The ‘A’ Word

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 2nd 2014.  The choice of topic was won in last year’s Auction.)

Atheism seems to have been in the news quite a bit recently.

Atheist groups have gone to court, for instance, to try to get monuments featuring secular quotes set up in places such as courthouses where the Ten Commandments are on display.  Then there was the giant digital billboard advert by American Atheists that flashed every ten minutes near Metlife Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.  Featuring an AA staffer dressed as a priest but with football players’ stripes under his eyes and holding a football, the ad read “A ‘hail Mary’ only works in football. Enjoy the game!”

Then there was the lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenging the right of ministers to use a parsonage, or receive an equivalent housing allowance, without having to pay taxes.  Judge Barbara Crabbe ruled that the parsonage exemption is unconstitutional, resulting in preferential treatment for religious messages because, so she concluded, there are no atheist ministers.  As the Rev. Richard Nugent, Director of the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances, put it in an e-mail, “Obviously Judge Crabbe isn’t familiar with Unitarian Universalism”.

Then there are the Sunday Assemblies.  Founded in London by two British stand-up comedians, each Sunday Assembly is a time for atheists to get together for community, music and singing, and an inspiring message.  Sound familiar to, oh, I don’t know, church?  The Sunday Assembly Everywhere network uses a franchise model to start new groups in the bigger cities of the UK and the US, and in the grand old tradition of, well, I guess I can’t say religion, they’ve already experienced their first schism: a group in New York is breaking away to form what they call the “Godless Revival”.  As the Rev. Tom Schade wrote on his blog, The Lively Tradition, “Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.”

And then there’s Ryan Bell, who recently announced that he would live for a year as an atheist.  He was motivated in part by a friend’s question about what difference it makes to believe in God, and was also inspired by the book A Year of Living Biblically.  He didn’t think his plan would gain so much attention, but maybe that would have been a fair assumption, given that Bell had been a Seventh-Day Adventist Minister.

In fact, starting his “year of living atheistically” on January 1st, he got as far as January 4th before being “let go” from his teaching positions at both Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.  Bell says that both places were “super nice” and that he’d be welcomed back once he could sign their faith statements again, but as UU Doug Muder wrote on his blog, The Weekly Sift, “From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger.  But [if they] really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.”

Finally, in this quick review of atheists in the news, there are the most recent results of a public opinion poll that organizational consulting firm Gallup has been repeating every couple of decades since 1937.

The poll question is as follows: “If your [political] party nominated a generally well-qualified person for [the office of] President who happened to be [fill-in-the-blank], would you vote for that person?”  There weren’t many categories in 1937 to go in that blank, and the results were about what you might expect.  Back in the thirties, only sixty percent of Americans would vote for a Catholic, only forty-six percent would vote for a Jew, and only thirty-three percent would vote for a woman.  These days, more than ninety percent of Americans say they would vote for Catholic, Jewish or female candidates for the office of President.

But at the bottom of the rankings today?  Only sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian person, only fifty-eight percent would vote for a Muslim, and only fifty-four percent would vote for an atheist.  Now all such numbers have increased since Gallup first added each to its opinion poll, but it still paints a picture of widespread prejudice amongst the American public.

All in all, for the average atheist in this nation, and certainly here in the South, it’s simply advisable not to mention the ‘A’ word when it comes to talking about one’s beliefs.

There are, of course, places — even religious places — where atheists are welcome to make themselves at home.  There are, for example, Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Many years ago I heard of a memorial service for a man who had been a life-long Unitarian.  Someone who was not a UU was at that service to honor his friend, but knowing something of our history in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, he said he knew that Unitarians believe in one god.  A woman, who was a UU, immediately chimed in: “You mean,” she called out, “believe in at most one god.”  More generally, UU congregations have long aspired to welcome everyone who would want to be part of such communities, with the only real condition being that anyone who wants to be here must be willing to help keep it welcoming for anyone else who wants to be here, too.

Now surveys of individual Unitarian Universalists have shown that about a fifth of all UUs would identify themselves as atheists.  Since atheism and other identifying terms are usually undefined on such surveys, there’s quite a bit of overlap with UUs who also identify as humanist, agnostic or Earth-centered, and perhaps even as Buddhist or pagan, too.  Still, it’s safe to say that the majority of UUs are not theistic in a traditional sense, though there’s plenty of theological diversity within and beyond that.  And it is, of course, our aspiration to be a safe place for that diversity: the radical good news of Unitarian Universalism, after all, is that we can be different people with different beliefs but still be part of one beloved community.

Amongst those who believe that such community is impossible — and perhaps even undesirable — are the so-called “New Atheists”.

Starting in 2004 with a book by Sam Harris entitled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, and then continuing with books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists emerged in response to events from coordinated efforts to teach creationism in school science classes to the hijackings of planes by terrorists on September 11th 2001.  Rather than taking a persuasive approach, however, the New Atheists launched a full frontal assault on religion in general, arguing that humanity would be better off if religion — all religion — simply went away.  This may not be anything that, in its content, is particularly new; its roots, for instance, go back to eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his argument that the only real miracle in religion is that people would believe in the miracles claimed by religion.  In their style, on the other hand, the New Atheists greatly ramped up the intensity and the volume of their explicitly confrontational rhetoric.

Consider, for example, this paragraph from The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  (Words emphasized in italics are his.)

With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more of the data of human experience?  If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields [such as astronomy and medicine], would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine.  Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of the world.  By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward.  It cannot survive the changes that have come over us — culturally, technologically, and even ethically.  Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Now there is some truth in Harris’ words when it comes to the necessity of religion being susceptible to progress.  One of the primary reasons why I am a Unitarian Universalist, for instance, is that ours is a religion that is not only open to developments in the scientific understanding of our world, but actively embraces the insights of cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.  And I know for a fact that plenty of my Christian colleagues in seminary were just as interested in cultural, technological and particularly ethical progress, even when that meant calling into question certain parts of the scriptures they held dear.

But to the New Atheists, religion is a singular structure that never allows for progress, and is instead based entirely on ideas about the world that last seemed sensible in the Iron Age.  And when that is assumed, then there are no differences between, say, Christian fundamentalists and Quakers, or between Islamic terrorists and the followers of the Dalai Lama.  In fact, as far as the New Atheists are concerned, those who claim to be religious moderates are particularly bad, because they allow religious extremists to continue to exist.

Sam Harris, for example, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of religious progressives (and doesn’t mention Unitarian Universalists), and what he claims to be a continuum of people of faith he actually describes as just a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who, in his words, “draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity” and, on the other hand, those who, in his words, “would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”  In his book (figuratively and literally), if you’re not a religious extremist, then you’re a religious moderate, and you’re only a moderate because you failed to be an extremist.

Here’s what Harris has to say about, as he puts it, “the ‘myth’ of moderation in religion”.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.  From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.  […]

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.  We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled.  All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.  This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural [interpretation]; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.  Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance — and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. […]

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.  Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question — i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us — religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

You know, I wish that Sam had told us how he really feels.

First, there is no such singular structure as religion, no such one-dimensional phenomenon as faith.  That’s a straw man and Harris and Dawkins only get away with implying it thanks to popular ignorance.  It doesn’t help that the mainstream media — including our local Daily Press — likes to report on marriage equality or reproductive rights as if every person claiming to be religious is necessarily opposed to them.  Such sloppy reporting needs to be held accountable for its mis-representation of religion, as do Harris and the other New Atheists.

And, as you’ve heard me say before, neither religion nor faith are merely about belief.  They are also about behavior and belonging.  It’s not surprising that the atheist Sunday Assemblies are turning out to look a lot like churches, when it’s belonging and behavior that matter more than belief (or, for that matter, non-belief).  Whether or not we are permitted (and permitted by whom, I don’t know) to criticize others’ harmful beliefs — and whether doing so would change them — is irrelevant anyway, since it’s not someone’s belief but their behavior that actually affects other people.

Even when it comes to that belief, it’s certainly not the case that faith is all about believing things that are at odds with, as Harris puts it, “the last two thousand years of human thought ([such as] democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographical isolation, etc.).”  Satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his “reference” book, The Devil’s Dictionary, drew on that caricature of faith by defining it as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

Now Bierce may have had in mind the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, which defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But even with such a biblical definition, that doesn’t rule out, for instance, faith in humanity, faith in the progress of the human endeavor, faith that we can overcome our differences and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and bring the Beloved Community into being.

But is it true that religious moderates, to use Harris’ terminology, are failing to challenge, and are thereby enabling, religious extremists?  Well, no, it’s not true.

Consider, for instance, the response of moderates to that form of extremism that is justifying homophobic discrimination in terms of “religious freedom”.  That’s a desperate attempt to hang onto heterosexism (as well as the sexism that’s hidden within it) by those who can see the writing on the wall, and that by itself shows that the moderates are disabling the extremists, not enabling them.  Of course, organizations like Focus on the Family are still kicking, and can mobilize their members across the country to lobby in favor of the anti-LGBTQ legislation that has been making its way through legislatures in Arizona and Kansas and a dozen other states.  But they’re not getting away with it.

There’s an organization called Faithful America, for example, which describes itself as “a fast-growing online community dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.  Our members,” they explain, “are sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked to serve a hateful political agenda, so we’re organizing the faithful to take on [religious] extremists and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.”

And they’re not the only ones doing this.  Just a few days ago, progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wrote an article entitled “To Young Christians Speaking Out Against Anti-Gay Discrimination: Thank You”.  He was referring specifically writers like Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers, who each criticized the supposedly Christian arguments being used to justify legal discrimination and questioned whether that “discrimination would also be applied to other less than ‘biblical’ marriages,” as the religious right might see them, “or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.”

So is there an alternative to New Atheism that might allow us to consider the actual problems of religions in the real world without all the rancor and bitterness?  Well, yes, there is.

Alain de Botton calls it “Atheism 2.0”.  That was the title of his TED talk a couple of years ago, in which he talked about what atheism could learn from the world’s religions as a framework for human connection to one another, to our world, to ourselves, to time, to truth, to meaning, and so on.  That’s the behaving and belonging piece that he sees as very valuable in religion, even if, as he makes clear right from the start, he rejects the beliefs.  But for him, the basic premise of atheism — that there’s no God, singular, or gods, plural — is the “very, very beginning” of the story, not its end.  (De Botton, by the way, was one of the influences in Ryan Bell’s decision to live for a year as an atheist.)

Perhaps more well-known is Chris Stedman, the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  In this largely autobiographical book, Stedman describes how he became a “born again” Christian as a youth — not because he believed but because he wanted to believe, and even more because he wanted the parts of religion that Alain de Botton says are the helpful parts, particularly the parts about justice.  Only not long after converting, Stedman realized he was gay.

He tried to figure it out, and, when that didn’t help, he tried to pray himself straight, but that didn’t work, either.  He considered suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.  Finally he came out, first to his mother, and then to a sympathetic minister, and he credits them with saving his life.  But within a few years, between the widespread homophobia he saw in too many churches and his own experiences of senseless violence and destruction, he became an atheist.

But Stedman didn’t give up on religion.  Today he advocates for the necessity of atheists and the religious working together to bridge their differences and find ways to understand one another.  Noting that the word “interfaith” is “imperfect, clunky and can feel exclusive to many non-religious people”, he nonetheless argues that atheists should participate in interfaith work.  He explains why this matters as follows.

Dialogue isn’t meaningless — the humanization of the ‘other’ elicited by an act of intentional encounter with difference leads to real change.  Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility; to be understood, we must all work to understand.  To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about those who seem different — and the result is often life-changing for all parties involved.  Everyone I’ve met who has taken part in interfaith dialogue has walked away challenged, with a renewed sense of personal agency and a feeling of shared responsibility to bring about a more pluralistic world.

So here’s my question.  Whose take on atheism is likely to help change public attitudes about the ‘A’ word, to change those poll numbers and someday allow an atheist president to be elected?  Should we follow Sam Harris, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, vandalizing the bathroom, burning down the house, and bombing the neighborhood?  Or is it Chris Stedman, who sees many shared values and concerns amongst atheists and believers alike, and would have them work together to make the world a better place for all of us?

Then there’s the fact that if we take Harris seriously in his complaint that moderates are not doing enough to stand up to the extremists, then moderate atheists (and non-theists within Unitarian Universalism) are justified in standing up to the extremism of the New Atheists, including Harris himself!

As Sophia Lyon Fahs put it,

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.  Other beliefs are expansive, and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.  Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

I think it’s pretty obvious which it would be better to choose.

So may it be.

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4 Comments »

  1. […] March 2nd: “The ‘A’ Word” […]

  2. Reblogged this on Brad Garbus Blog and commented:
    Love this!!!

  3. weeklysift said

    I always love to be quoted. Thank you.

    Something related: I reviewed several of the New Atheist books in UU World in 2006, and responded to their attempt to brand religious liberals as compromisers between humanism and fundamentalism, rather than acknowledging that liberalism is a unique and authentic point of view. Here’s how I explain what I think religious liberalism really is:

    “Let me propose a less biased characterization of religious liberals and conservatives: Conservatives hold that the core of their religion is a divine (and therefore flawless) construction, communicated more-or-less directly to humanity by God. Religious liberals see their religion as a human product, constructed in response to intuitions of a divinity beyond human description. Seen in this light, the charges against liberalism melt away. In no sense is it a compromise between fundamentalism and humanism. And liberal tolerance is not a strategy; it simply recognizes the incompleteness of all human religions, including one’s own.”

    • acmillard said

      Thank you, Doug, for your comment and for sharing your explanation!

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