“Am I an atheist?”
Recently this question crossed my mind–and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. This experience was prompted by reading an article entitled “How I Left My Evangelical Christian Faith” by Valerie Tarico. The link to this article is: http://www.alternet.org/story/155155/how_i_left_my_evangelical_christian_faith if you’d like to check it out for yourself.
In the midst of this article Ms. Tarico mentions The Clergy Project. I clicked on the hyperlink and started reading. This site is primarily sponsored by people like Richard Dawkins, as well as atheist and humanist organizations. The stories of clergy who have come out as atheists were moving as well as painful, to say the least. Then, from the home page of the Clergy Project I read: “The purpose of The Clergy Project is to provide a safe haven for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.”
“Uh oh,” I thought to myself. After all, it’s no secret to most people that I do not believe in a single supernatural Being or multiple deities who tweak the universe and individuals’ lives at his/her/their discretion, and who are going to either eternally punish or reward people based on adherence to any one religious belief system. I know and deeply love people who do believe in such deities, and as a Unitarian Universalist I respect every person’s responsible search for truth. All I ask is for that same respect from them in my search. After all, as Francis David reminds us: “We need not think alike to love alike.”
At the same time–and speaking only for myself–belief in a supernatural Being that controls every detail of our existence in such a manner tends to give that “god” a free pass for everything that happens in the world. That is, when things go well, God is great; when things don’t go well, God is still great–we just don’t understand “the will of God”–or God is trying to teach us a lesson we will eventually understand (yeah, try selling that idea to some parents whose children are dying of horrible diseases). Either that, or God is allowing Satan to have his “15 minutes of fame” until Jesus returns and banishes Satan and his followers to an eternity of torment. And these followers of Satan, by the way, are defined largely by our own religious prejudices.
If we think about it, these beliefs also have the potential to absolve us from doing the hard work of considering our responsibility for what happens in the world–to consider the very disturbing idea that it is often our decisions that result in at least a portion of the pain creation experiences. It can be frightening to consider the possibility that places like heaven and hell are really human concepts that address our fear of death and desire for justice. It can be terrifying to consider the possibility that there really is no Supreme Being out there who loves each of us individually, and to whom we matter even when everyone else turns on us (addressing our very human need to feel valued and loved), and who has everything under control (addressing our need for security). So all we have to do is “be good” and hang in there, because one day we will be eternally rewarded, and all those people who mistreated us in this life will be eternally punished in the next (again addressing our need for justice). It can be paralyzing to consider the possibility that there just might not be any “cosmic plan” for our lives, too. After all, as humans, saying, “I don’t know” can feel almost as damning as saying, “I don’t believe.”
So, back to the question. “Am I an atheist?” Well, if you define “atheist” as one who does not believe in any supernatural being as I have described here, then I guess I am. At the same time, if you define “atheist” as one who leaves no room for mystery or possibility beyond what we can see and know for ourselves–and both definitions are valid options, by the way–then the answer is, “No.” There have always been things in life we cannot comprehend, and there always will be. There will always be mystery and possibility that we cannot see and know for ourselves. Some people call that mystery and possibility “God,” and other folks have different names for it. So be it.
In the end you might ask, “Does it really make any difference whether or not people believe in God? After all, we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, heaven, hell, etc.”
Well, I think our beliefs do matter; yet only insofar as they shape our lives in ways that bring hope, healing, peace and justice to our world. And there are people of all faiths–and no particular faith–who live out these values every day.
So whatever directions our belief systems may take over time, may we all remember these words from the Talmud, Shabbat 31:a: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” Or from Matthew 7:12: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” Or from the Mahabharata 5:1517: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” Or from the Udana Varga 5:18: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here…
Peace. Blessed be. Shalom. Amen.