Last summer, we welcomed guests from different religious and non-religious traditions to speak at church on the subject of caring for creation. Most of our guests were easy to describe, e.g. Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim. But one speaker, Chris, was not so easy to categorize. He did not like using any labels at all, but finally settled on “free-thinking naturalist.” When Chris began his talk, he jokingly said that he had deliberately avoided the “A” word when referring to himself.
Atheism is a tricky subject. It used to be simple; an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students: “Every term, one or more of them says to me after class, ‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’- here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath- ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”
The student then describes a version of God that he or she perhaps learned in Sunday school, from his or her parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.
Of course there are those who do not believe in any kind of Divine being, no matter how we might reimagine what that means. Many of these folks are also interested in being part of interreligious conversations. Henry, a long-time member of the board at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio is a co-founder of an organization in Berkeley called Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word meaning nonviolence). One of the goals of the organization is “to encourage dialogues on issues which bridge spirituality and various science and social issues.” Henry is also an avowed atheist, yet appreciates deeply the opportunity to work on projects together with others who want to be peacemakers in the world.
I contrast Chris and Henry with militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, who denounce the God they don’t believe in, but are never willing to listen to or discuss any other possibilities. I consider them to be as intractable as any fundamentalist of any religion.
Another guest in our speaker series was Vanessa, who is very involved in the interfaith scene and describes herself (at least for today, she said) as a Secular Humanist, although she said that others have called her a “faitheist.” This was the first I had heard of the term, which comes from the book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman. Stedman’s point is that atheists should be involved in respectful dialogue with those of religious persuasion. Vanessa did tell me, however, that being called a “faitheist” was not a compliment. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “an theist who is ‘soft’ on religious belief, and tolerant of even the worst intellectual and moral excesses of religion; an atheist accommodationist.” For some reason, it gives me satisfaction to know that there are factions even among the non-believers.
What I have learned from listening to those on the interfaith scene who describe themselves with the “A” word or with other isms is that these are people of good will and great love for humanity and the world. I welcome the opportunity to be in dialogue. Right now I have members in my congregation with family members who are declared atheists. I would love to have the “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” conversation with them – not in order to convince them that they are wrong, but to see where they really fit in the wide range of what atheism means today. And what “God” means today.