I came across a rather interesting project by Aubrey Wade, who is a British photographer working out of Berlin. The non-belief project is in the early stages, and I contacted Aubrey about participating in the project at some level – even though as I am based in Australia it may not be possible for me to be included. Aubrey wrote back to me, and asked a few questions that prompted and elicited a much deeper response than I had realised I had in me, and I am most grateful to Aubrey for the consideration of my own perspective that his questions gave rise to.
I do not generally publically share details of communication from a personal perspective, but as I myself attained a richer self-understanding from Aubrey’s mission statement and parameters for the project, I am sharing my response here in this post.
Aubrey wrote (in part) to me: The project will take shape in two primary ways:
- A series of portraits combined with short interviews that reflects the variety of non-religious beliefs held by individuals across different countries.
- An in-depth photo essay. I am interested in ritual behaviours connected with people’s non-religious beliefs, in particular when experiencing significant life moments, either positive or challenging (from celebrating to grieving), as well as transitions from one stage of life to another. I anticipate that at these times people’s beliefs, perspectives and worldviews come clearly into focus, are often embodied, and allow for a strong visual representation. I am also interested in exploring the role of ‘sacred’ or ‘spiritual’ objects, places and relationships in people’s non-religious beliefs and lives.
My response, which encapsulates my underlying world-views in ways even I had not fully realised is as follows (I have edited out specific details of my geographic location, and the email content is in blue to denote where the communication ends and the blog post proper recommences):
Good morning Aubrey,
I am happy to be a part of either spoken or visual aspects of your project, thank you! As a hard 7 atheist on the Dawkins scale I am intrigued by your project’s parameters.
My motivations: I am a rationalist and atheist, and one of the most satisfying aspects of my academic work is that I am able to model critical thinking to students in lectures and in tutorials – however the absence of critical capacity as an inherent part of religious and faith-based ‘belief’ is one of the most frustrating aspects of my teaching practice. As a former somatic psychotherapist and life-long storykeeper I am also always interested in people’s stories, because story/ies tells me about how people relate to the world, and who or what they value most. Relationships are therefore more significant to me than objects or even cultural frameworks – although the relationship/s a person may have with the frameworks themselves is often very interesting too…
The relationships that are most important for me, and that give me the most solace at challenging times in life, are those with animals; this is in both my academic and End Of Life arenas of work. I love my spouse and my good friends (who constitute my family), but I have a particular affinity with animals of the non-human kind: dogs in particular. The love, interactions, and relationship with my own dog* spurred on my decision to offer services as an EOL Doula for both people and their pets. Dogs and humans have co-evolved for at least 100 thousand years, and the bonds between human and canine are often the net that catches me best when I am dispirited, overwhelmed, or need to process strong emotion. I am able to write about this powerful and personally profound connection, but have no idea how – or indeed if – this might translate to the lens.
I understand the laws of physics and the universe – we come from the stuff of stars, as Carl Sagan put it, and we return to the stuff of stars when we die. I am not a believer in any kind of afterlife or reincarnation, and I am comfortable in the knowledge that our life is finite, bounded by the two transitions of birth and death. The relationships I have with those close to me whom I esteem and value, including my dog, do provide me with proof of compassion, genuine love and caring, communication (Cully is a Malamute X German Shepherd, so he talks a lot and is a very good communicator), community, and place in the world. As I re-read this paragraph I am aware that my position may seem detached and dry here on the page, but I am often moved to tears by the power of the emotion and connection that these relationships bring to my life. Spending time with a mix of animals – human and non-human – also reminds me to be humble. There are far too many cultural assumptions, generally rooted in religious standpoints, that position humans ‘above’ or in a place of purported ‘superiority’ to other forms of life, all of which are immediately thrown out the window when human actions are considered from a dispassionate perspective. Humans, by and large, treat other humans appallingly. Companion animals and pets, conversely, anchor me to, and in, generosity, kindness, and love.
Our pets also tend to live much shorter life spans that that of humans – with notable examples including tortoises and some bird species, for example – and therefore relationships with companion animals keeps me honest and focused on the present and immediate future. I don’t have the luxury of time within which to experience all I would like to with Cully as he is eight years old now and will probably only live another two to four years if we are fortunate. I have to be present every day, and I constantly check my priorities in terms of Cully’s routine and changing needs as he moves into becoming a ‘senior’ dog. In turn, I am more attuned and responsive to changing needs in the humans around me, and I am (I hope) a better EOL Doula, support person, colleague, spouse, and friend thanks to all that Cully and my other companion animals throughout the years have brought into my life. In essence, I think I am a better person because of my relationships with pets and animals.
I don’t know if my contribution will be useful or needed for your project, but I want to thank you for the opportunity here on the page to express my perspective – writing this email has helped me to clarify and better understand some of my own mechanisms and ideas which were reasonably unformed up until today. That is a gift, thank you.
Have a wonderful day and whether or not I hear from you in the future I wish you every success with your non-belief project,
*I have attached an image of my dog Cully, who I credited in the acknowledgements section of my PhD thesis as my Research Assistant (specialist in water droplets, sand, and seaweed) – and I know of other academics who refer to their companion animals as RAs on a regular basis, for example.
I sincerely mean every word of what I wrote to Aubrey, and encourage you to do some deep reflection on your own perspectives of life, and what is important for you – your insights may well help you plan for a more fulfilling End Of Life for yourself and your pet. If you are interested in learning more about having support for either your own, or your companion animal’s End Of Life, please do not hesitate to contact me.