The Soul of Atheism and Agnosticism

by Rev. Amy Hoyt

March 2013

Rev. Amy Hoyt

“Spiritual but not Religious,” is how my friend Michael describes himself on his Facebook page. It’s a term we’re all familiar with, and many of us claim this descriptor ourselves. But what’s it really saying?  What’s underneath it?

For many of us, this description has become a more socially acceptable label for faith styles outside traditional belief systems. Every one of us has a faith style, whether or not we embrace religion. In Faith Styles: Ways People Believe, John Mabry says that most of us fall into one of six styles: Traditional or Liberal Believer, Spiritual Eclectic, Religious Agnostic, Ethical Humanist (Atheist), or Jack Believer. Some of these styles encompass religion and some do not.

Our faith style arises from deep within our core as a human being and is further shaped by our life situation and experience. Our style has its unique way of constructing meaning, images of the Divine (or not), sources of wisdom, practices, strengths, challenges, and last but not least, ways we know we’re growing.

Of the faith styles, the atheist and agnostic are the two often mistakenly assumed to “not have much going on spiritually.” Nothing could be further from the truth!  If you’re one who self-describes as “Spiritual but not Religious,” I’d like to share with you my own journey as a religious agnostic and also describe Michael’s path as an atheist.

As a religious agnostic I’m not certain God exists, or in what form. Paradoxically, I attend a Christian church. I’ve lived this agonizing question for decades, and for decades have judged myself as not having “faith.” Agnosticism is not an easy journey, yet through the years I’ve come to be more gracious and affirming with myself. I’m now able to hold God as an unknowable Mystery I best connect with through Nature and meditation.

Surprisingly, as an Interfaith minister serving persons of any or no faith, being agnostic equips me to better understand and support others’ struggles and deepest yearnings.

Michael, my atheist friend, has a similarly challenging path. He’s well educated, teaching psychology at a local university. Tirelessly, he generously mentors his students toward authenticity and meaningful contribution to our human community. To Michael what is most sacred is life itself, and thus he’s a dedicated social and environmental advocate. Childless, his faith journey as an atheist is the struggle to be certain he’s living a life of meaning and contribution. That alone will be his legacy once he dies, and it is that by which he measures his “spiritual growth.” While placing such a high value on a meaningful life, it’s distressing for Michael when he’s stereotyped or marginalized as an atheist, assumed to be self-centered or shallow.

My sincere hope is that in reading this, perhaps you’ll begin to feel more comfortable in your own faith-style skin. “Spiritual” is that core of our humanity from which our meaning and vitality for living arises. For me, it includes religion. For Michel, it does not.

Within us all is a precious spirit worth nurturing. What is it for you?

Rev. Amy Hoyt lives near the shore of the Columbia River in Richland, WA and is the creator of River Spirit Soul Care, through which she serves as a self-employed Interfaith minister, spiritual growth coach, and community-based chaplain. Prior to creating River Spirit, Amy was employed by Tri-Cities Chaplaincy and worked five years as a chaplain at Kadlec Regional Medical Center.

Before arriving in Richland, Amy worked as a pastoral visitor with Spokane Sacred Heart Hospital’s Providence Center for Faith and Healing, and as a staff guardian ad litem advocating for abused and neglected children protected by DSHS and Spokane County Juvenile Court. She designed and facilitated a community volunteer mentoring program for juvenile offenders for Spokane County.

Amy holds a BA in Interpersonal Communication from Whitworth University and an MA Pastoral Ministry from Gonzaga University. She has completed seven units of Clinical Pastoral Education. Her original 1998 Interfaith ordination is with Pathways Spiritual Foundation.