2013-09-25

Am I an Atheist?

In the May 22 post on this blog, "The Class Atheist," I wrote:
“It goes back to when I was in fourth grade, and I first heard the word ‘atheist’ – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one.”
That May 22 post went on to describe how I have, since fourth grade, slowly come to appreciate spirituality – as have a number of atheists. While these “spiritual atheists” maintain an identity as atheists as well as spiritual people, I wasn’t clear, in that post or subsequently, about my own self-identifications. Certainly, in fourth-grade, and pretty much on through middle school and high school, I was atheist-identified. But am I now? No. Neither do I identify as theist.

Am I a Marxist? I don’t know how to answer that question in a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ This is not a matter of not knowing what I believe, not a matter of being "agnostic" on the issue. It's a matter of not wanting to identify my beliefs with a word that has so much baggage that it will obscure whatever I might be trying to say. Marx had some insightful analysis. There were also areas where I think his approach is not helpful. I guess I’m a Marxist in some senses of the term and an Amarxist is some senses of that term. Better just to say that I identify myself neither as Marxist nor Amarxist, but as someone who sometimes invokes Marxist language and sometimes invokes Amarxist language.

Similarly, when I (now) decline to self-identify as either atheist or theist, it isn’t because I'm agnostic. This isn't about not knowing what I believe. It’s because the baggage of those words will obscure whatever I might be trying to say. Those words, "atheist" and "theist," in the present cultural context, are inescapably tribal – i.e., the words are used to signal tribal identification in an ongoing culture war. I don’t care to be a warrior in either tribe. That’s just not a fight that I want to be a part of. My calling is to minister alike to members of the atheist tribe, members of the theist tribe, and those who, like me, prefer not to choose sides in that fight. (Though there are plenty of other fights in which I do choose sides.)

The word “God,” has a very long history of referring to a source of mystery and meaning, an origin, a basis for values and commitment, an ultimate the contemplation of which cultivates well-being, humility, peace, and an ethical vision. Sometimes I want to refer to those things. I’m comfortable saying “God” to make that reference, and I will often talk about God for that reason from the pulpit on Sunday morning. “God,” better than any other word, clearly and directly specifies that what I’m talking about is indeed an ultimate ground of both concrete values and commitments and at the same time incomprehensible, mysterious, full of powers we can but dimly apprehend (e.g., dark matter, 128 dimensions, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, reproduction, immunological response, consciousness): a reason for living, and a beauty beyond reason.

I also need to reach people for whom the word “God” is nothing but a distraction. I want to reach them with a spiritual message, and while “God” would be a helpful way to convey that message with many UUs, it’s also a stumbling block for others. So sometimes I avoid the word when I'd have been comfortable using it.

UUs are a diverse lot. I try to make sure that over the course of a number of Sundays everybody gets their turn. I also ask my congregants to stretch themselves a bit and hear the message as it would be in their language even when I’m speaking it, for that Sunday, in “the other side’s” language.

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