by John Beckett
Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
August 15, 2010
Introduction – the dilemma of the New Atheists
We Unitarian Universalists like to say “we don’t have to think alike to love alike.” Nowhere is our commitment to that ideal more challenged than in the question of God. Is there a God, a Goddess, many goddesses and gods? Some of us say yes, some of us say no, and some of us think that since we can’t be certain we’re wasting our time contemplating the question. Over the years UU theists and UU non-theists have come to an understanding: we don’t let our different views on the nature of Ultimate Reality get in the way of building a loving community and working for a better world here and now.
But the New Atheists have placed us religious liberals in a bind.
When Richard Dawkins explains evolution so clearly that only the willfully ignorant can deny its reality, we cheer. When Daniel Dennett criticizes those who unquestioningly follow the teachings of their preachers, we applaud. When Christopher Hitchens condemns the Bible for its acceptance of slavery and genocide, we agree wholeheartedly. And when Sam Harris cringes at the thought of high government officials eagerly anticipating the end of the world, we cringe with him. Much of what the New Atheists say makes good sense, and we love hearing them tell the fundamentalist emperors they have no clothes.
But then we look at the titles of their books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, The God Who Wasn’t There, and perhaps the worst, How Religion Poisons Everything. Their blanket denunciation of all religion simply doesn’t match our own experiences. Whether we are theists or non-theists, mystics or ethicists, Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, Humanist or None of the Above, we have all found value in religion – or we wouldn’t be here this morning.
So what are we to do with the New Atheists? Are they our friends or our foes? Or maybe a little bit of both?
The New Atheists admit religion isn’t all bad
He’s been dead for 55 years, but the name Albert Einstein is still synonymous with “genius.” Einstein was proud of his Jewish heritage, but his public statements on religion were mostly vague, as he resisted others’ attempts to attach his credibility to their doctrines. In his later years he made it clear he did not believe in a personal God. Perhaps his best statement on religion was this:
“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins repeats this quote, then adds: “In this sense I too am religious.”
In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett admits the good of religion:
“The daily actions of religious people have accomplished uncounted good deeds throughout history, alleviating suffering, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. Religions have brought the comfort of belonging and companionship to many who would otherwise have passed through this life all alone … They have not just provided first aid … for people in difficulties; they have provided the means for changing the world in ways that remove those difficulties … There is much for religion lovers to be proud of in their traditions, and much for all of us to be grateful for.”
So if even the Four Horsemen of Atheism admit that religion is real and good, why do they say such terrible things about it? Here’s Dawkins again:
“I prefer not to call myself religious because … for the vast majority of people, ‘religion’ implies ‘supernatural’ … The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs, and rabbis, and of ordinary language.”
Because some religious people insist on believing things that are demonstrably false, the New Atheists would discredit all religion. Because some people do horrible things in the name of religion and in the name of God, the New Atheists want nothing to do with any of it. Never mind the religious communities such as this Fellowship that bring belonging to millions, never mind the comfort that religion brings to those who are suffering, never mind the inspiration religion brings to our still-evolving quest for justice and equality for all, never mind all the good that has come about because of religious belief and practice throughout history.
The New Atheists want to throw the baby of religion out with the dirty bathwater of fundamentalism. They are right about much, but in this matter they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
The origins of religion aren’t in creeds and dogmas
Biologists call our species homo sapiens – “knowing man.” But others have proposed a different name: homo religiosus – “religious man.” There is merit in this idea – we have been religious at least as long as we’ve been human. The oldest human artifacts are grave goods – material objects buried with the dead. For a primitive society to bury a bowl, a tool, or even jewelry with the dead was a great sacrifice – they wouldn’t have done it if there wasn’t some very deep meaning behind it.
Our earliest ancestors left no written records, and we must take care in the assumptions we make about them. Still, based on the physical evidence, on modern observations of isolated tribal cultures, and from our own religious experiences, it is reasonable to propose that religion grew out of experiences of wonder and awe in Nature: the rising and setting sun, the waxing and waning moon, the changing of the tides and the changing of the seasons. Religion grew out of the miracle of birth, and out of the uniquely human condition of being aware that we’re alive but knowing that some day we will die. Attempts to explain the world, to anthropomorphosize it and to manipulate it came later. We have learned much, and we can explain much about the natural world through the rigors of science and the scientific method. But in many ways we’re still in the same place our barely-human ancestors were millions of years ago: aware we are alive, knowing some day we will die.
It is this awareness of the brevity of life that gives rise to our highest ideals. Once we secure food, clothing, and shelter, how can we best spend our limited years in this world? How can we lay foundations that our descendants can build upon? What are our obligations to our fellow humans and to the other creatures who share our world? Religion arose out of the contemplation of these questions, questions that are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church. They taught the Bible was the literal and inerrant Word of God, and they also taught that after John finished writing the Book of Revelation, that was it – God had said all he was going to say. We UUs like to say “revelation is not sealed.” Those experiences of wonder and awe still happen today. Go stand at the seashore or on a mountaintop, watch the rising Sun or look up at the full Moon. Watch a flower open or a child take her first steps. Knowing the science behind these phenomena doesn’t make them any less beautiful, any less meaningful or any less mysterious.
If you let yourself simply experience Life as the Buddhists teach, noting experiences as they come without attempting to judge them or explain them or classify them, you may find you have a capacity for wonder and awe every bit as great as your ancestors who first walked the plains of Africa.
But I must warn you – this is a dangerous thing to try. Because once you have a religious experience, you have to do something with it. You can ignore it, rationalize it, explain it away… but it can also change your beliefs, your priorities, and your whole approach to life.
What are you going to do with your religious experiences?
How did we get from there to here?
So if religion began with the experience of wonder and awe, how did we get here? Religious experience leads to religious belief, as people attempt to understand their experiences, to decide what they mean, and to fit them into their ideas about the world and how it works. Belief leads to religious practice, as we attempt to re-create the experiences, or make them real in the material world, or both. Eventually religious institutions emerge, doctrines and creeds are developed. Each step takes us further and further away from the Source, and presents opportunities for both honest mistakes and dishonest manipulations.
All religious myths, doctrines, and structures were developed by and for a particular group of people living in a particular place and time. Change any of those and the religion may no longer work as it was originally intended. Most people are very utilitarian about their religion: if the religion of their parents isn’t meaningful and helpful, they’ll try something else – a process many of us are familiar with.
But for some people, the attraction of religion is its stability and predictability – they want the “old time religion” whether it fits the world they actually live in or not.
The roots of fundamentalism
There are limits to what we know, and early religion was OK with that. Plato compared humanity to prisoners chained to the wall of a cave, unable to see the opening and the world outside. They could only see the shadows cast on the back wall. They knew there was a bigger world outside the cave, but they could only perceive it indirectly. St. Paul wrote about knowing in part, and seeing through a glass, darkly. Our religious predecessors understood the difference between logos (what we know in our heads) and mythos (what we feel in our hearts).
But about 500 years ago, something changed. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment expanded the realm of logos. Real science began to replace speculation and superstition and we started to learn that the universe was much bigger and much older than we had imagined. We didn’t have to believe these things – we could know them. Enlightenment thinking changed our expectations – we began to expect that we should be able to know everything. And by extension, if we couldn’t objectively know something, then it couldn’t be real.
For some, this meant the end of religion. For others, this was the beginning of fundamentalism. Karen Armstrong says that all fundamentalist religions “are initially defensive movements rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, which causes them to develop a paranoid vision of the ‘enemy’ … In their anxiety and fear, fundamentalists often distort the tradition they are trying to defend.” If the only truth is literal truth, then either your holy book and your creed are literally true or they’re worthless. Faced with that difficult though unnecessary choice, some choose to insist that humans were created 6000 years ago in our present form and that God attaches supreme importance to the gender of those we love, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Religious scholar Huston Smith puts it this way: “Modernity was metaphysically sloppy. Ravished by science’s accomplishments, it elevated the scientific method to ‘our sacral mode of knowing,’ and because that mode registers nothing that is without a material component, immaterial realities at first dropped from view and then were denied existence.”
This was a mistake – science or faith is a false choice we need not and should not make. We need both and there is room for both. Science tells us “what” and “how.” Faith tells us “why” and what it means to us as humans seeking to live a meaningful life.
Where do we go from here? Religion on three levels
So where do we go from here? Our UU sources call on us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science. This we must do. But our sources also warn us against idolatries of the mind. Rational thought has done wonders for our species. But rational thought alone cannot make us whole and human.
Huston Smith tells a possibly apocryphal story of a mid-20th century missionary who was having trouble convincing an isolated South American tribe to convert to Christianity. Then one day a child became ill. The village shaman couldn’t heal the child, but the missionary happened to have some antibiotics with her. She gave the medicine to the child, who quickly recovered. The tribe was convinced the god of the missionary must be stronger than the gods of their ancestors and became Christians. Smith sees this as a mistake. He says: “there seems to be no reason why we cannot accept her medicine gratefully while continuing to honor the great orienting myths that our ancestors have handed down to us and that give meaning and motivation to our lives.”
In other words, we can live by logos and by mythos, by science and religion, by fact and by faith. We need not – and should not – choose one over the other. Each has its own value, its own place in our lives.
The early Christian teacher Origen taught three levels of religion: the mythical, the ethical, and the mystical. He thought each was superior to the one before it. I say all are valid, depending on your needs, and a successful religious movement needs all three.
As the Morning Reading dramatically reminds us, we need myths – we need stories to live by. Our religious traditions are full of them, and we UUs are good at grabbing stories from where ever we can find them.
Evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd calls evolution “The Great Story.” I feel pretty confident he would disagree with Stephen Dunn: evolution can be a heroic story. The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the emergence of life, and the development of that life from single-celled organisms to the diversity and complexity we see today. None of this had to happen, but it did – that’s something to celebrate! And the really good news is that evolution didn’t suddenly stop when our own species emerged. We’re still growing and changing and evolving. Just as the biological process of evolution moves the species forward physically, learning and growth moves us individuals forward both intellectually and spiritually.
There are other stories we can live by. What about the story that says we should love our neighbors as ourselves, that we should practice radical inclusion, that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and that if someone offends us we should forgive them not once or twice but 490 times. The story of Jesus is too important and too powerful to abandon it to those who would twist it to fit their own fear-driven views of the world.
Or what about the story that says God is as much female as male, that honors our ancestors and their beliefs and practices, and that teaches we’re all a part of the natural world. We grew out of the Earth, and so the Earth is our Mother – not a collection of resources to be exploited for convenience and greed. The Gulf Oil Spill stands as a clear reminder that everything is connected in a great web of life and existence, and what we do to one part of the web we do to ourselves.
The second part of religion is ethics, something we UUs do a pretty good job with. Instead of just being concepts we think about intellectually, ethics can be stories and songs and poetry, speaking to our hearts and souls as well as to our heads. The work of Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt strongly indicates that most of us make our moral decisions instinctively and then rationalize some principle to justify our gut feeling. If that’s true, it virtually demands that we present our ethics and our values in a religious and mythical context, so our intuitive responses grow into alignment with our highest values.
The third form of religion is mysticism, the direct experience of the Divine we can find in the silence of meditation and in the shouts of ecstacy. Mysticism isn’t just for cloistered monks and nuns – it can be practiced by anyone. It’s hard work and it doesn’t look nearly as attractive as the pseudo-Christian Prosperity Gospel or the New Age “think and grow rich” movement. But for those who realize we cannot know God but we can experience God, there is no substitute.
Karen Armstrong points out that “religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. Without such practice, it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines.” If you would experience God, practice your faith.
So what are these spiritual exercises and dedicated lifestyles that make possible a direct experience of God? They aren’t complicated – people have been doing them for thousands of years. But they aren’t easy, either. True religion, true spirituality, is about relationships: relationships with the Divine, with our families, with our neighbors in the Christian sense of the word. It’s about our relationship with the natural world and everything in it. Relationships are simple, but they aren’t easy. They require work.
Our spiritual work takes many forms. There’s meditation: quieting the mind and listening. Prayer: speaking our gratitude and the desires of our hearts. Physical exercise: part of spiritual practice is to develop balance and wholeness, and your body needs practice as much as your mind. Writing and reflection: by recording our thoughts and feelings and activities, we can go back and see what was helpful and what wasn’t. And sometimes, you don’t appreciate how far you’ve come till you stop and look back at where you used to be.
It took many years of practice for Siddhartha to become the Buddha. I’m not expecting to get there any faster than he did. But every journey begins with a single step, a single prayer, a single moment of quiet contemplation.
What is God?
If you’ve been paying attention – and you have been paying attention, haven’t you? – you may have noticed that I’ve made a case for religion, for myths, for ethics, for mysticism, and for spiritual practice. But I haven’t said much about God. Karen Armstrong says that for most of us, “the symbol of God is no longer working. Instead of pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality, the humanly conceived construct that we call ‘God’ has become the end of the story.” Our wider culture has confused the map with the territory and the symbol with reality.
While “God” has no concrete definition, we need a working hypothesis, and the best one I’ve found comes from Huston Smith. He says: “The reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature, we do well to … think of God as a direction rather than an object. That direction is always toward the best that we can conceive.”
The New Atheists are right to challenge religious beliefs that are at odds with facts and religious practices that are harmful and manipulative. But they are wrong to dismiss all religion as something we should outgrow. Humans have always been religious creatures, and while our beliefs and practices have changed and will continue to change, our religious impulse will never die.
We will not find answers to all the Big Questions of Life, not in our experiences and certainly not in anyone’s creeds, doctrines, or sacred texts. Some of these questions are not just beyond our knowledge, they’re beyond our capacity to know. And that’s OK – we don’t have to know everything in order to live lives that are meaningful and helpful and happy.
The members of this religious community have many beliefs, but we share the common goal of being present and open to the wonders and joys that Life presents to us, and we will keep moving toward the best that we can conceive, doing our best to make it real right here right now.