Thursday, 28 June 2012

Religion for Atheists (and atheism for the religious), 28th June 2012

atheism cartoon.png

We lit the chalice to this:

This candle burns the same for us all.  It lights the room equally for all of us.  It does not care what we believe, what mood we are in, what is on our minds, or who we have come with it.
It burns for us all.

The story was this:

Once upon a time . . .

Once upon a time there was a woman who wanted to know what she was supposed to do with her life.  So she meditated about it.  And one night, after she’d meditated, she fell asleep, and she had a dream that she was walking through a forest.  And she knew that this dream was telling her what to do.

So the next day, she got up and went to the forest, waiting to find an answer to her meditations. 

And as she was walking along, she saw a patch of red fur lying on the ground.  She went closer, and saw that it was a beautiful red fox, lying underneath a tree.  But the poor fox was injured.  She was going to go and look at it more closely, but she heard a rustle in the bushes, and all of a sudden a lion leapt out, with a fish in its mouth. 

The woman was scared, and she hid, in case the lion was going to hurt the fox, or her. 

But what actually happened was that the lion laid the fish down beside the fox, very gently, and went away again.

And the fox ate the fish, and the woman could see that it was getting better very quickly.

And she thought to herself, “well, there’s my answer!  The Great Provider  - who takes care of the injured fox – will also take care of me.  I needn’t do anything.  I will be taken care of, if I just have faith.”

So she went home, and decided to do nothing, and let the great provider take care of her.  She didn’t go to work, she didn’t feed herself, she didn’t get washed, she didn’t do anything.  She had learned, you see, that she’d be taken care of, like the fox was. 

But no friendly lions – or even neighbours – came to help her.  She got hungry, and smelly, and weak, and people avoided her. 

And one night, she had another dream.  She was walking in the forest again, and she saw the Great Provider, who she’d been relying on to look after her.

“Oh Great Provider!” she called out to him, in the dream.  “You took care of the little fox, but you are not taking care of me!  I learnt my lesson when I saw the fox and the lion, and I trusted you to take care of me!”

And the Great Provider replied “You got the lesson wrong though.  I didn’t want you to be the fox.  I wanted you to be the lion.”

The sermon went like this:

Part One (which came after this (or, at least, the actual Wager):'s_Wager)

I hope your headaches have subsided after hearing the details of Pascal’s wager.  It’s going to get worse shortly when we hear the Atheists’ Wager.

Fairly obviously, I got the inspiration for this service from Alain De Boton’s recent work “Religion for Atheists.”  It’s a fairly readable, if not particularly groundbreaking book.  It contains some very good points, though I find it annoying in many ways.  The Guardian, incidentally, calls it an impertinent work.

I don’t think it’s impertinent.  I think it has huge strengths.  It points out that religious practice adds a great deal to the lives of many that is missing in the secular world.  True.  It points out that belonging to a religious community can make people live better, behave better, and co-operate better.  True.  It points out that religious faith formalises difficult situations, brings solace and comfort, and provides a framework for carrying on in the face of adversity.  True.

 But it does so with a sort of underlying assumption that those of us who go to church, those of us who have a religious belief or who enjoy the ritual and formality of church life, do so blindly and unaware of how we’re being led.  And I don’t think that’s fair. 

I realise that I’m talking to the wrong sort of congregation here for any of this to be news.  Almost by definition, you can’t be a Unitarian without having given some thought to what you believe and why, and why you are a Unitarian, and why you come to church, and all of that.  It comes as no surprise to any of us – even the most firmly entrenched atheists – that there is much to gain from religion.  Equally, it should come as no surprise to us – even the most firmly entrenched theists – that there is much to gain from our atheist friends.  After all, those of us who are atheist would hardly be in church at all if we did not have something to gain from it, and those of us who are theist would not be in this church if we were not open to the strengths of non-theists. 

One thing I very much liked about the book is that it’s moved away from the concept that to be atheist is to be anti-religion, and to be religious is anti-atheist.  Unlike Dawkins and his ilk, De Boton seems to have a great respect for religion, if a slightly patronising view of the religious. 

The book has a lot to say to us as Unitarians – a lot of which I think we know already.  I personally like its underlying message that it’s perfectly fine for secularists to steal the bits of religion that they want and that they find useful.  After all, religions – including us – have been nicking stuff off each other for centuries, and it’s enriched them all, so there’s no earthly reason why other people shouldn’t nick it too. 

There’s quite a lot on the internet about what atheists, non-theists, can learn from religion.  It’s a topic that’s been around for many, many years, long before De Boton got his hands on the subject.  What surprised me is that it’s hard to find anything about what the religious can learn from atheism.  I have no real theories about why that might be, but it certainly struck me as notable. 

That’s the book review part out of the way.  After our next hymn I’ll be moving on to talk about what we can do with the messages from the book, and whether there’s really a dialogue to be had between the benefits of believing in God and not believing in God. 

Part Two (which came after this:'s_Wager)

I hope you’ve all got that.  I had to stare and stare at it for a long, long time before it started to make sense. 

I want you to imagine, if you can, a Unitarian church where you might go and have someone try to change what you think or believe.  And I want you to imagine that someone at that church had such good powers of persuasion that they were able to do so.

Now I want those of you don’t believe in God to imagine that you become convinced of the logic and sense of believing in God.  And I want those of you who do to imagine that you become convinced of the logic and sense of not believing in God. 

That’s all well and good.  That’s either Pascal’s wager or the Atheists’ Wager working. 

But what’s missing? 

You can follow those theories down to the last full stop.  You can be completely sure that one position of the other is logical. 

And it won’t change a thing.

Because belief – faith – is not the same as rationality. 

As a theist, I often come across people trying to persuade me of why it’s illogical to believe in God.  Why he (she, or it) can’t exist.  Why I’m fooling myself.  Blah blah blah.  And I’m sure it’s just the same in reverse for the non-theists. 

And I am often completely convinced by the arguments of the non-theists who think I have an imaginary friend up in the sky.  It isn’t a logical standpoint.  It doesn’t actually make sense. 

At that has no bearing on my continuing to believe in God.  The fact that I believe in God doesn’t have anything to do with a logical statement, or a conscious decision, or a desire to save myself from going to a hell I don’t even believe in.  I just believe in God.  I can’t conceive of not believing in God.

And in exactly the same way, most atheists and non-theists I know just don’t believe in God.  No conscious decision, no running through a checklist of options and working out which is the most sensible course of action. 

Some people are religious.  Get over it.  Some people aren’t.  Get over that, too. 

I think what tires me about the whole debate about what religious people can offer to non-religious people and what non-religious people can offer to religious people is just that it’s so divisive.  It sets the two groups of people up in opposition – and there’s a difference between believing something opposite and being in opposition. 

If you google atheism, a lot of what you find isn’t actually about atheism.  Instead of being positive about atheism, there’s a tendency to attack religion. And likewise, it’s saddeningly easy to find religious groups attacking and sneering at atheism.  I think my favourite on that front was the synopsis of a book called Jimmie and the atheist:  “Jimmie, caught in his burning home, is saved by an atheist at the risk of his own life.  Jimmie, in turn, is used to bring his benefactor to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Good salvation message.”

It makes me sad that it seems to have to be this way.  We live in a world which is slowly but surely moving away from this sort of thinking.  Society is more and more comfortable with the fact that some people are black and some are white, some are male and some are female, some are gay and some are straight.  We wouldn’t, I hope, dream of seeing an encounter with someone of a different ethnicity as an opportunity to tell them why we are better than them.  And yet we still seem to struggle with this notion that religion and atheism are different but equal. 

Of course, sitting here in our Octagon bubble, we probably do look at this from a slightly different angle.  You can’t be a non-theist Unitarian and not have respect for religion.  You can’t be a theist Unitarian and not have respect for non-theism. 

And there is a risk in that, as well.  If you haven’t already looked at the cartoon on the front of the order of service, have a look now.  I think we need to be mindful of thinking of ourselves as “better than other atheists because some of our best friends are religious,” or vice versa.  I feel qualified to say that there’s this risk, because it’s a trap I sometimes fall into myself.  “Me?  Yes, I’m religious, but I’m not like some other religious people because I love humanists and atheists too, and I even think they may be right.” 

It’s not attractive, it’s not okay, and we really do have to watch out for it. 

Most of the talk about what religion can offer to atheists is about practices, about the things religions do that can offer something do those who don’t adhere to them.  And there’s lots.  Equally, there’s an awful lot that religions can learn from the secular world – perhaps most importantly, what the secular wants and doesn’t want.

But what it really boils down to is what people can offer to other people.  My atheist and non-theist and humanist friends have a huge amount to offer me.  And it’s got very little to do with their atheism or non-theism or agnosticism or humanist.  It has everything to do with the fact that they are my friends.  I try very hard not to go round choosing friends based on what they can offer me, anyway – I prefer to make friends with people because I like them and they like me – but it would be utterly absurd to sort of decide I should have an atheist in my life because I might be able to learn from them.  I don’t want to be friends with someone because they think my faith makes me interesting, either. 

Each of us here has a huge amount to offer to everyone else who is here.  Not because of what we do or don’t believe, and not because of who or what we do or don’t believe in, just because every single human being has a huge amount to offer to every single other human being. 

And if we really do believe in equality, and I hope we do, then it gives me hope for a world in which we won’t need to come up with theories about what religion can offer atheists, or what atheists can offer to religion, any more than we need to come up with theories about what people of colour can offer to white people, or what straight people can offer to gay people. 

We sang:

All are welcome here. 
Others call it God
For the splendour of creation

The spoken prayers went like this:

Please join with me now in a time of prayer and reflection.

Put down anything you’re holding on to, and make yourself physically comfortable. 

Relax your body, and let yourself settle into the quietness of this time. 

And now let us join our hearts and minds in the quiet of meditation and prayer.

How shall we pray?

First, let us be open to the silence. Let us hear the sounds in this room, and the noises outside. Let us begin to hear the soft beating of our hearts. And let us listen intently for messages from within.

Next, let us feel gratitude for our lives and for our beautiful earth. As hard as life gets, as sad or lonely as we sometimes feel, let us always be warmed by the gifts of this life.

Next, let us hold in our hearts all those, known or unknown who are in need. May we find in ourselves the energy and knowledge to bring care to the world.

And finally, let us be aware of the blessing that it is not ours alone to do the work of the world. Love and community work wonders that we by ourselves could never manage.

In this time of silence let us form our own prayers out of the concerns of our hearts.


1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Kate...wish I could have shared in the worship...I particularly love the following...It made me smile...

    "The fact that I believe in God doesn’t have anything to do with a logical statement, or a conscious decision, or a desire to save myself from going to a hell I don’t even believe in. I just believe in God. I can’t conceive of not believing in God.

    And in exactly the same way, most atheists and non-theists I know just don’t believe in God. No conscious decision, no running through a checklist of options and working out which is the most sensible course of action.

    Some people are religious. Get over it. Some people aren’t. Get over that, too."