Atheists, Agnostics, and Unitarian Universalism

"The Summer Day"
Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

One criticism of atheism goes like this:
"It’s presumptuous to claim to know. The atheist and theist alike claim to know what is fundamentally unknowable."
This criticism is silly. Atheism and theism are not, except peripherally at most, about knowledge. They are about deciding how one is going to live. Are you going to live as if there were a God, or as if there were not one? That’s the question.

It is true that a certain arrogance can sometimes bedevil a person of either persuasion. Some atheists and some theists will regard you as benighted – ignorant (perhaps malignantly) or stupid (perhaps malignantly) – if you do not agree with them. Theism and atheism each come in arrogant and humble variants, and neither arrogance nor humility is an inherent or predominant characteristic of either atheism or theism as such.

My complaint to the atheist is not that she presumes an unattainable certainty (after all, who am I to be so certain that her certainty really is unattainable?). My complaint is that “atheism” is not an answer to any question I’m interested in asking. If I am interested in your faith, in your spiritual life, in your religious practices or beliefs, and you tell me you are an atheist, you have only told me what you don’t believe. But what I would be wanting to know is what you do believe. Or, better yet, what you practice.

What do you do to cultivate in yourself the qualities that you most want to have, to be the person you most want to be? What do you practice to help you develop the spiritual virtues (inner peace, equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, joy, intuitive wisdom)? What groups do you join with, or would you consider joining with, in spiritual community to foster together those spiritual virtues? What rituals does that group perform to strengthen the communal connection of its members? What other ethics and values do you adhere to as supportive of your path toward the cultivation of those spiritual virtues? What experiences of transcendence, or one-ness, or interconnection, or wholeness have you had that have had lingering effects on your interest in the spiritual virtues? All of this, I would be interested in hearing about from you. And saying, “I’m an atheist” doesn’t answer any of these questions – or any question that I would care to be asking. “Atheist” leaves all of my questions unanswered, still on the table, awaiting your response. (Saying, “I’m a theist,” if that's what you are, is slightly more informative, though only slightly.)


Consequently, “agnostic” is no improvement over “atheist” as a way to identify yourself religiously. If you tell me, "I'm an agnostic," you’ve told me what you’re not sure about. But I’m not asking what you are or aren’t sure of. I’m only asking what you are willing “to do with your one wild and precious life” (Oliver) vis-à-vis those spiritual virtues, communities, experiences. Let us grant that we do not have certainty. Now what? What ethic and values shall we live by? What community shall we join and build? What intentional practices shall we undertake to sharpen our perception of the luminous quality of existence? These are questions to which living cannot help but offer up an answer, one way or another, by default or by deliberate purpose.

Unitarian Universalism

Both the self-identified agnostic and the “true believer” have in common that they take as central the question, “What can I know for sure?” The agnostic answers, “Nothing.” That's a fine answer for that question, but "what can I know for sure?" is not a very interesting question for religion. (It was once the central question of the area of academic philosophy known as epistemology, but even that field -- which was always merely peripheral to spiritual practice and religious matters -- is no longer focused on the quest for certainty.)

For Unitarian Universalism, "What can I know for sure?" is not the central question. For us, the question is more like: "What shall I be in the world? How shall I practice awareness and bring to the world compassion and wisdom?” Our answer to these questions identifies our religion – and “agnostic” is not an answer to these questions. Saying you're agnostic – just as saying you’re atheist -- answers a question that we're not asking.

To approach the matter another way, once we acknowledge uncertainty – that there's always more to learn, and nothing is permanently exempt from revision – then either we have to say there is no such thing as knowledge, or else we must conceive of knowledge as allowing for change and growth. The latter course seems the better. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition inclines toward a view of knowledge as doing. Specifically, "knowing" is "effective doing" (hence, "ignorance" is "ineffective doing"). If this is what “knowledge” is, then we UUs are not a people who “don’t know.” We act, and our action's effectiveness is the embodiment of what we know. So, no, Unitarian Universalists are not agnostic, for we do not profess ignorance. Indeed, our knowledge is displayed in all our doing; and our religious knowledge is manifest as our way of living in community, with care, and for justice.

Photo by Meredith Garmon


  1. Found your post after someone complained of it. Here was my comment on Facebook.

    "For someone to identify positively as an atheist has always seemed a little weird to me simply from the standpoint that one shouldn't identify by the things that they aren't. That's the joke which Non-Stamp Collector is using in his YouTube channel.

    But then I read about Pierre's absence from the cafe (Sartre on existential absence). I'm pretty sure you've read his thoughts on this, but let me know otherwise. The thing is that it makes sense to be an atheist if everyone is expecting some kind of theism from you. While you also do not believe that the universe was created by the Queen of England, there is no expectation for you to believe that, so it makes no sense to identify with that disbelief. Identifying as an atheist is about responding to expectations, and that's certainly worthwhile."

    If you're not familiar with Sartre's example with Pierre, the idea is this: when you are waiting for your friend Pierre at a cafe, it is true that both Pierre and the Queen of England are not at the cafe, but only one of these facts concerns you. So one might compare this to atheism: atheism is a response to an expectation.

  2. Meredith, I think my avowed atheist friends seem to get tripped up with nomenclature as much as anything else. Framing the "spiritual virtues" as you have ("inner
    peace, equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, joy, intuitive wisdom"), can cause an allergic reaction in them because spiritual-connotes-religious-connotes-oppressive-connotes-fundamentalists, and that's the end of the story for them. Oppressive religion—often from their childhoods—seems to have made it almost impossible to hear any new input, any new frame through which they might view spirituality. So all discussion of such matters is through the filter of their long-held vehemence. It's an unfortunate legacy of bad religion, though on the flip side, I do sometimes hear huge sighs of relief from people stepping into my UU congregation saying, "Oh my, I didn't know religion like this even existed."

  3. Amy Zucker MorgensternJune 13, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    What a lot of crucial ideas you pack into a short piece, Meredith. Thanks.

    One way to think about agnosticism is as a declaration of something much like what you are saying: "'What can I know for sure?' is not the central question of my religious life, and one reason is that most traditional theological questions don't have answers that can be known for sure." They're the issues the Buddha identified as "questions tending not to edification," such as "what happens after we die?" Agnosticism also reigns in some questions that ARE very important, such as "What is the best thing to do in this moral dilemma facing me right now?" That's a vitally important question, but it also may not have one right answer, and keeping a little agnostic corner in one's mind is a guard against arrogance and rigidity.

  4. You say: "My complaint is that 'atheism' is not an answer to any question I’m interested in asking." I think that's the most important piece of summary in here. Most of the time when people say "I'm an atheist," they're responding to a specific question, often "Do you believe in God?" If you're getting that response, that's probably how they're hearing your question. You can be an atheist and have other responses to other questions. To get those responses, ask the questions that you do want to hear the answer to -- "What will you do with your one wild a precious life?" I think then you'll get a different answer. If you ask me, "Do you believe in God?" I will tell you I'm agnostic about God. If you probe deeper, you'll find I I believe a whole lot of things about what God could be possible and what God isn't possible. And if you ask me, "What will you do with your one wild and precious life?" you'll hear a passionate response about love and justice and the arc of the universe, about building beloved community and caring for our earth.

  5. Rebecca James HeckingJune 13, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    I think perhaps naturalist is a more accurate word than atheist. Atheists believe in a universe that came into existence through natural processes, and that natural, scientifically understandable processes control it. But the word naturalist also applies to ecology, so the word itself may be unclear.

    I believe in the Mystery of all that is, from quirky quantum mechanics to dark energy, from the magic of DNA and consciousness to the possibility of the multiverse. If I believe in Mystery, does that make me Mysterious?? There really isn't a good word for it. It also is less a matter of "belief" than it is of nodding and acknowledging what is.

    For all practical purposes, most conventional believers would plunk me into the atheist camp. It is an inadequate descriptor, but unambiguous.