‘I only know one god – and that’s me’: non-believers on the meaning of life | Life and style

Religion may once have been the opium of the people, but in large swaths of the world the masses have kicked the habit. In countries once dominated by churches characterised by patriarchy, ritual and hierarchy, the pews have emptied and people have found other sources of solace, spirituality and morality.

In the US, those who say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” is up from 17% in 2009 to 26% last year. In Britain, according to the most recent data, more than half the population proclaimed no faith in 2018, a figure that rose from 43% to 52% in a decade.

But there are many different ways of being an unbeliever – among them labels such as atheist, agnostic, humanist, free thinker, sceptic, secular and spiritual-but-not-religious. According to Understanding Unbelief, an academic research project based at the University of Canterbury in Kent, “unbelief in God doesn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena… Another common supposition – that of the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe – also does not bear scrutiny”.

Who are the unbelievers, and what principles guide their lives? Over the course of a year (and pre-pandemic), the British photographer Aubrey Wade met more than 30 people from five countries (the UK, US, Brazil, Japan and Norway) to find out. “Belief is a word we use all the time, often without being able to explain precisely what it means,” he says. “In practice, most people hold at least some conflicting beliefs about the world.”

Wade, who describes himself as “an atheistic agnostic”, says he was struck by “how many ways there are of making sense of life’s big questions, with and without a concept of God or gods. For some people, unbelief and religiosity don’t go together at all, while for others they are comfortable bedfellows.” In Japan, for instance, “the distinction isn’t even relevant for most people”.

“The pandemic has given us all reasons to reflect on what gives our lives meaning,” he adds. “I’ve learned that atheist individuals and cultures of unbelief are as diverse as religious ones. What unites them is the drive to seek meaning and purpose in life.”

‘People see you as a traitor

Lola Tinubu: ‘Science can also guide one in making moral decisions.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Lola Tinubu, 53, is an atheist and a humanist who lives in London. She is the co-founder of the Association of Black Humanists, a group for people, particularly from the African diaspora, who are free thinkers, nonbelievers, atheists and humanists.

I grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist family. I had a happy childhood and felt safe, but we were also taught that the outside world was evil. I grew up with a segregated view of the world and a fear of others. My father encouraged me to watch science documentaries with him. After one, he said, “Science is fact, but our faith is the truth.” That was probably the moment the penny dropped.

It took me nearly three decades to leave the church. When I became non-religious, the first thing I did was look for other black people who had had that experience. People see you as a traitor. They say, “Atheism is not African: it’s a European ideology.” A lot of people feel they can’t tell their friends. They can’t tell anybody. That’s why we formed our organisation.

The way to understand the world is through investigation, science and research. Science can also guide one in making moral decisions. For example, understanding the environment is now a moral issue. Science has shown that all human beings belong to the same species, so we should respect each other.

I don’t believe in the supernatural. Everything is within nature. Humanism also includes a kind of philosophy and moral guidance. If there’s no ultimate meaning of life, that doesn’t mean our existence needs to be meaningless; we can determine for ourselves what is meaningful.

For somebody who rates thinking highly, I nevertheless define myself by the way I feel. My life. My work. I am my feelings. So perhaps that’s the meaning of life for me: feeling it.

‘We get called devil worshippers, but there’s no worship’

Head shot of Adam Cardone, a reverend in the Church of Satan, New York City
Adam Cardone: ‘Satanists are born. You can’t become one.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Adam Cardone, 47, is a stage magician and a reverend in the Church of Satan, New York City. He is an atheistic agnostic: someone who doesn’t believe in a deity, while holding that a deity’s existence is unknowable.

As a child, I wanted to learn magic tricks. I was a natural performer. When I read the Satanic Bible, I thought, “Wow, it’s describing me.” Satanism is an atheistic philosophy that incorporates ritual and magic. It looks like a religious movement in its trappings, but it’s more of a lifestyle philosophy. Satanists are born. You can’t become one.

Our founder, Anton LaVey [author of the Satanic Bible], recognised that humans like ritual; they pine for it. They like symbolism, whether that be superheroes or religion. Religion has been using ritual and symbolism since caveman times. LaVey got rid of the theism and left all the good parts.

We have no formal meeting place. No rules. We get called devil worshippers, but there’s no worship. I only know one god – and that’s me. I am responsible for my own destiny. We don’t believe in the Abrahamic conceptions of Satan. He is not my god whom I pray to. He is a reflection of me, of who I am. He is a mirror in which I see myself.

LaVey split magic into two categories: lesser and greater magic. Lesser magic is day-to-day psychology, and how you conduct yourself so that people listen.

Greater magic is what people imagine Satanism to be: lighting candles and incense and ringing gongs and chanting. Ritual transforms you. It’s like a magic show designed for yourself. I’m my own performance and audience member.

LaVey rode on this grey line of fantasy and reality, which is what, to me, Satanism is. Fantasy is where we’re able to explore uncomfortable things, new ideas, to map out our psyche in an exaggerated fashion. I think it’s healthy to do this – it’s like play. Adults lose this, and that’s not healthy.

‘God is just another character in the stories’

Head shot of Robert Freudenthal, member of a liberal synagogue in London, UK
Robert Freudenthal: ‘Social action can be seen as a form of religious activity.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Robert Freudenthal, 34, is a member of a liberal synagogue in London. He describes himself as Jewish but not God-centred. When he got married a few years ago, he decided to explore different ways to think about God.

Although I identify as not believing in God in a religious sense, I am relaxed about the language of God in services or rituals. In Jewish practice, it’s quite common to have that sort of dissonance. For me, it’s completely OK to be 100% atheist and still go to religious services. I imagine quite a few members of the synagogue feel the same.

Religious scriptures can help us understand ourselves, the relationships we form, and the world around us. I see God in that situation as just another character in the story, like Moses, or the Pharaohs, or whoever else.

For me, it’s really important to have a sense of connection with the world around us, whether that’s seasonal changes, the natural world, or our history in terms of migration and movement of people. The Jewish calendar and the rituals provide anchor points to reflect on life. Observing them locates me within a community, strengthens my relationships, and encourages me to think about how I can contribute to making the world a better place.

The struggles of previous generations can help us understand what’s happening now. The Pesach [Passover] seder, for example, is more about liberation from slavery and the ways in which we were and still are oppressed than about God. It’s an opportunity to talk about contemporary issues. This year we included a chilli pepper on the seder plate to represent the climate crisis.

In Judaism there’s the concept of repairing the world – tikkun olam. It’s the idea that social action, doing work in order to help people, can be seen as a form of religious activity. That speaks to me. Being part of a religious community offers music, spirituality and relationships. But more than that, it reminds me I’m on a journey to understand myself better and motivates me to help others.

‘I needed proof’

Hedda Frøland, a humanist, in traditional Norwegian dress
Hedda Frøland: ‘Now I believe in the good in people.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Hedda Frøland, 18, is a member of the Humanist Youth Group in Sandnes, Norway. Both secular and Christian confirmation ceremonies remain culturally important in Norway. Wearing a nordlandsbunad, a traditional embroidered costume, Frøland took part in a humanist ceremony, the choice of around 18% of 15-year-olds.

When I was a child, I believed in God, but my belief faded. I needed proof. Now I believe in humanity and the good in people.

My parents and older sister had Christian confirmations, but they wanted me to make an educated decision about my faith. I’m very grateful that I chose another way. A humanist confirmation involves weekly activities over several months, including a weekend role-play in which you experience what it’s like to live as a refugee for 24 hours. You learn about values and critical thinking, and about human rights. I began to feel that I, too, could make a difference.

The meaning of life, I think, is to make it the best experience you can, to spread love to those around you. It’s important to see the beauty in everything, especially in human beings. A lot of people think they’re not beautiful enough, and that breaks my heart. Your values and personality are the best sides of you.

Donald Trump brought a white Christian nationalism back into the frame’

Ron Millar, a humanist and atheist
Ron Millar: ‘I’d hoped we’d be a much better society by now.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Ron Millar, 63, from Washington DC, runs the Freethought Equality Fund Political Action Committee, which helps candidates seeking election to public office who openly identify as humanist, atheist and agnostic. In 1988, he was the campaign manager for the first openly gay candidate running for the city council.

I grew up in a fundamentalist church in Pennsylvania. They believed the Bible was the word of God. It was conservative, but it wasn’t political – they were just a small religious community, and great people.

Now I run the Freethought Equality Fund, which is part of the American Humanist Association’s political arm. We endorse candidates, give them money, and try to get more candidates to run as atheists and humanists. We need reason, evidence and compassion in public policy; we can’t have it dictated by bronze age notions about how society should work.

In climate change, we have an imminent threat that, if we don’t do anything in the next 10 years, is going to change society dramatically and for the worse. In reproductive rights, we’ve been heading backwards for the past 30 years, and don’t know where that’s going to end. The backward trend that we’re doing on voting rights is scary, and we still need to get LGBTQ people included in the Civil Rights Act.

Donald Trump brought a white Christian nationalism back into the frame. The angry voices we heard in the 50s and 60s against civil rights were back, and legitimised by the president.

I’d hoped we’d be a much better society by the time I reached the age I am. That hasn’t happened; I blame the religious right, which uses the Old Testament, mostly, to perpetuate the patriarchy.

During the cold war, the narrative was that America was a Christian country and we were fighting the godless communists. Atheists and humanists were lumped into that camp. The stigma lingers, but it’s going away. In 1958, something like 18% said they would vote for a presidential candidate who was an atheist, and now we’re up to 60%. I describe myself as an atheist, but use the term humanist, too. Atheism is just, “There is no God”; humanism says we have a role to help one another. It’s more positive.

Beauty and tradition are my philosophy’

Yuko Atarashi, studying to be a Noh theatre actress in Tokyo, in traditional Japanese dress
Yuko Atarashi: ‘We have just one chance in this life to meet each other.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Yuko Atarashi, 46, is studying to be a Noh theatre actor in Tokyo. Noh is a form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. The plays often feature a supernatural being, transformed into human form, narrating a story. Japan regularly ranks as one of the world’s most atheist countries, although many people still engage in Buddhist and Shinto rituals.

A key concept in Japanese culture is ichi-go ichi-e, which means to treasure the unrepeatable nature of every moment. Noh and traditional Japanese tea ceremonies are structured around this idea. Performing these reminds me that perhaps we have just one chance in this life to meet each other, so we have to appreciate every moment.

Beauty and tradition are at the core of my philosophy. I believe in the unchangeable beauty of tradition. Japan has an ancient culture. If we understand the story of our past, we understand our culture now.

The purpose of life is to be present in the moment. Family is the most important thing for me, somewhere I can be completely myself. I live with my husband and his parents; we don’t have children of our own.

At death, we reach an end. We came from nothing and go back to nothing. We should give devotions [small offerings as a way of paying respect] to our ancestors, because it’s through them that we exist. But the devotion is delivered to the life they lived, not the dead person.

In Japan, we say there are more than 8 million kami [gods or spirits]. Anything that surrounds us can be a kami. I visit the Shinto shrine for little daily life rituals, to reflect on my emotions and to give my appreciation to something or someone. And for weddings. For funerals, I’d go to a Buddhist temple. I don’t deny the need for religion. It’s a concept that provides rules people can rely on, but I don’t feel I need to rely on anything.

Atheists make a big mistake when they lose respect for people who believe’

Erlon Jacques, a positivist leader
Erlon Jacques: ‘Our doctrine doesn’t offer miracles.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Apostle Erlon Jacques, 47, leads the last practising congregation of positivists in the world, at the Temple of Humanity in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The secular religion was developed by Auguste Comte, the French philosopher, in the mid-1800s. It was adopted by key political figures in the establishment of the first Brazilian republic. Comte imagined a science-based positivist society in which religion would still be necessary, but would no longer require a god to have moral force. The primary tenets of the religion are altruism, order and progress.

I inherited a broken church, with no light or running water. I’m still at the beginning of rebuilding. The most important thing I do is to open the temple every Sunday and explain the religion to people. It’s my life’s mission now.

I have around 20 brothers and sisters attending. But it’s hard to find people with a free mind. Our doctrine doesn’t offer miracles. Reality is sad; there’s no justice, peace or harmony in the world. Many churches offer a fantasy.

The essence of our religion is human connection through altruism. Supernatural gods are not required, but we understand that people need symbols. We have faith in love, science and humanity. I have a deep respect for Christianity and other religions. Many atheists make a big mistake when they lose respect for people who believe.

Comte taught us to continuously update the dogma to reflect changing times. People think positivism is conservative, a thing from the past, but our religion is open-minded, avant garde even. For example, gay marriage is completely OK for us.

My daily practice is the positivist prayer. There is no need to say anything; you can do it in your mind. But we recommend the use of music, poetry, meditation, reflection, thinking about the cosmic order, to help generate pure intentions and promote feelings of fraternity. The essence of the positivist religion is to replace egoism with altruism. Being a positivist has taught me what’s important: family, love, work, friends. Not God, or priests. Before I converted, I was selfish and irresponsible, concerned with my personal pleasure. I didn’t value these things. Now they are what gives purpose to my life.

‘Reading about the lead singer in my favourite band, I knew I was an atheist’

Jake Vargas, a student in Lincoln, Nebraska, standing, naked from the waist up, in front of trees
Jake Vargas: ‘I certainly have values: I value justice, equality, reason.’ Photograph: Aubrey Wade

Jake Vargas, 25, a student in Lincoln, Nebraska, doesn’t “believe in the supernatural world at all”.

Having an understanding of the natural world and science – to my mind, the other side of theism – helps me understand transphobia. So many of the reactions people have are fear and disgust, which are primal emotions. Genetic diversity is necessary for any species to flourish, and diversity in humanity is a very natural, normal and necessary thing. Transgenderism, whatever its roots, is just another part of human diversity.

My parents were raised Roman Catholic. They didn’t raise me with any particular religious belief, but they would mention God occasionally: if I told a lie, my mother might say, “Well, God knows.” So I was raised with the assumption that God exists. But I didn’t go to church. I wasn’t baptised. I would say my parents were lapsed Catholics.

I actually remember the moment I knew I was an atheist. My favourite band is Muse, and I was on Wikipedia at midnight, as 14-year-olds often are, reading about the lead singer. It mentioned his religious beliefs, that he was an atheist. I remember a cold feeling washed through me, and I thought, do I have some sort of prejudice towards these people? Do I actually believe? And the answer was no.

I certainly have values: I value justice, equality, reason. You might say offshoots of that are compassion, empathy, activism through work and interpersonal relationships. Even something small like tact. But those things aren’t sacred to me. I don’t think they exist on a plane that is somehow beyond speculation. And I question my own values all the time.

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