When I was 15 years old, I considered myself the most open-minded person around. Oh, I did. I was intelligent, well read, and don’t forget, sensitive.
I was a figure skater, after all.
This was not an opinion shared by my high-school English teacher, however. Mrs. Starkey was short and solid, had a flip in her hair like this, and her brown eyes could bore holes straight through you. She saw a young man who was anxiously tied to his conservative Christian faith—and you know, it wasn’t as if she was coming from a place of Christianity-bashing. She was a faithful Methodist (or Presbyterian) and I think she still is. (If she ends up reading this sermon, be assured she will correct me on all matters of detail–grammar and spelling and essay construction and on and on and on just like she used to, all those years ago.)
Mrs. Starkey believed—like we Unitarian Universalists do—that integrity in religion is not so much a matter of “grit-your-teeth-and-believe-it-even-if-you-know-it-ain’t-so-or-aren’t-sure” as it is a matter of having meaningfully engaged one’s beliefs through the test of personal experience and through questions and doubts and empathetic investigation of alternative points of view. Integrity, she believed (and so do we) is when your beliefs have substance and staying power and you know it, you’ve worked hard to discern it.
So, Mrs. Starkey decided to assign me a book to read: something from the pen of that 20th century Existentialist icon, the atheist Albert Camus. It wasn’t listed in the syllabus. But, coming from Mrs. Starkey was enough for me. I’d do the extra work.
When she handed me the book, the title leapt from the cover: The Plague. The back cover said something about how the book explored the cholera epidemic that had struck the Algerian city of Oran with devastating consequences, both physical and spiritual.
I saw all this and I said to myself, “Uh oh.”
Forty plus years later, I appreciate it as a brilliant move. (Funny how it can take forty years or so to appreciate things like this, right?) Fact was, while I was blithely holding fast to my Church of Christ faith that God protects the righteous from harm always—that religious perfectionism in the form of fundamentalism pays—at the same time my family was a plague scene in its own way. Mental illness, neglect, drug abuse, gun violence, misery. Mrs. Starkey had heard the rumors around town about “Dr. Makar’s family.” And I had actually confided in her, because I loved her and trusted her and I did not have many other adults in my life I could turn to and feel that they would not discount me or consider me crazy. So I think she assigned The Plague to enable me to begin healing the split that was in my life—the split between my thoughts about God and religion and the concrete reality of my day to day.
Reluctantly, I cracked the book open, and I read passages like this:
“Do you believe in God…?” “No – but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding that original.”
“But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”
“It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words, to silence.”
“Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
Despite my thorough Church of Christ training, I could heartily sympathize. Jesus himself on his cross had said, “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” And that’s what I was hearing in Albert Camus’ book. “The vast indifference of the sky.”
The Plague looks upon our world and says, There is no God—no afterlife—to redeem all this for us.
Which is not to say that there can be no redemption at all. Just a different kind. Listen to more of what book says:
“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
“…a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”
In other words, redemption is not the sort of thing that can be done for us humans. We must accomplish that for ourselves. If we are to defend the inherent worth and dignity of vulnerable groups like trans folk–if we are to bring true justice to the issue of gun violence–it’s not going to be through “thoughts and prayers.” If there is any meaning to wrest from our lives, it must come from our own efforts and all the time, talent, and treasure we can muster up to give.
And, at the end of the day, when we are tired from all the efforts, what saves us is still a very human thing: a loved face, the warmth of kindness, the warmth of a loving heart….
Let me say as a side note that the knee-jerk discrimination and bigotry that atheists face in this country is astonishing. You don’t believe in God and you are instantly branded as wicked and immoral. You will be considered ineligible for public office, you will be judged as a deficient soldier, you will be seen as unsuitable for marriage and child-rearing. Yet just listen to what The Plague says. The way to peace is “the path of sympathy.” “It’s up to us not to join forces with the pestilences.” In the end, what matters above all is love. “A loveless world is a dead world.”
Love is what I longed for then, and I still long for love, and so do we all. Caring. Kindness. Love. Atheism is not the Satanic thing that too many people think it is. Atheists acknowledge the vast indifference of the sky but are neither paralyzed nor perverted by that; they go on to find ways to make this world a better place. That is the meaning of their lives.
Thanks to Mrs. Starkey, reading The Plague started me on the path of healing the split in my life, between belief and experience. In the end, I did not become an absolute atheist (in the sense of rejecting ALL God concepts and ALL affirmations that there’s more to reality than this physical world) but I did become a relative atheist. I eventually realized that my Church of Christ God was a fake and a phony and made no sense in light of plagues of any and all kinds. I became an atheist relative to this particular God idea.
Today, if you tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I will probably say that I don’t believe in that kind of God either.
I got so much from The Plague. But one thing I did not get—which I want to focus on in the remainder of my sermon–is atheism’s approach to all the “stuff” of religion beyond God-doctrines. I’m talking about the worship services, the music, the buildings, the prayers, the rituals, the feasts, the shrines, the pilgrimages, the communal meals, the art, and on and on. Atheism denies the existence of anything supernatural or otherwordly; but what is its stance on the spiritual tools and practices that the historical religions have passed down through the ages, generation after generation?
Are good atheists supposed to reject those too?
Can a good atheist go to church?
Is it true, as comedian Steve Martin says, that “Atheists don’t have no songs?”
It’s an important question for us as Unitarian Universalists because many of us are atheist or agnostic, or, to use language more common within these walls, humanist. Vicky’s reading from earlier illustrates how it is that, even in UU circles, the value of the materials of the world’s religious traditions has been doubted. Even in UU circles, the possibility of their being used in positive ways that are broader and more inclusive has been questioned. “To my parents and teachers,” says the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, “the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But,” she goes on to say, “without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences.”
Getting clear on the question of the relevance of the materials of the world’s religions, and on being positively religious even if you might not believe in God: that’s critically important for all Unitarian Universalists, especially for the children among us, with their emerging sense of mystery and wonder and their need for forms with which to give it expression and voice.
It’s also important for the millions and millions of atheists beyond these walls. Folks like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (who call themselves the “New Atheists”) are extremely influential, but their essential message (and this is religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s characterization) is: “Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison.”
But, when we flush away everything that religion brings to the table—which is far more than God doctrines—what does that leave us?
It leaves us with secular educational institutions which, for the most part, focus on teaching job skills but step back from teaching people how to live soulfully and well.
It leaves us with a secular calendar stripped of Hanukkah and Christmas and Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Passover and Easter and all the other religious holy days and festivals that bring us back to key images and ideas that keep us human and vital in our relationships and our world.
It leaves us with secular museums which often feature self-referential art pieces that are curious and fascinating but don’t necessarily help to deepen our sense of the joy or terror of being human, that don’t help us cope or grow.
It leaves us with a secular economy that tells us that the person with the most toys wins, that equates value and self-value with things.
It leaves us with a secular city that is fragmented and has few gathering places where poets and philosophers and non-traditional spiritual folk and artists and activists and others of similar ilk can organize around shared values and protest what is hurtful in the world and help create a better future (in other words, places like West Shore!).
Flush away everything that comes with the historical religions, and what’s left is grim. There’s not much in conventional culture itself to help us do what Albert Camus said and resist joining forces with the pestilences.
Religion in the best sense is countercultural, with a countercultural vision that can help us transform a hurting world.
This, by the way, is the argument of Swiss philosopher and atheist Alain de Botton, in his excellent book entitled Religion for Atheists. He says that atheists just don’t have to accept an all-or-nothing situation of (a) swallowing everything in religion including God-ideas we disbelieve, or (b) rejecting everything that religion offers as poisonous. It doesn’t have to be an exclusive all-or-nothing. It can be both-and. There is a third way. Alain de Botton calls it “Atheism 2.0.” It’s for the person that thinks, (and I’m quoting him here): “I can’t believe [all that stuff about gods and supernatural spirits and angels and on and on]. I don’t think the doctrines are right. But—and this is a very important but—I love Christmas carols. […] I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament.” Atheism 2.0 is about taking the best out of the world’s religions and leaving the useless stuff behind. “The secular world,” Alain de Botton says, “is full of holes … and a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well.” “We have,” he argues, “invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities of harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our own decay and demise. God may be dead,” he says, “but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.”
By no means are we all–all of us in this space–on the same page regarding God-beliefs, beliefs about what happens after we die, whether or not souls exist, whether or not reincarnation is true. But what we can all rally around is our Unitarian Universalist religious vision of life that says that everyone has inherent worth and dignity, that congregational life creates justice-hearted character in people of all ages, that our songs and stories and rituals and sermons and friendships and committees and projects–that all these things and more–amount to a religion that changes lives and creates memories that will never die.
Comedian Steve Martin is wrong. Atheists don’t NOT have no songs. They have songs, and the songs are ancient, they are tried and true, they come from the parts of the world’s religions that can still speak to us today. “To think,” says the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, “that we must dispense with all the traditional language, symbols, and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest … is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are; that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us.”
That’s why we gather together every Sunday and “worship.” That’s why we sing “hymns.” That’s why we “pray,” why we “meditate,” why we do all that we do. Of course, we are a diverse community embracing people who come down on all sides of the God issue, so our goal is to worship and hymn-sing and pray and meditate and do everything else in ways that are as open and inclusive as possible. For atheists and for all.
Are we delusional? Maybe. But we are passionately caught up by the vision that ALL people want to live more richly, forgive more deeply, find more meaning, love more fully. ALL people, not just some. Let’s not divide up our families and our world on the basis of God-belief. We just don’t have to think alike to worship alike, to hymn sing alike, to pray alike, to meditate alike. We just don’t.
God may come and God may go. But religion—our need for it, its forms and fashions, its communities and festivals and pilgrimages and calendars and on and on—remains.
Can I get a religious,
The reading before the sermon, from the Kendyl L.R. Gibbons:
As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality—accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame. I longed for the white organdy First Communion dresses and the menorah candles of my neighbors. I secretly memorized Louisa May Alcott’s “My Kingdom” prayer, written when she was thirteen, and sang myself to sleep with “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I was fascinated by the hidden life of nuns. I yearned for someone, anyone, to take my childish capacity for devotion seriously. But seeds planted in paper cups on the Sunday school windowsill, the dead bird discovered in the backyard, the calligraphic hymns in We Sing of Life, and the annual flower communion were the scant resources my liberal religious education offered. To my parents and teachers—almost all of whom had grown up in other religious traditions—the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences.
I floundered in a kind of guilty yearning until I became intellectually mature enough to claim the rich heritage of humanity’s religious cultures for myself. I did so greedily, with none of the literalism that afflicts fundamentalists, whether orthodox or humanist. As a student of religion in college, I read the Christian women mystics, Zen teachers, Taoist poets. I studied the art and architecture, music and mysteries of the world’s religions, and discovered how each constructed the landscape of spiritual experience. What I sought was some way to bring order to what had always been going on inside of me. And I encountered a whole universe of souls, across every culture and tradition, who knew all about it.
What we feel on the shores of the ocean or the mountain heights is no special insight of our own; it is the common heritage of the human race. There is nothing so petulant as to throw away what our ancestors have tried to pass on to us, in stories and stones, in scriptures and songs, in rituals and prayers, because we think that we in our adolescent hubris know better now. Who can stand in the shadow of the great pyramids, or the radiant light and soaring stone of the cathedral at Chartres—who can listen to the deep cadences of the Book of Common Prayer fall sonorous on the ear—and not realize in the very fiber of being that our wonder and our hunger and our terror and even our most valiant “yes” to life are not ours alone, but echo down the ages of the whole human race?