The Integrity of Atheism

February 25, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


SERMON

Within our Unitarian Universalist movement, you will hear a lot of us talk about how different our religious tradition is from others. "We don' t believe in supernatural miracles like the Virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea," some people will say, apparently without realizing that millions upon millions of faithful Christians and Jews don' t believe those things, either. "We don' t let our clergy tell us what to believe," is another thing commonly heard among us, but again – that' s hardly unique to our small denomination. There are free-thinkers in literally every religious tradition.

So far, not so unique. But then someone will point out something that is fairly astonishing and, I think, unique to contemporary Unitarian Universalism: "We have many involved church members who don' t believe in God by any definition. In fact, our religion doesn' t even make the claim that there is a God for certain."

And there, voila. Now we' re making news.

Are there atheists in religious communities all over the world? Sure there are. All of the many varieties of Buddhists, in fact, do a wonderful job at being deeply spiritual people without a concept of God as the Western world has traditionally defined it. There are atheistic Jews, Muslims and Christians who gather in religious community, observe holy days, bow their head during prayers, and gladly put offerings in the plate week after week who don' t believe in God. The difference is, Unitarian Universalists are, as far as I know, the only mainstream religious tradition in America that leaves God out of our central principles. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we freely acknowledge that a many among us are atheists, and that this theological orientation is no barrier to full participation in our churches and fellowships. In fact, because UUs make a faith claim that diversity is a good thing in all its forms, we want all of our people to feel comfortable honestly expressing where their own search for truth and meaning has brought them, even if it has led them to reject the idea of God.

Walter and I were talking on the phone last night about the meditation that he prepared for you this morning. "Walter," I said, "This is a meditation about the great existential anxiety that we can have as a result of being part of such a radically free faith tradition that we don' t even state for sure that there' s a God!" In saying that, I felt a great chasm open under my feet. That' s a LOT of freedom, my friends. I know of no other religious community that dares walk into the void in that way. As one of our hymns goes, "we laugh, we cry, we live we die," … and we do that all without the comfort of any kind of certainty. Some of us do feel certain that there is a God, while others are certain there is not. We make no definitive communal statement either way. That' s big.

I have this image of us all spelunking through a cave together, holding our flashlights and onto a knotted rope. We really can' t know for sure what' s deep in there, so we need to stick together. Because we are a community with such a wide variety of theological orientations, I think we have more need of that rope than the average faith community. One person thinks she sees something ahead, another person is busy wondering how those stalactites got there , and a third one is looking behind him wondering how far they' ve gone since they got in the cave. All very individualistic experiences, and if they don' t hold onto that rope they' re going to get lost in that cave.

Or let' s go into the primordial cave as cavemen and women. Maybe Cro-magnons. Og says to Bog, "Look. Wet falls from the sky. Fire goes out. Gods are angry with us." Bog says, "What gods? There is only the sky and the fire and the hunt. Og, you' re crazy." So then what does Og do? He bashes Bog on the head with a rock. It' s the beginning of religion.

We' re laughing, but have we really evolved so far from that?

Maybe the ultimate in human spiritual evolution will come when Og and Bog' s descendants realize that their brains were designed to see the world in unique ways, and that Og is pretty much genetically determined to be more mystical and to see the world as populated by gods, and Bog is just not. He' s programmed to be a more rational fellow. And we' ll stop the bashing on the head. It' s not that Unitarian Universalists are so evolved in terms of religious understanding. We don' t know anything more for sure than anyone else knows. But we' re committed to the spirit of inquiry, and we' re definitely committed to living in the cave together without bashing each other' s heads in with rocks. That' s progress I think we can honestly claim.

I said just a moment ago that atheism is a theological orientation. You may be wondering about that. Isn' t the root word of "theological," theos, God? Yes, it is. And within the context of religious life, non-belief in God is a theological orientation. Outside of the context of church, atheism is whatever non-believers want it to be. In other words, they don' t have to concern themselves with the issue of "is there a God or isn' t there." Within the church, though--which has always concerned itself with theology and which shall always do so -- we must consider atheism as part of the spectrum of spiritual philosophies.

Some people outside of our tradition would like to understand how it came to be that a religious group welcomes atheists. It' s very simple. Since our faith is non-creedal and non-doctrinal, and since we have a long historical appreciation for the insights and knowledge provided by the sciences, we have integrated the reality that since there is no scientific proof of God, there is no rational, fair and just reason to insist on belief in God in our congregations.

You can believe in God, and walk with the Unitarian Universalists. You can reject all God-concepts and walk with the Unitarian Universalists.

In fact, many of the lay-led fellowships of the Unitarian Universalist movement were founded in the 1930' s, 40' s and 50' s precisely because people wanted to join in ethical and spiritual community without the religiosity of the traditional church. To this day, there are UUs everywhere who still vehemently protest the references to God in our worship services, the current interest in prayer and spiritual practice, and any reference to what they term the supernatural nonsense of the Bible.

But as I said before, Unitarian Universalism is a community invested in the great promise and challenge of theological diversity within united community. For any one sub-group among us to insist that all of us do things one way is just another kind of fundamentalism. In my experience, God-believing folks haven' t cornered the market on irrational fundamentalism.

I am not an atheist, so I immersed myself in some recent, very popular offerings from atheist authors to prepare for this morning' s sermon. I was interested in what prominent atheist Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future Of Reason, had to say about being an atheist in America today.

First of all, Harris claims that because a huge percentage of the American population claims in polls to believe in God, atheists are generally misunderstood, disrespected and/or feared in this cultural atmosphere permeated by religious belief. I have not myself seen a lot of evidence of this in my life, but I believe that some atheists feel persecuted. I believe that some conservative Christians feel persecuted in this secular culture, because they say they feel that they are. Obviously, it' s tough to live at either end of the theological spectrum.

It is problematic to me that Sam Harris defines a belief in God as what we call a personal god – i.e., "someone you can pray to or express gratitude to." SomeONE. By this definition, most ministers that I know, and many prominent religious leaders, are atheists. They pray, but more as an act of centering, deepening, and connecting to the source of life, expressing gratitude to it. They do not expect a specific embodied type of God to listen to them and to respond directly to their wishes. Prayer for many religious people is an expression of faith in the idea that there is a sacred dimension to existence. It is not a telegram to a faraway father in heaven. The answer from God will not come back as "I got your request, and I sent you a response in the mail."

I am sorry that Harris makes almost no mention of religious liberals in his book, and seems not to understand that for many religious people, God is more verb than noun; a kind of incomprehensible magnificent grandeur that we can intuit but never fully know or understand.

This is not to knock Sam Harris' work, which is appealing to many frustrated people who are rightfully irritated with the abuses of religion and religiosity in our public square, but to point out that the two most popular atheistic authors today (because Richard Dawkins does the same thing in his best-seller, The God Delusion) seem never to have heard of liberal Jews, liberal Christians, progressive Muslims or Unitarian Universalists. They have let conservative fundamentalists set the norm for what it means to believe in God.

That' s a shame, in my opinion, as it simply furthers the unfortunate divide between believers in God and non-believers. This is why it is important for atheists and theists – and everyone in between-- to worship together, which we do here on a weekly basis. Sam Harris says that while atheists are commonly believed to be closed to spiritual experience or reverence, this is untrue. He says, "There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists value these experiences and seek them regularly.

Furthermore, Harris says that "from the atheist point of view, the world' s religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe." (L.A.Times.com, "Ten Myths and Ten Truths About Atheism," Sam Harris, December 24, 2006). Ouch!! But I must agree here with retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who replied to this sort of critique by saying, "An irrational, superstitious deity has no appeal to me and the attack of atheists against this kind of God is welcome…. atheism as a challenge to organized religion has a worthy vocation to fulfill." (Spong, "Human Definitions of God Need Revision")

I believe it does.

I believe it always has.

We claim in our sixth UU Source of faith to "heed the guidance of reason and the results of science [that] warns us against idolatries of the mind and spirit." Unexamined superstitions and doctrines that are hostile to the full participation of all humanity in the kingdom of God are some of the worst idolatries plaguing humanity today. It isn' t every day that you hear a minister say this, but I think we need a healthy dose of atheism in all societies to sound the alarm against bad theologies.

But look how I just said that: "the full participation of all humanity in the kingdom of God." I just had to get "God" in there, didn' t I? It wasn' t intentional. To me, the kingdom of God is just as much poetry as it is theology.

I don' t know if I can say what I mean in more secular language without bleeding the beauty and majesty out of the language. But let me try. How about, "the vision of glorious justice, equality, stewardship of the earth and a worldwide ethic of love?" That' s what I mean by the Kingdom, or Realm, of God.

I speak to you from a pastor' s point of view when I say that my own life in faith and in congregational ministry would be impoverished without the atheists in my congregations. For it is often the atheists who are listening most carefully and earnestly to what I say not only in sermons, but also in prayers – and they are the ones who often ask the most pointed and probing theological questions that enrich us as a whole community. "When you said ‘God bless you,' what did you mean?" "When you say ‘let us pray,' what am I supposed to do, exactly?" Atheists are almost always the ones who voice the theological questions we all have and encourage us to dig deeply for explanations of what we mean when we invoke God or the holy – but even better than that, they keep comfortable, traditional phrases of religious life from becoming thoughtless clichés falling too easily from our mouths. And there is a tremendous integrity to that contribution.

It is a brave place to stand within a faith community without possessing anything like a traditional faith. A very brave place.

We are all here because we stand proudly somewhere on the continuum of religious skepticism, and because we want to be able to say that out loud even as we share our lives in religious community. To some – especially those looking at us from the outside -- this may seem like an irony, or even an irrationality. To us, it is simply the honesty we owe to the great and never-ending project of seeking truth in meaning.

"Cherish Your Doubts"

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief that may not be questioned blinds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing:
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.
But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock.
They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.
-Robert T. Weston