“The Blessings of Atheism” by Mark W. Harris
March 16, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Reading – from Job 31: 2-8, 35
2 What would be my portion from God above, and my heritage from the Almighty on high? 3 Does not calamity befall the unrighteous, and disaster the workers of iniquity? 4 Does he not see my ways, and number all my steps? 5 “If I have walked with falsehood, and my foot has hurried to deceit—6 let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity!—7 if my step has turned aside from the way, and my heart has followed my eyes, and if any spot has clung to my hands; 8 then let me sow, and another eat;and let what grows for me be rooted out. 35 O that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
The Greenwood Harris clan gets up fairly early each day to get the younger boys off to school or Levi ready for work. Last Monday one of the boys, who shall remain nameless, took a Dr. Pepper out of the refrigerator and prepared to have a morning drink, with a cookie or two, having some sugar with his sugar. While I don’t wholeheartedly reject stimulants in the morning, I find drinking soda as a breakfast drink offensive, and said that to him. The offending child then went on to tell me that this was a religiously appropriate soda for a Unitarian Universalist family. It seems he had learned this lesson from a South Park episode, the fount of all knowledge for teenagers. In this scene. Kenny and Cartman briefly live in a foster home run by a pair of strict Agnostics, who it turns out are abusive. As the father is giving his new children a tour of his home, they enter the kitchen, where the father explains when they can have drinks, and then firmly declares that they are only allowed to drink “Agnostic beverages.” He then opens the fridge to reveal it packed to the gills with Dr. Pepper and Diet Dr. Pepper. “In this house you will drink only agnostic beverages. Because, what flavor is it? It is neither root beer nor cola. Nobody is sure what flavor it is, and nobody can be sure. Isn’t that right?”
Here in this television segment, the agnostic is seen as mean, rigid, and belligerently authoritarian. While there is a technical difference between the terms agnostic and atheist, one leaves open the question of God, and the other rejects the concept entirely, practically speaking neither one lives with the presence of God having any daily impact on the conduct of their lives. It is more of an intellectual debate than anything. Yet many atheists don’t seem to appear calm and rational when the subject of God is brought up. The predominant emotion the atheist seems to possess is anger. He or she fears the believer is trying to foister some false theological scheme on them, or is perpetrating an outright lie or intellectual absurdity. While those of us who take an atheist or agnostic position would not want to be compared with the mean guy in the South Park episode, the truth is that nobody ever equates atheists with being warm, loving or remotely spiritual. They are often seen as angry because the God they learned about as children did not turn out to be loving and caring and protective, even if they or their friends were good little boys and girls. There was no physical evidence in their lives that this God cared about them or the world at all. For instance, I wondered where was God when my friend Julie got sick and died from leukemia when she was only 13.
Furthermore He let wars, and racism and famines and floods continue unabated, and did nothing about it. Where was God? victims of the Holocaust asked, and there was only silence in response. If He was really in charge of the world and cared about people, He seemed to be missing in action, or as some comedian once said, a terrible underachiever. He either did not act because he was indifferent and didn’t love humanity, or he couldn’t act, and was therefore so impotent, he could hardly be called God. Why bother believing? He did not affirm and protect Job the most upright man in all the Hebrew Scriptures but destroyed his wife, his children, and his property, and then turned His vengeful heart on the man himself, who continued to remain a paragon of virtue despite all his afflictions. It was the Book of Job that allowed humans to ask for the first time that if God ran the world, why he did so in such a moral vacuum. Until the mid-nineteenth century it was immoral and illegal to even harbor the thought that there might be no God calling the shots, and therefore it was no surprise when the Universalist minister Abner Kneeland became the last man jailed for blasphemy in the United States, after he hurled the Bible across the room declaring it a book of lies. He likened the very idea of God to a Chimera of our imaginations, the Greek fire breathing God that never existed and signified something that was wildly implausible.
Tracy was telling me the other day about an experience she had during her week as being a chaplain. She entered the room of an avowed atheist, and was immediately told she was wasting her time. She could offer nothing to this patient. The patient was probably projecting, that some God fearing, Bible toting, outspoken evangelist, like Tracy, might want to pray over her, or condemn her to hell for being a non-believer. Tracy wasn’t needed. Yet to reject something this strongly connotes a lot of emotion connected to religion. Atheism has enjoyed a bit of notoriety in recent years with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as the leading proponents of a rational and scientific approach to non-belief, which is a negative reaction to the extremes of strict believers and they see religion as harmful. They understand all knowledge in a very rational fashion with little understanding of the need for awe or mystery, so that even if you wanted to embrace their approach, you could hardly feel it had any spiritual or nurturing quality.
In our book An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions, Andrea and I report that in 1967, 30 percent of UUs believed that the concept of God was either harmful or irrelevant. During the next twenty years this dropped to 18 per cent, and furthermore the number who were willing to give some credence to the concept of God rose from 70 per cent to 81. My sense is that this has held steady since. So despite the discoveries of science in a modern world where you would think unbelief would be rising, our statistics reverse that trend. Some of this reversal is because an affirmation of God no longer has to reflect an all-powerful deity who manages human affairs. Now UUs increasingly feel free to affirm God as a process in the universe that can attest to our scientific understanding of evolution or we see the universe itself as God, or the ground of our being, and not Michelangelo’s old man with the beard. This presents its own problems though. Are we merely redefining God to fit our image of what conforms to our needs in light of our knowledge of the universe? Do we need God, if there is no real evidence of an all-powerful being, but simply is another name for love or justice? Is it another crutch of comfort and security that we identify, but have no fundamental experience of?
I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that many of us do declare that there is some kind of sacred and mysterious process at the heart of the universe. Yet while this is true, we mostly live our daily lives trying to formulate healthy relationships with others in our family and community, and trying to build a more compassionate and peaceful world in whatever ways we can, without God’s guidance. Being a Unitarian Universalist means we focus on who we are becoming in the world, not what we believe about it, and we focus on this life and what we can do in it, and not on whether we will live forever in the next life. While our beliefs may vary, our focus is on this world, this community, and this life and making it more loving and caring for each and all. You do not need to believe in God to feel and know that your life is blessed, and in fact, living life as if God does not exist can be a greater blessing than relying on other powers, other times and other lives than the one you are living right now. What are some of those blessings of atheism that we can embrace?
Atheism makes us understand and feel our losses more than conventional faith, and for that we are blessed. Critics of atheism often say it is only about rejecting belief, and offers nothing to those who suffer, but I suggest it invites us to feel our losses fully without trying to trivialize those feelings with what may be false hope at the best, and denial at worst. Not long ago we marked the one-year anniversary of the tragic killings at the school in Newtown, CT. The horror of that event has haunted me all year. Some of us may be motivated to work on achieving better gun laws, or on getting more help for those who suffer from mental illness, but beyond our wishes to make sure that something like this is less likely to happen, we imagine the pain of those parents who suffered such a grievous loss. Sometimes people tried to make those parents feel better by saying things like the kids are in a better place, or they have become little angels. While not denying the possibility of an afterlife, those believers who try to give people solace by saying the children are in heaven, denies not only the beauty of this life, but negates the loss, neglects the pain, and fails to hold what a blessing each day with a child you love is like – their swings on the playground, their scrapes from the sidewalk, their soccer games, their dance recitals, the thrills and disappointments of each day lost, that all the angel wings in the world won’t bring back. Atheism helps us face the pain of those losses, but it also helps us celebrate the wonders of this life even more fully, because it suggests that we embrace this life now and fully appreciate the ride we are on, as the only one we may know.
Atheism helps us understand that this life, and this world is blessed by beauty and compassion and is not inflicted with endless sin, woe, and evil. As a child I learned that the next world was better than this one, and that I suffered because of my sins. While most of us do not affirm that kind of theology any longer, many of us still suffer from a profound sense of personal shortcomings and think that our job is not fulfilling enough, or our marriage loving enough, or our children perfect enough because we are not clever enough, able to listen enough or nurturing enough to be effective in any of these roles. We often start with the premise that something is not good enough, and we only are capable of seeing its flaws. I have thought a lot this week how grateful I am to serve such loving people as the members of this congregation, who worry so when there are disagreements among us, and try hard to reach out to others, to listen, hoping that everyone will be heard. Atheism does not start with the premise that the creation or the people in it are somehow flawed, but that the world we inherit is beautiful and needs our commitment to preserve it, and connect with its people, because it is the only world we have and it is ours to save or destroy. The common myth is that atheists do not believe in anything positive, but I don’t know what could be more positive than to say that we will do everything in our personal power to enhance our relationships with others to be understanding, and that we have everything we need to use the knowledge and skills we have to build a more wonderful world, when we use our knowledge in a positive way.
Atheism helps us understand that our love for the beauty of this world and the people in it makes it imperative that we remember that the needs of this world are in our hands. Traditional faith often gave me the message that God would take care of things, especially if they got out of hand. As children we feared that nuclear war might happen at any moment, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember someone saying at the time, that God would never let that happen. But I realized that was not so. Just as we had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we could destroy it all, and God would not stop us. One of my favorite stories about wartime Europe is about a crucifix in a church, perhaps in England, where the arms on Jesus had been blown off by bombs, and a sign was affixed to it, which read, “God has no hands but yours.” What holds us back sometimes is our own reluctance to speak when we see injustice because we think we are powerless. We may think one-person cannot hold much influence in the world, or as a small congregation we cannot do much, because we are insignificant. I have never liked speaking in public when it is impromptu, and it involves pressure or high emotions; in other words planned church services are fine, but speaking at a town meeting on a controversial issue is anxiety provoking for me.
Once long ago I was asked to speak at a town meeting in Palmer to help secure some funding for a local social service agency. I was shaking when I stood up because I had never done this kind of thing before, but I felt as though I had to do it in my role as minister of the church. I was so nervous my voice was quivering, but somehow I managed to speak, and then surprisingly it gave others permission to speak, and they did so. Soon the numbers to speak in favor of the funding was overwhelming. Many voices became powerful, and the measure passed. Atheism means that we cannot wishfully believe that God or others will speak or act because they might not do so, but that we must remember that we are blessed with strength when we accomplish something together, and stand together, like the small number of liberals who spoke for equal marriage, and now see it sweeping the country. We are blessed because we can be strong together. When we focus on this life rather than the next, there is greater moral importance to our acts now. When it is now or never, we can’t wait for someone else.
Finally, we are blessed by atheism because we see that there is not only no one to save us, but there is no divine plan for us to follow. We are the creators of that future, from this place in the universe we have inherited. Here together in this community that was created in 1630 we join in celebration of the beauty and wonder and possibility that life holds for each of us, and for all. Life will unfold as we help make it unfold. It is in your hands to reach out to others, to create and live by a vision for this congregation, and what we want our larger community, and world to be. The early Unitarians in America all believed in God, but they began to carve out a faith that made them co-participants in the creative power that they felt they shared with God. Among those beliefs was a sense that they were not sinful, but were born with a measure of inherent potential, even goodness to fulfill their destiny as children of God. And they believed they were free to use that goodness because human beings were naturally endowed with a creative intelligence to build a better world, or a heaven on earth. So they were blessed with freedom. Then they said we must work with others using our goodness, and our freedom to create a more just world, and that means appreciating its beauty with gratitude and wonder. And finally they said, this must be something we do here and now with our lives, because every moment of time, in this life is sacred and blessed because it is the greatest gift we have received.
In 1881 Emily Dickinson wrote about a belief in God that was vanishing, when she said:
Those – dying then,
Knew where they went –
They went to God’s Right Hand –
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found.
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small –
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all.
So God as God was known was lost to the age, but she also recognized the importance of wrestling with spiritual questions. An ignis fatuus is a phosphorescent light that appears over swampy grounds. We have no easy answers, and no immortal hand to save us, and haven’t for some time. We struggle over swampy ground, never knowing if there is some greater truth, and we never will. But the true blessing of atheism is that it invites us to imagine a world made anew, forged with our hands and lives in this beautiful creation. What could be more spiritual than a deeper understanding of ourselves; than a deeper compassion for others; than a deeper gratitude for life of this creation. Even if God is only a leap of the imagination, we still need to have faith that there is a fount of love and compassion born in every human heart. This is our challenge in a world that often makes no moral sense. We are the creators of meaning, the ones with faith ever striving to make our love grow, keeping the ignis fatuus burning.
Closing Words – from Frederick Buechner
Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises…. Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.”
It’s easy to invent a Life by Emily Dickinson
It’s easy to invent a Life—
God does it—every Day—
Creation—but the Gambol
Of His Authority—
It’s easy to efface it—
The thrifty Deity
Could scarce afford Eternity
The Perished Patterns murmur—
But His Perturbless Plan
Proceed—inserting Here—a Sun—
There—leaving out a Man—