Faith of an Atheist
Reverend Darcey Laine
March 10, 2002
Palo Alto, CA


"The Human Task"

We have ceased to invoke the gods, who were human inventions, projections of our arrogance onto the universe, but treated as the crests of human conception rather than as delusions.

The human task is to conceive the universe without human projections, to diffuse our manias and recant our illusions, transcending our truncated personal images, to see the world in its own vast profile, discovering that image that includes all images in itself.

Nature designates everything, and we are but atoms in the whole, glints on one facet of the jewel of being.

We are meaty, indolent, and indefinable, less than pea-pods more than sequoias, equal to atoms.

We toil and muse for our seconds of eternity; we are nothing and we are all.

---Rev. Kenneth Patton from Hymns for Humanity p. 136 Kenneth Leo Patton (1911-1994), identified as one of the major poets and a prophet of contemporary liberal religion, was a voice for a poetic, naturalistic humanism at a time when most humanists were defining a religion of reason.

Darcey Laine Throughout the ages, one of the most stinging insults one theologian could hurl at another was the word "atheist." It was used to point out beliefs so doctrinally contrary as to seem to undermine contemporary institutional understandings of God. It was an extreme insult hurled at those whose theologies seemed dangerous to the deepest assumptions about God.

Now Unitarianism is over 400 years old, its roots stretching down into the protestant split with the Catholic church. For most of that time the existence of some kind of god was not the topic up for debate. But when scientific reasoning entered intellectual discourse, religious thinking seemed to be outmoded, unintelligent. Nietzsche announced the "death of god" in the middle of the 19th century, and it widely entered the theological conversation as we moved into the 20th. For many the atrocities of the first and second world wars gave proof that there was no god watching over us. Theists had argued for centuries that the beauty, complexity and justice of creation required divine intelligence. Atheists followed that argument to the gates of the concentration camps, and found there proof that God was a lie.

Atheism is a negative definition. It describes an absence of a believe in god. But it does not answer the question "in what does an atheist put her faith?" And certainly there are atheists, nihilists, who have faith in nothing. They believe that there is no truth to be found in religion, no meaning or purpose in existence. Others might agree with those mystics who argue that god does not "exist" because god by definition is beyond being. These atheists have faith that there are some things beyond what a mind can comprehend. They have faith in mystery. Many argue that since the advent of science, all that was mysterious to our forbearers can now be explain logically, and god is no longer a necessary construct. These atheists have faith in science and reason. Other atheists, such as Kenneth Patton who wrote our meditation, look with awe at the beauty of nature, the wonder of the human neural system, the tides, the movement of stars, a beautiful machine evolving for its own survival, they have faith in the natural forces beyond control of a single human.

Some have faith in the self and in humankind. These atheists cast their lot with the Humanists. Though one does not have to be an atheist to be a humanist, the two are often linked. In the first third of the 20th century as Humanism entered our denomination, the Unitarian movement began to center around the existence, rather than the nature of God. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 describes "the universe as 'self-existing and not created'…Religion, in other words, is human life, and 'the end of man's life.' for the Humanist, is 'the complete realization of the human personality.'" [Robinson p. 147] This re-understanding of the purpose of religion and the importance of human life, while not unique to our movement, became a driving theological force in our denomination. In fact, the three most prominent Unitarian humanists had been forced to leave other more conservative denominations, and brought their ideas to the Unitarians, who were willing to give space to what they had to say.

And so for many 20th century Unitarian congregations, Unitarian, Atheist, and Humanist became synonyms. I myself grew up in a family of atheists, in rational humanist Unitarian congregation in Pennsylvania. I didn't even know there were Unitarians who believed in God until my childhood congregation did a self-survey, and found that though our church was composed primarily of atheists and agnostics, there were also theists, and pantheists, and even Christians in our congregation.

My church was an important haven for me growing up. I was raised in a somewhat conservative community, where my liberal ideas often inspired my classmates to respond with a stare that made me think I had monkeys dancing on my head. Still I had confidence in my own weird ideas, my questions, because I was rooted in a religious community where I felt I really could believe whatever I knew in my heart to be true, and where asking questions was as sacred an act as prayer was to my friends.

When I was in Junior High School a huge brand new fancy fundamentalist Christian church opened down the street, and many of my classmates went to the Tuesday night youth group. I remember the evening I went along; I wanted so badly to believe what my friends did, to believe the thing that would guaranteed eternal salvation, and acceptance among my peer group. I remember sitting in my kitchen afterward crying, because I knew that if God was like these folks had described him, the sort of God that would damn myself and my mother and father to Hell for not being the right kind of Christian, then I could not believe in God. Having been raised in a tradition rooted in questioning, a tradition that values so highly "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" I had to hold out for the un-known, for that which fell outside the narrow limits of God as God had been defined for me.

I turned instead to our Humanist fore parents and peers who believe that since we cannot really know anything of God, we are responsible for our own lives, and for filling them with meaning and purpose. In this church, we try to begin without assumptions about the divine, to begin with a blank slate. If you see nothing you want to call God then don't. If the word God does not describe anything you have experienced in your own life, then the word is of no meaning. But as the Humanists know - it is important to live a good life, a religious life even without assuming the existence of God. If you had asked me on a Sunday morning at my childhood church whether I believed in God, I would have answered that it doesn't matter whether or not there is a God, what matters is how we live this life.

This is the gift of the devout atheists in our movement. They spent most of the last century fighting to make room for a new kind of questioning in organized religion. If there is no god, then the rules of living are changed. If there is no hereafter, no intelligence greater than ourselves, then this moment is all there is. This moment has ultimate significance. My life has ultimate significance. How we treat one another has ultimate significance. If there is no God, then I am the source of wisdom about my own life, and my own experience will lead me to the truth.

A devout atheist would say, take your attention out of the unknown, out of the heavens. Turn it instead with full concentration on your own life, your own experience. The faith of an atheist, is the remarkable notion that this is enough. What we see with our eyes, and touch with our skin, and know with our minds, and live with our lives must be enough. This human existence must redeem itself, must bless itself, must create itself. The faith of an atheist is not a faith in god, but in life itself. That is faith.

But in this increasingly secular world, we now hear a cry in our movement for something else. I felt this after I graduated from college. I'm one of those birth-right Unitarian Universalists who was given as my inheritance the right to question the existence of god, the right to believe that this life is enough. But still I was born and dedicated to be a seeker, to question, know for myself. I wanted to know something of this "God" that my childhood church did not embrace. I had to find out for myself if it was possible to hold a conception of the divine which did not oppress, which was not squeezed into creeds and rules. I, like so many in my generation, have searched the world of religious, and have searched my own heart and mind, to see if god could be redeemed. I asked myself; "If I were going to believe in god, what kind of god could I believe in?" I listened to the words of teachers and friends, opening my mind wide to the possibility of the unknown, but like a theological warrior, guarding the integrity of both my reason and my heart. Over the last 7 years, I have struggled and wrestled and cried and questioned, and finally have made some peace with the idea of "god" - the idea of something beyond my human self. For me it is grounded in the forces of the natural world, immanent in all we experience, and the mysteries which the human mind cannot comprehend. But I have also had to come back to my roots, to hold these things in Balance lest I too lose the faith of my childhood.

And since I, by good fortune, ride a demographic wave now sweeping our congregations, I arrive in the ministry of this denomination at a time when, unlike my childhood, a minister doesn't risk her job if she uses the word "god" in a sermon, or even asks the congregation to pause for a moment of prayer. There is a fresh new energy as we Unitarian Universalists reclaim the words and ideas that have seemed oppressive to us for so long.

But in our enthusiasm, let us not forget who we are and on whose shoulders we stand. If those brave atheists had never taught me that I have a real choice about what and whether I will believe, I could never have walked my own path the way I did. And now my fear is this. I am afraid that this rushing river of liberal theological change will rush our atheists out to sea. I am afraid that in our new atmosphere of tolerance for God talk, we will forget that there are still many in our congregations for whom this language is difficult, even hurtful. I am afraid that our atheists have already begun to leave us, misinterpreting our enthusiasm for a fresh look at spirituality, as an abandonment of our roots. There are atheists in this movement who feel they are losing their church. I spoke with a Unitarian Universalist who said that her church used to be a refuge for her from the incessant god talk of the conservative city in which she lives. She said she used to invite her atheist friends to visit, but she no longer does.

As a born and raised UU, I have always been proud of our diversity. I love that our congregations are filled with UU Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Pagans, atheists and those who just don't know. The principles and purposes of our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations challenge us all to "affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth, and to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." And so I ask us to honor the faith, the integrity of our atheists. We do this not only because they have earned their place among us, but because this wisdom and courage offers a gift to us all, regardless of where each stands on the vast religious continuum. We Unitarian Universalists have built our reputation asking questions others dared not ask. We have built our foundation on a history of openness and tolerance, and have tried to be a sanctuary for all those who share our ethics and principles. Now it is time for us to stand our ground to show faith in this heritage as the future beckons.

Closing Words

No god I praise No god I praise, From birth to death I only praise the suns and winds and babies kissing gentle in my arms- kissing nights. Books and letters I praise and small fires that warm my cheeks and light the page. My hands are strong and always know how things go together. All these I praise.

Cozy rooms in many houses filled with laughter and good talk, these I praise. Fresh baked dripping honey and monumental strength to lift and carry from continent to continent and back again, I do praise. And sky and sea and sand and friends and friends and I praise round stones.

And oh, the magic gardens, burning their bright colors deep into my heart and turning my body into embers that will glow forever. No god I praise. 'Tis living puts me on my knees.

-Mary Ann Masterson UU Fellowship Dallas Texas

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