When I was 15 years old, I considered myself the most open-minded person around. Yes I did. Intelligent, well read, and don’t forget sensitive. I was a figure skater, after all.
Not an opinion shared by my high-school English teacher, however. Mrs. Starkey was short and solid, had a flip in her hair like this, and her dark eyes could bore holes straight through you. She saw a young man who was anxiously tied to his conservative Christian faith—and you know, it wasn’t as if she was coming from a place of Christianity-bashing. She was a faithful Methodist (or Presbyterian) and I think she still is. (If she ends up reading this sermon, be assured she will correct me on all matters of detail, like she did my grammar and spelling and essay construction and on and on and on.)
Mrs. Starkey believed—like we Unitarian Universalists do—that integrity in religion is not so much a matter of “grit-your-teeth-and-believe-it-even-if-you-know-it-ain’t-so-or-aren’t-sure” as it is a matter of having meaningfully engaged one’s beliefs through questions and doubts and sympathetic investigation of alternative points of view and the test of personal experience. Integrity is when your beliefs have substance and staying power and you know it, you’ve worked hard to discern it.
So Mrs. Starkey decided to give me a special reading assignment: something from the pen of that 20th century Existentialist icon, who was also an atheist, Albert Camus. One day, she handed me a book and said, “Read,” and I read the front cover, and the front cover said, The Plague. I read the back cover, and the back cover said something about how the book explored an epidemic that struck the Algerian city of Oran and had devastating consequences, both physical and spiritual. I read this, and I said to myself, “Uh oh.”
Thirty years later, I appreciate this as a brilliant move. (Funny how it can take thirty years or so to appreciate things like this, right?) Fact was, while I was blithely holding fast to my Church of Christ faith that God protects the righteous from harm always—that religious perfectionism in the form of fundamentalism pays—at the same time my family was a plague scene in its own way. Mental illness, neglect, drug abuse, violence, misery. Mrs. Starkey had heard the rumors around town about “Dr. Makar’s family.” And I had actually confided in her, because I loved her and trusted her and I did not have many other adults in my life I could turn to and feel that they would not discount me or consider me crazy. So I think she assigned The Plague to enable me to begin healing the split that was in my life—the split between my thoughts about God and religion and the concrete reality of my days.
Reluctantly, I cracked the book open, and I read passages like this:
“Do you believe in God…?” “No – but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding that original.”
“But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”
“It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words, to silence.”
“Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
Let me ask you: have you ever tried pop rocks? Basically it’s sugar processed with carbon dioxide, so when you let the rocks melt in your mouth, they explode, and the pain and the pleasure are all mixed in together. That’s what those words from The Plague felt like in my mouth when I read them aloud to myself. “The vast indifference of the sky.” POP! “I’ve long ceased finding that original.” POP!
POP! POP! POP!
Despite my good Church of Christ training, I could heartily sympathize. Jesus himself on his cross had said, “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” And that’s what I was hearing in Albert Camus’ book. “The vast indifference of the sky.”
The Plague looks upon our world and wants to say, there is no God—no afterlife—to redeem all this.
Which is not to say that there can be no redemption at all. Just a different kind. Listen to more of what book says:
“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
“After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace. ‘Yes,’ he replied. “The path of sympathy.’”
“…a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”
Let me say as a side note that the knee-jerk discrimination and bigotry that atheists face in this country is astonishing. You don’t believe in God and you are instantly branded as wicked and immoral. You will be considered ineligible for public office, you will be judged a deficient soldier, you will be seen as unsuitable for marriage and child-rearing. Yet just listen to what The Plague says. The way to peace is “the path of sympathy.” “It’s up to us not to join forces with the pestilences.” In the end, what matters above all is love. “A loveless world is a dead world.”
Love is what I longed for then, and I still long for love, and so do we all. Caring. Kindness. Love. Atheism is not the Satanic thing that too many people think it is. Atheists acknowledge the vast indifference of the sky but are neither paralyzed nor perverted by that; they go on to find ways to make this world a better place. That is the meaning of their lives.
Thanks to Mrs. Starkey, reading The Plague started me on the path of healing the split in my life, between belief and experience. In the end, I did not become an absolute atheist (in the sense of rejecting ALL God concepts and ALL affirmations that there’s more to reality than this physical world) but I did become a relative atheist. I eventually realized that my Church of Christ God was a fake and a phony and made no sense in light of plagues of any and all kinds. Today, if you tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I will probably say that I don’t believe in that kind of God either.
I got so much from The Plague. But one thing I did not get—which I want to focus on now—was atheism’s approach to all the “stuff” of religion beyond God-doctrines. I’m talking about the worship services, the music, the buildings, the prayers, the rituals, the feasts, the shrines, the pilgrimages, the communal meals, the art, and on and on. Atheism denies the existence of anything supernatural or otherwordly; but what is its stance on the spiritual tools and practices that the historical religions have passed down through the ages, generation after generation? Are good atheists supposed to reject those too?
Is it true, as comedian Steve Martin says, that “Atheists don’t have no songs?”
It’s an important question for us as Unitarian Universalists because lots of us are atheist or, to use language more common within these walls, humanist. Today’s reading illustrates how it is that, in UU circles, the value of the materials of the world’s religious traditions—or the possibility of their being used in ways that are broader or more inclusive—has been questioned, is in doubt. “To my parents and teachers,” says the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, “the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But,” she goes on to say, “without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences.” Whether atheists don’t have no songs, or whether they do: it’s important.
It’s also important for the millions and millions of atheists beyond these walls. Religion writer Stephen Prothero describes the currently very influential New Atheism of people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as basically saying this: “Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison.” But when we flush away everything that religion brings to the table—which is far more than God doctrines, which also includes all the rituals and practices and community gatherings and art and on and on—what does that leave us? It leaves us with secular educational institutions which, for the most part, focus on teaching job skills but step back from teaching people how to live soulfully and well. It leaves us with a secular calendar stripped of Hanukkah and Christmas and Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Passover and Easter and all the other religious holy days and festivals that bring us back to key images and ideas that keep us human and vital in our relationships and our world. It leaves us with secular museums which often feature self-referential art pieces that are curious and fascinating but don’t necessarily help to deepen our sense of the joy or terror of being human, that don’t help us cope or grow. It leaves us with a secular city that is fragmented and has few gathering places where poets and philosophers and non-traditional spiritual folk and artists and activists and others of similar ilk can organize around shared values and protest what is hurtful in the world and help create a better future. It leaves us with a secular economy that tells us that the person with the most toys wins, that equates value and self-value with things. Flush away everything that comes with the historical religions, and what’s left is grim. Not so much in the culture left to help us do what Albert Camus said and resist joining forces with the pestilences… (I hope you’re feeling me, especially in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, or what the Texas Senate has just done with women’s reproductive rights in that state, and on and on and on).
But Swiss philosopher and atheist Alain de Botton says that we don’t have to accept this forced choice scenario of either swallowing religious doctrines we absolutely don’t believe in or rejecting everything that religions stand for as poisonous. There is a third way. He calls it “Atheism 2.0.” It’s for the person that thinks, “I can’t believe [all that stuff about gods and supernatural spirits and angels and on and on]. I don’t think the doctrines are right. But—and this is a very important but—I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament.” Atheism 2.0 is about taking the best out of the world’s religions and leaving the useless stuff behind. “The secular world,” he says, “is full of holes … and a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well.” “We have,” he argues, “invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities of harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our own decay and demise. God may be dead,” he says, “but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.”
This last quote comes from his book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. “A wonderfully dangerous and subversive book,” says the San Francisco Chronicle. “Quirky, often hilarious,” says the Washington Post. “Sophisticated and perceptive. One of the very best books I’ve ever read to help me see into the depths and complexities of religion. I’m particularly pleased that it’s taken an atheist to help me, someone who believes that God is NOT dead, to deepen my appreciation for what I love and for what I do as a job.” Guess what newspaper that last review came from? The Anthony Makar Journal-Constitution-Beacon-Herald-Trumpet-Bugle-Gazeteer.
It’s just a great book. The Mrs. Starkey in me wants to assign it to you…
Here’s a taste of his perceptiveness. I’m quoting from the TED talk he gave on Atheism 2.0:
Another point about education: we tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, “Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it.” That’s what all religions tell us: “Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day.” Otherwise our minds are like sieves. So religions are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again and again. We associate repetition with boredom. “Give us the new,” we’re always saying. “The new is better than the old.” If I said to you, “Okay, we’re not going to have new TED. We’re just going to run through all the old ones and watch them five times because they’re so true. We’re going to watch Elizabeth Gilbert five times because what she says is so clever,” you’d feel cheated. Not so if you’re adopting a religious mindset.
The other things that religions do is to arrange time. All the major religions give us calendars. What is a calendar? A calendar is a way of making sure that across the year you will bump into certain very important ideas. In the Catholic chronology, Catholic calendar, at the end of March you will think about St. Jerome and his qualities of humility and goodness and his generosity to the poor. You won’t do that by accident; you will do that because you are guided to do that. Now we don’t think that way. In the secular world we think, “If an idea is important, I’ll bump into it. I’ll just come across it.” Nonsense, says the religious world view. Religious view says we need calendars, we need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters. This comes across also in the way in which religions set up rituals around important feelings.
That’s Alain de Botton. Just a small sampling of how religion, far from being stupid and poisonous, has actually a great deal to teach even those who can’t stomach the theological doctrines.
Atheism 2.0. It says that absolutely, atheists don’t NOT have no songs. They have songs, and the songs are ancient, they are tried and true, they come from the parts of the world’s religions that can still speak to us today. “To think,” says the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, “that we must dispense with all the traditional language, symbols, and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest … is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are; that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us.”
That’s why we gather together every Sunday and “worship.” That’s why we sing “hymns.” That’s why we “pray,” why we “meditate,” why we do all that we do. Of course, we are a diverse community embracing people who come down on all sides of the God issue, so our goal is to worship and hymn-sing and pray and meditate and do everything else in ways that are as open and inclusive as possible. For atheists and for all. Are we crazy? Maybe. But we are passionately caught up by the vision that ALL people want to live more richly, forgive more deeply, find more meaning, love more fully. ALL people, not just some. Let’s not divide up our families and our world on the basis of belief. We just don’t have to think alike to worship alike, to hymn sing alike, to pray alike, to meditate alike. We just don’t.
That’s about what happens within these walls. As for what’s going on beyond: I want to leave you with news of two developments which seem to suggest that Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0 vision is alive and growing.
News of the first comes from the publication, in 2011, of The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. It includes, says the New York Times, “quotations from Aristotle, Darwin, Swift, Voltaire and hundreds more pre-Christian, anti-Christian or indifferent-to-Christian thinkers, assembled into an alternative genealogy of nature, human origins and ethics. Here are history and wisdom, without the divine attribution.” The article goes on to say, “Is this book an odd joke? A parody of the Bible? Hardly, says the English philosopher A. C. Grayling, who spent 30 years compiling ‘The Good Book.’ Rather, it is a kind of tribute to the Hebrew Bible’s editors, who took the legends of their Jewish forebears and wove them into one compelling, if digressive, narrative.”
As for news of the second development: a 2013 New York Times article entitled, “In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home.” “BATON ROUGE, La. — It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon. There was just no mention of God. Billed as Louisiana’s first atheist service and titled “Joie de Vivre: To Delight in Being Alive,” it was presided over by Jerry DeWitt, a small, charismatic man dressed all in black with slick, shiny hair.” The article goes on to say, Mr. DeWitt counts himself among the hard-line atheists, but he believes that something may be lost when someone leaves the church — not just the parts about God, but also a sense of community and a connection to emotion. “There are many people that even though they come to this realization, they miss the way the church works in a way that very few other communities can duplicate,” he said in a phone interview. “The secular can learn that just because we value critical thinking and the scientific method, that doesn’t mean we suddenly become disembodied and we can no longer benefit from our emotional lives.”
And there they are, the two developments. Who knows what other developments are going on out there. All I know is that Atheism 2.0 is alive and kicking. God may come and God may go. But religion—our need for it, its forms and fashions, its communities and festivals and pilgrimages and calendars and on and on—remains.
Can I get a religious, filled-with-emotion, even-if-you-value-critical-thinking-and-the-scientific-method, even-if-you-don’t-believe-in-God, Amen?
Excerpt from “Human Reverence” by Rev. Kendyl Gibbons.