Several years ago, I undertook my bachelor’s dissertation, a study of beetles in the family Silphidae, eaters of the dead and recyclers of nutrients. Every evening, I’d drive to four woodlands to inspect pitfall traps baited with rotting chicken. Inside each trap, black-and-orange silphids waited to be counted and, mercifully, released. Though it was a rather gruesome affair, I considered each visit a pilgrimage to the shrine of The World as It Is. Just as with my interest in death acceptance literature, the sculpting of the fleshless human form in clay, and my practicing wilderness skills, this experience was yet another armament against what I deemed to be the world-denying religious view of existence.
As someone with a background in ecology, I’m aware that all things are subject to change. And yet, I’d been adamant that I would never make peace with religion, Christianity in particular. This isn’t a conversion story—I’m not a Christian—instead, it’s an apology. It’s a reflection on the mind’s capacity for change and the importance of thoughtful consideration of the other side. The switch in my perception arose through a series of little changes, many slow degradations of certainty. Indeed, some months after the completion of my beetle project I was in a car accident. Though at the time I considered it a further acknowledgement of a godless and meaningless universe, this was to have profound implications later on.
Brought up in an irreligious household, studying a science subject, and being enamoured of certain polemical public intellectuals, I was an affirmed atheist. I saw no proof for the existence of anything approaching the supernatural. Though awed by nature, I’d always tried to reduce everything into fundamental biological principles, the universe an elaborate machine working by its own means and without any divine presence because it didn’t require one. The notion that science disenchanted the world was frankly insulting and any inward spiritual search or outward reaching to something more was anathema to me. The only wisdom one needed was to be found here on earth, in the soil and amongst the leaves. Those who chose to sit on the peaks of mountains with their eyes closed needed to stop being so egotistical and instead look around them to see the true wonder of reality. Curious, then, that I disagreed even with those groups who view nature itself as a kind of divinity. I could appreciate on an aesthetic level the polytheistic or animistic religions, but it seemed I’d made hard deterministic materialism my faith. In truth, I considered myself superior because I was able to cope with existence as a finite creature, capable of scorning all pretension.
If my worldview was based entirely on an understanding of the kinship of all life, and an (ironically quasi-religious) feeling for the significance of being just another animal, most heinous to me was Christianity’s anthropocentrism. In the commandment in Genesis 1:26 to multiply and subdue, and in the promise of another life more generally, there is an unfortunate short-sightedness. In this framework, earth is simply a testing ground for ascended souls in waiting. For humans to be placed at the pinnacle of existence to do with the land as we please is wrong, and I firmly believed that all Christians cared little for the planet, even going so far as to write stories suggesting as much. It took the discovery of John Butler’s YouTube videos to alter my perception of what a Christian could be and what it meant to believe. Not only was this man not a strident zealot, in fact, he spoke passionately about nature and his love of animals. This opened up the idea of Christian stewardship, based largely on other passages of the Bible. Here was a green and admirable kind of Christianity which saw the tending of God’s Garden to be of vital importance. Things weren’t as simple as they’d seemed.
The second major shift came through my insistence on visiting—as a deliberate challenge to myself—sites of religious importance. Though I already enjoyed exploring museums and galleries from a secular humanist perspective, I’d always been suspicious of churches and cathedrals, despite being drawn by their venerable beauty at a surface level. It was during my first visit to Westminster Abbey that the idea of some higher principle at work in humans to erect such wonders came to me. Later visits to St Vitus in Prague and St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, allowed me to see these buildings not as lavish sanctums of falsity but as bastions of quietude and reverence. I wanted to understand why I, an outsider, felt so touched by being in these hallowed spaces. And even if the idea that one needed to visit a specific building to experience God was ridiculous, I felt myself moving still closer to matters of the spirit. With further examinations into religious art and symbolism, visions that looked beyond the purely earthly were no longer so abhorrent. I stopped scowling at cassocks and crosses.
Around this time, I was experiencing acute discomfort from a variety of ailments, and contemplation of transcendence was an effective balm. I recalled my car accident often—in which I could’ve lost my twin or vice versa—so that even the idea of escape from the body was an understandable desire. Why not look to something more when you have the capability to do so? And why deny the feelings stirring within? With these questions in mind, I started to think further about humanity’s place on earth.
I’d often felt uneasy about many of our kind’s fleeting projects, but reading Richard Tarnas’s epic account of philosophy The Passion of the Western Mind deeply impressed me with a sense of the world’s striving to know itself through human endeavour. Furthermore, it instilled in me the suspicion that there must be more to the story of this planet than perpetual eating, breeding, sleeping, dying. It’s true, those without religion often make their own meaning, and for me this had always been accomplished through writing and art, practices I’d found difficult to reconcile. Thus, dwelling on the act of creation itself was to further inform my journey.
Gradually, I came to the realisation that I’d always been close to the spiritual in my love of myth and the fantastical tale; the act of storytelling itself inflamed me more than I could express in words. More generally, I could never explain why I was so profoundly affected by any work of literature, music or art that spoke to higher ideals. I had to admit to myself that there were things I couldn’t explain and that, in a way, the scientific mindset did disenchant by rendering everything into a tool working without any apparent end. With these considerations in mind, I revisited J.R.R. Tolkien’s arguments with his friend C.S. Lewis. Once, I’d found Tolkien’s Catholicism to be an unfortunate flaw; now, his framing of Christianity as the greatest and highest overarching story became clearer. Furthermore, the Professor’s ideas of sub-creation spoke to me on a deeply personal level as an imaginative person. I was now closest to understanding the power of the figure of Christ, even if I couldn’t accept that a specific historical figure was the embodiment of the Logos.
Despite these broadenings of thought, unease crept into my relationship with nature. I was no longer so comfortable with the idea of being a mere animal destined to die on a dirt ball, and the acknowledgement of this was troubling to my former non-anthropocentrism. I even found it difficult to tread my beloved forests, equating the biological with the stagnant. I struggled to accept that all of this human striving was for nothing, so I began to believe there must be some grand cosmological narrative at play. At this stage, I felt I could no longer call myself an atheist, and I wavered back and forth as an agnostic. Though in my heart I knew I couldn’t accept Christianity for a multitude of reasons, I was also aware that I’d never be more receptive to its message.
I’d always derided those who only read one book to get all their answers, without realising that I’d never engaged directly with what any sophisticated theologian actually had to say. Another important change resulted from my reading of Thoughtful Theism by Fr. Andrew Younan. This work opened my eyes to the logical fallacies and erroneous statements inherent in the usual atheistic arguments. It was fascinating to encounter a courageously thoughtful and rational Christian thinker who prized logic and reason above all else, even going so far as to scorn his fellow religionists when they failed to hold to his high standard. I was shocked to find myself agreeing with the Aquinian conception of a simple God who works through all. As I read, I realised that I no longer accepted an eternally existing universe without a cause, nor did I see the invocation of a “multiverse” to be anything like a final answer to the question of our origins. I had to admit to myself that, even accounting for evolution and every other scientific theory, as do many Christians, I believed in some kind of original creative principle.
Having read Younan’s book, I then studied the Bible itself. In my mind’s eye, I’d always beheld the Christian faith as a kind of shimmering brightness, inhumanly cold and severely unnatural. To my surprise, I discovered in these passages imbued with philosophical weight and lyrical poignancy a doubtful and pessimistic strain. In fact, many passages were in line with my own contemplations on death and fallibility. It was all very human and relatable, at times psychologically dark to the point of invoking the monstrous and the grotesque. Christianity’s idealised purity and transcendence, with which I had begun to empathise, were thus complimented by what I considered a much-needed reflection on the harsher truths of existence. Most importantly, and perhaps paradoxically, Christianity’s dwelling on the insignificance of humankind in the face of God and the universe, and on the inevitability of death, could work with, not against, non-anthropocentrism, accepting one’s end and thinking environmentally. Self-absorbed and constrictive modernity was now more troubling.
Over time, I learned to respect the Christian faith and other religions because they upheld what I’d always valued but had never fully grasped as aspects of my own spiritual disposition: feelings of reverence and connectedness, the remembrance of the past, and creative fulfilment. I even began to envy the devout for their constant contact with the profound and the heightened. Even if I understood religion and spirituality to be human constructions, I argued that pontifications on sublime cosmic forces, archetypal figures, divine acts of creation, and passages to paradise surely helped to cultivate a world-aware sensibility and to bring people out of their mundane lives to consider that something more I’d been denying to myself.
I’ve since rekindled my love of the outdoors, realising that the distance I created between nature and myself was a consequence of confusion and overshooting. Plants, rocks, rivers and beasts were for a time stripped of the significance I’d discovered and subsequently amplified in the uniquely human capacity to contemplate higher ideals and to fashion significant works. This was and is a false dichotomy; sacredness lies in everything. Our kinship with other biological entities doesn’t negate our part as actors in this play, nor does it mean we should treat them with derision, and this is something I’d always known and felt.
In many respects, I’m back where I started. Today, my thoughts align, albeit tentatively, with pantheism, though a distinct creator is still a potent idea. I believe that science is admirable in its quest to understand how things happen, but it can’t answer the question of why we’re here. Christianity is one such attempt to reveal the divine story, and while I can’t call myself a believer, I truly believe I’ve grown by confronting my prejudices and biases about this old way.
In this essay, I’ve been advocating for a more compassionate and empathetic understanding of other viewpoints—so long as they aren’t harmful. There may be atheists out there who consider my wishy-washy feelings and unverifiable ideas to be akin to a tragic fall. So be it. In my twenty-nine years on this planet, approximately three of those have seen any focused examination of the religion I once took to be the source of most of the world’s ills. Of course, I could say that I’d known many arguments against Christianity for a long time, but I’d never before listened to compassionate Christians, walked the aisles of a cathedral, or even opened the Bible in good faith, and for that I apologise.
Addendum: Unease stalks my words concerning transcendent powers and purposes. All that matters in the end, I think, is cultivating ecocentrism and denying the modern project to master nature and to extract all that is storied and beautiful from the world.
Taylor Hood writes fantastical stories concerning nature and yearning, as well as essays on topics such as architecture and aesthetics. He graduated with a BSc (Hons) Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, First, and is currently undertaking an MA Res English Lit. His website is: https://thoodauthor.wordpress.com