River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Ten Commandments for Atheists

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd
River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 30, 2013


I imagine that you have all more or less got my number by now. I've not exactly been in the closet, but this seems like a very good week to come right out with things, and I'm sure you've figured it out, so I might as well name it proudly.

I am not an atheist.

Only in a UU church would a minister need to make such a confession with a little bit of hesitancy, with a tiny twinge of fear and a bit of sadness that someone might truly be alienated by my lack of un-belief. But isn't that what's great about us, that nothing's a given, that confessions here can always be confessions of faith, no matter what we believe or don't believe? Daring to question means daring to stand together with our differences and never turn away from each another. Isn't that what's magical about us?

It's true. It's obvious enough. I admit it. I am not an atheist. The word has harder edges and firmer boundaries than anything I would ascribe to my own belief system. It purports a kind of surety that is not my own. My belief system is a guiding, clarifying, continually re-imagined house of steel and cards that holds me up when I'm not paying attention and that sways a little bit under its own weight when I analyze it too closely. It holds no pretension of absolute surety, no line in the sand which once drawn can never be crossed.

An atheist believes that there is no God. An atheist has found an answer to at least one of the eternal questions. And I am not an atheist because I can't bear the thought of letting go of the question. I can't let myself define the mystery, because the unknown is my companion on my dark nights of the soul and the question itself is a part of God. I am not an atheist—not because I affirm the existence of a supernatural deity, which I do not—but because one of the very few things I would bet my life upon is the conviction that being human means not knowing everything.

But enough about me. Let's talk about us—all of us, and the fact that one of the most articulate spokespersons for the kind of faith that I do have and many of us across the spectrum of unbelief can share is an acerbic Las Vegas comedian who believes, above all, in our responsibility and our capacity to care for each other. Isn't it great that a wise theologian also happens to be a person who tells dirty jokes and pulls rabbits out of hats and pretends to saw people in half every night of the week. Isn't that the way it should be?

In addition to our reading this morning, Penn Jillette also wrote the following few sentences to capture his particular brand of un-belief, and I think this is awesome. He said, "I believe that there is no God. I'm beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy—you can't prove a negative, so there's no work to do. You can't prove that there isn't an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word "elephant" includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?"

I am one of those people who thinks there might just be an elephant in the trunk of my car if, of course, we remember that "my personal heartfelt definition of the word 'elephant' includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire." And so many of us believe that proving a negative assertion is so much hot air and wasted breath when just outside our doors in this very county there are children who are hungry and there are elders forced out of their homes and there are friends and strangers who need us more than we need our debates.

Atheism, at its best, is not about proving a negative. It's about beginning with a clear and honest assertion that such care is fundamentally ours to give and no one else's. It is a statement of clear and honest faithfulness, and to be honest I don't always have the faith of an atheist. But some of you do. Some of you believe in your power and in the combined power of everything we know to reach into the mystery and see inside it a tangible, expansive and commanding reality that calls us to care in the here and now.

Some of you have faith enough in the awe and the wonder of the human mind to answer the great big question with an affirmative belief that there is no God but only us, only this big blue boat of Earth and a universe that is knowable in some part if we are willing to do the work of paying attention.

Some of you hold atheism as a belief which you would bet your life on as surely as I would bet mine on the mystery. Some of you have the faith of an atheist, if you will allow this minister, so infused with religious language as to toss around a word like "faith" in a description of your experience. So many of you have the capacity to transform that faith into a mission in this world that is unique and powerful.

Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, who's one of the greats of a few generations ago, himself a variety of mystical Unitarian Christian, once said that, "there is nothing more beautiful than an atheist with an open heart." There is nothing more beautiful than an atheist with an open heart who, having let go of God's hand, reaches out to the world with her own.

I have a friend who, for years, every time he came through the handshake line every Sunday after the end of our worship time, would look at me with eyes full of tears or laughter or whatever we had gotten up to that particular Sunday morning, and say, "Hugs for the faithless," before wrapping me in this big, beautiful, warm embrace and he would wipe his tears before going to drip them into the cookies at coffee hour. "Hugs for the faithless," he said, meaning himself, the faithless one, even though this same man sacrificed time, money, energy and love to make the lives of everyone around him better. I never questioned him on it, and I never will, but it seemed to me that he had more faith than any of the rest of us, just directed somewhere other than the heavens—and the hug, not the disbelief, held everything that was important. Hugs for the faithless, friends. And if any of you would like hugs for the faithless, I have plenty and I am willing to share.

Our sanctuaries are full of such people. It's just such people who hold some great responsibility for making Unitarianism and consequently Unitarian Universalism what it is today, the godless many who sacrificed to found our congregations, to found this place, on the assumption that freedom, reason and love were the pillars of religion rather than devotion or piety. The shoulders of giants upon which we stand are in some large measure the shoulders of the open-hearted atheists who fought through the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries to make real a religion where we didn't have to check our minds at the door.

We are the inheritors of both the traditionally faithful and the proudly faithless, and true to form, we are ourselves in this congregation a curious mixture of the two. And maybe we are coming to see over time that the only thing nearly as beautiful as an atheist with an open heart is a theist who dares to look past his own self-righteousness and see in the non-believer a sister and a companion on the journey.

To be honest, I don't worry too much about who's in what category—who's an atheist, who's a theist, who's an earth-centered polytheist with a splash of Buddhist philosophy thrown in. What I am attentive to and hopeful for is that each of us can see in one another an open hearted atheist, a theist who dares to question, and an earth-centered polytheist with a splash of Buddhism thrown in, who does not look down their nose at those of us who do not know our chakras from our belly buttons.

Now, don't get me wrong. As UU religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs says, "It matters what we believe." "Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies."

Some beliefs, some ways of believing them, are like walled gardens. Others are like invitations for expansion, exploration, and deepening. Some ways of being and believing as a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, a polytheist, a whatever, are like walled gardens that shut us off. Others are doors to the kind of interchange that makes this faith possible. Open-hearted atheism is such a system, an invitation rather than a denial.

Open-hearted atheism is so much more than unbelief. An open-hearted atheist doesn't get off the hook when they assert the non-existence of God. Rather, they put themselves—you put yourselves—directly on the hook, responsible together with the rest of creation for a better way of being that won't come from anywhere else but our hands.

The religious life of the open-hearted atheist—or, as my ever-wise colleague Bill Murry would put it, the religious humanist—invites us all to see sunlight so tangible we can almost grab it, to recognize with awe the particles of dust that were once embedded in the rock of Mars that are floating past our faces this Sunday morning, natural-born star-stuff in the very air we breathe. Wonder of wonders, the open-hearted atheist thinks. I am lonely, but I am not alone. I am swimming in this cosmos, this untamed and untrammeled soup of spirit and star and element and earth, and I require no anointed one to open my eyes to the miracle of this moment.

This is faith. And belief, and wonder, and awe, and reverence, and it is very much present in a system which holds that this world is so wondrous that God's smooth-handed divine sanction is utterly inconsequential. In the lived experience of an open-hearted atheist, the middle-man between the world and the human being has been swept away.

And of course there is the unbelief. Many of us are drawn to atheism, to agnosticism, to humanism, for theological or intellectual reasons. Each of us has a few examples, some of them really whopping, of the moment when we first rejected this, that, or the other. And the ways in which such rejection shaped us to be who we are. And yet we hold here that the grounds for open-hearted atheism among Unitarian Universalists and in this place is so much more than a defensive litany of what has been abandoned.

The freedom to stand alone in a world without divine sanction is, to many of us, among the most transforming experiences we have ever known. Letting go of God's hand is an act of courage, of faith, of clarity, and to many it brings a kind of wholeness and a richness to life that sustains us through everything we face.

This is not an experience of judgment. This nothing so simple as disbelief. You don't need to be proven correct or forced on anyone in order to be true. You don't have to prove the negative. Rather, this kind of unbelief is an experience of wholeness and love, the stuff that brings about unity and not division.

Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of our age, coined the very word agnostic. He made that word up, he gave a phrase to work with. And his thought has guided many an open-hearted atheist over the years and religious humanists through their lives. He wrote in one of his final works of the things that he lived for, really in the end. Essentially it was a statement of the mission and joys of his life, and I think of them as three guiding passions of the lovingly Godless. He wrote, "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of [human]kind."

Love. He sought love—not God, but love—because it proved in his life to relieve what he called "that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss." Love brought a joy so great that the mystical and otherworldly vision of saints and heavens seemed unnecessary. "This is what I sought," he said, "and though it may seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found."

Knowledge, the second of his passions, he sought because he "wished to understand the hearts of men." As Einstein once said, "I want to know what the old one thinks." Unlike me, a feeler of my faith more than a thinker, Russell did want to know why the stars shined. He wanted to know who and what cast the net of the nighttime sky. The pursuit of knowledge was his response to the experience of awe, and a tiny little fraction of the knowledge he sought, he actually found.

Finally, the open-hearted atheist Bertrand Russell was moved in his life by the suffering of humankind, by the "echoes of cries of pain" that reverberated in his heart and would not let him go. To an open-hearted atheist, pain like that, the pain of human suffering, stands as "a mockery of what human life should be," and it stands also as a challenge, for if we are the greatest powers acting on this natural order, it is within our power to alleviate such pain. And so we must know for whom our hearts break.

Love, knowledge, action—these three passions of the lovingly Godless comprise the mission of the open-hearted atheist. It was a life Bertrand Russell found well worth living. It is a life of transcending loneliness, of constant seeking, of great personal responsibility, and for many of us it is the life we are called to embody with every breath.

I am no atheist. Mine is a faith that includes devotion and mystery and at least the enduring possibility of an elephant in the trunk of my car. Mine is a faith that sometimes but not always includes the word "God," but I strive, and I hope that we all can strive, to be as the open-hearted atheist: generous of spirit and large of heart.

We are the inheritors of the faithful and the faithless, and it matters what we believe. May we practice our hoping, our doubting and our dreaming in ways that leave open the doors of precious interchange. May we see one another as brothers and sisters along the journey, committed always to the challenge of reaching out our own hands, no matter who or what may or may not be reaching back.

And so my ten commandments for atheists—or honestly, for any of us:

Thou shalt love.

Thou shalt know for whom your heart breaks.

Thou shalt be curious.

Thou shalt be faithful to what really matters in your life.

Thou shalt simply speak the truth.

Thou shalt use thy unbelief as a starting point, not an ending.

Thou shalt remember that though the heavens are empty of divine providence, you are not alone.

Thou shalt put yourself in the path of great beauty whenever possible.

Thou shalt still hug thy minister even though she believes with some confidence that it is possible there is an elephant in the trunk of her car.

Thou shalt never stop reaching out.


May it be so.