IS ATHEISM A FAITH? REV. AMY RUSSELL FEBRUARY

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1 Atheism is an ancient philosophy. We can look back to the beginnings of our civilization and find philosophers talking about the origin of the universe with various scientific and philosophical beliefs. In fact in ancient cultures, philosophy, religion, and science were the same thing. All just imaginings about how the universe worked. Aristotle, known as the Master in ancient times because of his brilliant analysis of the world, was a scientist and a philosopher. At the time, science and philosophy were the same serious study of how the world worked. Aristotle spoke of the science of physics which he said contains almost all there is to know about the world. He spoke about the first philosophy, which he named as the unmoved mover, a non-physical entity which puts into play the physical entities in the universe which represented the second philosophy. However, this unmoved mover was not described as a being, but as a force. As a scientist of physics, perhaps Aristotle would agree with our science of today that names gravity and quantum physics as these forces in the universe. Founder of modern biology, Charles Darwin, began his life very devoutly as a Christian even considering the priesthood. He was very reluctant to admit his later leanings to agnosticism, even using the word creation instead of evolution throughout his Origin of the Species. It wasn t until much later in life in writing his autobiography that he admitted that his research had led him to the conclusion of an agnostic. He wrote: We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Darwin concludes many arguments for and against the existence of God in this way: And I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic. Karl Marx, known as the father of Communist thought, is known for having made the comment, Religion is the opium of the masses. He goes on to say: The basis of irreligious criticism is Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. Page 1 of 5

2 A more contemporary scientist and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was also a social activist. He wrote humorously imagining a belief system with something as ridiculous as a mysterious giant teapot floating in sky between the earth and other planets. He wrote: If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. [2] - Bertrand Russell And then there is Carl Sagan, one of my favorite philosopher-scientists, who was always posing questions for thought. He reminded us that some scientists and philosophers such as Spinoza and Einstein were proposing another view of God altogether. A view that basically defined God as all the laws of nature. Here is what he said, But by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe, that is gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God. And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe [These laws] represent a power greater than any of us. It represents an unexpected regularity to the universe. Now, it would be wholly foolish to deny the existence of laws of nature. And if that is what we are talking about when we say God, then no one can possibly be an atheist. So, are all these people atheists because they don t believe in a God who controls the universe? And could they be said to have faith? Faith that gives them deeper meaning in life. Many would say that depends on what your definition of faith is. And what your definition of religion is. Is faith about having a belief in something that both provides you meaning to your existence and gives you a roadmap of how to live? Is religion a personal belief system whether or not it involves a belief in something supernatural? Page 2 of 5

3 That is how we define our Unitarian Universalist faith. Faith is what is meaningful to each of us. And it is a commitment to making that world a better place for everyone, no matter what our belief system is. Our religion is not about what you believe about how the universe works, it s about how we live and act in the world. William Murray, a UU author and theologian, calls himself a religious humanist. When asked to define that by a friend, Murray explains that a humanist is someone who affirms the worth and dignity of every person and makes a commitment in human betterment. Many people who consider themselves theists or Christians would identify themselves as humanists given that definition. But Murray says that secular humanists and religious humanists are nontheists. And for Murray, a religious humanist is someone who emphasizes the importance of communities that affirm, support and encourage the values making the world a place where all humans are given worth and dignity. In other words, for religious humanists, their religion is committing to creating a better world for humans. Murray says that religious humanists make their lives meaningful by committing to personal and spiritual growth and spreading good throughout the world. They are also devoted to learning and increasing knowledge using reason and the scientific method. This type of humanism is concerned with the here and now in the present world, and not what happens after death. Humanism does not believe in the supernatural and relies on human senses and intellect to understand the world. Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, defines religion as finding depth and meaning in one s life that is of ultimate concern. In other words, figure out what is ultimate for you, what gives your life the most meaning and dedicate your life to it. Many theologians define religion as that which provides direction and meaning to individuals. So, using these definitions of religion, atheism could be your faith if it gave you meaning and purpose in life. If atheism is simply a belief that there is nothing supernatural in the universe, does that give you meaning and purpose? Does not believing in something give one direction? Perhaps not. Perhaps being an atheist is only the first step in the direction of figuring out what is meaningful in your life. And that is not an easy journey. The journey of figuring out what is meaningful to you is a life-long journey. That changes over time and experience. John Dewey, a humanist philosopher and educator, believed that all experience is potentially religious. Describing faith as devotion to the ideal, he claims that any activity which is pursued in devotion to finding the ideal in life can be said to be religious. Dewey s ideas liberate people from the idea that being religious has to do with organized religion around a particular set of beliefs. While Dewey would not consider religious humanism a religion, he Page 3 of 5

4 would speak of it as being religious since its ideals of liberty, freedom, justice, and peace make the experience inherently meaningful. William Murray writes that: Those experiences that enhance one s life, that result in a greater unification within the self and of the self with the world, that are profoundly moral in nature, that are transforming, or that lead to a better adjustment to the conditions of life- those experiences are religious. Reason and Reverence, p. 16. So, when it comes down to faith and religion, I believe that the questions one should be asking are not: Do you believe in God? I think the questions one should be asking are: What do you believe about the universe and your place in it? And if you must ask the question about what do you believe about God, I think you should ask it like this: What kind of God do you believe in or not believe in and how does that belief create meaning for you? We are the meaning makers. Benjamin Hale in his book Evolution of Bruno Littlemore said this:...we, and I mean humans, are meaning makers. We do not discover the meanings of mysterious things, we invent them. We make meanings because meaninglessness terrifies us above all things." (p184) So the question about belief in something that might be called God is not a yes or no question anymore. As UU s, most of us do not have a belief in a God that controls the universe and punishes those who don t meet certain arbitrarily defined expectations. Some of us believe in that kind of god described by Carl Sagan as being composed of all those laws of the universe like relativity, thermo-dynamic physics, or quantum mechanics. Some of us believe in a God described by naturalists as the miracles and beauty of nature. God as experienced in the sunrise and the sunset. In the power of a raging hurricane, and the gentleness of a spring rain. Some of us believe in that kind of god described by process theology. A God who is in the suffering and questioning that humans experience every day. A goddess who changes and grows with us as we change and grow. A god who is within us and surrounds us. And many of us believe that God is a force of energy in the universe that we call Love. That we experience as unconditional loving, as both the beauty and the ugliness we see in others, Page 4 of 5

5 as the rain and the sun, as the alpha and the omega, but most of all as something that makes the world One. As meaning makers, we can create the meaning that lifts us up that allows us to connect with the world around us. And as UU s, the meaning we make includes affirming the worth and dignity of every person and creating justice and equality in the world. It includes being on a continual, spiritual journey. A journey that asks us to create meaning in every new experience. So, being a UU, as an atheist, a humanist, a theist, a mystic, a naturalist, or whatever else you are, we are all on a faith journey of making meaning. Page 5 of 5

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