#SKEPTIMERGENT: an atheist’s prayer

I’ve spent the last few days revisiting some old friends in Oklahoma City, the city where I grew up and where, when I moved away, I was a pastor. I haven’t been back in a few years, partially because I had been in a difficult place, personally. The last time I visited, I was pretty bitter about some things that had happened to me, and I wasn’t able to fully accept and embrace where or who I was. So, I mostly avoided the people who once saw me as a friend and a mentor.

But, this time was different. It’s probably not healthy to analyze oneself, but the more people I am around (primarily my wife) the more I am told that I seem to finally be at one with myself, much better able to simply be, to enjoy the moment, to relax, to be open and engaged. This trip was a lot of fun. Lots of great conversations, great coffee and beer, and long-overdue hugs. I wasn’t worried if my current state (which, if we’re honest, is constantly changing anyway) means that I need to be honest about my atheism.

If you listen to many religious vs. non-religious debates (which I usually don’t recommend), you will tend to hear both sides making some seemingly objective claims about what religion is, or what atheism is, or what those things necessarily imply. Usually when I’m listening to these debates, I quickly get the sense that these people must not live in the same world that I do. The complex, difficult world of many different kinds of people, with different ideas, hopes, dreams, beliefs, opinions, backgrounds, and so on. The more people that I actually spend time with, the more complex each person becomes. And the more I want to try to really understand where they’re coming from.

Despite our seemingly unlimited access to information, I think we are suffering from a severe lack of understanding. But, maybe our connectedness has actually created a situation where we don’t even want to understand each other, because that would require actual face-to-face interaction. That would require us to step outside of our comfortable “communities,” to unload our guns and welcome the other, whoever he or she or it may be. Recently I helped to start an emergent cohort in Raleigh, NC, and I’m pretty excited to continue to try to figure out how we can create spaces where these conversations can take place.

So, I thought for my first contribution to this series, I would just try to elaborate on what I mean by atheism. Not what a religion or philosophy book says it means. Or not what the loudest voices in the media think it means. But, what I mean. That’s really all I know – and, this will continue to change. In the most simple terms, I use the word atheism as shorthand, in the “survey” sense. When the majority of people describe a deity, I do not personally believe (and therefore do not live my life as if) those descriptions of a deity are descriptions of what is really the case. So, in the broadest terms, my atheism is a lack of belief in the most commonly held descriptions of God.

But, when I sit down with one or more people, and we talk about their personal understanding of and commitment to God, more often than not, I am drawn to at least some part of their descriptions. In that sense, that would put me in the category of agnostic. I have much less of an active disbelief in many descriptions of God that I either have not encountered yet or have not spent much time considering. In the words of the great prophet Bono, blessed be his name, maybe I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (then again, maybe I have, and that’s okay, too). I am completely open to listening and learning and considering something new. I just can’t force myself to affirm things that I find no compelling reasons to personally commit to.

Part of my purpose in laying this out is to, hopefully, show people that despite if someone uses a word that may have a certain stigma, we should take the time to listen to them anyway. Many people may be completely confused why Emergent Village would have any interest in what we think. But, I’ve continued to find that I have much more in common with people with whom I may disagree about some things, than if I would’ve created some uninformed caricature of them to react against. We atheists haven’t done a very good job at presenting ourselves to others in a positive light, but I also think there is a lot of misunderstanding coming from the other sides about who we really are.

I have a lot of hope that we can work together to create a better world by seeking to truly understand each other. But, it will take each of us exorcising our own demons in order to even have the desire to be around people with whom we disagree. I want to be a part of these conversations, and do whatever I can to encourage openness and honesty. I pray that SKEPTIMERGENT can be one space, among many, for this to happen.

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  • Monty Moore

    Thank you for sharing your journey, Rob. There are many on the same road. #fearnotunbelief

  • Jeff Straka

    Thanks for sharing, Rob. I look forward to learning more about how you came to this place on you journey. I’ve been part of EV for more than six years. Even though I’ve only recently admitted to myself that I no longer believe in (or need) a deity, the conversation and community of EV keeps me intrigued and engaged. I find that if one exchanges “human spirit” for any of the “God/Holy Spirit language”, we are really wanting to do and be the same things in this world – here, now. And I see Jesus as one of the best Humanist role models there is!

  • As a person who would be lying if I denied how much God has transformed my life through the years, I want to agree with you – it would be foolish, as well as completely inauthentic, to attempt to force yourself to affirm things you see no compelling reason to believe. If God isn’t big enough to handle genuineness, then that “God” isn’t worth worrying about. Sounds like it should be a delightful forum. Thanks Rob.

  • Steve Pinkham

    I think the psychological terms “need for cognition” and “need for closure” are very useful in understanding the emergent ethos. The emergent movement seems to be filled predominantly with people with a high need for cognition, and people with a high need for closure tend to find it an anathema.

    Tony Jones’ recent post claiming progressives don’t need any foundations is a good case in point, and to anyone with a high need for closure that is just *not* ok as an answer. Similarly, whenever anyone offers me an answer, I’m more likely than not to reply: “It’s actually more complicated than that.” I tend to think I fit the emergent ethos fairly well.

    I am a recovering fundamentalist, and I am recovering outside of a traditional religious framework. At the same time, my cultural history and much of my current thinking is unavoidably steeped in Christianity, and I find myself attracted in some sense to postmodern and radical theology. This should be no surprise, as perhaps the biggest split between these forms of theology and more confessional ones is that at their roots they accept skepticism as a valid position. That these forms of theology have found a place in the emergent community gives me some hope for its future as a beneficial one.

    I will argue that the degree to which the emergent movement accepts skeptically minded individuals and even people from other religious backgrounds will define how good it is for the world and its people in all their glorious complexity. It is my opinion that only through avoiding emotional and epistemic closure in matters where skepticism is a valid response that the movement can offer something beneficial that is missing from the world. (For an experimental grounding for this argument, see Richard Beck’s The Authenticity of Faith.)