This sermon was offered in two parts, starting with….
Part 1: The Gifts of Atheism
I don’t remember precisely when things started to fall apart, but we should probably blame feminism. Or the arts….definitely the gays. I’d been a dedicated Catholic up until then – confirmed, twice a week, rosary-praying, devout Catholic. But then, somewhere around my second year of college, as theologian Paul Tillich would say, all the myths broke, and suddenly the church, God, all of it, felt empty, meaningless.
I wasn’t angry, and I wasn’t against religion, or against the idea of God – although I did harbor some resentment at the ways these things had been weaponized against queer bodies and lives, women and people on the margins, and had been co-opted to serve the needs of capitalism and the state.
Other than that, I was pretty neutral.
My atheism was not – however – primarily about something missing, or what wasn’t – about a lack. It was about what was, and what IS. I was a young theatre artist, and the theatre had become my church. And although I would have easily described what we were doing as sacred, and holy, there was no need for God talk. We were present, alive, discovering, creating, struggling, changing, becoming. The world was to us, tragic, and beautiful, and we were alive in it. This reality, this life, was more than enough.
One of my seminary professors used to remind us that there is no “Christianity,” only “Christianities.” Just as there is no Buddhism, or Islam, only Buddhisms, and Islams.
In the same way, there is no atheism, only “atheisms.”
Atheist-humanist and the author of Good without God Greg Epstein gives this overview: “The most popular kind [of atheism] is ‘ontological’atheism, a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe. There is [also] ‘ethical’ atheism, a conviction that, even if there is a creator of the world, [they do] not run things by rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is ‘existential’ atheism, a nervy assertion
that even if there is a God, [they have] no authority to be the boss of my life. There is ‘ignostic’ atheism, which claims that the word “God” is so confusing that it is meaningless. [And then] there is ‘pragmatic’ atheism, which regards God as irrelevant to ethical living.”
This list doesn’t even get to the 8% of atheists who say that they still believe in God,
which is interesting, and probably it leaves out a whole bunch of other atheisms.
Despite this great variety, I’ve noticed that certain atheists get a little more press than others. Search “atheism” on youtube, and you’ll discover the most outrageous, demanding, and fundamentalist atheists, often going head to head with the most outrageous, demanding and fundamentalist Christians.
This is the inherent danger in any belief claim – that it fails to make space for doubt – and atheism is no exception. It’s a great irony how often atheists flee from one sort of dogma only to embrace another, and how frequently I hear atheists painfully describe how judgmental they found their past religious communities, only to go on to a long rant about the foolishness, stupidity and even childishness of anyone who affirms a belief in God.
I’ve wondered if this inclination comes out of injury – as in, that saying from Richard Rohr, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” Because there was perhaps a time when there was a longing to believe, to get the “God thing,” and it just wasn’t there. And so instead of hope and comfort, the idea of God became a source of shame, or pain, or self-doubt.
It doesn’t help that at least in the US, prejudice towards atheism remains pretty strong.
As Unitarian Univeralist humanist Kendyl Gibbons reminds us, “atheists consistently rank lower” in people’s opinions than “Muslims, recent immigrants, or gays and lesbians, or any other minority group.” No wonder atheists often feel the need to be on the defensive.
When I applied to seminary, a decade or so after the myths had broken – knowing these sorts of prejudices….The first question I asked the admissions counselor was whether or not it would be ok, that I didn’t really get “God”.
She laughed and said, well, seminary is a process of deconstruction, and then reconstruction, so where you are starting is where many of the more traditional students will end up by the end of their first year. So, the important question isn’t whether this place can hold what you don’t believe. The important question is if you are willing to discover here what you do.
Atheism is growing in the United States – there are roughly double the number of people who’d call themselves atheists now than there were a decade ago, and many of them are young. Whereas the general public might find this idea disturbing, I find it hopeful. Or at least, I do if this growing group of atheists can do what that wise admissions counselor advised me to do – discover and claim a positive, which is to say, not-reactive, not-demeaning, not judgmental, but rather accessible, wonder-filled, imaginative, and constructive faith. A faith that is grounded not in belief, but in values, and vision;
not in certainty, but in possibility and wonder; not in the need for some other world,
but with gratitude and amazement at this world that is right here, and now.
Because just like I felt back in my theatre days, atheism at its best cherishes what is. It doesn’t need to hold out hope for another world, it takes this one at face value, and is astonished by it a lot of the time….studies show that atheists are extremely likely – more likely than any other belief group – to experience a sense of wonder in the universe.
Of course, atheism knows there’s a lot about life that isn’t right, but it doesn’t require a big huge explanation about why, or some great master plan. Atheism recognizes there are limits on what humans can know. So atheists will say plainly: Life’s terrible sometimes. And there’s no savior coming to fix it. So let’s all just do what we can to make it just a little better.
To help with all this, atheism turns to science, even while trying not to turn it into an idol….yes, even atheists can commit idolatry.
Atheism at its best puts (back) at its center what can it can sometimes miss, but was actually its original impulse – doubt, and it maintains a general orientation that I call “ICBW.” It’s like the atheist’s WWJD. ICBW: I could be wrong.
In her brilliant piece, “no-god wears comfortable shoes,” Unitarian Universalist Liz James reminds us that most of all, the gift of atheism is that “there is not a God to love us – which means that we need each other to the do the job. And we don’t need to worry about whether we can do it because the truth is we can do nothing else.”
And so for this gift, and this chance to be for each other, this much love, and for this our only life,
we can only say thank you.
Part 2: The Gifts of Theism
In the years leading up to seminary, I started to get more and more curious about the idea of God.
I had no renewed inclination towards belief, but I wanted to know about people who did. What was it like? Did they really mean it?
What I knew for sure however, was that I could not ask these questions in my Unitarian Universalist church. Whereas a century earlier, the so-called “Great Agnostic” of the civil war era, Robert Ingersoll had described atheism as a joyful embrace of free inquiry,
I was finding it to be exactly the opposite. In my primarily atheistic congregation,
rather than feeling like my mind and heart were free to explore in all the ways of love, and truth, I was getting the clear message that there were certain sections of religion and human life that were off-limits. Specifically: the G word.
Which is perhaps why, when they asked incoming students to describe our mission statement for our time at seminary, I knew what had to be at the top of the list:
“I want to know people mean when they say God. I want to listen to their stories, and meet them there without defensiveness, just listen.”
It’s a dangerous thing, listening. More vulnerable than we often realize. Just as vulnerable as sharing our own, it takes courage to let another’s story in. To take it for what it is, to let it change you, and your assumptions. To let yourself feel connected to it.
We have a lot of examples these days, and a lot of practice at not-listening,
at self-defense, at suspicion – as if hearing another’s truth is inherently an attack on your own, as if in the hearing we must immediately begin formulating our counter-attack. But listening to understand, especially to someone sharing something you sincerely don’t understand, something that at times has been used against you, and your family….it was terrifying. And transformational.
Of course it helped that asking people in seminary to tell me about God was like asking a new grandparent to tell me about their grandchild – just, fewer pictures. They’d eagerly start off with the usual words, the ones you say when you’re applying to be a Protestant minister. But before long, if I asked more, and listened more, they’d tell me in real words,
words I could understand.
I was shocked to discover – and I’m embarrassed to admit just how shocked I was – that in most cases, they did not actually believe that God was a man in the sky. Despite the caricature portrayed by George Carlin, or Bill Maher, they didn’t actually believe in God as a celestial peeping Tom. They described instead – a feeling, a knowledge, a mystery. They spoke of God as the creative process, or the hope of justice, or the will to change.
The Lutherans told me about God as revealed in Jesus on the cross, by which, I learned, they meant, God as unconditional, relentless love for everything, and everyone,
and God who knows suffering, and suffers alongside us. God as companion, and partner.
One of my earliest friends, and someone I really admired, told me how he believed that God answers prayers. I thought about that for four months before I had the courage to ask him what he meant. Turns out, he meant exactly what he said, but just didn’t believe we could or should know how. It’s not one-for-one, like a drive-up window. It’s not a wish list. It’s a mystery, and we’re not always supposed to know how it works, but to trust that it does.
This is one of the great gifts of theism: to know that you are in need, to ask for help, to trust that help will come.
As with atheism, there so many different theisms. Some theists are committed to all the omnis – God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful, and everywhere. Some find only one, or maybe none of these important. Some, like the ontological atheists in reverse, are committed to God as the actor in a creation event.
This is not, despite again the caricatures, necessarily incompatible with an affirmation of the big bang, or evolution. It is God as what comes before – as in our story: God the initiator, the energy, the spark.
How and if that creative force participates in human history is one of the big questions for theists. Much of Christian thought is shaped by the promise of God’s possible intervention,especially on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. For a while I found this idea troubling as in, disempowering – for the humans. But then my friend, a PhD candidate focused on the black church, reminded me that when there’s nothing on this earth that seems capable of making things right, you better hope there’s a power somewhere else that might just break through.
Lately, I get this.
Each of these conversations was powerful, connective, and in their own ways, beautiful. Even when what they said was almost entirely confusing, I still loved them in their truth, and their willingness to share it with me.
Conversations about God (even for atheists) are ultimately conversations about what matters the most, what means the most, the how, and the what, and the who of our whole lives, in the biggest possible sense.
Theism gifts us a framework for these big questions, it provide language, and some great stories…it imagines that somehow, all of this, could have meaning, and even a purpose.
Even more, theism reminds us that figuring all this out, isn’t all on us. Because most of all, the gift of theism is the promise that we’re not alone, that there is a love that is the sort of love that would meet us right where we each are, and companion us in a way that feels just right for US, that would feel supportive in and loving in a way that we need, healing in a way that truly heals – and that our only need,our only task, is to receive, and to be grateful.
By the time I finished my first year of seminary, I was starting to feel cheated. Why weren’t these big and varied stories a part of my Unitarian Universalist church? We claimed theological diversity, but more often than not, what it seemed we meant was,
“don’t ask, don’t tell.”
It’s been over ten years since I first started seminary, and in many ways, Unitarian Universalism has changed in this past decade. And in our shared ministry, we have made real efforts to welcome to all theological orientations, and all the big questions, G word included. I think we’re doing pretty well, even though sometimes it can be scary,
and sometimes still we have moments of defensiveness, or pain that hasn’t been transformed ruling the day. Me included.
But in our world today, there aren’t that many examples of people really making a go at this – really figuring out how to – as our mission statement says – embrace diversity.
Not just tolerate, or talk around it, but listen for it, lean into it, remain curious, and listen for – and embrace all the gifts – each of our ways of seeing and knowing, as gifts. And so mostly, the gift here – in our a/theism, is that we are trying. That we are trying to welcome in all the gifts we each bring, and the gifts that are possible in the ways we are changing, and bravely, becoming, together. And for all of these gifts, we can only say, once again, thank you.