They teach you that when in a job interview if asked whether you have a particular skill or experience and you must honestly say no, it is best to say “no but…” followed by sharing some other skill or experience you do or have had that is arguably comparable or at least applicable. For example, “No, I don’t have experience as a manager, but I do have a great deal of experience chairing committees in my congregation and leading volunteers.”
I think that rule of thumb is applicable for any advocacy, even beyond advocating for one’s own employment. So when asked, “Do you believe in God?”, nowadays I am inclined to say “No, but…I appreciate the idea that there is a deeper level of connection between all of us and have my own metaphor for that connection.”
If the person asking believed in God they might not buy my answer. There take may be that either you believe there is a deity or you don’t (or maybe you’re not sure). Isn’t this an unbridgeable chasm between the worldviews of the atheist and the “believer” (theist)? How can there be any common ground here?
Well I’m crazy enough to think that their can be common ground! That we all can accept that there can be many spiritual paths all of which can be valid. It was John Lennon’s inductive reasoning (arguing from the particular to the general) back in my teenage years that first planted the seed to move me beyond my own perhaps dogmatic secular humanism. In his song “Whatever Gets You through the Night” Lennon builds a case for many spiritual paths, based on what works (or as our son Eric said three decades later, “whatever floats your boat”)…
Whatever gets you through the night ‘salright, ‘salright
It’s your money or life ‘salright, ‘salright…
Whatever gets you through your life ‘salright, ‘salright
Do it wrong or do it right ‘salright, ‘salright…
Whatever gets you to the light ‘salright, ‘salright
Out the blue or out of sight ‘salright, ‘salright…
Of course in one of Lennon’s more famous songs, “Imagine”, he puts forward a more dogmatic secualar humanist view of the cosmos which associates nationalism and religion with war and violence…
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
I too tend to imagine a world without deities, though I understand that particularly in the United States, this is still very much a minority position (though apparently gaining adherents). But I do not want to be the victim of an “us and them” framing that excludes me from discussions about ethics and the greater meaning of life among believers because I somehow as an atheist lack “credentials” to talk about overarching metaphysical questions that guide our development and path forward in life. If I truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, plus believe in the Golden Rule, then I need to invite those metaphysical discussions with both my comrades who are conservatives and progressives, and among those with the whole spectrum of belief in deities or not.
Though I define myself as an atheist, the search for deeper meanings and overarching narratives in life is very important to me, to help me guide my path forward from day to day and through the years. In that way I find some kinship with people who are religious and who do couch their beliefs in terms of deities. I see “god”, as they are defining it, as their chosen metaphor for that deeper level and deeper meaning of existence. My own metaphors are different. I think in terms of each person’s “consciousness” and its development towards greater knowing and unmitigated love rather than an external “god” and his/her/its expression of the “divine”.
I have gotten to this whole thing about metaphor from many sources. From reading books like Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, about the power of metaphor and magic in real life and then experiencing aspects of that same sort of magic in my own life. From reading the work of theologian Karen Armstrong about the idea of “mythos” and the efficacy of the god concept for so many people through our history. From trying to find an overarching human developmental narrative to tie together all the history I have heard, read or seen presented in film and TV. I see how mythology, including the stories contained in religious scriptures fit into that whole human history and development gestalt.
And from my understanding of that human narrative, I see the efficacy of framing the greater expressions of collective consciousness as deities, particularly in a society that has been so hierarchical and for the past 5000 years. God, Goddess or the pantheon represented the human collective will triumphing over any individual warlord or other privileged person or elite group. Though most religions were co-opted by the elite to control everyone else, still I see the basic spiritual urge coming from the unprivileged to set the will of the whole of humanity above any elite group.
In another related vein I think of the current scientific metaphor of “Gaia” as not inconsistent with this deity framing. Gaia reflects the collective interaction of human beings and all the other life forms in our biosphere with a geologically dynamic planet below. Thinking of it as a sort of sentient superorganism is a useful construct to describe the complex chaotic (as in chaos theory not disarray) system that it represents. It also reflects that the collective is generally smarter than any one entity within that collective, which is why democracy has been such a powerful and effective organizing principle.
So given my continuing advocacy for moving from hierarchy to a circle of equals, and being cognizant of my mom’s wisdom of always trying to “be effective”, it is important that I try as an atheist to come to grips with the god concept, to show solidarity with my fellow human beings that I hope to influence. It’s like what they teach therapists, to accept their client’s framing of the world when trying to help them better navigate it. I mean throughout the history of the past 2000 years there have been components of all three of the Abrahamic religions – Kabbalism in Judaism, Unitarianism in Christianity and Sufism in Islam – that have envisioned the divinity within, rather than just above and beyond, we human beings.
As I see it, our human transition from hierarchies of control to a circle of equals is all about truly embracing the Golden Rule. I suppose one might argue that “do onto others as you would have them do onto you” is just common sense and needs no religion or “great myth” to help advocate for it. But unbridled patriarchy, with its “us and them” thinking, has been more about “do onto others before they can do onto you” and “the person with the gold makes the rules”. The argument by Karen Armstrong and others is that the religions of the “Axial Age” were all about creating stories that put forward a narrative argument for the Golden Rule to counter that “us and them” thinking of the purveyors of hierarchy and control. To the extent that I can play my small part in moving these religious traditions back toward promoting the Golden Rule, then I have truly honored my mom’s wisdom.
My favorite chapter of the Bible is the “love chapter” Corinthians 13. When Ben was little, he had a severe language disorder. I read that chapter over and over because I didn’t realize at age 4 he didn’t understand what I was saying. I was so impatient, and at times bordering on cruel, because I thought he was being willful. “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres ” There were times when it smacked me up the side of the head.
It’s a wisdom, of sorts. Not all of it…the bible, but parts are. Religion can really “stink”. But wisdom, wherever it comes from, seldom does.
I’ve said my piece.