The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 20, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Cup Is Already Broken

My dog Sarah is around 11.  That’s getting up there for a 45-lb dog.  She is an American foxhound I picked out at the pound 9 years ago.  An American foxhound looks like a cross between a beagle and a greyhound.  When she was young, she would run actual circles around me.  Hiking with her on leash for a couple of hours wasn’t sufficient exercise.  I used to let her off leash while I hiked and she would run up and down and around, adding miles to the already lengthy hike.  In my backyard, she would run laps so fast she was literally a blur.  She was up and ready to go at 5 am.  At the time, I was a bit overwhelmed, but I worked at appreciating her zest while it lasted because I knew I would miss it when she aged.  And here we are.  She prefers to sleep in mornings now, and she can no longer jog 3 miles with perfect ease.

I am glad that when she was young I was able to see the cup of her youth was already broken.  It helped me have the patience to enjoy her hyperactive ways, and the foresight to prepare me for her inevitable decline.

Buddhism has some really useful concepts and practices.  It deals directly with fundamental realities.  Everything is impermanent.  My youth.  My dog’s youth.  The present moment.  The present contains the potential futures, in all of which the cup will be broken.

Railing against the ineluctable is shouting into the wind.  But accepting what we know to be true is no easy task.  It takes dedication to insight over instinct.  It takes practice.

We do not naturally see reality as it is and we want things from reality it cannot give.  We have to retrain our minds and our reactions to better suit the actual situation.  Buddhism is immensely helpful in this regard.

Working on detaching from the longing for permanence, for what is not, is transformative.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson


May 6, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Animal Consciousness

I read lots of books about consciousness.  We humans take a great deal of pride in the fact of our unique consciousness.  We privilege our particular consciousness above that of all the other sentient creatures we share Earth with.  This is true of scientists and religious adherents alike.  From a scientific perspective, we are not just aware but are aware of our awareness and have used that exponent to craft a picture of the origin and scale of the Universe.  We are a way that the Universe has come to know itself.  Beautiful fact.

But while I am a great appreciator of human consciousness and its cumulative, collective powers, I’m less sure it deserves the exalted throne we give it.  My reluctance may stem from having taken the childhood game of “if you could be an animal, what animal would you be” to heart.  To this day, I love richly imagining the interior experience of other animals.  Favorites include an African elephant in a herd, with a thickened hide, ears that can pick up low-register vocalizations from miles away, huge, clumsy, dangerous feet, and a trunk that can caress, grasp, smell, breathe, and squirt water down my back and the back of my calf.  Yes, African elephants don’t have complex language, can’t do calculus, know nothing of the Big Bang, and probably can’t even recognize themselves in mirrors.  But to be honest, I might trade all of that for the lived experience of being an African elephant.

Elephants not your cup of tea.  How about dolphins?  If you need more specificity–I’ll pick spinner dolphins.   Living in pods, flying in the ocean, seeing sonically, continually chirping at each other, breaching the ocean surface to twirl, torpedoing after fish.  Kind of think a spinner dolphin’s phenomenal experience might beat having grammar, calculus, and a Big Bang theory.

And how many of us have come back from a hard day’s work to our lounging, contented, well-cared for dog companions and sincerely thought, “Well, that’s the life!”?

The fact is that there is an ancient, shared animal consciousness.  This is why we can experiment on rats so successfully.  This ancient consciousness may not be exponential but it is valuable to the animals who possess it, providing them with vivid sensory experiences and feelings about those experiences.  Yes, except for us, they didn’t develop sophisticated cultures or tool use or testable theories of existence.  But who wouldn’t, at least as a child, have considered living a day in their gargantuan feet, elegant fins, or pedicured paws a privilege?

November 14, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Ode to Our Familiar Canines

My first dog was Spot.  (This is what happens when you allow 5 year olds to name pets.)  He was a black-and-white mutt with some discernible spaniel, who would have been more accurately named “Patches.”  He had been abandoned in our little town and had mange.  But what 5 year old couldn’t look past the hairlessness and disease of a wandering puppy to see the loving companion beneath?  After the due trips to the vet, Spot recovered his hair and became that imagined, if not perfect, companion.

NOVA had a great show on dogs just the other week:  I learned several things I hadn’t really grasped before.  Dogs are not just related to wolves–dogs are the same species as wolves.  Their DNA varies by just 0.2% and they can interbreed.  I hadn’t realized that the furry friends I currently share my home with are actually tame wolves–and not just a domesticated wolf-cousin. 

What a difference 0.2% can make.  The NOVA program highlighted an experiment where the scientists tested whether the tameness was caused by nature or nurture.  Nature, hands down.  So clearly nature that at just 4 months old, the lovingly human-raised Canis lupus non-familiaris had to be returned to their wolf pack for everyone’s sake.  The 4-month-old wolf puppies were, in a word, vicious.  Not like Spot at all.

Based on the famous Siberian silver fox experiment, it would appear that the key distinction between our familiar wolves and the wild sort is selection against the trait of aggression.  Although not discussed in this NOVA program, some scientists are now positing that our beloved dogs may have first stepped toward domestication themselves.  (See Nature’s “Dogs That Changed the World, Part I”:*)  The theory goes something like this: the naturally tamer wolves were able to tolerate closer proximity to humans and gathered around our garbage dumps, separating themselves from their more fearful and, thus, more aggressive litter-mates.  From the courage of a few dogs and piles of human waste was born one of the most unique and mutually fulfilling inter-species relationships.**

NOVA also explained that science is confirming what dog owners have already known–humans and dogs can relate to each other on a deep emotional level.  Dogs can understand our expressions and gestures and we can understand their barks.  Indeed, it appears that dogs’ various barks have developed for the very purpose of communicating with us, as wild wolves have a more limited repertoire.

When the NOVA narrator intones toward the end that “our understanding of how dogs evolved to a whole new level [is] getting us closer to what exactly it means to be tame,” I cannot help but think he is alluding to how our own tameness came to be.

Dogs and humans are both social, formerly wild terrestrial omnivores.  It is not surprising that when we look into each other’s eyes we see some deep recognition across the gulf of the species barrier.  It is this recognition that, I believe, we cherish the most.  To my mind, it softens the edges of the existential aloneness we can feel “out on this stony planet that we farm.”***


Note on title: The scientific name for dogs is Canis lupus familiaris.

*Dogs are such a popular topic that Nature has had several programs on them. Check them out at,

** I say “one of the most” in deference to our splendid relationship with cats.  Our historic relationship with the horse also merits recognition.

***From Adrienne Rich’s “Stepping Backward”:

. . .We are a small and lonely human race
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
Out on this stony planet that we farm. . .

A copy of the complete poem is available at, but I urge you to purchase some of Ms. Rich’s poetry.  A wonderful collection, which includes “Stepping Backward,” is The Fact of a Doorframe.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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