“I Don’t Believe in That God, Either”

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 06/10/2012

The story, as Rev. Forrest Church told it so many times, goes like this:  He would be sitting down somewhere next to a stranger – on an airplane, say, or at a dinner party – and he would be asked the inevitable question:  What do you do for a living? 

Ministers routinely hate this situation, by the way.  There is no telling which of a number of eye-popping reactions the stranger is about to have, and only rarely is the reaction something relaxed and straightforward.  Forrest Church, like every minister, often contemplated answering with something like, ‘I’m a physical therapist.’  Or ‘I teach fifth grade.’  That would be good.

But, like most of us ministers, he didn’t.  He ‘fessed up to being a minister. 

One of those reactions that we ministers can get from secular strangers upon their learning of our ministry is for the stranger to tell us that they don’t believe in God, and they think all of religion is bunk, and how could we, who seem so…regular…perpetuate a bunch of myths and lies that “obviously” lead people to superstition and violence?

Now Forrest Church was a wise and experienced minister, and had a lovely response to this sort of confrontation from a vehement unbeliever.  “Tell me,” he would say, “about the God you don’t believe in.  I probably don’t believe in him either.”

Isn’t that a nice way to respond?  I really like it, for its kindness and its refusal to accept the terms of what I see as a faulty scenario.  But the reason why I really like it is because it is true.  Unitarian Universalist ministers, even ministers who are “believers,” probably don’t believe in that God you don’t believe in either.

In other words, I think that if you compared the theology of the average atheist and the average UU minister who might not call themselves atheist, I don’t think they would differ all that much. 

And if we’re talking specifically about UUs who call themselves atheists, then I would say that their UU atheist theology very frequently lines up, agrees with, the theology of their ministers who don’t call themselves atheists.

Because Unitarian Universalist atheists are a very particular, very special, breed of person.

Think about it.  First of all, one might think that atheists would not be interested in going to church at all.  Yet UU churches are full of self-professed atheists, which is an interesting effect of our creedal freedom and our explicit theological openness.  So, already, we’ve got ourselves a crew of church-going atheists, an interesting contrast-in-terms.

When I was a new UU, I used to try to figure out what would bring an atheist to a church.  I imagined – incorrectly, as it often turned out – that a UU atheist might be someone who comes to church, who appreciates the social nature and helpful role of the congregation in their own lives and the lives of others, who maybe wants to do some good in the world using that structure, but who - perhaps, I guessed - didn’t want to spend time reflecting on mystery and wonder, who wasn’t interested in prayer or meditation, who didn’t want to contemplate the holy or sacred. You know, the sort of person who comes to church for the interesting lecture, not the inspiring sermon.

But I was often wrong about that, as I said, because I came to meet many UU atheists who seek deep inspiration from Sunday worship just the same as any theistic UU.  I’ve had many a UU atheist tell me that they find the community of church not only to be functional and helpful, but sacred and holy.  I’ve had many a UU atheist tell me that they found peace and an awesome, mysterious solace from nature, or from music, or from children, or from their community.  I’ve had UU atheists tell me that they think love binds people together into a majestic mystery, giving human life meaning. 

And I have come to realize that the thing that differentiates me, a UU “theist”, from a UU “atheist,” must not be a significant theological difference, because I, a “theist,” believe in all these things too.  Hm.

So, UU atheists are church goers.  And UU atheists and theists often do not have different theologies – in other words, do not have radically different conceptions about the nature of the universe, about ultimate reality, about what’s most important or most sustaining. 

So, then:  What defines a UU atheist?  What does a UU atheist believe, that a UU who doesn’t define him or herself as an atheist does not?  If the difference is not theology, if it is not belief system, if it is not church attendance – then, what?

I have made an observation about the difference, and although I am not yet ready to rise it up to the level of a definition of a UU atheist, I still think it is an observance worth noting, because it is distinctive.  I have noticed something about UU atheists that other UUs don’t have, and that difference is this:

UUs who call themselves atheists often come from backgrounds, from childhoods, where they were strongly exposed to ideas about God that they didn’t agree with.  Not only were they exposed to a picture, a concept of God that they couldn’t believe, but they were also told that they had to accept those God-ideas, no matter what.  And because they could not make themselves agree with those God-ideas, they left those religious backgrounds and came to us. 

However, interestingly, oftentimes these UU refugees do not seem to have altered their God-idea upon this change of denomination.  To me, it looks like it took all the strength they had to just get away.  And they didn’t have extra energy to be thinking of new ideas of what God might be.  It was all they could do to leave the God-idea that they were taught.  I can imagine these newly UU atheists thinking, “I grew up learning that God is like this, and since God is like this, I don’t believe in God.”  A – Theist.  Against God.

But what if what those religions taught about God is wrong?  Would atheists still be against it?

Often, when they were in a Christian context, our atheists grew up being told that God was everywhere, but also was a person who lived in the sky.  God was some combination of loving and watchful, and you could never hide from Him.  There were a lot of rules to follow, and God was keeping an eye on you to make sure you followed them.  If you didn’t follow them, something bad was supposed to happen to you. (Even though it was obvious that those bad things didn’t always happen to those who didn’t follow the rules.)

On the flip side, according to this way of seeing religion, if you did follow the rules – if you did all the things you were told that God wanted you to do – then you were supposed to then be in God’s favor, and the loving side of God would collude with your own most intense wishes, and make the things you want to happen come true. 

I wonder if we’ve gathered most UU atheists from this ostensibly more-loving side of traditional Christian theology, as so many good children prayed, not only to win games and to do well on tests, but fervently prayed for more important things, like for a pet or a grandmother to come back to life like Jesus did, or they prayed for mom to stop drinking, or for the hitting to end.  But nothing ever changed, and God did not provide in the way that they were told God was supposed to. 

No wonder, then, a complete rejection of that God, who welches on deals, who won’t fulfill a promise, who can’t possibly love us after all. 

No wonder, then, the need for the gentle request:  Tell me about the God you do not believe in.  I probably don’t believe in that God, either.

The second part of that statement is important, I think.  Because when UUs who call themselves theists use the term “God,” I don’t think they are generally talking about this intrusive God that doles out favors and punishments in this capricious way, either.  That God sounds more like Santa Claus to me.  The mean kind of old-school Santa Claus with the coal and the List.

I am not in the business of telling folks that certain ways of thinking about God are just plain wrong.  But I will go out on a limb here and say that the notion of a God who is an invisible physical person who resides in the sky, who watches everything you do in order to judge you, who has a series of rules and will always punish you when you don’t follow them and will always reward you when you do, that notion of God is wrong.  Or at least it’s too shallow to be useful.  And so if the God you don’t believe in is this God, then I am right there with you.  I’m an atheist too. 

But more than that, I stand here to tell you that that God is not true, and because it is not true, it does not need to be rejected so fervently. 

Forrest Church wrote that “God is not God's name.  God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will,” he wrote, “spirit, ground of being, life itself; it remains what it always has…an awe-inspiring mind-bending mystery.” 

That’s the God I believe in.  That’s all.  Just a way of describing the awesome mystery of which we are a part.  Just a way of describing what is greater than all yet present in each.  This is what UU theists often call their God.  The details beyond that are up to each, but the foundation is this.

So if the judgmental, personified God is not true, then maybe you and I are not atheists after all.

You could be saying right now, “What difference does it make, anyway?  If people want to say they’re atheists or theists, it doesn’t really matter.  We’re UUs anyway and this isn’t the sort of thing we get worked up about.”  You’d be right on some level, in saying that. 

But there is a reason why it does matter, and the reason is that we UUs don’t want God, or religion, or the holy or the sacred, to be solely defined by the most narrow-minded of the world’s religious people.  We don’t want that even if we aren’t all that comfortable with those ideas ourselves.  Because if religious words and concepts are owned and defined by the religious conservatives, then we get in situations like the following.  Two examples.

I recently listened to an NPR story  about a Methodist pastor who came to the realization that she no longer believed what she was supposed to be preaching and teaching.  She decided she was an atheist, and before letting her congregation or her bishop know, for some reason she came to the American Atheist convention here in Bethesda and gave a big speech.  I would not have chosen this route myself, but I can see that she’s in the middle of a big change and is a little overwhelmed.  It was a statement within her speech that I want to mention. 

She said to the crowd, “I used to think you all would burn in hell.  Now I’m gonna burn in hell right along with you!” And they all cheered.

I might be taking this statement too literally.  I don’t know if these folks really think they’re going to burn in hell because they don’t believe in God.  But as someone who doesn’t believe in hell and who counts atheists among my most good hearted, loving friends, I don’t even like to hear talk like this. 

If these folks really think they are going to burn in hell for unbelief, then they have not traveled very far at all from the belief system they started from.  They have much more work to do to find out what is true for them, and not only what is false for them.

But if they don’t believe that they are going to burn in hell for unbelief, but they think that that’s what religions would all say about them, then as a religious person I have to protest that as well.  I don’t want conservative, punitive religions to control what definitions people use when they talk about religion.  I don’t want anyone to think that to be religious means that if you don’t believe in what the religion tells you then you’ll burn in hell.  I don’t want people to think that because I know it isn’t true, and I know it isn’t true because we are here, we are a religion, and that’s not at all what we believe.

Please, let us not allow the conservatives to have all the religious definitions.  Let us claim our liberal and loving religious authority and not give it away to the meanest of our cousins.  Let us proudly proclaim that our religion insists that all the ways of interpreting the nature of the world are valid ones, whether they’re called atheist or theist or both or neither.  Let us proudly proclaim that in our religion, as real as any other, no one burns in hell for being who they are, and no one thinks the idea that they might is particularly funny.

The second example of what happens when we allow religious conservatism to control the definition of religion also comes from NPR.  It comes from a Radio Lab story  I was listening to about paradoxes, particularly mathematical ones. 

The mathematicians of the story were examining declarations that contain an inherent contradiction, such as “This Statement is a Lie.”  You can see that if the statement is true then it is false, and if it is false, it is true, do you see what I mean?  Apparently this really bugs mathematicians.  It doesn’t bug ministers all that much, but we’re used to dealing with more gray areas in life, I guess.

Anyway, the unnerving part was the storytellers’ description of the mathematical statement that drives the mathematicians crazy because it can’t be true or false.  One of the storytellers made this religious observation, out of the blue.  He said:  “To understand everything [about this paradoxical statement], you either have to defer to a God who does understand everything, if you believe in God, or if you don’t believe in God then you have to live with the mystery and not knowing.”

Again:  “To understand everything [about this paradoxical statement], you either have to defer to a God who does understand everything, if you believe in God, or if you don’t believe in God then you have to live with the mystery and not knowing.”

So: in this conception, on the one hand, God.  And on the other hand, mystery and not-knowing.

But to separate these two speaks of no religion that I’ve ever wanted to experience.  When I talk about God, when I talk about the foundations of our world, I am literally talking about mystery and not-knowing.  I define God AS life’s loving mystery and not-knowing.  God is in the paradox itself.

The religions that choose to place God and mystery as opposites from each other are not religions that I would want to participate in.  They are not religions I would promote or would say are speaking the truth – in fact, quite the opposite.  I think religions that think they’ve gotten God all figured out are peddling in myths and fabrications.  If that’s supposed to be God, the side where everything is figured out, then I’m an atheist too.  Because I know we religions haven’t gotten much of anything figured out, and it is not for lack of trying. 

I want religion, the definition of religion, to include our UU viewpoint, that God is a name that people can use for the loving, natural mystery and wonder that is part of each of us and greater than all of us.  I need to insist that God and mystery are not opposite ends of a spectrum, no matter what some mathematicians may think, but are one and the same.  And this UU religious viewpoint needs to be within the religious dialogue, not outside of it.  It needs to be one of the ways that people think about God.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how any of us in here chooses to define ourselves.  As mentioned before, it doesn’t affect our ability to be together in religious community.  But it does matter that our Unitarian Universalist voice is part of the religious discussion overall, out there.  It does matter that when people are thinking about religion, that they consider our open minded viewpoint and our liberal perspective as one of the options.  Otherwise, the religious conservatives, who oppose our values, will dominate the discourse, and that’s not good for any of us, if you ask me.

It’s as good a time as any for all of us to consider what religious labels we choose for ourselves, and why we choose them, and what the implications are when we do.  If we want to take off a label that isn’t serving us, just for a while to see how it feels without it, then this is as good a place as any to do that.  After all, our goal here in this UU church is to see each other just as we are, without definitions and judgments.  Not theists, not atheists, but just people, just folks living in the midst of awe-inspiring, mind-bending mystery, wondering if more love will make our lives richer and more meaningful.  It’s a grand religious experiment, and I hope that many more people, theists and atheists, will come to us to try it out.