IN DEFENSE OF AN ATHEIST
by John Morgan
When I called attention to an article written by an atheist calling on other atheists to be more tolerant toward theists (“Rational Atheism,” in the Scientific American , I remarked to someone that it inspired me to write an article asking that those who believe in God to show more tolerance toward those who don’t. This is it. My close friend and mentor, George Willard, called himself a “born again pagan” to get attention, but he was an atheist who believed the problem of evil did not permit a classical Universalist doctrine of God’s love.
George also was a Unitarian Universalist who probably would not have been accepted into most religious organizations. I can almost hear him laughing when I state this, but he was also one of the most godly persons I have known, if by this one means a truly generous man.
I would have a hard time excluding George from anything because of his atheism. He was fond of saying that the opposite of belief is not unbelief -the opposite of belief is indifference. And George was hardly indifferent, reading physics, theology, and, yes, he would confide in secret, even the Bible.
He would then remind me of the words of W.C. Fields caught reading the Bible on his deathbed. When his friends asked him why, Fields responded: “I’m looking for loopholes. It’s hard to exclude an atheist who happens to be a mentor and friend. George was more interested in the life and teachings of Jesus than most Christians. Better yet, he paid attention to the most needy. Once, when I saw him helping a runaway girl and asked him why, he responded: “Well, what would Jesus have done?”
Can you be a good and honest person if you don’t believe in God, or life eternal, for that matter? George certainly was one of the best persons I have ever known. And, paradoxically, can you live the Way of Jesus without believing he was the son of God? George certainly lived a life that seemed to me to exemplify what Jesus taught was important. In George’s memory, I would ask those of you who don’t believe you can be a moral, even spiritual person to think again. There are a number of reasons for doing so.
First, some atheists have taken God more seriously than some believers and simply decided they cannot in good conscience affirm what they don’t believe. And some believers, like myself, have known the dark night of the soul and can identify with others who have felt it, too. Second, shouting is not a substitute for honest dialog, which is based on listening to one another, seeking common ground. If we cannot agree on God or the afterlife, perhaps we can still join forces to save the planet from our greed.
I remember one morning sitting in George’s living room and watching the light stream through a rainbow prism in a window. “Ah, the rainbow, a sign of God’s promise,” George remarked quietly as I sat wondering just want kind of “atheist” he really was. George must have suspected what I was thinking, because without missing a beat he said: “We can always hope, John, that’s one thing we can hope for together”
John Morgan is a retired UU pastor, a writer, and Herald Contributing Editor.
The Faith Which Is In Us
by Derek Lee Parker
In a previous professional incarnation, I worked as a paleontologist and curator at a small research museum in Ohio. Part of my training for that work had been done at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History where I took classes on genetic taxonomy, paleobotany, and the evolution of mammals. I remember a zoology exam where I was given what turned out to be the skull of a platypus, which I wrongly identified as the skull of a goose.
There are some things which we encounter in life, which force us to reconsider how we classify things. If it has a bill like a goose, has webbed feet like a goose, and lays eggs like a goose, is it a goose? When it comes to the platypus, what about all that troublesome hair and those milk glands?
When I began attending Unitarian Universalist churches, I was told that Humanism meant
certain things largely defined by a 1933 document called “The Humanist Manifesto”. Humanism meant finding truth through the scientific method. Humanism meant that all religious systems involving God were obsolete. Humanism meant the triumph of reason over all things that could not be rationally proved. The first part intrigued this young scientist. Growing up in the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod, religious openness to science was a fabled gem that I could not find in my home church. The other reputed aspects of Humanism bothered me. It reminded me of the way my childhood church argued that Christianity made Judaism obsolete. That kind of supremacism felt presumptuous to me, no matter if it came from a Humanist or a Lutheran. Additionally I knew that not everything in the human experience was subject to rational proof. The beauty I find in Salvador Dali’s artwork is hardly a mathematical theorem or scientific proof. I may love his work, but somebody somewhere probably finds his paintings ugly.
When I was new to Unitarianism and Universalism I decided that I did not like the way Humanism sliced the liberal religious pie. What had been presented to me could not fit with integrity into my human experience. I have always loved science, and the discovery of Nature’s order. But I also did not want to arrogantly dismiss the human experiences of billions of people who had encountered divinity in some form. Nor did I want to neglect the less rational glories of being human: poetry, artwork, drama, as well as my emotions. Of these issues, the God issue became increasingly problematic. In my 33 years I’ve had three mystical experiences that I have come to best understand as being encounters with the presence of God. Should I deny these things, because like the bill on a platypus, they do not cleanly fit into the traditional definitions?
Our Unitarian prophet Theodore Parker, once asked questions about what was permanent and what was transient in Christianity. Are the rituals and the creeds permanent or transient? Are the ethics of Jesus permanent or transient? In recent years I’ve found myself I asking questions about what is permanent and transient about Humanism.
One of the pleasant surprises in my search for answers came in the form of a theologian named Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, who in 1486 wrote Oration On the Dignity of Man. Considered by many to be a founding document for Humanistic religious thought, in it Pico argued from a Christian context that humanity is defined by its quest for knowledge grounded in human experience. From this point forward I found a long lineage of thinkers including Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), and Don Cupitt (born 1934); for whom Humanism was and continues to be a Christian school of theology. Here was a theological platypus that forced me to rethink my classifications.
I believe that for far too long some Universalists and Unitarians have accepted definitions of Christianity and Humanism that are narrow and mutually exclusive. I feel called to move beyond this divide towards a more convergent spirituality. What is permanent about Humanism? Being anti-Christian? Believing that the only things worth knowing are those things which can be scientifically proven? Thinking that other religions are obsolete? I no longer think that these are the permanent and defining characteristics of Humanism.
Humanistic religion, whether Christian or not, whether theistic or non-theistic, is a faith which is in us. It is the faith in us, in so far as it makes the throne of religious meaning-making both human
experience and human reason. This faith is broadly within humanity’s science and mysticism, objective reason and subjective creativity, and within both our experiences of God and our experiences of “no-God”. And if there are any people capable of advocating both Humanism and Christianity in broad and inclusive terms, it should be those of us who call ourselves
Universalist. Anything less might make a goose out of a platypus.
The Rev. Derek Lee Parker holds joint standing with both the UUA and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He presently serves as Education Minister at the Friends Meeting of Irvington, Indiana.
More articals on Reflections