Reading from When Atheism Becomes Religion by Chris Hedges
In her novel The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather writes that the Native Americans of the Southwest made pottery to house water once they had housed themselves. All their customs and ceremonies and their religion went back to water, which [is] one of the essential elements of life…[in her novel, the story] continues: “When Thea took her bath at the bottom of the canyon, in the sunny pool behind the screen of cottonwoods, she sometimes felt as if the water must have sovereign qualities, from having been the object of so much service and desire. That stream was the only living thing left of the drama that had been played out in the canyon centuries ago. In the rapid, restless heart of it, flowing swifter than the rest, there was a continuity of life that reached back into the old time. The glittering thread of current had a kind of lightly worn, loosely knit personality, graceful and laughing. Thea’s bath came to have a ceremonial gravity. The atmosphere of the canyon was ritualistic.
One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mold in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?”
This isn’t going to be a theological conversation about the differences between atheism, agnosticism, and theism, or how belief in a deity, a god, goddess, or supernatural being, is irrational to an atheist. What I want to explore are the myths about atheists and the potential richness of atheism.
This is British comedian Ricky Gervais. He is an atheist. The quote reads: “It is a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for. We have everything to live for.” There are many such myths in our culture about atheism. Would you agree that atheists have nothing to live for? Of course not. So when Ricky says here that atheists have everything to live for, what does that mean?
I can’t say that I have ever told someone that I am an atheist. I can say that there was a time in my life when I turned away from a belief in any kind of god, particularly the god of the Christian religion. This change had to do with feeling that the Catholic religion no longer spoke to me, didn’t make sense to me, and I could no longer, due to rational consideration of and my heartfelt understanding of how the world worked, believe in a religion, perhaps any religion.
What I could count on was the feeling of connection that I had with people in my life. They loved me and I loved them. We were and are there for one another. We support one another. We share the complexity of our lives with one another. I have, over the years, added to the group of people I consider intimate friends; people whose love and trust I can count on and turn to in difficult times. And people with whom I can share the many profound experiences that life offers me.
One experience, perhaps the most profound in my life, one that still stays with me at a very deep place and is a foundation for meaning and purpose in my life, was the birth of my first son. I was 29 years old. Martha and I had decided that we were finally ready to bring children into our lives. For many years we didn’t think we were ready because we had both been brought in homes that had some serious dysfunction, and we wondered what kind of parent we would be. But, finally we were felt we were ready. Martha got pregnant and we were very excited. We told everyone. We started looking for strollers and car seats and such. Then Martha had a miscarriage. The doctors told us this was normal. We were very sad and a little disoriented, not sure how to proceed or what to tell our family and friends. Then Martha got pregnant again. And again she had a miscarriage. We were devastated. The doctors started talking about waiting, and recommended genetic testing, which we did. The doctors expressed some mild concern about our ability to have children. And we probably should have been more careful, hearing all this, but we weren’t. And Martha got pregnant again before the results of our genetic testing came back. This time we didn’t want to tell anyone; heck we were even hesitant to tell the doctor. When Martha did go see a doctor, a test was administered to check the baby’s genetics. We were scared to death when the result returned positive for possible genetic defects. Our doctor reassured us that the tests had a high false-positive occurrence, and re-sent the sample for additional lab work. Martha and I experienced several anxious, stressful weeks before receiving the news that our baby was genetically okay. And yet we still waited until after the first trimester to tell anyone besides the doctor. When we told everyone, it was with joy in our hearts that we could barely hold in our chests.
I was in the surgical room when Martha had an emergency C-section. She was awake to see the birth of our first child. And she was very clear that I couldn’t take a video of the birth. There was blood as they cut into Martha abdomen, but there was also a big 10 and a half pound baby. I took Aaron, our son, over for Martha to see. I watched as he made his first sound, as the doctor cut the cord, as the nurses washed him, I was there and I wouldn’t have been anywhere else in the world at that moment. Being there for the birth changed me in more ways than I can adequately verbalize. I felt I had everything to live for, perhaps for the first time in my life. And at that time of my life, I was, for all practical purposes, an atheist.
This is American author, journalist, motivational speaker, and long-distance swimmer, Diana Nyad. She is an atheist who is in awe of people, the beauty that surrounds her, and life itself. Another common myth is that atheists must have a pretty boring life because they don’t experience life with the same depth of wonder and appreciation for life that people who have faith do.
Atheist Tamim Ansary wrote (in book faith: noun \’faith’\ essays from believers, agnostics and atheists):
“Many years ago, my family and I want camping on Mount Lassen, California. My daughters were four and ten years old at the time…Next to our campground was a large pond encircled by a path, and one afternoon we decided to take a walk before dinner. Along the way, we stopped at a small cove to enjoy the view. When we were ready to move on, my four year old, Elina, resisted. Stoutly. She wanted to play some more right there.
I felt some impatience. I had entered upon this walk with sense of purpose, a goal (to get back to where we started). But oh well. I told Debby and Jessamyn to keep going; I’d stay with Elina and we’d catch up.
Elina went on squishing mud under her toes, and I sat peacefully by the water, and gradually, my impatience subsided. I relaxed about my goal. I allowed myself to just appreciate. I was grateful to Elina for making me linger. But then, at last I had seen everything there was to see here and had done all the appreciating a man can do in one spot. Time to go.
Unbelievably, Elina was not ready. She pleaded with me to linger longer. I sighed and said, “Okay, a little longer.” She went back to the mud and I went back to the view. I thought I had exhausted what there was to see, but it turned out there was so much more—subtleties I had not noticed before: the way ripples of light caught the tips of the waves to form a single shimmering pattern…the composition formed by snow-capped [mountains] looming above the trees…and the smell of the air, a moisture in which snow and pollen were mingled…Wow, I would never have experienced all this had I hurried on. But okay, now we were done. Now we really used up this spot…We had to get dinner started. I said, “Come on, Elina. Let’s go.”
“Noooo!” she howled, “Not yet, Daddy!” This time, her resistance was downright exasperating, and I was going to put my foot down, and yet…for some reason…I succumbed to her pleading once again. Just a few more minutes, I thought. But this time, when I sat back down, it was as if I had fallen though some screen and suddenly there were layers upon layers here—such depth, so much going on. In the air between [the mountains] and me hovered a shape-shifting cloud of gnats. Down at the water’s edge, little water bugs with paddle-like legs were skimming the surface, busy with their tiny lives. From the branch of a bush hanging over them, a spider was constructing its web. A fish jumped in the water. The light on [the mountains] had changed because the sun was moving. A breeze across the waves ruffled those ripples of light. The color of the water had changed and was still changing because time was passing, night was falling, and now the gnats were dispersing… How could I imagine I had exhausted this place—or any place? Every place is inexhaustible. And that is when something popped. Until that moment, I had been living in a stream of events that constituted my life…But this spot had an ongoing life of its own. And just as this spot was an event in my life, I was an event in its life…And what was true of this spot was true of every spot: the entire, everlasting everything was going on right now and would go on going on. At some point in the future, I would stop existing—but not the universe. And to the extent that I was part of it all, I would not be [entirely] gone either.”
There are many preconceived opinions that people in our culture have about atheists. Here is some: that atheists are freethinkers, secular humanists, naturalists, infidels, rationalist, apostates, skeptics, heretics, materialists, bright, non-theists, agnostics, nonbelievers. Some of these qualities many be true of some atheists and not others. And there are other generalizations, based on lack of information or limited experience, that many people in our culture hold about atheists: atheists hate religion; atheists believe in nothing; atheists have just replaced religion with science; atheists are just atheists until their life is threatened; atheism is a white male thing; atheists don’t have a moral code; atheists are hedonists who don’t understand the meaning of love; atheists’ lives lack meaning; atheists are angry, aggressive, defensive, intolerant of others; and atheists believe that everything in the universe arose by chance. There are many articles out there about these generalizations, or myths as the literature calls them, and I would encourage you to read some of them. As I listed these generalizations or myths, what did you think and feel? Do you reject them all? Do you wonder if some of them have a kernel of truth?
I quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson from a video I watched in our call to worship: “The moment someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all of the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you. And when you want to have a conversation, they will assert they know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. That’s not the way to have conversation. I’m sorry, it’s not. I’d rather we explore each other’s ideas in real time, rather than assign a label to it, and assert you know what is going to happen next.” Some atheists hold deGrasse up as one of their own, but he refuses to accept the label of atheist. If pressed he identifies himself as an agnostic. He doesn’t want the prejudices that the label atheist incurs; he doesn’t want people to think they know all about him just by that association. And I would agree with him.
I have met many atheists in my time as a Unitarian Universalist. None of them were exactly the same. Big surprise right. But it is easy to accept a generalization/myth that you have heard about atheists if one person embodies that generalization/myth. Take the myth that atheists are angry and defensive, particularly when talking about religion. Well, I have certainly met a few atheists who were are like that. But I have met many more who were compassionate and accepting of other faiths. There was a discussion about Islam and religion a few weeks ago at a gathering of the Humanists of Western Suburban Chicago here at this church. Some of you attended. One of the speakers was Jason Heap, the national coordinator for the United Coalition of Reason. He has applied to be an atheist chaplain in the armed services. He talked about how he felt honored to be invited to the religious rituals and ceremonies of people of faith, and how he understood the meaning and importance of these rituals to these people. I was able to spend time with him before the presentation and listened closely as he talked during the presentation. Not once did I hear him angry or defensive, not once did I hear him belittle, criticize, or discount any religion or religious tradition, even though he was frustrated by the difficulties he was having becoming an atheist chaplain, and dismayed that some evangelical ministers were lobbying against him. However, he didn’t belittle the faith of these evangelicals; he simply expressed frustration about how they were impeding him from becoming a chaplain. I heard him that night talk about his own beliefs with authenticity, focusing on what was important to him about his beliefs. He talked with passion about the need for an atheist chaplain; a person willing to provide spiritual and emotional support to our armed service members, regardless of whether they were atheist, agnostic, unsure of their beliefs, or people of faith, regardless of their religious tradition.
All labels, in the end, tend to one-dimensionalize that which is labeled. “Christian”—boom, put that in a box and on the shelf. “Muslim”—okay that is in a box and up on the shelf. “Atheist”---zip! We put that in box and shoved it on the shelf with all the other boxes. We don’t have to look inside any of the boxes again to know what is inside them, because we’ve labeled them so we know at a glance. How often do we do that? How often has each of us done that today? Atheists choose a way of looking at people, life, and the world that can be rich and full of meaning. A path just as rich as any other belief system or religion or spirituality. Each of us has choices in how we live in the world, how we interact with others, how deeply we choose to go into an experience. We can choose a prickly path that reacts against those different from ourselves or a peaceful path that enriches our lives when we meet someone different from ourselves. We all have choices. I invite us to put aside our pre-conceived notions of others and to resist the urge to settle for the surface-only understanding that labelling offers. Listen to each person we encounter—listen to them as they talk about what they believe, what they value, what enriches their life, what has transformed them, what passions call to their hearts. Take that labeled box off the shelf, open it up, and explore the treasures inside. We have so much to learn if we choose this way of being with one another.
Atheism affirms rationalism, nontheism, science, and skepticism. But it is not limited to these; as with any other belief, atheism can invite a person into awe and wonder, meaning and truth, purpose and passion. Like the Native American women who molded a pot to hold their water and their mythology. Let us keep in mind that each time we create a pot, a label, the water it holds is not static. The pot is static, a moment in time, a set experience; the water keeps flowing, changing, it never stops. Life hurries past us and runs away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose. May we embrace life and each other, understanding that none of us is static, we are all flowing, changing, strong and too sweet to lose.