Spirituality of Atheism

William Zellner is a sociology professor at East Central University in Oklahoma, and his story began in the fall of 1991, when a local newspaper asked students, “Who is the worst professor on campus?” One girl, a member of a fundamentalist Christian church, answered, “Dr. Zellner. I don’t take his classes because he’s an atheist.” Now when Dr. Zellner found out, he merely thought, Okay, don’t take my classes. Nothing to worry about. I’ve never a problem filling classrooms. But then horrible things started to happen. He started receiving anonymous notes from students under his door, damning him to hell. A fellow professor sent him a seven page letter, accusing him of being in league with Satan. Threatening phone calls were made to his home, insisting that he and his family get out of town. One church made up campaign-style buttons which read “I am praying for Dr. Zellner,” and they sold for a dollar each. His car was vandalized to the tune of $543. Worst of all, his daughter, six years old at the time, lost playmates. And his nine-year-old son was physically attacked during a little-league baseball game, all because his Dad was an atheist.

That’s Dr. Zellner’s story. Story of shameful prejudice and bigotry. How many of you have friends to which this sort thing has actually happened? Or it’s happened to you?

What we have in America is a knee-jerk dislike of atheists. We Unitarian Universalists know this much to our dismay and regret. A recent Washington Post article spells out the details: “Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked, and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently ‘spiritual’ in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists.” And on and on.

No wonder there are some atheists who are angry, who fight back in “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” fashion—“end of faith” atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who espouse rigid, rampant intolerance against anything that’s NOT atheism, whose “one way, one truth, one life” mentality is just as narrow and fundamentalist as the bigots who attacked Dr. Zellner, except they’re going in the exact opposite direction. And many fellow atheists vehemently oppose this, including the great Carl Sagan. He writes, “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement,” he says, “is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This,” says Carl Sagan, “is nonconstructive.”

Definitely it’s nonconstructive for us in this congregation; in fact it blatantly contradicts our purpose as Unitarian Universalists, which is to create beloved community in which people don’t have to be alike or think alike to come alive. That’s a new way in this world full of polarizations of one kind or another—“one way, one truth, one life” ideologies  constantly clashing, giving each other hell. But not here. We’re building a new way. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!”

The world needs more of it. Especially our atheist brothers and sisters. For in this world, at least in the American world, there are as many as 60 million people who are nonbelievers. That’s the finding from one recent survey. A fifth of the population! And they, like everyone else, are just trying to get an honest handle on life, trying to come alive in a way that has integrity for them. Which is so hard to do in the face of widespread bigotry and prejudice, or when your profoundest sense of life—that there is no God who’s gonna take care of us, so we need to take care of each other—is co-opted and made into a rationale for yet more religious warfare.

What I want to accomplish today is to push aside the prejudice and push aside the reverse fundamentalism and get to a place that is far more quiet, far more profound—the heart and spirituality of atheism (or “humanism,” but I stick with the word atheism because that’s the word best understood outside these walls). And to go even one step further—to show that the atheist form of spirituality is one we can all learn from, no matter where we happen to stand on God and the supernatural.

Are you ready?

Here we go!

First thing to look at is language. “Spirituality.” Gotta come clean right off the bat about how that’s a word many atheists might struggle with. Say the word, and what springs instantly to mind are beings and forces from other mysterious realms: gods, spirits, angels, cherubs, angry father gods, suffocating mother gods, ascended masters, and on and on, perhaps even a flying spaghetti monster or two…. So when I say, “spirituality of atheism,” some of you out there might be sitting back going, “Yes, Rev. David, do tell….” “Really want to hear THIS.”

But listen to what atheist philosopher Robert Solomon, in his wonderful book “Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life,” does with that word. Clear away all the supernaturalistic connotations, and look at what’s left. “Team spirit” or “spirit of the times,” for one thing, suggesting that spirituality is inherently social, the undeniable yearning in us for a sense of connection with others and with the larger world. Then there’s “spirits,” as in high-alcoholic beverages—the image here is drinking in life to the full, reveling in it, being set free from whatever inhibitions prevent us from joining in. Spirituality is about feeling connected to something larger than one’s ego—feeling opened up, rooted in richness, being set free, enjoying life to the full. We feel this—we yearn for this—whether or not we’ve ever had a sense that there’s a Higher Power, a directing uber-force to the universe, or invisible presences that companion us.

Even if God goes, this does not mean that spirituality goes.

Perhaps that’s why, historically, we encounter full-blown religions that espouse versions of atheism. Therevada Buddhism is one of them. Here’s a story from that tradition to consider: “One day a man named Malunkyaputta questioned the Buddha about the need to have certain answers to the big religious questions of life. Shouldn’t ultimate happiness depend upon having certain answers to important questions like, Does God exist? Or, Do we survive bodily death? In response, all the Buddha said was this: “It is as if … a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinsfolk, were to procure for him a physician … and the sick man were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned the name of the man who wounded me.’ Or again if he were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out of me until I have learned whether the man who wounded me was tall, or short, or of middle height.’” That’s what the Buddha said. Life is urgent, and the spiritual quest for healing and wholeness doesn’t have to be held hostage to beliefs. For 2500 years, Therevadan Buddhism has produced communities of spiritual seekers coming alive to love and compassion, and belief in God has never played a part in that.

This, I think, is the first gift to all of us out of the spirituality of atheism: a broader definition of spirituality that can create common ground between what appear to be insurmountable differences. Theists, on the one hand, and atheists and agnostics and humanists on the other, can all be growing into a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, and in that sense, they are equally spiritual, despite the different ways they might go about it. What divides them, in fact, is far less than what divides the person who seeks more love and justice in life from the person who is apathetic, who is self-centered, who just doesn’t care. Seen from this perspective, theists and atheists are on the same side, they are on the same team. But it’s atheism that helps us to this insight.

Atheism has things to teach everyone. It is a spiritual way of coming alive.

But now let’s get deeper into this “way.” Beyond a rejection of God and the supernatural, beyond a broader definition of spirituality, what does atheism affirm in a positive sense?

For one thing: the free-mind principle. Reason. It’s about counteracting ignorance and superstition keeping people in bondage in one form or fashion. From the free-mind principle so much follows: the separation of church and state; the advance of science; the support and preservation of a free marketplace of ideas; the nurture of a quality educational system that teaches people of all ages how to think critically and well—to tell the difference between truth and “truthiness.”

That’s one thing atheism positively affirms, and here’s another: reverence. Philosopher Paul Woodruff describes reverence as a basic human capacity (found in all cultures and all times) to appreciate and be in awe of things larger than oneself, like one’s family and community, or ideals like justice and mutual respect. Which means that reverence is also a capacity for feeling shame, when arrogance and pride have caused us to think that we are the center of the universe, or that other people are accountable to ideals like justice and mutual respect, but not me! And when someone else comes across all high and mighty like this, all puffed-up? Reverence can express itself in the form of irony and humor. It can lead us to mock pretentiousness, like Voltaire did, or Stephen Colbert does in our day (thank God!) 😉

Atheism affirms reverence. It invites awe at the greatness of the world in which we live. It’s our responsive reading from earlier:

Ponder this thing in your heart,
life up from sea,
Eyes to behold, throats to sing,
mates to love

Life from the sea, warmed by
sun, washed by rain,
life from within, giving birth,
rose to love.

What a mystery we live within! And how awe-inspiring to think that, through hundreds of millions of years, the world went on unheard, unseen, silently eating, giving birth, dying, until human consciousness was born, and now, we are the ones, we are the ones who give voice to all this, we are the precious eyes and ears, we are the witnesses!

Don’t tell me that “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” Don’t tell me that! (I say this even though I’m a theist, I believe in reincarnation, I believe all that stuff! But atheism teaches me a better attitude towards the here and now.) Just don’t tell me “this world is not my home.” The thought lacks reverence!

And now the third of atheism’s affirmations: ethics. “My fate and your fate,” says Unitarian Universalist atheist Mark Hertzog, “are to a great extent bound together. It may be enlightened self-interest after all—the next person in trouble could be me—but I think it is more than that. As an atheist who believes there is no god who is going to take care of us, I am far more conscious of our need to take care of each other and this fragile environment in which we make our home—and far more conscious that, if I don’t do something that something is not going to be done.” I mean, you listen to a voice like this, and set it side by side with the widespread stereotype that atheists are somehow immoral, and it makes your head explode. Fact is, atheists tend to be more ethical than their God-professing counterparts. If you want find the states with the highest murder rates, for example, just look at church attendance. The higher they are, the more murders.

(ok waitaminute… Now I’m suddenly realizing that what I just said might take us down a rabbit hole…. I’m not saying stop coming to church, OK?)

But you get my point. Ethics—making the world a better place—is a burning passion for atheism. Consider all our human potentials for love, for reason, for compassion and ethics, for creativity and the appreciation of beauty, for self-transcendence and service: but how are they going to become real if a person has no home to sleep in, no food to eat, no family situation that is secure? How is it going to happen when poverty and racism cripple people’s freedom—when consumerism and affluenza wither the soul? How’s it going to happen?

That’s why an atheist’s true prayer is this-worldly service. Why, for example, the atheist might be driven crazy by the remarkable indifference of so-called right-to-lifers to family services, educational facilities, and child welfare laws—to all that would ensure the health and well-being of children in THIS world. They do everything to prevent abortions from taking place, but when the new life is born, that’s it. Hands off. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” But that’s not reverential, to the atheist. It’s not ethical.

There’s a fourthy thing that atheism affirms—we can’t finish without acknowledging it: community. Theologian Anthony Pinn puts it this way, “There is nothing behind the symbol God. In its place, I affirm the idea of community. It is in community that we are encouraged to develop our full human potential and overcome oppression.” I am because WE are. You and I get to be here, atheists and theists and all sorts of whats-its in-between, because WE are. Community. It’s where we feel the music of life most intensely, and we dance. We are carried out of ourselves, connected to something larger. If the Spirit of Life is truly anywhere, it is in our relationships, in our friendships, in our loves.

This world IS our home, says atheism. We aren’t just passin’ through. This is IT! So carpe diem—seize the day! Open ourselves to every moment with reverence, because we trust that every stage of life has its unique inherent worth and dignity, and we can expect something meaningful to come our way even if it’s full of pain and sorrow, even if it spells our end. Life is like wine, so drink it in deeply. Life is like a dance, so let the music move you, let it harmonize you to the movements of another, get lost in the revel.

[T]he dancers go round (says a poem by William Carlos Williams)

they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance…

That’s what atheism can teach all of us: rollicking passion for this world (whether or not there’s another), unstinting intensity for this world, love of this world, courage for THIS world, THIS precious life.