A Conversation with an Atheist
An ancient, reasoned and radical approach to knowing God
by Daniel McKenzie
In A Conversation with an Atheist, the author takes on the thorny topic of God. Countering religion’s simple faith-based answers to life’s biggest questions, the author uses everyday logic and the teachings of non-dual wisdom to make a clear case for God-knowledge over God-belief. The book opens with a contentious dialog between an atheist and a sage who shares a vision of God that isn’t in conflict with reality. Taking inspiration from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God”), the author shows that in order to understand God, we must first see it as two different operating principles before seeing it as a unified whole—what he calls God 1 and God 2. The result is a cognitive shift that changes not only our view of God, but how we view ourselves and our connection to each other and the cosmos.
The following is the prologue to the upcoming book, "A Conversation with an Atheist." Due out June 1, 2023, published by Mantra Books.
“It annoys me when people bring up the notion there is a God. The whole debate around whether or not God exists is a nonstarter for me. Why believe in God?” questioned the atheist.
“Right. Why believe in God when you can know God?” replied the sage.
“Because there is no God to know!” the atheist shot back.
“To know God, you need God-knowledge. God doesn’t make sense as a belief because by saying God is a belief you’re stating that God may or may not exist. All beliefs lack certainty. But when people say they don’t believe in God it’s usually the biblical God they’re referring to. In other words, they are saying they don’t believe in a ‘Big Daddy’ who sends people to heaven or hell depending on how many ‘Our Fathers’ they had recited.” He added, ”Oh, not to mention, God is pretty unpopular these days considering all the violence, confusion and corruption he has inspired. So to understand God, you need to clean the slate and start from scratch.”
Unsatisfied the atheist responded, “Why should I even care?”
“Because in spite of all the religious baggage, understanding God is really about understanding the world. When you understand God, you understand that everything is the way it is and couldn’t be otherwise. God isn’t just some bedtime story to comfort you when life doesn’t give you what you want. God is a part of life’s equation, because it’s really hard to formulate who you are and what the world is without knowing God.” He continued, “Look, let me try to define it in a way that makes sense to your 21st century-tuned intellect: What is it that brought you into this world?…and don’t tell me it was your mamma because your mamma has no idea how to biologically create a human being! What is it that right now is circulating your blood, telling you that you’re hungry, and putting thoughts in your head? What is it that’s growing everything — the grass, the flowers, the trees, and the hair on your head?”
With a gentle smile the sage answered, “Okay. For now, let’s say nature is the effect and God is the cause. God is responsible for all the objects including you and me. In short, God is everything. Like a spider spinning its web, God is the intelligence, the energy and the material needed for creation.”
“Sounds like more ‘Big Daddy’ to me,” remarked the atheist.
“But God isn’t an old bearded man doling out rewards and punishments,” objected the sage. “God isn’t even a person with human qualities. God is a principle, like gravity. In other words, God is impersonal. God is only in charge of rewards and punishments in so far as you follow dharma.”
“And how do you define dharma?” asked the atheist.
“Dharma is the laws governing our experience — namely, the physical, psychological and moral laws. Physical laws exist so that fire is always hot and sugar is always sweet. Psychological laws exist so that certain circumstances, like experiencing love leave the mind peaceful, while others, like violence leave it agitated. Moral laws exist so that lying, stealing or hurting others feels wrong, and being helpful, cheerful or showing compassion feels right,” the sage explained. “While we all intuitively understand these universal laws, very few people understand that to live a relatively peaceful life all you need to do is follow them! …Look, dharma basically comes down to the following: (1) respect nature (2) mind your thoughts and (3) don’t be a jerk!”
“Good question. Karma shows whether or not nature—God—is currently on your side. It’s like this: Go against dharma and nature will rub you the wrong way. It will cut you down and make you feel the pain. Go with dharma and for the most part, it’s smooth sailing! This is why it’s good to know God, because without God-knowledge you’re a rudderless ship. In the end, God isn’t watching you. God is just handing out the results of your actions. …Again, it’s all impersonal. The rules are already built into the system.”
“The field of experience, the universe, the cosmic order…this!!!“ the sage said enthusiastically.
“Okay, so if we maintain that God or nature exists and that creation is governed by laws, then what created God? …Oh, and please don’t tell me it’s turtles all the way down.”
“Okay, let’s see if you can follow the logic. Through an empirical process we can show that the source of everything is unborn, changeless, limitless, non-dual awareness. In other words, we are able to show that everything comes out of and resolves back into awareness.“
“You’ll need to unpack that for me,“ said the atheist.
“For now, let’s assume that all experience is non-dual because without non-duality ‘this’ doesn’t add up, in spite of what science says. According to science, the universe is random, its origin was an explosion that came out of nothing, and consciousness evolved from some dead matter. Now that’s a bit of a stretch even for most scientists, so hear me out. …From a person’s point of view, strip away the body-mind, every limb, every part that you call ‘me’ and you have just awareness — the essence of who you are. I don’t have to ask you if you’re conscious because it’s obvious. The fact that ‘I am’ is self-evident. From God’s point of view, take away all of God’s stuff , everything in the universe , and you also have just consciousness. We say the universe, God, is conscious. The universe isn’t random, because if it were, scientists wouldn’t be able to, for example, do any of their calculations. It’s only because of natural laws and known patterns that we are able to navigate the world. You can infer the intelligence behind all creation. Everything here is just knowledge made manifest. How else do you get a towering oak from a small acorn? For this reason, we say the universe is conscious and intelligent.”
“You mean ‘intelligent design’?” the atheist added with a smirk.
“Right, it’s one area where we’re in agreement with the bible thumpers. …Anyway, so up until now we’ve learned that God is a figurative entity — a name for consciousness or awareness, plus various powers including the knowledge, energy and matter to make stuff. We’ll call these powers, maya. From this we’re able to state:
Awareness + maya = God
Okay, so we’ve defined God. But what about a person?
Awareness + a body-mind = a person
Interestingly enough, both God and a person have awareness. Follow? Everything just resolves back into awareness, even God and God’s stuff. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the essence of the universe isn’t dark matter or even energy. It’s pure, attributeless, non-dual awareness. With me so far?”
“I think so…So, you’re proposing we are the same as God?“
“Yes and no,” replied the sage. “We share the same essence as God—just like all clay pots are made of clay—but obviously we cannot wield God’s powers and we aren’t omniscient or omnipresent. We are God from the perspective that we are a product of God and by the fact that we share the same essence—awareness—but that’s as far as it goes. But let’s not diminish the fact that we share the same source—that’s pretty cool. It also helps to remind us that everything has been given to us, including this body, mind and intellect. …But back to your question, ‘What created God?’ Where it gets tricky is when we look at all of God’s stuff. We say God’s creation is beginningless. God’s creation is beginningless because it exists in awareness and awareness, we like to say, is a causeless cause. Awareness just is. It’s what is never born and never dies. Awareness has no limitations because if it did, it wouldn’t be whole, complete, changeless, or non-dual. We say awareness is real and all objects, including thoughts, are only apparently real.” The sage paused a moment before clarifying, “By the way, ‘real’ is defined as that which is always present and never changes. Objects — and that includes thoughts and emotions too — are always changing and unreliable, so they don’t qualify. All objects are also made up of other objects, unlike awareness, which is whole, complete, and not dependent on other objects. Now this is the tricky part: Because all objects are only apparently real — meaning, they are always changing into something else — they are beginningless, because something that isn’t real can never be born. Are you still with me?”
“You’re making my head explode! Objects don’t exist now?“ exclaimed the atheist with disbelief.
“Objects do exist because they are experienced, but they are not real. They are apparently real. It’s just like the story of the guy who mistakes a coiled rope for a snake. At first, the rope is a snake. It’s not until the truth is known that the ‘snake’ becomes a rope again. The ‘snake’ is experienced but isn’t real. Objects exist because we experience them, but on closer examination they flunk the test. They are ephemeral, passing—something one moment and something else the next.”
“So, then what are objects?”
“When looked at closely, objects are just a temporary aggregate of smaller parts, but really they are just thoughts. All objects exist as thoughts. We don’t actually sense objects, just their properties — color, shape, texture, taste, and smell. From the various sensory inputs, the mind automatically takes the properties, puts them together and applies a name and form, so that, for example, wet and translucent becomes ‘water’ and yellow, hot, and crackling becomes ‘fire.’”
“So, we’re living in a thought universe?“
“Bingo! How’s that for non-dual vision!“
“Um…Okay, I guess. But you still haven’t answered my question.“
“Right, ‘Where does God come from?’ Let’s see… Because awareness is never born and never dies, awareness is eternal. And because awareness is eternal, so is God. Remember, the essence of God is just awareness and because awareness is beginningless and God’s stuff exists within awareness, God is beginningless. Since God has no beginning, God is not born. God simply is. So, the question is moot. …But here’s the catch—God isn’t real either.”
“Wait…What?” replied the atheist, now visually annoyed. “You just took 15 minutes to argue your case for God and now you’re telling me God isn’t real? I guess that proves my point.”
“There is no God.“
“Remember what I said , by our definition only awareness is real. God only exists because of awareness. God is dependent on awareness and so, is only apparently real, just like all God’s stuff. Nevertheless, we still experience God’s creation. So, you can’t just write-off God. You’re in this dreamscape whether you like it or not! Everything you have is given to you, even if it isn’t real by our definition. God isn’t to be dismissed, God is to be known!”
“But how is God able to create anything and most importantly, why would it want to?“ asked the atheist.
“I don’t know, maybe God was bored? Or maybe God just wanted to know itself so it created conscious beings with sense organs in order to see, smell, taste, touch and hear its creation? It’s a mystery why anything exists at all! The deeper you dive into this creation, the more bizarre it gets. Open one door and there’s another, and another — an endless succession of doors to be opened. Or you can look at it like a puzzle folded within another puzzle, where the macrocosmic mirrors the microcosmic and vice versa. …It’s seeing the ocean in a drop of water and all that.”
“God’s stuff is just patterns, patterns everywhere…and God is very frugal! Take nature’s fractals for example. The veins under your skin appear as the veins in a leaf, which look like the branches of a tree, which appear the same as lightning in the sky, and so on and so on... Nature is just a fixed set of laws with the same patterns applied over and over again. From a few we get the many, just like from the 26 letters of the alphabet we’re able to assemble thousands of words, essays and cheap romance novels. …So what do you think of God so far?“
“To me, it sounds like you’re just explaining nature but in a way that suggests there is an awareness and intelligence behind it.“
“Yep, God isn’t about guilt, fear or asking for the latest gaming console. God is to be worshiped, not because we should fear God, but because we know we aren’t in control.“
“Control of what?“
“This, the results. Once you know God and how God’s field of experience works, you just let go. You really have no choice. It’s complete acceptance and with that, a big sigh of relief, frankly.“
“But I have free will, I don’t need to negotiate with God.”
“Even if you could, God’s laws are non-negotiable and from your point of view, you do have free will and a certain degree of control. But looking at the big picture, you’re totally dependent on God. It should be obvious that there’s a network of constant support operating here. Americans, in particular, take pride in self-reliance, but it’s all just an illusion—something writers romanticizing about the Old West made up. You didn’t do anything to get to where you’re at. Why, you couldn’t even…”
“Just wait a minute, I…“
“Look,” interrupted the sage sensing things were getting a bit hot, “everything has been given to you — your parents, your home, your education, your clothing, your food, your partner, your recreation… Don’t you see the infinite actions that had to take place so that you could be here talking to me right now?” the sage asked emphatically. “There’s an old Zen monk who likes to say he can see the whole universe in a single sheet of paper…and he’s right! Look at everything that had to occur for even a single sheet of paper to manifest — the sun, the water, the tree, the lumber jack, the chainsaw, the truck, the sawmill, the paper factory, the retailer, the salesperson… The sheet of paper didn’t just manifest itself and neither did you or any of that which you believe you have control of. Your sense of control is just an illusion. All results come from the field. Do you see how this works? No action takes place without the blessing of all things in the field. Not even your ability to make decisions.” The sage then added, “How much control do you have even over your own thoughts?”
“Um…Okay,” replied the atheist searching for a comeback. “But if your God exists and is so wonderful then why all the evil and bloodshed in the world? Why would anyone worship such a masochist?”
“God doesn’t cause the world’s problems, ignorance of God does. People act out of desire and fear and create suffering. Take away ignorance and everything is totally fine with the universe, even death. Furthermore, in this world of duality nothing exists without its opposite. You cannot have hot without cold, sweet without sour, or beautiful without the mundane. What would you have ‘beautiful’ to compare with if everything were beautiful?”
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you? How do I know this isn’t just another elaborate story made up by some old guy living in a cave?“
“Hey, this isn’t a smart-a-thon to see who can make the other guy paint himself into a corner. There are no winners. We’re all swimming in the same fish bowl here. I’m just calling out what you and everyone else already intuitively know. We might not be able to put our finger on it, so we come up with all kinds of names for it — Krishna, Allah, Jehovah, ‘Him,’ ‘Her’…whatever you want to call it—it doesn’t really matter. It’s all impersonal, like the weather. But you might find there’s a certain usefulness to having God-knowledge. It helps alleviate ignorance — the cause of suffering — and it promotes good habits like gratitude and letting go — two of the best remedies for stress. You and I can argue all day and night whether or not God exists. But one thing you cannot deny is this, that is, this experience. You cannot deny that what you’re witnessing is being simultaneously created, maintained, and recycled by a power greater than you. This you cannot deny, my friend. Call it nature if you will, I’ll stick with God.”