Recently in the Unitarian Universalist blog-world, much has been made of the printing of an advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the inside front cover of our association’s magazine, the UU World.
For some, the negative reaction to this ad in our religious association’s magazine that features proposed bus signs with anti-religion quotations on them has spurred a debate over whether or not there is enough room in our non-creedal, open minded religious communities for atheists at all.
This question has been asked on both sides: “If you believe in God, why do you go to the Unitarian Universalist church when there are so many other places you could go? And, “If you don’t believe in God, why do you go to church at all, much less a Unitarian Universalist church?”
I really think these are the wrong questions, stemming from a false dichotomy: “Is there a God, or isn’t there one?”
The answer is really, simply, but oh-so-complicatedly, “Yes. There is, AND there isn’t.”
(Well, leaving out the fundamentalist position for now, because it is directly opposite to liberal theology in every way, and Unitarian Universalism is at the very least liberal theology!)
Consider this from Karen Armstrong, printed in the Wall Street Journal in response to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?” (emphases are mine):
Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.
But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to “the God beyond God,” Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously “very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.” Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton’s Mechanick and, later, William Paley’s Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.
But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.
Newton’s God is the one that usually comes up — the idea that life could only be so complex that some kind of supernatural intelligence had to have designed it.
Most liberal theologians have come to the conclusion that God is not an intelligence, but rather a shortcut word or idea to talk about that which is bigger than the human mind can hold, the very essence of the universe that sustains every living thing.
What I find so sad is that many atheists cling to the idea of Newton’s God when they argue against the existence of anything that one could call God.
Consider this from “notorious” atheist Richard Dawkins’ response to the same question as above (emphases again mine):
Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must [be] at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.
Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”
Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.
He plays right into the false dichotomy: God the divine designer exists, or he doesn’t. But until Dawkins went to this particular rhetorical device, pretty much everything he had to say on this question fit very well with what Armstrong had to say, from the “theist” perspective.
The real question we should be asking, in Unitarian Universalist churches and everywhere else, is not, “Do you believe in God?” but rather, “What does the idea of God mean?” The exercise from there would be to answer such a question without negative statements, no “God is not. . .” but rather “God is. . .”
Even with someone who identifies as atheist, perhaps especially so, I bet that conversation could be really interesting.
The point of such an exercise is not about coming up with “THE” answer, either, but instead to enrich our spiritual conversations with one another rather than staying behind our self-imposed barriers of thinking that we already know what someone of a certain ilk might say.
All of this branding of people as “Theist” or “Atheist,” putting people on either side of a hard and fast line without discussion, doesn’t do anyone any good. This false dichotomy seeks to separate us when religious community should be about bringing us together.