by Pastor Doug Kings
A curious op-ed piece appeared on MSNBC.com this week titled “Why America needs a new kind of atheism right now” by Zeeshan Aleem. At 36 already an accomplished journalist, Aleem was born and raised in Washington DC in a Pakistani Muslim household. Aleem rejected his family religion as a teenager, however, prompted in part by a conversation with his religiously skeptical grandfather while visiting him in Pakistan.
Aleem writes out of concern for the growing political influence of conservative reactionary Christians. He points to the Supreme Court as especially worrisome, where five of its nine members now fit that description. And to politicians like US Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has declared, “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church…. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.”
But it’s the second part of Aleem’s concern that is especially interesting. Aleem does not see religion as the enemy. He recognizes the value religion can and often does play in society. What concerns Aleem is the rapid decline of non-reactionary religious groups. He has seen the surveys showing more moderate mainline Protestant, Catholic, and other churches all shrinking in size and influence.
In response, Aleem believes that atheists need to get their act together and do something.
My belief is that an energetic, organized atheist movement — which I propose calling “communitarian atheism” — would provide an effective way to guard against the twin crises of intensifying religious extremism on one end, and the atomizing social consequences of a plunge in conventional religiosity on the other.
Aleem is not talking about forming some political action group, however. I don’t know what your image of atheists is, but I suspect Aleem wouldn’t fit it. Growing up he attended the prestigious Sidwell Friends School (popular with presidential children) and appreciated its Quaker traditions, especially sitting in silence in chapel. In fact, Aleem generally liked his high school Quaker teachers and friends more than the adamant atheists he knew in college and later.
As I got older I found myself circling back to the spiritual world, although in an idiosyncratically atheistic manner. Despite my many objections to Islam, I had never shed my admiration for the capaciousness and airiness of a mosque. I found that when I was going through rough patches, there was nothing quite like the practice of mindful meditation, derived from Buddhist practices, that helped me find my footing and feel connected to the world. Living in New York, I found myself chanting Hebrew and joining hands with septuagenarians after group meditation sessions in my local Jewish community center. I started Googling “Quaker meeting houses near me” more often. This was not a search for god — my atheism was not wavering — but a desire to commune toward the end of something greater.
As his “communitarian atheism” idea implies, Aleem is especially concerned about our unmet needs for community as traditional religious groups decline. He tells movingly about visiting a Quaker meeting when his beloved grandfather died and finding compassion and support in that gathering. Afterwards he says, “I felt nourished, and at home.”
A few years ago, New York Times columnist T. M. Luhrmann wrote similarly, in her case prompted by a family worship experience with Unitarians on Christmas Eve. She explores what it is we are actually looking for in religion and worship.
Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be. Much of what people actually do in church — finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish — can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all.
I believe both Aleem and Luhrmann are exploring important realities here. The need for community is universally recognized and it was a need the church effectively provided for in the past. But as both these essays make clear, traditional Christianity’s God increasingly gets in the way for more and more people.
The God atheists disbelieve in is often some version of the “Sky God” of the ancient and medieval world. This is the bearded man enthroned somewhere above the clouds, but rendered preposterous by the discoveries of science. Unfortunately, while most modern Christians have long since set aside such a God, the church has done a poor job of making clear just what kind of God it does believe in.
This confusion is aided by the fact that in much of our liturgy, readings, prayers, and hymns still retain such imagery. I cringe when I read fellow pastors say on Facebook that their prayers for someone are “ascending.” Is it obvious that is only metaphorical, like saying the sun is rising? I’m not always so sure. Honestly, how we talk about God often renders God more a divine version of Santa Claus, constantly checking to see who’s naughty and nice, and passing out presents accordingly.
I actually don’t believe Aleem and Luhrmann are as from faith as they, or we, might think. The God they’ve rejected likely needs rejecting. The power and wholeness they experience in community and in spiritual practices like meditation have been recognized throughout history as experiences of the Sacred. And the draw to such experiences has always been understood as work of the Spirit.
Augustine said God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Paul said that Christ was alive within him. Jesus said God was present wherever God’s people are gathered. And seven centuries ago the theologian Meister Eckhart said we need to experience “the God beyond God,” the true God which transcends our images of and ideas about God. We need to discover the God “in whom we live and move and have our being”, and create the rituals, language, and images to communicate that God to our own hearts and to the world.
Blessings in your life and ministry.