First let me say that I stole the title from Brian D. McLaren who was writing for On Faith Forum in the Washington Post. His post responded to a fascinating Pew finding on atheists. Seems that contrary to what one might assume, 21% believe in some kind of God or Higher Power. In addition, 12% believe in some concept of heaven and 10% pray at least once a week. The panel was asked to comment on this strange finding. And it got me to thinking.
I read most all of the panelists and their comments. Some of them were obvious remarks such as “Gosh, don’t people even know the definition of words any more?” Indeed, to say that one is an atheist and then to claim that one believes in any sort deity is well, a total misunderstanding of the very definition no? Sure, but let’s get beyond the simplistic. Atheism is a belief that there is no God. Faith is belief that there is a God. Agnostics throw up their hands in confusion and give up trying to figure the whole thing out.
Notice first of all the absence of any real proof on any side. That is the definition of faith, it is belief in things not seen, not provable. So the believer is in no better intellectual place than than the non-believer it seems. The agnostic is in a strange place that I’m not sure quite how to define. On the one hand, one can say that the agnostic recognizes that the other two are in an intellectually untenable position and simply refuses to play the game at all. The other two might call the agnostic lazy, since both the atheist and the believer both feel the question is worth considerable time and effort to investigate.
Trust me, go to any forum and find a discussion on the existence of God. The only people arguing are self-defined atheists and believers. So there might be some credible argument that the agnostic is in the worst of all places, finding the entire issue not worthy of his/her time and effort.
Of course if we actually start the debate, the atheist has the upper hand. As the saying goes, nobody can be forced to prove a negative. I’m not required to disprove the existence of the Easter bunny. The deluded soul who believes in the Easter bunny must prove this weird idea. But this is not a debate about atheist vs. believer. It’s an attempt to understand who we are as believer and atheist.
The poll results, as some of the panelists alluded to, may merely reflect that some people don’t like labels, especially pejorative ones that are bandied about and always place the person who self-identifies with the label on the defensive. We know a lot of these. Atheism is certainly one, denoting, (gasp, and then the awful look and whisper) “someone who doesn’t believe in God.” People recoil in horror. They look at you as if you have suddenly sprouted horns and a tail and turned a brighter shade of red. I recall my atheistic days and I do remember not wanting to admit that, as a child or an adult.
We have plenty of other labels, Feminism to some is buzz word for man-hating, bra burning, evil, home wrecking, abortion championing women. Yep, even in this day and age, you find some folks who say that. Modernism, secularism are words Fox has pounded into the human psyche as anathema to American values.
So it’s not so clear what the word atheist means any more. To some it may simply mean I don’t adhere to any particular religious philosophy. I don’t want to be identified as being within any group. In this sense, the poll results might well signify that many are redefining in a sense what and who God is. Some of those who self-identify as atheists may in fact simply be suggesting that they don’t view God through the prism of Christianity or frankly from any other faith tradition they are personally familiar with through experience or study.
This leads to an interesting post by both McLaren and also alluded to by Willis E. Elliot, that some folks refer to themselves as atheists because they reject a particular definition of God and actually are not aware of any other. If you talk to some atheists on forums at least, you often discover that their arguments against God reflect a fundamentalist interpretation of God. They remind me of kids raised in strict fundamentalist homes wherein God is HE, men are the natural and right head of the family, the bible is literal, evolution is a hoax, and prophetic scripture lays out in perfect detail exactly what the future holds.
These kids, protected from reality for all their young lives, go off to college and meet the world. It’s like being slapped in the face for many. Read what happened to Bart D. Ehrman. Now his story is a bit different, in that he came to fundamentalism as a young man, but then went off to study at Moody college, and then Wheaton College, both extreme right wing fundamentalist schools. When he arrived at Princeton and was confronted with the truth of biblical exegesis, he ended up losing his faith completely. He’s a fine scholar and a nice man whom I’ve had the privilege to communicate with. (He sent me a signed copy of his book, Misquoting Jesus, which I reviewed on my now deceased blog The Cornfield Philosopher.)
Both McLaren and Elliot point out that some atheists are only disbelievers to the some particular type of faith they have experienced or witnessed. When presented with other ways of envisioning God, they are not atheists at all.
Perhaps the panelist who hit closest the mark of what I consider the truth is that of Lisa Miller. It goes along in some respects with the ideas of both McLaren and Elliot but goes a bit further. Anyone who is a student of Christianity at least, probably is aware that there are more than 35,000 various sects of Christianity around the globe, and the number increases at about the rate of 300 or so a year. What does this tell us?
It tells me that we as humans don’t respond well to organized religion. Churches continue to try to force us into a set of beliefs and claim that deviation from them in any way puts our very futures in dire danger. Now some find great comfort in this, and the orthodox of every faith whether it be Catholicism, Judaism, Evangelism, Muslim etcetera find personal “safety” in the very specificity of the tenets that must be adhered to exactly and totally. Now I can understand Churches and their motivation. I can understand even the psychological need that drives some to need this kind of absolutism.
But the reality is in the evidence of things. There are virtually no faiths, or few at least that are complete and unchanging in themselves. Somebody and a bunch of other somebodies sooner or later has and will decide that they have a better take on what God really wants and is, and will go off and form a different version of the parent faith. They may impose just as strict a requirement on their new followers in terms of orthodoxy, but none the less, it is another “personal” vision of God that has translated into another sect.
What does all this suggest? It seems to me that it suggests something major that most people are missing. Someone pointed out that every person is unique, every snowflake is, every finger print. That person finds evidence of God’s hand in the world. Many would agree. I do in some respects as well. But it might well suggest that something much more powerful is at work.
Many human biology specialists, especially those involved in brain study, suggest that in some fundamental way, we are wired for God. This of course does not prove a God exists, only that we are prone to identify a God as the source of what is inexplicable to us. Many also admit that God is not especially forthcoming in an overt way. Atheists especially question why God doesn’t make Him/Herself known in a clear way.
My answer is always the same. God doesn’t appear hovering on my ceiling for a good reason. It’s called faith. It’s meant to be that way. It’s our journey of discovery, preparing us for bigger and better things. We have to struggle with this, its how we grow. If God does it for us, what is the point for either us or God. If I am correct in this assumption perhaps that is why God means something different to each of us.
We all blend a lot of things into our own personal vision of Deity. It is the way it’s meant to be perhaps. It’s okay if some religion meets most of our needs and desires regarding Deity. But we all mix a bit. Hispanics traditionally place a bit too much emphasis on Mary (some would say). We practice yoga as Christians, and there is definitely an element of Buddhism in the practice. Asian Christians continue in some respects to practice some forms of ancestor worship. Each culture and people blend old faith with new, family rituals with church rituals. Even the orthodox do this. And perhaps this is what is supposed to happen.
If indeed we are wired by God for God (being ensouled creatures), then our very uniqueness as created being demands that God be something a bit different to each of us. God as they say is closer to us than our very breath. Is it so wrong then that God molds himself to us in the most perfect way? Can that way be the same for anyone else? No, I would say not. The tragedy or perhaps the bump in the road is that so few really get this.
Of course, this goes over not so very good at an ultra orthodox site. I’m invited to leave the Catholic Church at least once a week because as they see it, why call yourself Catholic if you don’t adhere to every tenet (as they interpret it of course) of the faith? I don’t find this in parishes of course, its the habitat of the the extreme view and is an internet phenomenon for the most part, although there are a couple of ultra right wing dioceses (the one’s who threaten they will withhold communion from certain politicians–note that these same politicians received communion right in front of the Pope Benedict with no recriminations in April.) but no matter. I digress.
Instead of seeing God as more personal, some seem to believe that hell awaits anyone not towing some line defined by some Church. All of life is then devoted to railing at and satanizing the other. Little attention is left for personal attention to deity, one is simply too busy detailing in excruciating detail the failings of everyone else. It is essential to this type that everyone come to agree they they and their self-interpreted faith are right. They must be right, their very sanity depends on it. I don’t think this is what God had in mind. I do think many of these folks would benefit from some good psychiatric care. (Again, I don’t make this statement lightly. Threads on forums that wonder “is it sinful to read a fortune cookie” and websites devoted to traveling one’s diocese and reporting on whether the wafer was held high enough over the priests head to be “properly adoring” speak for themselves.) I do think that this type of obsessive religiosity are the greatest creators of “atheists” on the planet.
I might be wrong in everything I have just said. I claim no special pipeline to God. I hope I get a point or two for being honest. I assume God likes honesty. As I have said, I have concluded that as a creation of God, with a finite capability of understanding with my tiny human brain, that God must be at least as great as anything I can envision. If so, he must be honest. And can anything be more special, more perfect, than a God that is individual to each of us, unique in just the right blend of compassion, love, joy, adventure, humor, awe, as suits us to a T? It is why my prayer is the same every day:
God, I love you. I desire above all things to do your will. I’m just a creature, small and not too bright. I try my very best to do what you want. Please help me to understand exactly what that is. I admit to getting confused sometimes. I’m told a lot of different things, mostly contradictory, by people who are very sure they know what you want. I don’t know what else to do but ponder these questions and do the best I can. If you can nudge me in the right direction when I go off course, I’d appreciate it. I know I have to find my way to you, even though I know you are always with me. Just give me a thumbs up now and then, Okay? Love, Sherry.
It’s just what I was thinking about today.