight against religion whenever I can. I’m most upset that my friend allowed this minister to say the word “god” during such an important moment in his life and then didn’t say anything back or even seem to care. My question is: Should I mention this to my friend, or do I just let it go?
Dear Anonymous Atheist,
Thank you for asking about this. You definitely shouldn’t feel bad for caring. The fact that you’re thinking a lot about this situation shows you have a thoughtful and strong character. It’s natural for us to encounter moments which challenge us. Having the capacity to question our most deeply held opinions is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Especially when we have the composure to resist our immediate emotional reactions and let our common sense lead us toward a more dignified type of contemplation.
Keeping an open mind and an open heart requires an incredible amount of determined effort. The act of questioning and the search for truth demands the utmost courage and discipline. And it’s not a discipline built around staunch and unwavering adherence to one’s beliefs, but an unwavering commitment to the quest for honesty, integrity, and discovery, even at the expense of one’s own beliefs. This is to ensure that new insights and opportunities for enlightened growth aren’t dismissed simply because they conflict with previously held opinions.
In our collective struggle toward truth, it’s required that we maintain a true openness — an openness so vast that it’s difficult to define. The only word approaching a description of this infinite openness is the word “love.” And with that in mind, maybe the word “God” is also attempting to describe this incredible openness.
I’m not here to convince you of the reality of God or to attempt a full definition of God. I also don’t have adequate space to delve into anything approaching a comprehensive discussion of deity, religion, or even spirituality. Rather, I’m going to use this brief space to present you with a very simple idea to consider. Since you seem to have been pondering your thoughts in general, perhaps you’ll find some use in pondering this humble possibility:
Perhaps your friend was so enthralled and focused on who he was marrying, and his love for that person, that he didn’t even notice what the minister was saying about God. And even if he did notice, maybe he was so lost in the loving joy of his moment that he found the idea of fighting with anyone, about anything, impossible. Perhaps his feelings of love were so overwhelmingly strong and palpable that any and all words in the whole of human language would just become another word for “love.” Perhaps the word “God” became love. Perhaps love really does mean God, and God really is love.
By this, I don’t mean that a “bearded sky-daddy” invented a thing called “love” that “He” controls and that when you feel love you are really just feeling His controlling and all-ruling kingly presence. I don’t even mean that God is “a being” of any form. I mean that God is literally love — experiencing loving feelings, like the ones you feel when you think about your best friend, is what the word “God” actually means — that this fragile and elusive thing called “love” could actually be the most important and miraculous power to emerge out of the universe and cosmos, period. And that by embracing this feeling of love, you are experiencing God.
For many of us, resisting any experience of God is related to an abstract fear of being “brainwashed” — to resist joining “the herd,” losing one’s identity, independence, and individuality to “God” or some sort of ignorance. But maybe we need to give up some amount of our individuality for a sense of togetherness? Maybe it’s OK to sacrifice that part of ourselves that’s held us back from experiencing true and total love? If we were to be brainwashed by love, would that be such a bad thing?
Love is the only way we can truly save the world and each other. And instead of scoffing at this notion or brushing it off as a naive or superstitious type of control, why not try considering the possibility that love itself is “the missing piece” — the most obvious yet elusive part of a universal plan, the essence within a natural order of life that we may never fully explain or understand, yet that we are undeniably a part of and are dependent on for our very survival?
Next time you cringe when you hear the word “God,” why not try replacing “God” with the word “love”? Why not try making these words mean the same thing, just as an experiment? It doesn’t mean you have to believe in a man in the sky, but you can believe in love, and it can be your version of a higher power.
Love brings out the best in us. Love raises us above hatred, pushes us beyond selfish desire, urges us to overcome prejudice and fear. Love allows us to triumph over those impulses which threaten to divide and destroy us. Love allows the greatest hopes of humanity to appear within reach. Thinking with love at the core of our worldview gives us a new perspective and a new way to approach life, and perhaps it is love itself that we have been searching for on our endless quest for truth.
Perhaps love is the ultimate truth. Love is, quite truly, the only way we will make it. If God does exist, wouldn’t he want us to be in a state of total love?
And if God doesn’t exist, then our need for love is more crucial and urgent than ever.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.