Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Kind of Atheist Are You? On Spiritual Defensiveness—Elul 5

I once asked a man I had recently met, “What kind of atheist are you?” This was after we had talked for many hours about deep and intimate personal experiences and had moved to the question of spirituality and religion. After I summarized my conversion to Judaism from Evangelical Christianity, I asked him, “What about you?”
“I’m an atheist!” he said.
“A true atheist or an agnostic?” I asked, having encountered many people who didn’t know or weren’t concerned that there is a difference between acknowledging that one knows nothing about God and believing and confessing that God does not exist.
“An atheist!”
“What kind of atheist are you?” I asked.
I was not prepared for his response. What I wanted to know was, Was he a garden-variety atheist? Someone who was not persuaded by a traditional religious or spiritual teachings about God and had had no experiences of God and concluded, logically, that God did not exist? Was he a “God is Dead” atheist, a person who believes the old concepts of God are dead and we must seek new ones that jibe with current science and philosophy? Or, Was he a Christopher Hitchens kind of atheist, that is, a militant, crusading fundamentalist who believes that there is only one truth and he has it: God does NOT exist; and that anyone who disagrees is misguided and irrational. IN short, I wanted to know how open his mind was to different ways of thinking of God and spirituality.
“Why would you ask that?” he asked. He was clearly miffed. “That’s offensive.”
“What do you mean?”
You wouldn’t ask that of anyone else? IF I were a Christian, you wouldn’t ask me what kind of Christian I was. In America today people single out atheists for abuse. It’s like we have to keep quiet, hide in the closet, because everyone has their church or their prayer group. And they treat anybody who doesn’t believe in God badly, with pity or contempt.”
I laughed. “No! You don’t know me! If you had said you were a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim I would have asked, ‘What kind of Christian or Jew or Muslim are you?’ If you had said you were a Presbyterian, I would have asked, “Are you a United Presbyterian, a Southern Presbyterian, or an Orthodox Presbyterian?’ I taught historical theology. I’m a lifelong lover of all religious traditions in their glorious variety. I’m really interested in the differences. And when I ask that kind of question, I want to know about you, where you feel at home, what your deepest values and commitments are. ”
“It’s an aggressive question,” he continued. “People attack atheists and we’re forced to defend our position, when no one else is.”
“I’m not asking you defend it,” I said, “just describe it, so I can get to know you better.”
He wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, describe it.
He was just mad. Mad about all those religious people he had to live among. Mad about being a misunderstood minority. Mad about being questioned at all.
We talked more. I told him when I asked him what kind of atheist he was I just really wanted to know if he was a fundamentalist, meaning, a person who is closed-minded, who doesn’t admit that anyone else’s experience or values or beliefs are legitimate. Because it’s not just religious people who are fundamentalists, secularists and certain atheists are, too. It’s their literalism and absolute certainty that I worry about, not the particular way they understand the universe and its workings.
I don’t remember his response to that other than a denial that he was a fundamentalist.
I tried another tack. I explained to him that if he thought that “God” meant an angry old man out there somewhere, dropping down every once in a while to punish people or stick his finger in the machine of creation to get the gears unstuck or interfere with the course of nature, then I was an atheist, too; because I didn’t believe that god existed either.
But he didn’t want to hear about other ways of conceptualizing God. He didn’t want to talk about God at all. Just talking about God seemed to make him mad. He was mad. Just mad. So I dropped it.
I’ve been thinking about this conversation ever since. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. People have such misconceptions about “God” and religion and spirituality. Old, dead ideas that the media keep playing on. Yet some people, not all, are hungry for new ways of thinking about God and spirit. So after Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur I will continue to talk about our images and concepts of God, the obstacles to our understanding, building on what I have started during this month of Elul talking about “coming into the Presence.”
I’ve also been thinking about how vulnerable we all are when it comes to our deepest values. We are quick to get defensive when we think someone is attacking the core of our being, that which centers our self and guides all our actions. We leap to protect ourselves with anger or certainty or distance, even if we perceive we are not being respected or we are being misunderstood. For who we are in those deep places is so tender, so close to the bone, so sacred, I might say, that it hurts for another not to honor it. This is true no matter how we define ourselves, as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Moslems, mystics, agnostics, atheists, or the ones who don’t know where to turn.
So let’s be careful out there. Let’s not leap to take offense where none is given. And let’s honor the hearts and spirit of the other. That’s another way to come into the presence of the One.

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