The Faithful Atheist
October 15th, 2017
When I was in grade six, I tried to talk to God.
It was the era of the Judy Blume book “Are you there God, it’s me, Margaret”, so I had to try: “are you there God, it’s me, Fiona.” I’d talk a bit about my life, or ask for something.
It didn’t work. I didn’t feel comforted or heard. Mostly I became paranoid that a deity was watching me and judging me for reading a book instead of tidying my room.
I have never experienced God.
It’s why I call myself an atheist.
My spiritual experiences are of belonging to a great web of life, not of the presence of a singular being.
And my reason suggests that, in light of current scientific knowledge, it is unlikely that any omniscient deity is in charge of the ever expanding universe or even just this small little planet.
Having no sense of God works for me.
But I am also aware that life – and the universe – as we learn from science – is full of mystery.
I have met people who have experienced God as a loving presence, as the still small voice within.
In a seminary class, one of my Lutheran friends was at the front with the professor.
She shared a painful personal story, struggling to hold back tears, trembling.
Then the professor asked her to pray silently.
In moments she was visibly transformed, almost as if a wave of light had washed over her.
When she opened her eyes, she was serene.
She told me later she felt God’s loving presence and knew she was okay.
So while I am without an experience of God, I know that God’s love, guidance, presence is very real to others.
So what can faith mean to me, as an atheist?
Faith can mean a religious tradition – we are part of the Unitarian Universalist faith.
I don’t generally use faith to mean tradition as I think it conflates religion with belief, which is how faith is often understood.
To have faith is to have a belief in God or a set of beliefs about God.
And to skeptical ears, faith as belief sounds false and foolish.
Particularly when that belief is extended to texts that aren’t meant to be taken as fact.
My friend in seminary didn’t just believe in God, she experienced God.
She trusted that God would comfort her, and he did.
Faith is a delicate combination of belief and trust.
As an atheist, religious naturalist, humanist kind of person, I try to have faith in humanity.
One popular Unitarian statement in late nineteenth century America covered all bases, saying that
We believe in the Fatherhood of God,
The Brotherhood of Man,
The Leadership of Jesus,
Salvation by Character,
and The Progress of Mankind, onward and upward forever.
The progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.
Unitarian Universalism is grounded in a strong belief – faith – in the power of humankind to make the world is better.
We take comfort from the words and deeds of prophetic people who worked hard to improve conditions for people.
We argue for the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and say we are all born in original blessing.
We have faith in humanity.
I am sorry to say I am currently finding this kind of faith – belief – trust – difficult to sustain.
One of the books that was required reading for ministers is called Never Call Them Jerks.
And while I do not think any of you lovely wonderful people are jerks,
most mornings when I read the news, the term jerk crosses my mind fairly often.
And other far ruder words that according to my colleagues I should not say on a Sunday morning.
There are so many people doing horrible things for horrible reasons.
Trump, Weinstein, the Las Vegas shooter and all those other people who think power allows them to treat people like objects.
Who choose money or infamy or cruelty.
Who seem to love destruction.
The progress of mankind? Onward and upward?
These last couple of months feel unpleasantly retro, Playboy and nuclear war, not civil rights and space flight.
It is clear that these jerks in the news aren’t trying their best.
Karma seems to be on holiday.
It is all rather disheartening.
Its very hard to have faith in the progress of humankind.
So I have been struggling with faith, I have felt faithless.
It feels hopeless and disheartening truly – without heart.
This week, though, I found Anne Lamott’s words: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
I like this sense of faith, that faith is living with the hard stuff until the light returns.
Faith is trusting that the light will return, even when it feels like it never will.
And I do trust that nothing lasts forever.
The life is an evolving process, and leaving with uncertainty allows for new possibilities.
This is a parable you may have heard before.
A traveler came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road.
Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the farmer, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” asked the farmer.
Oh, said the traveler in disgust. “They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too.
The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted.
I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.”
“Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.
“That’s a right pity.” said the man. “I’ll guess I’ll keep on walking.”
Disappointed, the traveler trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Some time later another traveller came walking along and hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the second traveller.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” asked the farmer once again.
“They were the best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.” the traveler said with a rueful smile.
“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
While I have certainly felt like the first traveler the last few months, seeing terrible people everywhere, I want to be the second traveler.
But I struggle there too, being so certain all people are the best.
The town the travellers came from, and the next town, and this town right here, have all kinds of people.
Some are scoundrels and cheats, some are honest and friendly.
And most of us live with the contradiction of being all these things.
Sometimes we are the honest friendly person.
Sometimes the only thing we can be is a disruptive scoundrel.
So then the question becomes, what kind of person do I want to be? Where do I want to put my energy?
Having faith – doubting, unsure faith – means that I want to make choices – even in the darkest times – that helps the light return.
Even knowing that people can be awful, I choose to keep my focus on the best in people.
I do want to live in the town of friendly folks, who care for one another.
I want to live with trust in others.
And when I fail, I hope to be forgiven, so that I can try again.
It feels like the better way to live.
I think this is the Unitarian Universalist faith today.
Not blind faith in the onward and upward progress of people,
but a mature faith that despite the worst excesses in others, in ourselves, we have the capacity to choose kindness.
It’s a faith in the ever returning, ever learning, process of life itself.
That out of destruction comes renewal.
That after the pain there is healing.
That we can get better at being kind and helpful.
This kind of faith allows us to shape the world through our response to the world.
One writer suggested that faith could be understood as “setting the heart upon something”.
By “setting the heart upon something”, we are seeking to create life as we want it to be – whether that be a world without racism or a town of kind people.
We may not succeed, but we have faith that it is a worthwhile effort.
Faith is not about certainty or eternal truths, it’s about trusting in possibility.
So even when I feel faithless, I try to trust that the light will return.
Even in the dark, there are people with courage speaking out, there are people choosing to treat others with respect and dignity.
I have faith that change will come, and that I can contribute to that change, by living my values, by being part of this chalice community.
I remember the words of Anne Frank, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, after living in hiding for two years.
She wrote, in her diary, while hiding: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
And I think if a 13 year old who was living through a war that destroyed her life, who was hiding from people who hated her because of her religion, if this young woman can keep faith with her ideals, her sense of the good in people, maybe privileged, fortunate me can too.
So while I will always have moments of faithlessness,
when I fail to live my own values, or seek the good in others,
I try to return to faith, to living the way I want the world to be.
I invite you to consider your own faith.
What do you trust in, even in the darkest time?
Take a minute to think about your sense of faith.
What have you set your heart upon?
These final words come from Quaker educator Parker Palmer.
“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure;
the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair;
the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring:
these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.
If we refuse to hold them in the hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.”
May we live with faith, hope and love.
May we trust that the light returns.
So Say We All