An Atheist’s Dillema: God’s Country and the Redwoods

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” John Muir quotes.
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After posting some photos on FB, my friend Marck commented on one of the photos and referred to it as “God’s country”.
Being born and raised in Israel, I was taught that there’s only one God’s country and it’s the Promised Land. Obviously, this made me pause to think about the expression, “God’s Country”.

The dictionary defines it in a way that can apply to everything I was experiencing:
(1) an area or region supposed to be favored by God, especially a naturally beautiful rural area. (2) an isolated rural area. (3) one’s native region.

Driving through the sheer magnificence of the Shasta region and Lassen Volcanic Park, I couldn’t help but feel that I was visiting God’s Country… And this was before we’d even started to hike in Redwoods National Park.

What do I say to the trees?

As an atheist I couldn’t avoid the struggle between not believing, and the awe in the face of this beauty and magnitude. My wonderment was of such a scale I felt a sense of insignificance. On the other hand, doesn’t it seem the Redwoods are here for us to marvel upon and to bask in their glory? They are glorious indeed.

These trees that can reach up to 370 feet, have a 22-foot diameter, and can live 2000 years! So why am I taking my life so seriously?

(Watch it Rachel, you’re beginning to use words associated with god… )

So here’s the dilemma: Can I name any country “God’s country” if it’s not the Promised Land, and/or if I don’t believe in a god, but if I use this expression to convey the sheer awesomeness of nature – do I betray my atheism?

Well, kind of sort of…

I always say the only time I have any spiritual feeling is when I’m in nature, especially looking at birds and fish, since their colors and design make me wonder if there was an artist sketching them. So strolling in the midst of the redwoods and looking at their height and breadth (or shall I say heft?) filled me with awe.

Awe towards what? The god of the Redwoods? The god of nature? The god of Abraham? The answer is: None of the above, but awe I felt.

I don’t believe that if there’s a God it wants us, or expects us to worship him. Nor do I believe that he(?) expects us to pray to him. After all, how is he going to benefit from our prayer, being all-powerful and omniscient? I’m utterly convinced that the prayers, beliefs and worshiping of all faiths are there for our comfort. We live a very short life; there are birds that live as long as we do; and yet the Redwoods live so much longer!

So with that in mind, I’m still struggling with the majestic Redwoods who were here long before me and will hopefully remain (if we don’t destroy the earth), long after me.

As to the presence of god, the best I could come up is there’s some source that emanated this beauty, and it’s clear to me that this beauty is beyond comprehension.

So in the hush of the giants, you may decide to call it God, and I may just keep wondering – and at the same time we’ll both be overwhelmed by this creation.

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“To some, beauty seems but an accident of creation: to Muir it was the very smile of God.” John Muir quotes

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About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in Redwood National Park, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to An Atheist’s Dillema: God’s Country and the Redwoods

  1. Dalia Kenig says:

    There is no doubt Rachel that being in the presence of nature is powefull in so many ways and you mentioned a few.
    I love Joseph Campbell prespective on the topic of God or god, whatever you fancy.
    “In choosing your god, you choose
    your way of looking at the universe.
    There are plenty of Gods.
    Choose yours.
    The god you worship
    is the god you deserve.”

    from A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living
    Enjoyed your post much!

  2. Barbara Cooper says:

    Rachel,
    I think this experience of yours has left you as less of an atheist and more of an agnostic. We marvel at nature because of its beauty and when awe steps into the picture, it is an acknowledgement that man didn’t , and in fact, couldn’t have created such wonderment. So maybe what you don’t believe in is the God religions have created. But it sounds to me that you are questioning your own lack of belief in something out there, greater than we are, who created it all. For if man didn’t create it, who did?

  3. Stephanie Kirschner says:

    The pagans worshiped nature, if you need to worship something – I’m guessing you don’t. That makes more sense to me than God – whoever, whatever he/she is. If it’s God’s county up there, he/she wasn’t watching out for my Dad, who lived close by, in the middle of the redwood forest.

  4. rachel bar says:

    The feelings I had, had nothing to do with the Biblical/religious God, who’s supposed to watch over me, you or your dad. If these trees live to be a thousand or two thousand years, why should we think that we are so special and should live for as long as we believe is right? On the contrary, my belief is, that the mystery is not about humans at all.

  5. Rinat Amir says:

    Shalom dearest Rachel,
    Yes, the Red Woods are so awesome that it opens up our mind to the wonders of our world, including the whole Universe – is This Land ( Earth) the only one ????
    Why do we forget that Astronomers found out at least seven more planets which have stars suns moons and more, as we know it here on planet Earth ?
    God is a term invented by humans to describe what they could not comprehend, it could mean different things to different people, as they say in the “12 Steps”….
    As secular Israelis, growing up on the Hebrew language, we can have a deeper understanding of the terms ELOHIM or YHVH. First, lets look at Elohim, it is the combination of EL and ELA – meaning God And Godess – masculine and feminine put together, the plural gets the ending – IM.
    When we look at the words EL or ELA, the Hebrew Alef Lamed (AL) means: NOTHING, as in DO NOT – not any connotation to a form whatsoever. And, when Moses asked the voice he heard -Who are you ? What is your name ? the answer was I was known as ELOHIM to you I reveal the name YHVH – which comes from the verb LE’HYOT – being or existence, while combination of the letters denote past-present-future all in one. Hence we could understand that actually God exists as energy, as an eternal source that was-is-will be beyond our limited understanding.
    Staying during the Holidays season in Israel now, being secular, atheist, agnostic, or whatever –
    traveling and visiting beautiful places and parks in our Holy Land, natural and man made, one can not deny the fact there is some power greater than us.
    When we are in NATURE we definitely FEEL it……let there be light love and peace in our world…

    • rachel bar says:

      What a lovely post Rinat, and so good to hear from you. Your comment is a reminder of what I used to know, when I studied Rabbinic Literature a long time ago, and since forgot. Enjoy your time with family and friends in Israel.

      Hope to see you soon.

      • drwilly says:

        All very nice thoughts. I agree that our Jewish heritage shouldn’t be the monopoly of the rabbi’s. As Hebrew reading people we have the advantage to understand the biblical messages as they were originally written. To me the thora is the first atheistic book as it asks not to worship the gods idols spelled Elohim in the bible. It asks to understand that what always was and always will be has to guide us: Yesh Hou Veyhyeh Hou (the acronym YHVH)
        Have a nice Shabbat, the day of love and peace

      • rachel bar says:

        Thanks for visiting. Seems like the word Atheist in the title creates an opening for discussion about faith. Hmmm. I meant to describe a feeling about trees. I think that’s what my friend Shimon meant when he said that when you write/create something, you let the world find its own meaning.
        As to Yehova (I should rot in hell for even spelling it), I don’t know why we decide that this is an acronym? Please explain.

      • drwilly says:

        Don’t worry Rachel, hell does not exists in the thora. Everything is on earth as long as we live. Gehenom lays just a few miles away from Jerusalem. And Paradise or PaRDeS is also an acronym for spiritual pleasure when reading literally (pshat), allegorical. (remes), etymological (drash) and for the hidden message (sot). So when I read you or Shimon I’m in PaRDeS.
        And YHVH is translated in most bibles as the Eternal and the Eternal is what is and what will be (Yesh hu veyihieh hu). Indeed we must feel very small when confronted with eternal beauty
        Have a nice day 🙂

  6. Maurice Labi says:

    It’s not just the birds and fish that are magnificent in color and form. Think of planet earth: just the right amount or radiation from the sun; our eyeballs don’t get fried from boiling heat, and our asses don’t freeze; plants grow on sunlight and water alone, gravity at 10 meters per second keeps us on the ground rather than sending us off into space; other than the occasional flood, rain falls in just the right amount to nourish the land, provide water to all creatures. Someone should pull back the curtain and see if the Great and Powerful Oz is behind the dials. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the ride.

    • rachel bar says:

      “other than the occasional flood, rain falls in just the right amount to nourish the land, provide water to all creatures”, this is where we differ. First and foremost, this is inaccurate, and secondly, I don’t believe that there’s a god who sits and calculates how much water each region needs, because if he does, he’s truly doing a bad job of it, and should be fired. It reminds me of BIRKAT HAMAZON, where it says that I have not seen anyone abandoned (to be hungry)! Not so.
      As to the ride, which is what I was referring to in my blog, it was awesome indeed.

      I really enjoy your blogs!

  7. ShimonZ says:

    It seems to me, Rachel, that your atheism is a personal rejection of god as he is depicted by religions… primarily, I would suppose, by the religion you grew up around in Israel. I have no argument with you. I believe that faith is a very personal experience. But I have to say that you experience in the presence of the redwood trees is very much like what a religious person feels. I feel the same things in nature… a meeting with what is greater than myself, and what I can’t possibly explain or understand completely. And this is what gives me a sense of awe. And that awe is a precious thing. Most of us can’t really communicate with those great and ancient trees, or the infinite variety of living things that interact with them in the forest… but we can be aware, and enjoy their presence… and this in itself is a wonderful experience. When I was visiting California, I hiked through the high Sierras, with a copy of Muir’s journal in my backpack, and for me, it was a religious experience. I thought of that place as god’s country, because the forests hadn’t been tampered with that much by man. It was growing as nature had intended it.

    • rachel bar says:

      Thanks for your comment Shimon. Wise as ever.

      Actually, it is not the Jewish religion I reject, but any religion that instructs me to pray to their god, because if I don’t do it, I may evoke his wrath. I remember a story read when I was a child by Y.L. Peretz, and I believe that it was called “The Whistle” (Hashrika), but I’m not sure. The whistle of this poor uneducated creature opened the gates of heaven. I don’t believe in the gates of heaven, but I believe in the purity of the whistle. I should have whistled too.

  8. Jim Palmer says:

    Like you, I do not believe in the biblical concept of God, but have experienced the same feeling of awe when confronted by nature, or when I look up at the night sky on a clear night…. Or the mathematical precision of science as applied to the universe, when confused I reread this summation ……..It seems to help me understand.

    I found this summation of his book on gravity fields I found this article almost poetic, as related to Quantum mechanics and relativity………. I was impressed by this, Odenwalt is a hard science guy that turned poet here……

    Some thoughts by Dr. Sten Odenwalt PhD

    As I think about all of these facts and images that attempt to distill the world into an emotionally meaningful experience, the true wonder of it all is that all roads in Nature, when followed downward level after level, seem to lead to the same inescapable realization: Particles and matter are not the ultimate groundwork of Nature. At the most basic level, all known things dissolve into a confluence of reverberating quantum fields, whose interplay in spacetime give us the substance of a stone, the color of a sunset or the fragrance of a rose. Even spacetime may ultimately resolve itself into its own quantum essence as a spider web of interacting particles made up from pure space. There is, perhaps, a germ of truth to the saying that ” the universe has more of the character of a thought than a machine”. The knots in the fields we call matter are just the tracers of a more fundamental reality, mere flotsam and jetsam on the ocean of the universe. The deep roots that elementary particles have may reach down into the bedrock of spacetime whose geometry ultimately controls their properties and how they are destined to interact with one another. Like an oak or a maple tree, we measure and perceive only their broad canopies. Their roots remain forever hidden.

    And so, after all of this, I am left with only one core experience that serves as a beacon for me. On a dark winter’s night in January I stood outside and looked at the vast emptinesses between the stars. I saw the dust clouds and nebulae, the faint pinpoints of warmth set against the unimaginable cold of the universe. And in my mind’s eye, I saw something else too. I saw a vast landscape of quantum fields busily curving spacetime and steering the motions of matter. I saw beneath this, a plenum of activity just below perceptibility, where ghost-like quanta knit the Void into a dynamic vacuum, and suspend it like a spider’s web, above the great abyss of Nothingness. I felt the hardness of my body and the ground beneath my feet dissolve away into the invisible gyrations of spacetime curvature, in a seamless way that reunited my body with the Void itself. My mass was taken up by the energy of massless fields that themselves dissolved into the comings and goings of graviton networks that spun their web works at the foundation of space and time.

    What any of these things meant, I had not the slightest clue because the experience was purely non-verbal. But I had the sense that all was well. That no matter what the explanation of what I was witnessing might be, we would come to it in due time if that was our good fortune and destiny. For now, I was content to be living in the most likely of all possible worlds, enchanted by what I knew, but humbled by what I could not.

  9. Martha Carr says:

    Beautiful blog Rachel! You truly capture the essence of the redwood experience! I call it spiritual – it feeds the spirit and the soul (another God reference?) I think we use the term God in those moments because such profound beauty or magnificence does inspire awe. It is something profound which extends our awareness of life into a connection with something much bigger and broader than ourselves. Winnicott once said that we have a sense of “going on being” which is part of our sense of self that is continuous. I think when we have one of these spiritual experiences we can connect to ourselves in ways that go beyond ourselves and feel the ongoingness of life itself. Perhaps this is also what is meant by a “religious” experience!
    In any event, I can see how the term God can become a kaleidoscope of meanings worth pondering!

  10. The first time I read this there was only the Steinbeck quote so maybe something was odd on this end. Anyway, I understand totally how you feel – the confusion, the wonder and nature remains an enigma to me every day. I know in the first 2 minutes of a Catholic mass you have to ask God’s forgiveness for all of your sins. That will always baffle me. What sins, what did I do? The guilt is still so ingrained me even though I don’t practice Catholicism anymore.

    I actually thought of you this morning which was why I came to your site. I saw C. Hitchens slim volume called Mortality in my book shop’s window. I’m sure it’s heartbreaking on some level but I do know how much you liked his writing.

  11. I just found out that I’m an Agnostic! I’m so excited. As far as the beauty of what’s in the University, I’ll leave that to Mother and Father Nature.

    • rachel bar says:

      Russel, what took you so long, and why are you excited?
      I enjoy your photos.

      • What took me so long is that I never cared to label myself regarding religion or lack thereof. I’m excited now because I didn’t have to do the research myself. Someone did it for me. Thus I saved lots of time. I’m also excited because now, when someone asks me, “What religion are you?” I can say “Agnostic.” Uh-oh. Is Agnosticism a religion?…………lol

  12. Ooops. University should be Universe.

  13. Shoshana Powell says:

    Instead of God’s country, how about God’s Planet? Were you in Del Norte county?

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