It came across my social media feed the other day that several states still have wording on the books to prohibit atheists from serving in public office. At least one article I consulted suggests that federal freedoms would trump those limits from ever being enforced, should an atheist ever attempt a campaign in one of those religiously steeped places, but it’s a chilling comment on the theocratic tendencies in United States culture that such laws ever existed.
In my experience, the debates and dialogues between skeptics and sincere believers tend to focus on who holds the correct viewpoint and searching for the most logical way to refute one’s ideological or theological opponent. Since I don’t see this as an argument that should or could be “won,” I sometimes tire from the stridency I see on all sides. In my experience, people in love with their own rhetorical convictions and persuasive powers can be found in religious communities and atheist circles alike.
These difficult but entertaining conversations got a much needed change-of-pace when Chris Stedman released his book Faitheist and began to seek out “interfaith dialogue” between atheists and theists. Stedman suggests, “I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and pluralism, and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism. Many religious people are allies to me and other atheists in these efforts—and a good number of them cite their religious convictions as the motivating factor behind their work. I am far more concerned about whether people are pluralistic in their worldview—if they oppose totalitarianism and believe those of different religious and nonreligious identities should be free to live as they choose and cooperate around shared values—than I am about whether someone believes in God or not.”
Thinking about Stedman’s inclusive perspective and living in a state with discrimination against atheists on the books, I realize I probably have been guilty of disparaging remarks against those whose humanistic beliefs are in the minority here in the South or using my beliefs as a form of social credibility in this religiously-shaped culture. For this, I am sorry.
Further, I’d like to confess some of my motives for embracing personal spirituality and religion as a collective practice. I’d like to confess why I am not an atheist.
Religion and spirituality provide daily practices as much as vigilant viewpoints, mostly about saving oneself—not so much the burden of convincing you that my religion is correct or saving you from punishment or saving the world from itself. After years as a new age, hippy, Jedi, Taoist, neopagan, etc. spiritual seeker, my reconversion to Christianity included an introduction to writers and pastors like Carlton Pearson and Rob Bell, who in their books Gospel of Inclusion and Love Wins respectively, argued against more conventional ideas about hell. Relieved of what Bell calls a “toxic” idea concerning selective salvation and pervasive damnation, my faith can be motivated by notions other than converting all my atheist friends in order to save them from hell.
I’m not an atheist because I believe that science and humanism, complete with an ever-changing and ever-expanding base of knowledge, and all the expected subjective agency of those, would require more faith (not less) than religious or spiritual disposition. Placing faith in something invisible, unknown, eternal, universal, and intangible (something that some of us choose to name God) might actually be easier than having faith in one’s own abilities and what can be rationally apprehended at any given time.
I’m not an atheist because in the quiet rumblings of my head and heart, in my guts and in gravity, I regularly hear the gentle inchoate voice of God. For the atheist who hears similar whispers, I imagine there are ways to explain those voices, but I am guessing some of them involve medication and perhaps even hospitalization. Many people experience paranormal phenomenon; religion and spirituality can provide a benign context and interpretive matrix for dealing with these while maintaining sanity and perspective.
I’m not an atheist because I have a problematic and paradoxical view of human nature. We all contain some spark of the divine goodness, but many of us left to our own devices are selfish, greedy, power-hungry, outright jerks. That is, for me, atheist humanism has a higher view of human nature and even a loftier moral code than expected in religion. That sounds strange, but the spiritual path of my choosing provides a narrative mechanism to explain my failures and shortcomings, a mythopoetic language of sin and redemption. One does not need to read the Adam and Eve story from Genesis as historical document to take away from it profound truths about the limits of human subjectivity and our innate craving for collective reconciliation. Religious myth, religious community, and spiritual practice broker my relationship with the harsher aspects of reality in such a way as to provide some glimpses of peace and harmony.
I’m not an atheist because I am in recovery from alcoholism and other addictions. For more than five years, trying to follow the 12-steps by the book and in the context of a supportive community, I have remained sober and my life has radically improved. Coming to believe in a power greater than myself as endorsed by the programs of recovery fits well with the progressive Christian mystic path I am currently exploring. There are lots of helpful workarounds to the God language in recovery, so that we might remain inclusive of our atheist friends, but a whole-hearted embrace of God by surrendering and letting go of my previous ideas about God turns out to work quite well for this alcoholic.
Perhaps I'm not an atheist because I am just not smart enough or good enough. Perhaps religion is just another drug, and since I cannot do the other recreational drugs anymore, it is the one that currently gets me high.
It turns out to my surprise that lots of Christians are atheists, and the idea of “supernatural theism” to describe an all-powerful magical-dictator-in-the-sky has fallen out of fashion among progressive religious thinkers of all faiths. That said, since the mysterious side of religious faith deals not just with the God within but also with that which is entirely other and unknown, I tend to focus on what could be called a higher or more traditional view of the Trinitarian God, but I try not to do so from the realm of dogmatic domination or apologetic argument. Part of following faithfully and falling into the mystery means allowing the mystery to be mysterious.
Like Chris Stedman, I think that intelligent dialogue between the religious progressives and non-religious activists can be a force for good against totalitarian thinking and practice, and I am so thrilled that Rude Pundit saw this blog as just such a venue for that kind of discussion.
Mentioned here: http://faitheistbook.com/