In 1981, I had the privilege of visiting what was then the Soviet Union as a member of a church peace delegation. One of the places we visited was the seminary in Zagorsk, headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. I found myself walking down the halls of the seminary, which were encrusted with hauntingly beautiful old icons, while talking with an official in the Department of Religious Affairs of the USSR. His job was to control religious groups and to promote the official Communist orthodoxy of atheism. He wanted to know about my religious beliefs. Specifically, he wanted to know about my understanding of God. I told him I don't so much believe in God as I experience God. I told him that God is my experience of awe and wonder before the mystery of existence. "I have that experience, too," he said. Neither of us believed in a supernatural entity living beyond the universe and meddling in its affairs. Both of us felt a reverence for the universe around us, a sensation of its transcendence. "Perhaps we aren't so far apart as one might expect," I told him, and he nodded with a smile.
Currently, there are an unusual number of books on the market that argue for atheism and condemn religion. Notable are the ones written by Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. I've heard the authors interviewed on the radio, read interviews with them and reviews of their books. I'm glad that they are inspiring people to question supernaturalism and superstition, and to reflect on the intellectual and moral errors to which religion is subject.
I look forward to reading these books, and also a book that Scotty McLennan, dean of religious life at Stanford, is writing in response to the current crop of public atheists. I had the privilege of working with Scotty when I was the ecumenical Protestant campus minister at Stanford. As a progressive Christian in the Unitarian tradition, and a gentle and thoughtful soul, he certainly will have interesting things to say on the subject. (He just preached a great sermon in response to Dawkins' book.)
I hope I'll find some new ideas to consider in the books when I read them. But for now, I'll share some responses to old arguments against religion.
I've had plenty of encounters with people who are adamant that there is no God. I often ask them which God they don't believe in. Invariably, it's a God I don't believe in, either. So they don't find me to be a worthy partner for an argument. Proving or disproving the existence of God misses the heart of my faith. God is what happens when I am overcome with wonder and gratitude before the transcendent mystery of existence. Some atheists say they have this experience, too, but just don't call it God. Other atheists get peeved at me, saying that I'm not really religious at all. Since I don't believe in a supreme being in the the way they assume religious people are required to do, what I have to say doesn't count!
Within Christianity's long history, I'm hardly alone in my point of view. Christian mystics for two thousand years, and Jewish mystics before them, have described God in terms much different than the theistic, supernatural ones that modern atheists disavow. It's worth noting that the early Christians were considered atheists by many Romans. In the absence of images of their god, people presumed that Christians didn't have a god at all.
Most of the atheists I've met are against religion because they think it does a bad job of explaining reality. In their view, the book of Genesis does a bad job of explaining natural history, and the book of Job does a bad job of explaining the problem of evil, and so on. But I don't find Christianity to be an explanation of anything at all. I find the Bible primarily to be a diverse collection of poetic, metaphorical descriptions of the soul's journey through life. It would never occur to me to go looking for a biology or physics lesson in the Christian religion. Instead, I find in it a language for my heart and for sharing my heart with others. Christianity gives me a rich, ancient, nuanced, flexible, inspiring system of symbols, rituals, stories, music, practices, and images to express my spiritual experience.
Some atheists talk as if religion was like an assault weapon that ought to be banned entirely from the marketplace. Sure, in the hands of sane people who are scrupulous about safety, maybe it would be harmless, but what if not-so-sane people broke into their houses and stole religion and used it to kill people? What if children got their hands on religion, and destroyed themselves with it?
But banning guns would be a lot easier than banning religion. The impulse to express the life of the soul in story and ritual is so strong that nothing can dampen it for long. The failure of the Soviet experiment with state-imposed atheism is a case in point. We can reform religion, we can make it more pluralistic and progressive, but there is no point in trying to eliminate something so basic to human nature.
Ultimately, religion is not about affirming any particular concept about God. Religion is about the universal human experience of profound meaning, overwhelming compassion, and dumb-struck wonder. The felt intensity of these experiences begs for metaphorical, poetic, musical, and artistic means to describe them. The value of these experiences inspires spiritual practices to elicit them. These are just the sorts of expressions that abound in the best parts of the world's great religions.
Calling all atheists! Come check out the expressions of religion that are compatible with science, common sense, and human decency. Come visit the churches which have kept the baby Jesus and drained out the bathwater of bad or downright silly things that were said and done in his name. Come and experience God, whether you "believe" in God or not!