Atheism?

An atheist was visiting Scotland, and one fine spring day he decided to row across beautiful Loch Ness.  Suddenly, halfway across the lake, the Loch Ness monster attacked and grabbed him from his boat.  The atheist panicked and shouted “God help me!” In an instant, the monster opened its jaws, plopping the atheist back in his boat, and then swam away.  A voice from the heavens boomed, “You say you don’t believe in me, but now you are asking for my help?” The atheist looked up and replied, “Well, ten seconds ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster either!”

The Loch Ness Monster's lament.

The Loch Ness Monster’s lament.

 

Last week an article appeared with the provocative title, “Scientists Discover that Atheists Might Not Exist.”[i]  As you might imagine, the headline caught my eye.  It seems an outlandish premise, silly even.  With Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and other disciples of the “New Atheism” school selling books by the truckload, with first-world participation in organized religion flagging, in our highly secularized and technological society, of course there are atheists.

Or maybe not.  Pascal Boyer, a Washington University anthropologist and scientist of memory, says “Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting…a slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith.”

Graham Lawton, the deputy editor at New Science magazine and (paradoxically) an avowed atheist himself, adds, “Atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think.”

What, exactly, does this mean?  We’ll come to that.  But first, it’s worth noting that this tension is nothing new.  A century ago, one of the most ardent public atheists was the celebrated science fiction author H.G. Wells.  Wells was, as one historian puts it, “the apostle of scientific materialism and the deadly foe of organized faith.”[ii]  And then the First World War erupted on the world stage.  Wells, like the rest of Europe, watched in horror as nations slew nations, as a generation of young men evaporated.  In 1916, Wells published a novel, Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which became an international bestseller.  The main character, Britling, loses a son in the Great War, after which he experiences a religious conversion.  H.G. Wells, the consummate atheist, reflects upon Mr. Britling’s new life with these words:

“Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end.  He may have friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour.  But all these things fall into place only with God.  Only with God.  God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning….It was as if [Britling] had been groping all this time in the darkness, thinking himself alone amidst the rocks and pitfalls and pitiless things, and suddenly a hand, a firm strong hand, had touched his own.  And a voice within him bade him be of good courage….God was beside him and within him and about him.”[iii]

H.G. Wells, atheist who wrote eloquently of God.

H.G. Wells, atheist who wrote of God.

If as dedicated an atheist as H.G. Wells can, in a vulnerable time, write so passionately of the reality of God and our connection to God, then perhaps we must explore more deeply the prospect that atheism is, after all, impossible.

First, statistics.  Twenty percent of Americans presently claim to have no religious affiliation, but only two percent actually claim to be atheists.[iv]  That number diminishes even further when the definition of atheism is pressed.  The God described by many who claim the title atheist—Christopher Hitchens falls here—is depicted as a kind of superman in the sky, bigger than we are but characterized by all the jealousies and foibles we share, a god who spurs men to war, a god who arbitrarily picks and chooses who to favor and who to condemn, a god who is sometimes a thinly-veiled deified nationalism, a god who is sometimes the cosmic bad parent.

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in that god either, and I suspect neither do you.  That god is a straw man, a caricature, and denying its existence is not atheism.  In fact, I’d say denying that god tantamount to good faith.  We should deny such a god, especially if and when Christian churches claim that this description characterizes the God of Jesus Christ.

What, then, is genuine atheism?  It is what philosophers call material reductionism.  It is the denial of any transcendent reality, any spiritual dimension beyond what we can touch, see, and feel.  According to genuine atheism, the cosmos is just inert matter and empty space.  There is no enlivening energy, no spirit, no purpose, and no pattern to the universe.  The experiences we have of any of these things are illusions, tricks of consciousness.  There is no meaning beyond the meaning we make.  And therefore, there is no ultimate good and no ultimate bad.  All moral choices are merely human constructions.  There is no transcendent bar by which can judge virtue or vice.  What one generation calls good is good for it, regardless of the horror with which it may be viewed by a later generation.  Furthermore, we are alone.  Whether in the heights of our joy or the depths of our sorrow, no one hears us laugh or hears us cry.  Our voices project only into a cosmic void.

Our stories bend toward the redemption of evil and the triumph of good.

Our stories bend toward the redemption of evil and the triumph of good.

That is genuine atheism.  We might as well describe it fully and starkly.  And it is against that, the scientists in last week’s article say, that the human psyche ultimately rebels.  We are hard-wired, it seems, to believe that there is such a thing as Good.  We are hard-wired, it seems, to believe that that this goodness has a gaze, and its gaze is directed towards us.  We are hard-wired to believe that the Good creates this world with purpose, and that we ourselves are created to seek that purpose and live in harmony with it.

As an example of how this bears out, universally across time and culture the narrative arc of human literature—of our stories—bends toward the redemption of evil and the triumph of good, so much so that stories which diverge from this pattern stand starkly out.

Our own Christian tradition has a name for the Good.  We name it, because we experience it as a Spirit who knows us individually and beckons us to know it.  We name it God.  And of that God the Apostle Paul speaks with such eloquence today that we know that he knows this God intimately.  These are some of the most beloved words in Holy Scripture.  Paul says:

“When we do not know how to pray as we ought, that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit…We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose…What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?…For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:26-39)

Paul articulates in Christian language that reality, that belief, which runs deeper than any other in the human psyche, or, we can say, soul.  It is the belief that God knows us, that God has created us as agents of God’s purpose—co-creators of God’s plan for the world—and, most importantly, that nothing in this world can ever separate us from God’s love.

Paul knows God intimately.

Paul knows God intimately.

The question is, then, why is it in the marrow of humanity to believe this?  Why does the human psyche cleave to the belief that the world is enlivened, that there is more to the cosmos than the material dimension?  Evolutionary biologists will say this belief has an evolutionary function.  It helps us survive.  They are right.  They say the same thing about love.  Biologists explain that the depth of our love for our children leads us to protect them fiercely, thus preserving our genetic line.  But we know that the evolutionary explanation doesn’t exhaust the meaning of love.  Love—the love we have for our children, our mates, our friends—is, for many, the truest, the most real thing we know.  The actuality and meaning of love plumb far deeper than its evolutionary function.

Our belief in God is the same.  Yes, we have retained it across the eons because it is helpful to our survival and functioning, giving us comfort in the face of an otherwise uncertain existence.  But we have also retained it because it is true, because God is real, and we are built to know him.  With surprising irony, H.G. Wells says it best: “Until man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end.  He may have friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour.  But all these things fall into place only with God.  Only with God.  God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning.”

So it has always been.  So it will always be.  Thank goodness, and thank God.

______________

 

[i]http://www.science20.com/writer_on_the_edge/blog/scientists_discover_that_atheists_might_not_exist_and_thats_not_a_joke-139982

[ii] Jenkins, Philip.  The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, pg. 114.

[iii] Ibid, 114-115.

[iv] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/23/5-facts-about-atheists/

Of Liberty, Christian and American

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Do you know those words?  I suspect you recall, as I did, two lines a little more than halfway through the poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  The entire poem is the “New Colossus,” penned by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in 1883.  Lazarus wrote and donated the sonnet to a fundraiser for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which would be dedicated along with the statue itself three years later, in 1886.  “New Colossus” is now inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of that same pedestal.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew (11:16-19, 25-30), Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  At Rite I Eucharists, we read those words each week.  Liturgically they are called, in fact, the “comfortable words,” and they do, indeed, provide us comfort.

Jesus’ words are strikingly like those of Emma Lazarus’ poem, and there is serendipity—or Providence—in their convergence on Independence Day weekend.  During this time of year when Americans tend to become preoccupied with the relationship of our nationhood to our faith, the similarity of these sentiments bears further consideration.  What do Jesus’ words mean?  And what mean the words of the “New Colossus?”

Jesus’ invitation of holy comfort and rest come at the end of a longer speech, which actually begins not with solace but with indictment.  Jesus is speaking to people who want to be spoon-fed salvation.  He reminds them that he and John the Baptist have each come proclaiming God, John in ominous and austere tones, and Jesus himself in joy.  But neither message has made a dent in today’s audience.  They have responded neither to carrot nor stick.  Jesus compares the gathered crowd to children, saying, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.  Then we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

Why hasn’t this crowd responded to the Gospel?  Well, both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ message have included a required commitment to God, a dedication to a transformed way of life, and that’s more than the people want to hear.  They want comfort without struggle.  They want rest without exertion.  They want new life, but they want to keep their old ways of living, too.  They’re like us, in other words.

But there is no way around the commitment if we want to receive the comfort.  Jesus, today’s Gospel says, is the very Wisdom of God.  More than a wise teacher, Jesus is God’s heart and mind, and the words of Jesus are the truth of God.  And that spoken truth is that receiving the refuge and rest of God’s love necessarily includes taking on the burden, shackling ourselves with the yoke of commitment to God.

"For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The irony, of course, is that God’s very yoke is liberty!  To take on the burden of God’s Gospel is also to cast off the heavy weights, like anvils on the shoulders, with which we trudge through the world.  We, like the crowd, have walked through the world with those weights for so long, we’ve come to mistake our slumped shoulders for good posture.  Our anxiety, self-doubt, striving, loathing, fear: God has nothing to do with these.  They are worldly burdens, not burdens God casts upon us.  But we come to define ourselves by them.  They become the crutches on which we prop ourselves, and heavy as they are we can scarcely imagine being without them.

Even so, Jesus calls out God’s truth, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It is the yoke of liberty from anxiety, from self-doubt, from loathing, from fear.  It is the yoke of love, under which we learn to love and accept ourselves, and under which we extend grace and dignity to those around us.  Do you see how this liberty requires commitment?  Do you see the yoke involved in doing these things, in self-acceptance and love of neighbor?

That is what Jesus’ words mean this morning.  What of Emma Lazarus’ words?  Well, there is more discretion there.  Hers are not the words of God’s Wisdom, and so their truth is malleable.  Each generation must define what is meant by our nation’s liberty.  Each generation must decide for what Lady Liberty stands.

Liberty today tends, in our common consciousness, to stand for freedom from all constraints, freedom from any and all fetters placed upon us.  We believe we enjoy the most liberty when we are free to do whatever, whenever, and however we choose.  I’ll admit that this is a kind of liberty, to be sure, but it is the kind St. Augustine calls libertas minor, or small freedom.  Our desire that others leave us be and not tell us what we must do is rooted in our anxiety and our fear.  It is nothing more, Augustine suggests, than the kind of liberty shared by wild animals.

Jonathan Trumbull's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Jonathan Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

And, as any careful student of our nation’s founding generation knows, it is not the liberty they had in mind, nor is it the liberty transparently embodied in the original meaning of Emma Lazarus’ words at the Statue of Liberty.  St. Augustine also speaks of libertas major, the big freedom, which is the uniquely human liberty freely to submit oneself to an ideal—to a spirit—to give oneself over to something larger than one’s own animal instincts, wants, and needs.  It is the liberty that includes a yoke: a commitment to subsume one’s own individual freedoms in favor of a cause that is of greater value than one’s personal concerns.  The founding generation didn’t say to their brothers and sisters, “Leave me alone; I’m free and you can’t tell me what to do!”  They gave of their intellects, their fortunes, their comfort, and often their very lives in support of the big freedom, for the conviction that this is a new land in a New World, for the ideal that all here are of worth, and all merit human dignity and care.

In that way Emma Lazarus’ words really are very like the words of Jesus.  And, it turns out, the ideals behind her sonnet are akin to the Wisdom of God.  What is American liberty, according to the inscription at the Statue of Liberty?

American liberty is not, ultimately, the demand that no one tell me what to do.  American liberty is, ultimately, the freedom to cast off the weight of what the Old World says is true about me, about my worth and my place in society.  It is to shed those anxieties and fears.  And, American liberty is to commit myself, body and soul, to the embrace of the hurting, the tempest-tossed, the discarded, that they, too, might taste the liberty I enjoy, that their lives, too, might then be committed to the liberty of all.

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New YorkA few months ago I received a mass email (as I do every year) that encouraged everyone who attended a public high school graduation this spring spontaneously to stand and recite the Lord’s Prayer.  Such would, the email’s author claimed, demonstrate that we are a religious people, a Christian nation at heart.  I don’t buy it.  I love the Lord’s Prayer.  Indeed, I suspect I pray it more often than most.  But rather than demonstrating that a gymnasium or stadium-full of people merely know the words, I’m more interested in us taking on the yoke, of laboring to ensure that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that all are given this day their daily bread, that the kingdom of liberty and love is realized as fully as possible on this side of the veil.

Still, on this weekend of the nation’s two hundred thirty-eighth birthday, the Statue of Liberty stands as faithful sentry in New York Harbor, as guardian of all we hold, as a nation, to be true.  She, with mild eyes and liberty’s flame, rises above those words that embody the very best of what we hope and intend to be as a nation.  She stands for freedom, freedom for the dignity of all people, liberty for the tempest-tossed and the lonely.  She is a beacon for this freedom.  I pray we will be, too.  Happy birthday.