And G-d Spoke Through the Atheist (Part 1)

Despite my commitment to doing as little as possible at the Wild Goose Festival, I did find myself at two actual intellectual talks, both of which were extremely excellent and deserve their own blog posts. The first one that I’ll write about (though it was nearly the last thing I attended) was Chris Stedman’s talk, “Faitheist,” which is also the name of his forthcoming book. Stedman is an atheist who works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard as an interfaith resource for students who are seeking spiritual connection. He is also an outspoken activist who believes that it is important for atheists to be involved in interfaith work, and for interfaith and religious groups to actively cultivate relationships with atheists. His talk was awesome. There should be more non-combative atheists and agnostics talking at Christian events – they ask a lot of the right questions. Even when they might not intend to (although he probably did – he’s pretty sharp).

There were two questions that I took out of Stedman’s talk, both of which were only mentioned in passing, that I think every person should ask themselves, regardless of their belief system. The first one was a question that someone asked Stedman on his journey. He was in his Christian phase, studying religion at college, and someone asked him, “Why are you really a Christian? What motives brought you into it?”

This is a fundamental question. Everyone should ask it. This question isn’t academic – the answer isn’t “Because it says in John 3:16 that G-d so loved the world….” (if you’re a Christian), or “Because science tells us that life evolved on earth from proteins animated in the such and such epoch…..” (if you’re that kind of atheist), or any variation of “Because it’s the RIGHT belief, and I know because……”

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you actually have THE “right” belief, perspective, or idea, out of the probably millions of different forms of belief, perspective, and ideas, on the earth. Even if you possess the singular truth of all human existence, I hate to break it to you, but you probably didn’t get there just by being your awesome, perfectly perceptive self. Probably your parents handed it to you. Or a favorite professor. Or author. Or your friends. Or perhaps direct revelation. I’m not judging, I’m just saying you probably didn’t get to your beliefs in a vacuum of influence. And just because you were influenced, probably deeply, by outside forces, also doesn’t make your belief wrong. It’s not that you should have no influences, or that they will always lead you astray, but that asking yourself a good, honest “How did I arrive here?” can be extremely healthy spiritually.

For example, when Stedman asked himself this question, and I mean really really asked it honestly, he discovered that he’d become a Christian because he felt a deep need for an ethically grounded community. But he found that the whole Invisible Being idea really didn’t work for him at a core level; he was just going along with it so that he could be in the community. This realization was a water-shed for him, and he started to step out of what was, for him, a false religion. So claiming his atheism, which he sort of had before anyway, just not outwardly or consciously, was a step towards honesty, integrity, and wholeness for him. I’m totally paraphrasing, but I hope I did some justice to his story.

I actually went through a similar process in reverse. I spent ten years as a Dawkins-style atheist, and when, after 10 years, I finally took a good long look at where I was, I realized that I was mostly an atheist because I wanted my Dad (who was an outspoken atheist) to like me more. It’s such a cliche, it’s embarrassing, but there it is. And I had built up all the intellectual props around my atheism to hide the truth from myself. When I actually broke it open, I realized that atheism had actually made my life smaller – every choice I made was wrapped in the fear of my dad not liking me. And I found that empirical explanations for life didn’t satisfy my need to understand my experiences. This is not true for all people, but it was true for me. I totally believe in a world-behind-the-world; I did as a child, and I do now. For me, the Christ story gives the most satisfying explanation of my experiences with the Divine, and the most beautiful vision for what a human life can be. It’s true that I enjoy Christian community (probably more than half the time), but given some of my deep-rooted issues with the church as a whole, I don’t believe that the whole reason I’m in Christianity is for my family or friends. The vast majority of my closest friends and family aren’t Christian anyway, so if I ever decide to leave the church, I’m not going to be suffering from lack of community as much as some might. So when I ask myself, “Why do I identify as a Christian?,” I find myself on pretty solid ground. For now. I don’t see myself leaving soon.

But what if, when someone asks himself why he really sees things the way he does, he discovers that the answer is “Because my parents told me it was the only way and I don’t want to disappoint them.” Or “Because all my friends are doing it and I don’t want to lose my community.” Or “Because this religious world is the only thing I’ve ever known, and I’ve never questioned it.” Or “Because I’m afraid that if I don’t believe, I’ll go to hell,” or “Because I need to prove that I’m smart/worthy, and this stance is the best one to argue,” or “Because I feel great guilt about something I did, and believing this allows me to do a kind of penance and feel better.”

I’ve known people who believed doctrines, Christian and non-Christian, for each of these reasons. I myself have believed doctrines for some of these reasons. But could we call any of those a sincere expression of belief? Notice that they are all a little mercenary in nature – “I believe because I’m getting something out of it.” Or, stated negatively, “I believe this because I’m afraid of what I’ll lose if I don’t believe it.” It’s not quite….honest, is it? There’s a little bit of manipulation there – I believe this so I can have this, or feel safe in this way, or belong to this group, or whatever. That’s quite a bit different than “I believe this because I almost can’t help but believe it – all my experiences, thoughts, and perceptions add up to this.”

It’s the difference between believing and just fronting.

Discovering that I’ve been fronting about some particular belief or doctrine is never my first choice for how to spend an evening, but the question “Why do you believe?” is worthy to be asked.

I’m not accusing anyone of harboring false beliefs. Very often when I ask myself why I believe something, I come up with very good reasons for where I’m at, and see no reason to move on from a particular idea. Just because I ask myself the question doesn’t mean I’m going to find something out of kilter. It is also entirely possible that me and Stedman and maybe like one other person are the ONLY people in the history of thought to have professed a belief for the wrong reasons. So I’m not saying you have false beliefs. I’m just saying that asking the question can yield some healthy and interesting results.

I’m also not asking anyone to throw out their whole religion or philosophy or belief system. I am still holding strong to a belief in the risen Christ, but I have let go of some of the more tangential beliefs that I thought had to go with that. When I really looked at them, I only believed them because I was afraid G-d was going to punish me if I didn’t. They didn’t actually match up with my experience, my conscience, or even, in some instances, my intellect. And let me tell you – if, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really believe, Jesus already knows. So does the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And Cheesus, for that matter. For real. And He hasn’t punished you yet, so relax. Be not afraid. There is enough space here for questioning and doubts. You are where you are for a reason, and that alone deserves respect and dignity. Your journey is sacred. Asking “Why do I believe?” can sometimes open up the next step on the path.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “And G-d Spoke Through the Atheist (Part 1)

  1. Shanella

    Your post reminds me of the verse in Phil 2 that says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” which Paul writes as soon as he’s done commenting on just how awesome Jesus’ sacrifice was.

    I have so many thoughts on this topic … but, I’ll try to keep my comment short. I think that asking “Why do I believe what I believe” is a great question, but, I also believe that, it’s important to surround myself with like-minded people who will help me in my faith. “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

    As a person who has grown up in a Christian home under the watch of a pastor and his wife, it’s easy to assume that I became a Christian just because it was the thing to do. In the beginning that was how things were, but once my dad pulled me aside and told me that, going up to the alter every time isn’t what saves me, then he explained what it means to accept Christ and I sat on the stairs of our house and thought about it, and then decided to try it. I have never had a story where I’ve felt a 180 change (I’ve always been somewhat good), but I’ve always felt and seen God’s power in my life, so I cannot doubt it, it’s the reason I believe.

    There are many times when doubt tries to creep in and overshadow my belief, but it’s in those times that I remember the specific moments that I felt God in my life, not just a feeling, but have actually experienced his grace. I try to write them down so that I never forget them, so that I can use them whenever doubts try to creep in. I do this because Hebrews also has this lovely little passage, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” and I don’t want to be in the camp that has experienced His grace and mercy and have turned away.

    So … I encourage you in always questioning why you believe what you believe, but I also encourage you to keep those “real experiences” close, as a reminder of why you believe what you believe.

    So much for being short!

    • Yes, both the presence of encouraging and edifying individuals along the way, and a personal commitment to remembering those sacred moments when G-d REALLY touches us are very important. Actually, the encouragement that I most often need from Christian community is a reminder about *how* to respond to G-d rather than “whether I believe.”Like it says in the verse you quoted above – “sinful, unbelieving HEART,” rather than mind. I especially forget about thankfulness far too easily. With regard to thankfulness, it seems my most frequent prayer for the last month has been “I believe – help my unbelief!” Personally, I have actually found my phases of serious doubt to be extremely helpful, if extremely uncomfortable, parts of the journey. They spark me to search more deeply, and re-examine my assumptions about things. I have always (so far) come to the other side of them with a more expansive view of and greater awe for G-d, a deeper sense of faith, a greater sense of trust in the messy side of spiritual processes, and a greater hope in G-d’s ability to work all situations for good. I’m going to stop now while this comment is still “medium” length 🙂

  2. I am glad to know you, Meghan. I so appreciate your honesty and integrity, and it warms me to honor your faith. You are willing to risk heresy in your search for love and truth in that faith, a risk that requires much courage and that deserves much respect.

    • Aw, thanks Mindy. As I’ve said before, though maybe not to you, I’ve already been a heretic twice, so the novelty is wearing off 😉 It’s still intimidating from a social point of view, but I’m less and less afraid of angering G-d, because S/He was with me through the first two, and I feel like all the questioning I do now is small potatoes in comparison.

  3. PS — I look forward to Part 2! 🙂

  4. Alan

    Thanks for this honesty! I love it. I’m reminded of a journey I took withhat friend that was exploring faith. We did it by exploring Darwinism and the intelligent design movement. I would often say to him (and others) that it was ok to doubt and to challenge and to critique and to explore. Because if my God is who He say He is, then He is still that when confronted with all of it. He’s got nothing to hide and isn’t afraid of the most brilliant thinking. Since He is God after all. And He’ll be that with all the cards showing. My God and my belief is too small if I would be afraid to face anything to the contrary.

    But I also do agree. On a personal level, remembering and a faith community that helps to remind does support me through tougher times.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Meghan. I have also been on a faith journey of pulling out the rug from under my feet to see what exactly lies underneath. It’s really, really scary sometimes. But I refuse to let “just because” be the reason for my beliefs. I have to believe that if God is who he says he is, no matter how deep I dig or how far I go, he will be there on the other side.

    On a different note, I interacted w/ Chris Stedman a few times on Twitter when I used to follow him. He was a great resource as I was learning about secular humanism and interfaith issues. One time when he was in town, we almost went to an exhibit together! haha – but I couldn’t go because I was working. 😛 That’s really cool that he was at the festival. 🙂

  6. I’m not blowing my own trumpet here, but it occurs to me that my best answer to “Why do you believe such-and-such?” was “I don’t know; honestly, I don’t know, and I’m glad I don’t know, but it just sings to me, and I can’t help it.” It was probably my most honest answer ever.

    An atheist friend once asked me this: “I don’t get it; why do you, of all people, need to believe in an old man in the sky?” I answered: “You have no idea how many times I have asked myself the same question. I don’t think it’s anything to do with my needing to believe in him. In fact I have often wished he would bloody well leave me alone. But he won’t.”

    At the end of the day the actual issue of the nature of human consciousness is endlessly fascinating, and it is a complex and beautiful territory which all people of faith, people of religion, agnostics, and atheists would do well to explore as fully as they can. Each would find that he or she can be sure of very little, either by faith or by science. It’s a very humbling experience.

    • “It just sings to me.” What a perfect expression. That rings very true for me too. I believe in G-d not because I need to or because someone told me to or because I believe I have to but because S/He won’t leave me alone.

  7. When I was a freshman or sophomore in a Xavarian (Catholic brothers) high school, a Brother (I believe it was Lucius) handed out bibles for us to keep. While handing them out, he said “Now whatever you do, don’t take this book as either history or fact…”. I remember thinking, “Right, so why is this guy, a Catholic Brother – whose life is supposedly based on the Bible, handing it out as if it’s special while telling us not to believe it? Something not cool here.” Then I promptly resolved to do the opposite & have never looked back… probably the most important if not best decision of my life.
    M

  8. I have awarded you the “One lovely blog award“. I would love to see what blogs you would pick on. (To be published 9pm UTC.)

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