I’ve often heard people describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” I can’t speak for all of them, but it seems that what most people mean by this is that they believe in a higher power, but don’t follow a specific religion. I, too, consider myself spiritual, but not religious. However, I do not believe in any higher power whatsoever, and I do not believe in any “afterlife,” by the typical definition. I consider myself a true atheist and steadfast evolutionist. In fact, it is through evolution that I find my sense of spirituality. It is through my unwavering belief that we simply rot in the ground after death that I find my notion of an “afterlife.”
I was raised Catholic, though my family was never extremely religious. While I had it, I enjoyed my belief in God. I prayed every night, as I had been taught to do, for fear of being forgotten by God if I did not. I asked God for help with my everyday problems, and I would ask Him to relay messages of love to my dead pets. I talked to my step-father after he died, believing he was an angel in heaven. As I grew older, however, I began to question my religion. I recognized that I didn’t believe parts of the Bible anymore. I couldn’t fathom, for example, how Noah could fit so many animals onto one boat! My doubt about parts of the Bible gave way to doubt about the Bible as a whole. If I didn’t believe in some of it, I wondered if it made sense to believe in any of it.
It didn’t help that I felt as though I could do no right by God; as he seemed to “test” me far more often than He did my friends. I felt more and more forgotten, and even punished, by God. My praying seemed to do me no good. I started to feel like I was holding onto my belief in the Bible and God simply because I wanted to. It helped me feel connected to something greater than myself, which was soothing. By the time I was in high school, I decided that I had not only lost my connection with God, but that He never even existed. I concluded that I had been praying to the ceiling all my life.
To make matters worse, I didn’t have much of a relationship with my family at that time. Having lost both my family and God, I felt completely alone. Oddly enough, I thought I had reached some level of enlightenment that other people could not understand. I began to believe that the true meaning of life was to be alone. I believed it so passionately, that I thought I was special for recognizing it while others couldn’t. It wasn’t until college that I found my connection to the rest of the world again, and I realized how wrong I was in high school about the meaning of life.
Before I was a biology major, I took a general biology class meant for non-science majors. It was the level of class that anybody who is curious can take at their local community college. I credit this class for helping me identify not only my love of biology, but of the value of human existence. It was in this class that I fully came to understand evolution. I learned that evolution did not just occur a million years ago, as I had thought. It is occurring today- in real time, all the time. We can easily see it take place in bacteria in less than an hour. Another one of my false notions that was put to rest was that “we used to be monkeys.” Not exactly. We evolved from ancestors in our own lineage, but we share a recent, common ancestor with chimpanzees. What intrigued me the most, however, was the idea that all living species evolved from a common ancestor, or a few ancestors. This idea changed the way I thought of myself, the world around me, and the meaning of life itself.
I learned that we share about 60% of our genes with fruit flies. Hearing this fact just about smacked me in the face. I was in awe. Flies and I are essentially more than half the same. For whatever reason, what amazed me more was that we are more genetically similar to yeast than to plants. I’d given some thought to plants in the past, but I’d never thought about what yeast had been doing this whole time! Moreover, I learned that about 99.5% of my genes are the same as every other human’s. That 0.5% makes up all of our differences. After that, the genetic similarities just kept coming. I was blown away. My mind was expanding ten-fold second after second.
After I had taken this all in, I saw the world in a whole new light. Everything was my family- plants, animals, fungi, even bacteria somewhere down the line. I began to think of all the symbiotic relationships I had with the world around me. I thanked the bacteria in my gut. I thanked the trees that gave me air to breathe. I thanked the cows that gave me milk for my cereal. They were all my loving family, trying to take care of me! I felt sorry for every bug I ever squashed, every blade of grass I ever stepped on, and even the bacteria I killed every time I cleaned my kitchen. I felt close to every person that walked by me- my brothers! my sisters! my cousins! I felt connected to everything! We aren’t just related, we are the same!
I’ve carried that sense of connection ever since I realized it, and everything I learn about science only strengthens it. I feel at peace with the world around me, despite its flaws, because I find spirituality in evolution. I feel responsible for the world around me- for every plant, animal, and every single human being. I am protective of them all. The need to protect all these beings gives me the deepest sense of purpose. I want to treat them all with the sincerest of love. I don’t give two thoughts about what happens to me when I die, because I find so much purpose in life.
Though heaven sounds lovely, I’ll be truly at rest when I die. I believe that we simply become the earth when we pass away. Dissolving into ashes or rotting into the ground may not seem beautiful at first thought; however, it gives way to a type of reincarnation. Our bodies become nutrients in the dirt, and we are reborn as plants. These plants become food for animals and people, and the cycle continues. I’m certainly not the first to compare the cycle of life to reincarnation, but I believe them to be one in the same. Moreover, I believe our “souls” remain in the memories we leave behind with others. In other words, we all live forever, right here, on earth.