Q & R: Making peace with (A)theism

Here’s the Q:

Hey Brian,
I’ve emailed you before — don’t worry about responding. I’m in the
process of working through all of this and I’ll be fine. But I figured
I’d write you just the same, as I do really appreciate your views on a
variety of issues (not just theological). (By the way, before I go any
farther, I want to say that theologically, I think The Secret Message
of Jesus is probably the most important book you’ve written, at least
of what I’ve read — it’s really been huge for me. And I’m trying to
find time to work my way through Naked Spirituality, which is
fabulous–I bought a copy for my mom and a previous boss — but it’s
the kind of book one really needs some life-space to enjoy, and my
life is pretty busy and exhausting at the moment…)
Anyway… I’m still pretty young, 25, and I work for the government of
xxx. I’m an aspiring Christian (sort of a cross between a
Mennonite and an Episcopalian at this point), but I feel like I’ve
been rather stumbling towards faith over the past several years, which
has been somewhat of a painful process, and I could use a helping hand
to steady me a bit. Basically my problem is this: I’m having trouble
learning to be at peace with atheism. I have a very curious,
questioning, impressionable mind and I find atheism hard to ignore.
Yesterday, for example, I was looking on iTunes for some good
spiritually-inclined indie-folk-rock songs to put on a mix CD for a
friend of mine and I came upon a song called “Glory Hallelujah” by a
British folk-rocker named Frank Turner. Let’s just say it was not what
I was looking for—the song is basically an anthem for new atheism:
Brothers and sisters, have you heard the news?
The storm has lifted and there’s nothing to lose,
So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes,
Because there never was no God.
Step out of the darkness and onto the streets,
Forget about the fast, let’s have a carnival feast,
Raise up your lowered head to hear the liberation beat,
Because there never was no God.
There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.
No cowering in the dark before some overbearing priests,
No waiting until we die until we restitute the meek,
No blaming all our failings on imaginary beasts,
Because there never was no God.
No fighting over land your distant fathers told you of,
No spilling blood for those who have never spread a drop of love,
No finger pointing justified by phantoms up above,
Because there never was no God.
There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.
And I know you’re scared of dying man and I am too,
But just pretending it’s not happening isn’t gonna see us through,
So just accept that there’s an end game and we haven’t got much time,
And then in the here and now we can try and do things right.
Forget about the crazy things that people have believed,
And think of wondrous things that normal people have achieved,
‘Cos I’ve known beauty in the stillness of cathedrals in the day,
I sang Glory Hallelujah! Won’t you wash my sins away?
But now I’m singing my refrain and this is what I say,
I say there never was no God.
There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.
I have spent most of my life in very secular (but not necessarily
secular-ist) environments, where faith in God is rarely spoken of and
rarely affirmed, and yet, when I hear or read views such as these
expressed above – I am still deeply disturbed. The gulf between an
Atheist and a Theist view of reality is truly vast, even if the actual
behaviour of the various adherents is all over the map.
My gut reaction to hearing the kinds of views expressed in that song
is first: Are they nuts? and then: What is their problem? But the
thing is, I know what their problem is – because it’s partly my
problem as well. They (we) desperately need a coherent explanation to
live by – and the more people around us we can get to affirm the
coherence of our explanation, the more easily we will be able to sleep
at night and the more pleasantly we will be able to go about the
business of our daily lives. So we evangelize. (That’s obviously not
the only reason we evangelize.)
If there is one thing human beings can’t survive without, it’s
existential coherence, i.e. meaning to live by, even if that “meaning”
is that “there is no meaning”. The problem with meaning though is of
course that it is socially constructed (regardless of whether it is
ultimately being discovered or invented) – and when society ceases to
provide sufficient affirmation (i.e. clarity) of our meaning, we drift
into deeper and deeper existential uncertainty. To my mind, the modern
Western dabbling in atheism is on a fundamental level a reaction to
that incoherence, or existential uncertainty, as a way of breaking
free from it.
Of course, some existential uncertainty is always necessary for
deepening our understanding of God / reality / the meaning of life –
whatever – in the first place. I am certainly not against doubt
itself. But to say there is no understanding or meaning to be found is
to go too far, because it undermines the whole reasoning process. It
undermines reason itself.
Throughout human history and still in most parts of the world – the
idea that there is a God of some kind – is/has been taken for granted.
As well it should be. I think that’s actually a pretty safe bet. The
rational/philosophical arguments for a Creator are convincing – you
really have to want God not to exist in order to reject them. If there
is any explanation to be found – if there is any rhyme or reason to be
found in anything – God is it. To my mind, in the marketplace for
ideas, true atheism is simply a bad idea. It is a piss-poor
explanation of reality.
And yet, I can’t completely ignore it. Philosophical Materialism keeps
nagging at me, tripping me up on my walk with God. Self-doubt
sometimes becomes a kind of addiction for me. How do I learn to stand
on my own two feet intellectually? How did you manage it?
Ultimately, I think the debate around the existence of God seems to
rather miss the point. The debate we ought to be having should not
center around the question of “Is there a God?” but the question of
“What kind of God?”
As I said, I think it’s pretty safe to say that there is some kind of
Creator-Sustainer-Organizer of the universe, but beyond that,
everything is totally uncertain for me. What is God’s character and
intention? How does He/She/It relate to us and interact with us? Does
God truly speak to human beings? Are beauty, justice, reason, love,
etc. truly intimations of the divine? Are they truly “patches of God’s
light in the woods of our understanding”? I hope so. I think so. But
hell if I know. Still – that seems like a much more interesting and
fruitful way to frame the debate around faith and religion. Even if
you want to call it “Nature”, you’re still left with a God – as an
organizer, a sustainer, a source, a creative mind. How can
matter/energy exist unto itself? So I would so desperately love it if
we as a culture could move past the “Is there a God?” debate into the
“So what does the fact that there is a God mean for me?” debate. But I
know that probably won’t happen anytime soon.
Anyway, can you give me some guidance? How do I make peace with
atheism? Should I stop reading the Huffingtonpost?

Here’s the R:

First, I think everyone reading this will be moved by your honesty and articulation of an almost-universal (to some degree) human experience. Thanks for that!
On the issue at hand, let me tell you the three books that have helped me a lot in this regard.
Two by Peter Rollins – How (Not) to Speak of God and Insurrection
One by Richard Kearney – Anatheism
When you get a chance to get into Naked Spirituality, I think you’ll also find some help in the “stage 3” and “stage 4” material. But as you said – a) I know you’ll work through this and be OK, and b) to some degree, this uncertainty is the human condition (for honest humans, anyway!), and this uncertainty is not the opposite or enemy of faith but rather the precondition for good faith.
In the end, I think it is contemplative seeing (what I call stage 4 in NS) that sustains us beyond the agonies of theism versus atheism. Contemplative seeing invites us to see both what the theists see and what the atheists see.