Gimme That Ole Time Non-Theism
May 26 2013
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
“Why can’t atheists solve exponential equations? Because they don’t believe in higher powers.” (http://augustberkshire.com/specific-resources/atheist-humor-jokes/)
Freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists, ‘spiritual but not religious’ – these terms have often been invoked when people want to avoid the ‘a’ word – atheist. But are atheists coming out of the closet in the 21st century? Is the hostility, stigma and shunning once attached to famous atheists such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair a thing of the past for believers? And will nontheists ever be able to define themselves in positive – not negative – terms?
After all, you might have heard about the atheist walking through the woods one day...
‘What majestic trees’! ‘What powerful rivers’! ‘What beautiful animals’! He said to himself. As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look…and saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him.
He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder & saw that the bear was closing in on him. He looked over his shoulder again, & the bear was even closer. He tripped & fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw & raising his right paw to strike him. At that instant the Atheist cried out, ‘Oh my God!’
Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky. ‘You deny my existence for all these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?’
The atheist looked directly into the light, ‘It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps you could make the BEAR a Christian’? The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed his head & spoke: “Lord bless this food, which I am about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen”.
Maybe, since we now have funny atheist jokes, atheism is the new cultural taboo about to be broken, since the gay rights issue seems to be less controversial and increasingly mainstream. But there are still drawbacks, some of them legal, to being ‘out’ as an atheist. From freethoughtpedia.com: Some states have constitutions that discriminate against atheists, and atheists are banned from holding office in Arkansas , Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. However, all laws against atheists holding office were ruled unconstitutional and unenforceable by a 1961 Supreme Court case on a first amendment basis.
So it’s not surprising that a very few elected representatives have publicly identified
themselves as nontheists – although Edwina Rogers of the Secular Coalition for America says that 28 of the 525 members of Congress do not believe in any sort of gods. (http://www.atheistrev.com/2012/06/atheists-in-congress.html )
Democratic California Representative Pete Stark decided in 2007 to come out as the first openly nontheistic member of Congress. In 2009, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell of Asheville, North Carolina was called "unworthy of his seat" because of his open atheism. In the 113th Congress, Democratic Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who was raised a Mormon, is religiously unaffiliated. She doesn’t describe herself as an atheist, but says she favors a secular approach. (http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2013/01/03/first-member-of-congress-describes-religion-as-none)
Most politicians have a canny sense for what is acceptable to their constituents. A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that its participants were more likely to vote for a candidate who had "used marijuana, had an extramarital affair, is homosexual or had never held public office than someone who did not believe in God" (http://thehill.com/capital-living/cover-stories/232445-in-god-we-trust-).
But the UU denomination has been one of the most welcoming among the world’s faiths and societies to nontheists. Once, when my mother told her friend that I was preaching one Sunday at a local church, the friend asked her which church – upon hearing it was a UU church, the friend exclaimed, ‘But they let atheists come to that church.’ My mother said something to the effect that because we say we welcome all people, we practice what we preach!
But where does the influence of humanism upon our UU history and liberal theology originate?
William Murry notes in his book Reason and Reverence (2007) that the critique of religion by liberal theologians harks back at least to Schleiermacher’s emphasis on the individual experience that frees religion from a system of doctrines. Another important influence was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s critique of authoritarianism of the Bible and of the church, a critique that was based on his vision of the divinity of humanity and the importance of free inquiry. And early Unitarian Universalist Humanism was challenged to focus on theology – literally, ‘God-talk’ - by the inability of African-American humanists to reconcile the oppression experienced in slavery with “belief in a just and powerful God” (Murry, 34). A bishop back in the 1830s wrote that he was afraid the Christian church was losing the slaves because when they heard their masters professing to be Christians, they lost faith because they knew that “oppression and slavery are inconsistent with the Christian religion” (34).
After the First World War there was a call within Unitarianism for religion to enter the modern world, and to make the shift from belief in a supernatural power to a belief that only humans can transform society by their own efforts.
In 1933 the Humanist Manifesto was created with 34 signers, rejecting supernatural doctrines of religion and affirming human goals and social responsibility. Murry also notes that soon, because of the desire to share the Manifesto’s ‘Good news’, a rigid humanist orthodoxy developed in Unitarian Universalism. One of its effects was to get rid of all but the most scientific, rational discourse in a significant number of UU fellowships and congregations. The lip service paid to our range of sources, in some quarters of Unitarian Universalism, sometimes disguises a deep disrespect for theism that is the legacy of that orthodox influence. Another effect was the ideal of the autonomous individual, diminishing community and the legacy of covenantal theology so important centuries before to the dissenters that settled in New England.
So Unitarian Universalism has more than a passing acquaintance with nontheism. And as we are finding today, there’s a growing number of people who self-identify as non-religious and who may wish to be known as ‘religious independents’. According to author Susan Jacoby, that is roughly 20% of the population of this country. Actually, in last year’s Pew Center poll asking about their religious affiliation, one in 3 young American adults chose the ‘none of the above’ category. The ‘nones’ category contains more atheists than will admit to being so, Jacoby claims, and she is especially critical of those who define themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Is this a way of fudging their true feelings – shouldn’t they just come out as nontheists?
In her New York Times article from this past January entitled ‘The Blessings of Atheism’, Jacoby says that nontheists are “reluctant to speak out… with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.” They may also want to get out from under the stereotype of atheists as people with a gaping hole in their lives, people who, as Steve Martin says, ‘don’t have no songs’. But their reluctance to speak out as nontheists may also be their distaste of the image of the rabid atheist who wants to sue every time a manger scene appears in front of a city hall.
The nontheist of today may not fit into the mold of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who won the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision which ended school prayer in public schools across the U.S. and turned her into the self-described "most hated woman in America." And although the nontheist population ranges “from devout atheists and rationalists to secular humanists and other freethinkers, they are united in their vision of complete separation of church and state” – and that was O’Hair’s crowning achievement. Her determination is still appreciated to this day; atheists who speak out in the forthright way she did still get a lot of blowback when they voice their feelings or experiences. (http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Secular-Philosophies/Who-Was-Madalyn-Murray-Ohair.aspx?p=2#sthash.zCGZ7MFJ.dpuf )
Other atheist moms are worthy of note here. Before Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s court victory, Vashti McCollum from Illinois filed a lawsuit in Illinois courts in 1945 that laid the groundwork for O’Hair. It objected to prayer and religious education in public schools. The Supreme Court in 1948 supported the so-called ‘wall of separation’ between church and state in the McCollum decision. A PBS documentary called “The Lord is not on Trial Here Today” was broadcast in March as part of Women’s History Month; it told the story of ‘that awful woman’, as McCollum was called, and the McCollum v Board of Education case.
Another mother came to light due to a CNN iReport website that has had close to a million hits to a blog posted on it in mid-January. It’s entitled “Why I Raise My Children without God”. In it the blogger TXBlue08, who is a Texas mother of 2 teenagers, explains “I want my children to be free not to believe and to know that our schools and our government will make decisions based on what is logical, just and fair—not on what they believe an imaginary God wants.” She lists her objections to God, including things like: God does not protect the innocent; God is not fair; God is a bad parent and role model…some of the classic arguments down the ages about the nature of God. What is interesting about this blog is that it has had over 9 thousand replies; many readers have tried to stifle her story by ‘flagging’ it as inappropriate, but CNN has kept it on the website. Just this week after the tornado wiped out most of Moore, Oklahoma, the tolerant face of CNN took a bit of a punch to the nose…Wolf Blitzer interviewed a young mother holding her child and told her that as a survivor ‘you’ve just gotta thank the Lord…do you thank the Lord?’ And here is what a blog posted the next day commented:
“It's fine if Wolf says, "I guess you gotta thank the Lord!" then moves on. But it was weird how he turned it into the Spanish Inquisition. "...*do you* thank the Lord?" That lady handled it perfectly, though. She didn't go all abrasive …Instead, she just smiled, said she was an Atheist, and extended the "But, I don't blame those that do," olive branch to Wolf. Well played.” (Timothy Burke, ‘The Bottom Up’, http://deadspin.com/wolf-blitzer-asks-atheist-tornado-survivor-if-she-than-509150402 )
Earlier I mentioned Susan Jacoby, an atheist herself, whose book The Great Agnostic (2013) profiles a long-forgotten name in American Freethought, Robert Ingersoll. He was a critic of public religiosity and an advocate of reason in the years leading up to the 20th century. Ingersoll fervently believed that the responsibility that humans have to one another IS the ‘religion of humanity’. He wrote: “There is no evidence that God ever interfered in the affairs of man…from he clouds there comes no help. In vain the shipwrecked cry to God. In vain the imprisoned ask for liberty and light – the world moves on and the heavens are deaf, dumb, and blind…the frost freezes, the fire burns…the wrong triumphs, the good suffer, and prayer dies upon the lips of faith” (Murry, 31). If you read the blog from Rez this week, a man named Alan who lives in the area of Oklahoma pulverized by the tornadoes pretty clearly articulated Ingersoll’s perspective from over a century ago:
Things happened to people today. Devastating things. They did nothing to ‘deserve’ them. It was not a ‘punishment’, nor a ‘trial’, nor a ‘test of faith’. It was nature being nature – absent of any self-awareness – and doing what nature does. A tornado is neither ‘evil’ nor ‘good’. It just is, until it isn’t any longer. When the danger passes – we figure out what we can do, and then we do that. We look out for each other – not because we have to be told, or warned, or threatened – but because, from generation to generation, we know that it’s the right thing to do. (http://rez.li/2013/from-moore-with-contemplation/)
But there has been a rash of New Atheists leading the charge into the 21st century – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett – who have written a lot of books and who have received a lot of media coverage. Even though most self-identifying nontheists would agree that they have in common no belief in God, the New Atheists since 9/11 have been said to militantly position themselves as being anti-religion – so technically not nontheist but antitheist.
However, taking a closer look at contemporary nontheism, we might see that the picture is not as simple as that for most nontheists:
If, because of the reasons I mentioned before, the ordinary nontheist is loathe to speak up for nontheism, imagine how much more difficult it must be for a person who belongs to an ethnic group in which 88% believe in God with “absolute certainty and more than half attend religious services at least once a week” (Emily Brennan, “The Unbelievers,” New York Times 11/27/2011).
In 2009 an African-American atheist Facebook page had 100 members, a number that has now passed 800. The Black Atheist Alliance has more than 500 members on Facebook who share their experiences of ‘coming out’.
Even though there is a percentage of the African-American community that is Muslim, the assumption most of us make is that religious African-Americans are Christian. But even non-theist African-Americans feel a cultural affinity with Christianity, according to Pew research: “2/3 of those who report no religious affiliation say religion plays a somewhat important role in their lives.” Black atheists are a minority within a minority, and they run into disapproval from their own community that is based on the feeling that they are turning their backs on African-American history and the struggle for civil rights, which of course, was overwhelmingly a Christian one.
Susan Jacoby says that a reprint of her New York Times article on atheism in the Dallas Sunday News led to an explosion of comments on her website, including one from an 85-year-old African American man, who wrote of how hard it was to have lived as an atheist in Texas and in the African American community.
We are familiar with the type of atheist who is critical of religion and cuts ties to it. But there is an interesting morphing of nontheism today in this country into what has been coined ‘Faitheism’…because a ‘Faitheist’ could be said to find religion a very useful thing – and notice I said, religion, not belief. Chris Stedman wrote a book called Faitheist (2012), a pejorative term that he has instead claimed with pride.
The introduction is written by Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and this year’s Ware lecturer at our Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Louisville; Patel describes Stedman this way:
“His atheism doesn’t hate God; it loves people…His goal is to nurture a movement of Humanists who emphasize cultivating humanity, express it in terms of serving others, and work with people of all faiths, in good faith, towards that end. Chris understands that we get there together or not at all.” (Stedman, xiii)
Stedman criticizes the New Atheist brand of antitheism that “lumps all religious believers together and shames them as a uniformly condemnable bloc” (9). And he feels that it’s their loss when nonbelievers are dismissive of religion, as in his story (3ff) about a reception following a panel discussion on how the nonreligious should approach religion. And Stedman, who is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, is mainly concerned with building bridges, not separating from those who hold different beliefs. Maybe his concept of respect is what already exists in Unitarian Universalism…
The depth of his anguish about antireligious secularism run amok is captured in this short passage about Stedman’s attempt to introduce interfaith cooperation to the organized atheist movement in this country:
“My first atheist conference…was for me a nightmare. Witnessing the sheer vitriol some expressed toward the religious, I actually cried…I called friends of mine back home – atheists, no less – and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: “You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist.” (145)
Now, Stedman is quick to point out that criticism of religion is not the exclusive domain of the nonreligious – there are plenty of outspoken religious leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther, and - oh yes, Jesus of Nazareth. So, alienating those who may be in a position inside the religious establishment to encourage and perhaps even enact reform is not helpful. But for antitheists who want to do away with religion all together that is not a distinction they are interested in making.
I would like to draw my last example of how nontheism is becoming more nuanced from the latest book by Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists – a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012). Because to read this book is to end up marveling at the genius of using religion as an instrument for building “a sense of community, making relationships last, and reconnecting with the natural world” – only 3 of the uses De Botton suggests that are derived from Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism. And nontheists can do this without having to believe in any of religion’s strange doctrines or weird beliefs.
De Botton describes the often satisfying pastime for atheists of debunking arguments for belief in God, kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. But he goes on to explain that humanity invented religion to serve two ‘Central needs’ that secularism has not been able to satisfactorily deal with: the first is the need to live together in community despite our violent impulses; the other is to help us cope with painful events in our lives, like the death of a loved one, and our own mortality. And he says, “The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed” (12-13). He describes how he came to understand that his “continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths” (14). He says that secular society just has not come up with artifacts or activities that are as satisfying as those that originate in religious observance, and it is not fair to make us choose one and give up the other.
Indeed, De Botton admires the way that Christianity was very skilled at “subsuming countless pagan practices which modern atheists now avoid in the mistake that they are indelibly Christian” – such as the repackaging of the ancient pagan midwinter holiday as Christmas, and the rebranding and occupation of shrines and temples of pagan heroes.
And so, he proposes, we should look at aspects of religious life that can be advantageously applied to the problems of contemporary secular life. The one aspect he begins with is community – which he claims lost its central importance around the time that “we ceased communally to honor our gods” (23). Privatized religion led us to disregard our neighbors.
But De Botton then goes on to discuss the nature of the Catholic Eucharist and the Jewish Passover meal, and how religion knows how to solve the problem of creating tolerance between strangers – by making them eat a meal together (50)!
The book’s chapter on perspective begins by DeBotton proclaiming the book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures as the most consoling of biblical texts for atheists! Here is a man whose tragic life seems to be direct punishment from God, but Job can’t fathom why that should be. Instead, the moral of the story of Job is that his little life is no match in scale or importance to the vast eternity of the cosmos: “human beings did not bring the cosmos into being and, despite their occasional feelings to the contrary, they do not control it or own it” (198). So listen to what De Botton diagnoses as the danger when we have a godless society:
“When God is dead, human beings…are at risk of taking psychological center stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythms of the earth, deny death…until at last they must collide …with the sharp edges of reality. Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place.” (200)
It’s an intriguing idea that nontheism can prosper by reassuring itself through traditions associated with religion that were, so to speak, sacrificed on the altar of Reason.
You may think that this appreciation of religion that is voiced by people like Chris Stedman and Alan De Botton is a far cry from the passionate rejection of religion found in the writings of Robert Ingersoll, who in 1899 wrote:
‘Religion can never reform [hu]mankind because religion is slavery.
It is far better to be free, to leave the forts and barricades of
to stand erect and face the future with a smile.
It is far better to… think and dream, to forget the chains and limitations of the breathing life…to lounge in the picture gallery of the brain, to feel once more the clasps and kisses of the past, to bring life's morning back, to see again the forms and faces of the dead, to paint fair pictures for the coming years, to forget all Gods, their promises and threats, to feel within your veins life's joyous stream and hear the martial music, the rhythmic beating of your fearless heart.
And then to rouse yourself to do all useful things, to reach with thought and deed the ideal in your brain, to give your fancies wing, that they, like chemist bees, may find art's nectar in the weeds of common things, to look with trained and steady eyes for facts, to find the subtle threads that join the distant with the now, to increase knowledge, to take burdens from the weak, to develop the brain, to defend the right, to make a palace for the soul. This is real religion. This is real worship.' (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll: What Is Religion? 1899. http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/ingwhatrel.htm )
Well, when you read that poetic description, maybe the distance between this ole time nontheism and De Botton’s contemporary appreciation of religion in broadening our perspective past our own importance may not be as far as it first seems!
Those of us who have become so repelled by the excesses and abuses of religion, by the illogical nature of supernatural belief on a higher being, and the infuriatingly smug and vapid pontification of believers on how we should live our lives – or thank God that we survived extreme weather - might want to ponder a bit more on the urgings of nontheists like De Botton and Stedman to think again about the uses of religion as a social system. As De Botton concludes, ”The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of [hu]mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone” (De Botton, 312).
So don’t feel guilty when you get in the car to go home today and listen to a Bach cantata, when you dye some Easter eggs for the kids, when you decorate the Christmas tree and sing along to Joe playing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
And I in turn won’t feel silly singing an old Gospel hymn to conclude this message, because I can appreciate its sentiment about the wonder of nature without believing that the hands of an anthropomorphic God-figure created the world in 7 days. For me, “How Great Thou Art” (Stuart K. Hine) expresses the humble nature of being human in comparison with the immensity of creation, very much in line with De Botton’s idea of nontheist perspective. I gave up the idea of a personal God who gives me things if I pray for them a long time ago.
The faith tradition that gave me this hymn is not part of my belief system anymore, but I am grateful for the perspective that allows me to sing it as a love song to life and as a reminder of the transcendent.
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the works Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
(Lyrics from <a href="http://www.elyrics.net">eLyrics.net</a>)
Blessed be. Amen.