Faith of an Atheist
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 10, 2013
It is always a bit of a risk when I am first in an interfaith setting to be honest about who we are as Unitarian Universalists. I hope you are not surprised to learn that some religious people are unsettled or shocked to learn we have pagans and atheists here in this congregation. It is hard for some folks to wrap their brains around the idea of having avowed atheists in the pews.
Wonderfully, the responses I have received from most interfaith settings over the years here in Binghamton have been receptive and appreciative. I remember sitting on a panel a few years back and explaining to the audience that Unitarian Universalism is a mix of theists and atheists, pagans and seekers together on the journey. I explained it more fully than just that, you know me, but that was the gist of if. The Imam smiled down the line at me when it was his turn to speak and said, “I wish we could get to that level of open acceptance at the mosque, we try.” I don’t know what in particular he was referring to, but for me the mix of theological perspectives has always been a hallmark of our community.
Atheism in particular is an asset to the mix here. How many of you here in the room this morning identify as an atheist? (Note: About a dozen raised their hands at first service, more than twice that number at second service.) I am a theist and as the minister I find it good ballast to have atheists in the mix each Sunday when I talk. Atheists have a tendency to call out sloppy theology or fuzzy definitions more than the average Unitarian Universalist. I may be projecting a bit, but I think I am more careful preacher because of my inner atheist.
An atheist buys an ancient lamp at an auction, takes it home, and begins to polish it. Suddenly, a genie appears, and says, “I’ll grant you three wishes, Master.”
The atheist says, “I wish I could believe in you.” The genie snaps his fingers, and suddenly the atheist believes in him. The atheist says, “Wow. I wish all atheists would believe this.” The genie snaps his fingers again, and suddenly atheists all over the world begin to believe in genies. “What about your third wish?” asks the genie.
“Well,” says the atheist, “I wish for a billion dollars.” The genie snaps his fingers for a third time, but nothing happens.
“What’s wrong?” asks the atheist.
The genie shrugs and says, “Just because you believe in me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I really exist.”
But beliefs are not the point for today. My sermon is not titled “Beliefs of an Atheist.” Beliefs are important and we will certainly be talking about beliefs, but what I want to talk more about is the Faith of an Atheist. So I will need to spend a little time talking about what is meant by the word “Faith” in this context.
Here’s what I don’t mean: I don’t mean faith in the way Mark Twain was using it when he said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.” Twain’s quip is a spin on the line from Saint Paul in the epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 11 verse 1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” I would consider that to be a version of faith called Blind Faith. That is a version of faith that Atheists strongly reject, and indeed the majority of all Unitarian Universalists of whatever theological stripe also reject.
More pointedly for me, I do not see faith as synonymous with belief. When I do use the word faith I will sometimes use it in the colloquial sense of “our faith tradition.” More comfortable for me however is to use the word as synonymous with trust. ‘What is your faith?’ can be restated, ‘What do you trust?’ In this sense I follow the lead of James Fowler in his developmental theory as outlined in his book Stages of Faith.
Fowler talked about the human development of faith as something separate from beliefs and a person’s religious tradition. It is helpful to see a distinction between religion as a set of answers and beliefs, and religion as an ongoing journey of deepening and maturing. This is the distinction between beliefs and faith. James Fowler saw it that way. The opening pages of his book on faith development asked questions like:
What commands and receives your best time, your best energy? What power or powers do you rely on and trust? To what or whom are you committed in life?
From this perspective we can talk about faith not as a set of beliefs but as the way you live a life. As Carl Sagan said, in the quote we used earlier in the service: “Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly; always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.” Faith is not about a set of beliefs, it is the way you live your life. If it interests you to talk about the beliefs of an atheist, we can have probably a very short conversation about that. It would go like this: Atheists do not believe in a personal God, a deity, a supernatural power. The end. To go further in saying what Atheists believe I think slips into an assumption that all atheists agree, dogmatically, in certain things. It is probably safe to say that atheists believe in the validity of science and that the natural world is the only world – there are no supernatural worlds or places like heaven and hell. And yet, on the surface, Atheism tightly defined is simply a belief that there is not deity, no God.
But a life is not built through denial and disbelief. Life is built in the affirmation. And a mature atheism moves to life-affirming statements that augment the bare denial with which atheism begins. A mature atheism will deny the existence of God not out of bitterness or resentment or anger, but through a positive commitment to truth and reality as it is experienced in all its fullness.
Let me turn now to the task of broadening our definition of Atheist – in much the way we needed to broaden the definition of faith. If we only take the definitions of ‘atheist’ and ‘faith’ that are the basic common definitions – we can still get to some interesting places but I suspect it will only be an academic exercise in cleverness that will not actually nourish any of us this morning. Faith, (as in what you believe,) of an atheist, (a person who does not believe in God,) is a valid perspective; but most people who stop with that definition tend to not show up at a religious community – even a Unitarian Universalist religious community.
Most of the atheists who are members and friends of this congregation do not stop simply at the denial of deity. So let me expand the scope of our consideration. Some atheists will also consider themselves to be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist as an augmentation or a cultural backdrop for their atheism, or they will weave back and forth with agnosticism. A few will dabble in mysticism even. It happens. But from my experience, most of the atheists in our Unitarian Universalist congregations are also comfortable with the term Humanist as a defining label.
Atheism takes a stand about what is not at the center: God. Humanism takes a stand about what is at the center: humanity. Atheism and Humanism are often felt as two sides of the same coin. Humanism takes a slightly different stance in terms of God. Instead of saying bluntly, “There is not God,” Humanism declares the question of God’s existence as irrelevant. It says: We are born, we live, and we die. This much we know, this much we can talk about. Curtis Reese, Unitarian minister from 1920’s and 30’s, wrote, “The Humanist regards the universe as the given and is not likely to speculate unduly on either the beginning or the end of things cosmic.” Reese explained further “the primary concern of Humanism is human development.” There is a great deal of suffering and injustice in the world that will not be dealt with by a ‘deus ex machine.’ Humanity has got problems, to be sure, but they are our problems. The only way there will be change is if we do something about it.
Humanism has a ‘this world’ focus rather than a reliance on fulfillment in another world yet to come. Humanism gave us the phrase Deeds not Creeds. Humanism contends that while ‘man’ may not be the measure of all things (as an early philosopher claimed that we are) we certainly are the measurer of all things. But these are all aspect of Unitarian Universalism in general. Deep down, we Unitarian Universalists are all Religious Humanists. It’s just that some of us also believe in God or the Goddess or an Eternal Spirit. Unitarian Universalism has at its core a belief that every person has worth and value. This is a very Humanist type of message. While it would not be accurate to say Unitarian Universalism is at its core atheistic; it is accurate to say that at our enduring core we are Humanists.
Our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds were quite vocal about this. Each in their way talked about a radical perspective of human nature. These perspectives wound their way through our history to this day. The positions evolved but at the core there was a commitment to a radical acceptance of every person as members of the same human family without segregating anyone out as saved or unsaved, clean or defiled, saint or sinner, worthy or unworthy; all we have are human beings: blessed, whole, capable of good and evil, fully part of the evolving nature of life.
Unitarian Universalism today proudly insists that every person has inherent worth and dignity as a basic root element of their being. Whether the source of this is due to a loving creator, freewill, evolutionary maturation, the Image of God, divine spark within, or simply the nature of all life, there is plenty of disagreement. But the effect is the same: we believe that every person has an intrinsic dignity and worth. We have always said this. And this is a very basic Humanist message.
As an exemplar of Humanist thought within Unitarianism in the 1920’s Curtis Reese, whom I quoted earlier, is one among several outstanding atheist pioneers. I particularly liked the way he articulated the human condition. Reese viewed humans as an organic part of nature, a result of the evolutionary process. But because humans possess self-consciousness and insight, they are not a fixed part of nature but highly plastic and flexible, with potential for development. … Because humans have self-consciousness, they tend to separate themselves from the other forms of nature, even other animals. Reese objected to such a tendency because it perpetuates a dualism of the spiritual versus the physical. (Olds, Mason American religious Humanism, p113-4)
Humanism and Atheism tend to stand for a single reality without duality between physical and metaphysical or natural and supernatural. Humanism and Atheism tend to stand for our human capacity to address the problems of humanity. It has always bothered me the way people will assume atheists are amoral. I don’t understand the connection. I have never found theists to be any more or less ethical or moral than atheists in general. Indeed, many atheists in Unitarian Universalist circles are commonly found among the leaders of various social justice activities. I think it is a great mistake to conflate morality with a particular belief structure. It assumes that people are good only for the reward. Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert, a mentor of mine, likes to say we are “good for nothing.”
Looking back at many of my sermons, I think I have a fundamental message that rings true for Humanists and atheists. I certainly still use the language of God and theism from time to time, but more often than not I speak in terms that stretch across what many think of as a theist vs atheist divide. I went back and checked the sermon I delivered after the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school, “Faith for the Hard Times.” I mentioned God in that sermon, but only briefly to say God is not the source of suffering, if anything God is a resource amidst the suffering. But that was not the point of the sermon. The point of the sermon was that we all have reserves larger than we think – we all can ‘light the lamp anyway. Though the oil has run out, light the lamp anyway.’ Those reserves, the capacity we each have to make it through the hard times does not need to carry a theistic or a non-theistic form. I didn’t say that pointedly then, but such is the nature of many of my sermons. At least I strive for that to be the case.
But all this is a bit of a tangent from the main point. Yes Atheists and more specifically Humanists are welcome in this congregation and the Humanist theology or philosophy is even central to Unitarian Universalism … the question on the table however is ‘what is the faith of an atheist?’
To what or whom is an atheist committed in life? That is one of Fowler’s core questions about faith. I think it is helpful to listen to Fowler’s reframing of the concept because “faith” can be a trigger word or can carry a negative tone that is seen as unredeemable for some atheists. So, to what or whom is an atheist committed in life? Truth. An atheist is certainly committed to truth. Integrity also stands out. It’s not that atheism has the corner on these deep aspects of life, just that these are some of the central tenets for an atheist.
What commands and receives your best time, your best energy? Many people invest a great deal of time and energy in making the world a better place. I can witness to the Atheists and Humanists in this congregation who have a passion for environmental justice, racial justice, peace, equal rights and countless other issues or causes that have their root in the idea of building a better world. Justice and fairness are key values for many atheists. Of course atheism is not a one-size-fits-all concept with a creed of values all must follow. For some atheists ‘kindness’ is the highest value or maybe its ‘beauty.’ At the end of the day, you must find your own answers to this question. What power or powers do you, as an atheist, rely upon and trust? What is at the core for you? Seek out and name the center of your trust and faith. Don’t dwell in the denial, though that is a key element of the truth you know. Seek deeper to what sustains you and urges you onward.
In a world without end,
may it be so.