The following sermon was written and presented to an eclectic Unitarian Universalist congregation, comprising people of varying beliefs and religious backgrounds. The author is a podcast listener and reader of A Secret of the Universe, and he kindly contacted me to share a draft prior to presentation. It surely struck a chord, so I requested his permission to share it with you. He generously agreed without hesitation. He did ask, however, that his full name not be used (a powerful statement in itself about the degree of intolerance toward dissenting religious views). Thanks Russ, for letting me share your powerful insights and thoughts. May they help all of us remember that reasonable and thoughtful people can draw very different conclusions about the supernatural, and live vibrantly, fully, and peacefully through our unique metaphors and narratives.
Beliefs of a Non-Believer:
Incorporating a little Atheism into your Personal Theology
A UU Sermon by “Russ”
What might a Non-believer believe? I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this. I will not speak for all non-believers, but I will share one perspective. Non-spiritual people are overwhelmingly much more than Spock-like individuals who reject everything except science and reason. We feel, we laugh, we love, we aspire, we hope, we rejoice and we are grateful. We cherish the transformative, the transcendent, and even at times that which surpasses our comprehension and understanding. We enjoy music, the arts, companionship, mystery, awe, beauty, walks on the beach, and getting caught in the rain—but not necessarily piña coladas.
In talking about those of us whose worldview is entirely without belief in the super-natural, I’ll use the term Atheist. I could avoid it and use terms such as non-theist, naturalists, secular humanists, freethinkers, post-theists, Brights, materialists, non-believers or others. Each of these names has advantages and disadvantages. However, I’ll mostly use atheist because, while seemingly harsh to some, it is direct and honest and it is a word that is in need of redeeming.
What does it mean to be an Atheist? Some would define us as horrible people who hate God and love evil or people who want to see god banished from public and private life or people who are sure there is no god. I can’t speak for all Atheists, but all I know would strongly object to any of those definitions. Atheists are mostly just people who choose to live their lives without strict guidance from theistic beliefs. All of us here today live our lives in neglect of certain gods; we all fail to honor, seek approval, follow the path or heed the advice of thousands of theistic traditions. Atheists just go one god further than most. Here’s the question for today. Might a UU with a more supernatural worldview, find valuable perspectives rooted in atheism—to incorporate into their personal theology?
Some might doubt that. Some see science and reason as a constraint—not a launching pad. Most of us know the story of the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson started with the New Testament and, with a razor, removed all the supernatural elements. I don’t find that to be a good representation of what Atheism has to offer. I don’t like a model that suggests that religion formulates something good and then humanity uses science and reason to whittle it down and take out what doesn’t belong. To me, Atheism is not about stripping down, but rather about building up. A materialistic worldview is fertile soil for a positive and affirming life view. While, overwhelmingly, everyone here respects science and reason, at least as long as they stay within their circles, many feel that it is essential to go outside of the natural world for wisdom and wholeness. As an atheist, I believe that wisdom and wholeness are enhanced by staying within the natural realm. It is through the natural world that we see most clearly.
Some might say that an Atheistic view with a purely materialistic stance is un-natural; all cultures and people have believed in one sort of a god or another. Not so. Let me introduce the Piraha (pronounce pee-da-ha). These people live in the Brazilian Amazon Rain forest. They lack beliefs in what they can’t see. Though lacking science and even math, evidence matters to them. They laugh a lot while taking whatever life throws at them. Daniel Everett first visited them in 1977 as a Christian missionary and a linguist sent to learn their language, translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ. Instead, they brought him to atheism. I quote from his book Don’t Sleep there are Snakes —“The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile.”
So what are “atheistic” thoughts that might be of value?
At times it’s good to embrace “I don’t know”. Dave Weiisbard, a UU minister said, “As many of you know, I am troubled by what I see as the trend in Unitarian Universalist churches today to look for reassurance more than challenge, to back away from doubt in search of security.” Why are we uncomfortable with the “I don’t’ know?” I’ve heard it said here that “Religion answers the questions that Science can’t.” Humans have a tendency to want answers and if we can’t get them one place, we will try another. But instead of seeking “the answer” or even “an answer” consider the perspective instead of being comfortable with … “I don’t know.”
I’ve heard it explained that the New Testament spoke of demon possession and evil spirits because, of course, they did not have the knowledge base of modern psychiatry so they understood mental illness in terms that had meaning to them. But explanations suggest actions. What do we do about a person inhabited by a demon? “Get out the hot pokers” maybe? That might make sense, given the understanding of demon possession, to even the most compassionate of people. But if you are a compassionate person and admit, “I don’t know”—might you be kinder? If that doesn’t seem likely to you, let me tell you about Knuckles, the chimp in Florida. He has cerebral palsy and frequently acts strange by chimp standards. But he gets a pass for behaviors that would get other chimps cuffed. What can chimps know about cerebral palsy? Our closest relatives, in a condition of “I don’t know,” show strong compassion. We can too.
We once explained lightning as the wrath of God; this led to opposition to lightning rods because they were seen as interfering with God’s will. So we need to recognize that explanations have serious consequences. They suggest prescriptions and prohibitions and actions. For such reasons, “I don’t know” is often a better choice.
In a related vein, quick answers can rob life of mystery and awe. Take a question and a quick answer. “Why are we moved by music?” God made us that way. Not very satisfying for me—to think I respond to music like my TV responds to its remote control—because I was made that way. How BORING!! Think instead—I don’t know … now there is potential. Music—maybe it has connections to appreciating the heartbeats of others nearby, of rhythmic breathing, of early communities and drumming, or of bird songs and other elements of the natural world. I don’t know why music moves me, but it seems very special and I treasure it and embrace music’s transcendent properties as a wonderful mystery full of possibilities. I just don’t know, yet it’s wonderful that way. So consider, even if you have very strong theistic beliefs, that leaving open the possibility of mysteries can enrich your life and don’t let your theology give you too many easy answers.
Atheists aren’t inclined to look for messages where there aren’t any. We can probably mostly all agree that sometimes (at least some of the time) things just happen for no special reason whatsoever. It’s not always karma coming back to you nor are events always a sign from on high. Rain falls, hurricanes strike, good ideas sometimes just don’t work out. Don’t always take events as a judgment or criticism and don’t get too caught up in viewing success as some sign of divine approval. Millions of people are impoverished through no fault of their own. Victims of tsunamis, floods, tornados, and other disasters are likely as innocent as millions of others around the world who seem more “blessed”. An Atheistic perspective would say, don’t let “karma” convince you that some blame or unworthiness marks these people. Don’t let your good fortune convince you that you are more deserving. As Robert Ingersoll advises, “Don’t shirk your responsibility to your fellow man because somehow you think we all get what we deserve. In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—there are consequences.”
As an atheist, it can be easier to have a more realistic set of expectations. If you have high expectations you are frequently disappointed. More realistic expectations often lead to happiness and satisfaction. As atheists, we don’t feel we have been robbed of some birthright a god wanted to give us; we didn’t somehow miss out on a paradisiacal earthly existence. We’re not consumed with expectations for perfection later. Our target is not infinite, everlasting, unending bliss. We’re just damn lucky to be here. Think of the how wonderful a baby’s belly laugh is. It’s far beyond what we should expect. Think of it—our huge planet is dwarfed by a Sun, which is nothing special among 100’s of billions in this galaxy, which is just one of the hundreds of billions of known galaxies. There certainly is a lot of beauty and grandeur in the universe, but the overwhelming vast majority of this universe just follows the laws of physics and chemistry, with nothing near as remarkable as what we find on this small planet. For me, I can say how magnificent it is that, out of all this matter and space and time, events here have allowed the development of life, and if the culmination of all these events, over billions of years, was only just the wonderful, remarkable expression of a baby’s belly laugh, for me, that would be enough. As they say, everything else is just gravy.
Atheism leads me to love my fellow man. 1 John 4:20 notes that, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
The Christian Bible provocatively questions, how can you say you love god when you don’t care for your fellow man? Careless devotion to a supernatural being can distract you from an appreciation of your fellow man. Did a supreme being intend for me to live in happiness? Have I been robbed of that happiness by the failure of others to meet the expectations of that being? Am I being punished for the sins of others? As an atheist—I don’t see where I was intended to have anything. I am very fortunate that the world has worked out to provide me with so much. I see where I am now and I can recognize how much I owe to others. I am not of a people who were kicked out of a garden of paradise because of the failings of others. I have comfort because of what others have done. The sweat, love, kindness, and generosity of others have built this world. True—they have not been perfect people by many standards. Attributing blessings to some form of the divine, makes it harder to recognize how we are sheltered from the impacts of nature because of the efforts of our fellow men. “We have all been warmed by fires we did not build and drank from wells we did not dig,” as a familiar UU quote observes. We have a lot to be thankful for from our predecessors. As an Atheist, I find it easier to practice gratitude, and I seek to express gratitude to others.
Atheists don’t believe in an extended or infinite afterlife. That makes this life all the more precious and worthwhile. Whether you are theistic or not, there are benefits from thinking that you should do your best to live as if the books were to be closed after this earthly life. You may become more of an activist if you doubt that victims of poverty and injustice will receive comfort in a later life. You may be more compassionate toward and accepting of others choices if you think that this is the only life where love can be shown. For yourself, this life is where you need to sing and dance, love and give, imagine and explore, create and enjoy, laugh and cry. If there is an afterlife, so much the better for you—but don’t stand on the sidelines waiting while this life passes you by.
Atheists believe that you have to find your own purpose and meaning in life. This is a huge responsibility, but you’re not going to fail the test by missing a pre-determined answer. You are not a square peg who must be sanded and smoothed to fit in a round hole. It can be a great opportunity to realize that the meaning of your life is not a pre-determined answer or mystery that you have to get right. Rather, the meaning of your life is something you can determine to your own satisfaction. As stated in the gospel of Luke, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? There is great power in thinking ‘My life is about what I say it is.'”
There’s a lot I didn’t have time to go into so here are some quick hits on a grab bag of naturalistic ideas:
– For non-believers there are no chosen people, no favored sex, no group was created first or especially beloved. More importantly, everyone shares in a common humanity. We stand together.
– We don’t have to pick and choose from other codes to match our moral values. We directly define our values.
– While appreciating the value of poetry and messages with multiple meanings, we also value clear language so that we can have honest mutual understanding.
– For most of us, who you marry, what you do with your body, how you live your life—is your business. We don’t think your personal choices will make it more likely that we will get hit by a hurricane or anything like that.
– We judge things on their own merits, without reference to religious beliefs that might make us concerned about things like stem cell research or gay marriage. We have no reason not to be organ donors.
– We don’t have to deal with dilemmas like why did god help me find a parking space, but ignore the starving masses over there.
– We know that we can be transcendent in scope and kind, like no other beings have ever been, at least in this part of the universe.
– For atheists, there is not a line between what is sacred and what is not. A good theistic framework can do the same. The glorious, the numinous, the transcendent, can break out anytime, anywhere, in any setting.
If there is a God, at least we’ve taken him seriously. Many of us suspect he might approve of us using our minds to try to really understand life, rather than singing empty praises. Pascal claimed it was worth living for God even if there is no God. Robert Price turned that around and asked, “Perhaps it is worth living without God even if there is one. Maybe that’s even his will.”
I think that atheism is a source of optimism, hope and joy. However, I’ll admit, it would be nice if we had a family reunion after this life (not that I would want it to last forever). I’d like to believe that a supernatural entity is protecting me from grave harm (though no followers of any deity today are assured that). I wish that, in the end, we could count on justice prevailing and wrongs being righted. I do wish those things. But I can’t believe them. Do I lose some comfort? I don’t know. For me it seems that I am more relaxed and at peace where I am, accepting only what I truly believe. That seems far better for me than struggling to believe. I don’t see myself as better off with a hope of things which might or might not happen or a faith that would be plagued with doubts.
Maybe there are two fundamental differences in how we look at the world. When we stand in awe of some incredible wonder that touches us profoundly, some of us will be moved by thoughts of what exists outside the universe, while others will be move by thoughts of how wonderful the things within our universe can be. I hope that, across that divide, we may all share in that awe and together recognize what is truly amazing.
(Reproduced with permission–from “Russ”)
(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog.)