© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 11, 2007

I wonder if Rodney Dangerfield was an atheist.

Rodney's motto was, "I just don't get no respect," and that is so true of atheists. In fact, many atheists call themselves something else, like "humanist" or "agnostic." Agnostic means one doesn't know whether a deity exists, but it can also mean, "I'm really an atheist but I don't want people to reject me."

Do you remember when I quoted my unabridged dictionary's definition of "atheist?" - "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God ... [or] A godless person; one who lives immorally as if disbelieving in God." That is an official Webster's Dictionary definition!

The April 2007 edition of the American Sociological Review features a survey by researchers at the University of Minnesota which "found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry." They are "seen as a threat to the American way of life..." In this survey "Many [people]...associated atheism with...criminal behavior...rampant materialism and cultural elitism....self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."

Unitarianism and Universalism, which merged in 1961, have been on a remarkable journey in dealing with theism and atheism. Both started out as Christian denominations, then became open to other world religions, and eventually accepted non-religious philosophies - including secular humanism, which rejects belief in the supernatural. By the 1960s and 1970s, secular humanism had become so dominant that many UUs who believed in God felt suppressed. But during the past 25 years, most of our congregations have learned to honor and appreciate both theism and non-theism.

Today our denomination allows for an open-ended, searching theism. I think of Scott Alexander, a UU minister in Maryland, who writes of "that nagging inclination of our minds to wonder if perhaps something larger and lovelier than ourselves is powerfully and purposefully astir and alive in this creation." (The Rev. Scott Alexander, "God," River Road Unitarian Church, March 28, 1999, from the Web)

Some UUs manage to straddle the fence between theism and atheism. When the Rev. John Wolf was asked whether he was a secular humanist or a theist, he replied, "That depends on you. If you're a Humanist, I'm a Theist; if you're a Theist, I'm a Humanist." (Gwen Foss, ed., The Church Where People Laugh, p. 52)

All of this baffles members of other denominations. "How can you have a religion in which many of you believe in god and many do not?"

As your minister I want to help us find common ground despite our varied beliefs. Some of us are confident that there is an invisible conscious being who thinks, feels, chooses, acts, and communicates with us. Others do not think this is true. But regardless of whether there is something out there that hears our prayers, people of all beliefs can benefit by quieting their minds, focusing on what's important in their lives, and listening to whatever seem to emerge out of the silence, regardless of whether we think this is God talking. Two weeks ago I invited you to practice this approach, so did any of you try praying or meditating, listening to the stillness? If so, let's hear from a couple of people about what they experienced. (Discussion)

This morning I will try to show that believing in God and denying that God exists are more similar than one might think. In fact, theism and atheism are often "siblings in disguise."

I admit that some forms of theism and some forms of atheism are very different. Suppose a person believes in a deity called Zeus, and thinks Zeus may be found living on Mount Olympus, wearing a long beard and hurling an occasional thunderbolt. This clearly contradicts the beliefs of most atheists - and also the beliefs of most theists. What I hope to show today is that in some very important cases, theism and atheism do not sharply contradict each other.

First of all, belief or disbelief in God is often just a matter of wordplay, how we decide to use words. We rely so much on language that we often focus more on words than on the reality that words point to. If we look beyond words we will see that dividing the world into theists and atheists is much too simple.

For example, let's say George is a Presbyterian. He sees God as the creative force that brought the universe into being. He believes this force must be good, because the universe is a basically good place. George's God doesn't perform miracles or answer specific prayers. He sees all the talk about having a personal relationship with god as a poetic way of speaking. I mentioned last time that in a poetic sense I have a personal "relationship" with Mother Earth, even though Earth is not literally a person. George's relationship with God is a lot like that.

Compare George to Janine. Janine is an atheist, who says the idea of god is actually destructive. But Janine believes that life is an educational process. Good or bad things happen to us to teach us lessons that are intended for us personally. She doesn't have any theory about how this happens, but she says that this idea is validated by her own life-experience. "Things happen, to teach me what I need to know."

Which one is the believer and which one is the infidel? George's belief system fits what has been called deism, meaning that God created the universe but now lets it run on its own without needing to intervene any further. By contrast, Janine does believe there are forces for good that intervene in our lives. Some people would use the word "god" to speak of whatever it is that is trying to teach us lessons. If Janine used this term she would be a theist. Since she does not, she's an atheist.

So there are people who believe exactly the same thing, but who only disagree about whether to use the word "god." This is often true of those who think of God as a force in the universe rather than as a personal presence. Many people would call such a positive force God, but some would not. And a surprising number of people think of God in this way. According to a Gallup poll, around 60% of those who live in North America view God in personal terms, but nearly 30% think of God as "some sort of spirit or life force" rather than as an invisible person.

I am confident that millions of members of traditional churches have non-traditional ideas about God. When their minister says, "God created the world," they might translate that poetically to mean, "There is a creative force or energy at work in the cosmos." When I was in theological school many of my classmates used theological words poetically, but when they preached they sounded entirely orthodox. I could have done that myself and remained a Methodist, but I felt queasy about preaching words that I would take symbolically, while most of my congregation heard the literal meaning.

Many Unitarian Universalists identify God with some aspect of the natural world. For example, one might define God as the love that connects human beings. Obviously love exists. But not everyone would call it God.

So my first suggestion is that the difference between theism and atheism is often just a matter of the way we use words, especially for those who think of God as a force or an aspect of the natural world. My second suggestion is much more radical. I even see common ground between atheists and people who believe in a very traditional idea of god, a god who thinks, feels, chooses, acts, and communicates.

Why do I say this? Because even when religion describes God as a person, this description is usually meant symbolically or poetically rather than literally. I admit that people sometimes do believe that God is just like us, except bigger and better. But on reflection, many mainstream theists in various religions could see this as a metaphor, as spiritual poetry rather than as factual prose.

Think about Hinduism, for example. Hindus are considered polytheists. There are over 300 million supernatural beings in their colorful pantheon. No doubt many Hindus accept polytheism literally, assuming that Vishnu, Kali, Ganesh, and all the others are real beings. But the Hindu scriptures emphasize that these gods and goddesses are just picturesque ways of representing the one creative Spirit. This spirit is impersonal or transpersonal. It is not just a super-sized version of you and me. But since we are persons, Hinduism speaks of God in personal terms, which are easier for us to grasp.

Christianity describes God in personal language, but it also says that God transcends our limited human understanding. Surprisingly, most theologians do not seem to notice the contradiction (or at least the tension) between saying we know God is a person and saying that our minds cannot comprehend God. A theologian may say, "God is entirely beyond human comprehension - and now let me tell you all about this deity. God is eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, the creator of the universe, perfect in every way, 100% loving and fair; and God does all the things that we do, such as thinking, feeling, and acting." Do you see the contradiction? Even when we sense that there are realities far beyond us, we want to think we grasp those realities. We want so much to relate to the Great Mystery that we forget that it is a Mystery.

Obviously in at least some respects, thinking of deity as a person is a poetic way of speaking. A typical person has a certain sort of body, but a being that created the universe probably would not possess toes or a pancreas. And what does it mean that God thinks? For us thinking involves our brains, and our thought processes are shaped by the way our brains work. If God has no brain, how does this being process information? Listen to Isaiah 55:8-9 (RSV): "... my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." So how can we even understand what it means that God thinks?

We can speak of deity in the language of as-if. It is as if God hears our prayers, thinks about them, and answers them. Yet people cannot live for long in a vague world of as-ifs. We need to think in definite, concrete terms. Therefore most of the time those of us who believe in God will operate on the assumption that we understand what God is. But once in a while it is good to remember that whatever lies hidden beneath the surface appearances of the universe is an unfathomable mystery, whether or not we call it God. Many theists and atheists would agree that we are all just staring off into the infinite unknown. Many would also agree that there is some evidence that this great abyss of mystery has personal or semi-personal qualities, and there is also evidence that it's better to think impersonally, in terms of an It rather than as a Thou. So with whatever flimsy evidence we possess, we make our choice - yes, there is a God hidden in the darkness; or no, there is not. When theists and atheists admit how wondrous and perplexing life is, they will realize that their beliefs are spiritual wagers, leaps of faith or leaps into unbelief. A mystery-affirming theism and a mystery-affirming atheism are truly brothers in disguise.

When we say God thinks and feels we are trying to make familiar clothing fit a Mystery whose size and shape we cannot discern. If we clothe the Mystery with god-language, we are theists. If we do not use such language, we are the dreaded atheists - self-centered, materialistic, criminal. To divide up the world this way is simplistic, misleading, and destructive.

Throughout this sermon, I have spoken of Mystery, that which we sense but do not fully grasp. The difference between theism and atheism involves the way we respond to the staggering strangeness of this universe. How strange that there is something instead of nothing! How weird that time is a dimension like space, that time slows down or speeds up when you change your own speed, that space is curved, that 95% of the universe is dark matter which we know almost nothing about. How bizarre that you and I are conscious beings, and that the most brilliant minds in our universities can't even agree on what consciousness is, much less agree on how to think about altered states, near-death experiences, and psychic phenomena.

Some respond to all this puzzlement by saying, "Life's mystery is so dark that I would rather look where there is more light. I'll focus on this planet and the creatures that live on it, and I will let worlds beyond this world take care of themselves." Others respond by saying, "The darkness of the great unknown is so fascinating, so inviting, that I must respond with awe, wonder, and worship. If I can grasp even 1% more about what lies within the divine darkness, that will justify many years of prayer and contemplation."

Both of these responses help us connect with something greater than the tiny perspective of our own little conscious minds. Yes, there are differences between believing or not believing in a God that has personal qualities. But belief and disbelief can meet on the common ground of Mystery, and we do that at Mission Peak. Some of us are theist, some are humanist, each has a point of view. We can all feel wonder and awe, and we are all UU.

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