Episode Four: Religious realities

Listen Now

It should be a simple question. Do you believe in god, or are you an atheist?

But, what does it really mean to be an atheist?

An atheist does not believe in god, but that only makes sense if we understand what it means to believe in god.

A lot of people all over the world say they believe in god, but do they all believe the same way? Does believing in god mean one thing, or is not believing as varied as believing?

If someone from a different religion believes in god, but not the same way that you believe, is that person an atheist? Are you an atheist for their god, but not for yours?

It seems that for something this important, we should all understand what we're talking about when we talk about god. Whatever that word means to you, no matter how deep and profound, it just as certainly means something different to someone else.

If theism meant one thing, then atheism would mean, not that. We have many different religions, and different denominations and orders within the same religion. So, every belief has its own atheism, and everyone with a particular belief about god is an atheist for every other form of belief.

So everyone is someone’s atheist.

But we usually make the distinction between those who have some kind of belief in some kind of a god, and those who do not.

I have a belief in some kind of god. Still, most people would call me an atheist, because I don't believe in their god, or in their way.

But this still requires that we understand what we mean by the word god. God is many things to many people. First cause. A personal savior. A judge. A feeling that draws you to do the right thing.

What if I understand that god both exists and does not exist at the same time? What's the label for that? I know that might sound ridiculous, but it's not a paradox, it's the poetry of reality, and understanding that poem gives us a way to know god that is so obvious and beautiful, that all of the differences between all of our religions that we celebrate with such passion, are not really differences at all, but are more like different facets of the most beautiful diamond.

God should not be a small and particular thing, wearing only one costume for one people. How could anyone believe that god is both so important and so profound, absolutely omnipresent, but at the same time be limited to one denomination or definition?

Even an atheist can believe in god if we allow god to be larger than a single idea.

Is there a way that we can talk about god that can bring all of us together? All the atheists and all the believers? Can we find a way of thinking about spirit that allows us to see god not only in our own churches and our own people, but in the face of every other person who shares the Earth with us?

I know that there is, but I have an advantage.

I'm an atheist.

That allows me to look a little more deeply into the issue of just what is it that we believe when we say that we believe in god.

Yes, I am an atheist, and this is the story of my belief in god, and what I mean by that.

We are usually given a simple choice of accepting our culture's definition of the spiritual world and god, faith, heaven, salvation, commandments, the entire religious experience, or to dismiss all of it outright and be left with only the physical world of molecules and measurements.

It's like there's this line down the middle. Science on one side and religion on the other. How can you cut the world in half? It’s not one or the other. It’s not even like two sides of a coin. It’s really a möbius strip. Both sides are the same thing.

As long as we look at that line, then of course we're going to have the type of arguments that we have always had.

Faith versus evidence. The seen versus the unseen.

To divide the world like this, you have to cut your soul in two and throw half of it away. We can do better than that.

We have to understand all of our world together. We have to understand the simple, the subtle, and the sublime.

At one level, we have physical reality. This is the simple part of our world. It's what you can see. It is every aspect of our world that can be discovered and understood through observation and experimentation.

What happens when you mix potassium and water? What is the atomic weight of gold? How can you determine the margin of error of radio carbon dating? Why do some people have blue eyes?

How can anyone who believes that this is god's world decide simply to reject what the world shows us? The age of the earth, evolution, climate science, whether left-handed people are evil, or whether homosexuality is a choice, are all subjects that can be examined scientifically. From quarks to chromosomes, from our sun to the vastness of the universe, how can anyone ever look into the gears of this magnificent universe and not accept what it shows us? To reject the world as it is, is to reject our home.

If you believe the world to be created by god, then to reject the world and its beauty as revealed through examination and experimentation is to reject the creator.

The world is here. Look at it. Now you know what god knows.

But humans are not atoms. We are not simple elements being dragged through the world. There is something quite different about humanity.

We are not only animals. We have something that no other species has. Our language gives us the ability to manage all of the intricate cultural realities that define the human experience.

Does there exist a border between the United States and Canada? Of course there is. It's delusional to say otherwise. But what is the border? Is it the gates or the signs? I can have identical gates and signs in my back yard. That doesn't make my back yard the border. The border can exist even without any markings, as long as we have some way to define it.

Yes, the border exists, but this sort of thing can only exist as a shared understanding between the two nations. We use language to define the border. We read, understand, and accept it. Whether it's two neighbors agreeing that each will plant on his own side of a line from that rock to the big oak by the river, or is part of a complicated international treaty, a border only exists within the realm of human understanding and convention. There is nothing about the border that can be discovered through observation and experimentation the way that we can understand gravity or electricity.

And so, the border both exists and does not exist at the same time. It exists as part of our cultural reality, because we say that it does, but it has no intrinsic, physical reality.

With our elaborate language, we have history. With language, we can share our plans for tomorrow and for next year. With language, we have borders and money and law. We have culture, duty, and honor. We have rank, managers and employees, performance reviews, debt and mortgages.

These and other subtle aspects of our reality are so fundamental and essential to the human experience, that it feels to us as though they could be a part of the physical world itself.

But this part of reality is fluid. These truths are proportional. They're true only because we accept them. Calendars. Borders. Nations. Money. Marriage. These are all things that could slip away from us if we forget that we are creatures of magic.

What about the supernatural, the sublime? This is a little different.

This is the part of our world that, by definition, is not part of our world, but part of something else, something beyond.

We know that heaven isn't literally in the clouds. Airplanes are in the clouds. Satellites are in space. Heaven, angels, saints, gods, and ghosts do not exist in the same way that dirt and water and we exist.

And this brings us back around to god and what it means to believe in god, or to be an atheist.

Whatever the reality of god in the beyond, the idea of god absolutely exists in our world every day.

Belief exists.

Belief in god is a real thing. Belief can inspire deeply. Belief in god can bring genuine comfort and guidance, or it can bring fear and shame.

I want to tell you the parable of the traveling uncle.

There was a girl who played adventures with her little brother in the woods behind their home. They imagined growing up and traveling the world. Sometimes they fought bad guys. Sometimes they built marvelous machines that helped other people. They would be rich, they decided, because with more money they could help more people.

But then the brother died, and the girl grew up.

But she never forgot the adventures that they had planned. They stayed with her as she grew up. She tried harder in school, she was always a little more careful, because she was determined to grow up and do all of those great things, for her brother who could not.

One day she met her love, and they married, and they soon had a son, who played adventures in the woods behind her home.

Each night as she tucked her son to bed, she told him about his uncle as she liked to imagine him, out there in the world, doing great things, flying from place to place in his private plane.

Do you think he's still out there, mommy? Helping all those people?

I do, she told him.

As he grew up, he know that he would be safe, because somewhere his uncle was out there fixing things. Making the world better. He grew up, always wanting to make his uncle proud.

Do you think he knows that I did good on my test? Do you think he's proud of me?

Yes, my dear. I know he's very proud.

The young boy grew into a young man, and he learned the story of how his uncle died, too young. But he could always imagine his uncle grown, magnificent, still out there, doing great things, and even though we was gone, the adventures, his deep goodness, and his love and his wisdom, was always an inspiration.

Every day his mother would still tell him, your uncle would be so proud.

It gave him courage, it give him inspiration, it gave him a reason to try harder, to be understanding, to find a wise path in those times when the world became difficult.

The young man chose to be an engineer, so he could help people all over the world, just like his uncle.

And he did. Every day. And he knew. His uncle would be so very proud.

Our beliefs change what we do and how we think. If I believe that my uncle would be proud, and that make me try harder. That's real.

And so, in our understanding of reality and truth, where does religion fall?

We can examine and challenge some of the physical and historical claims of religion, but that's not really the point.

The problem with an atheism versus religion approach is that it locks us into a false choice.

If we attempt to dismiss everything that is not part of physical reality, we have to throw away all of our cultural realities. We would lose all of those other things that both exist and do not exist at the same time, like our borders, like law, like the pride of your uncle, and the judgement of god.

Of course when looking out from within a religion that tells us that all of our cultural realities come from god, the idea of losing religion looks absolutely absurd, even barbaric, because it feels like we are being asked to deny all of the subtle, non-physical realities that is our humanity.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god.

And so we don't know where to draw the line. Some of us want to ground our society in what is real, and reject the supernatural and superstition. Others know, quite correctly, that everything about our human realities, everything that makes us more than than animals in the wild, we have because of language that gives us history, meaning, and the soul of our species.

We don't need stories from our religious traditions to be literally true to recognize that we are spiritual beings that live in this miraculous shared dream called civilization.

We don't need to deny the spirituality of humanity to know that science is real.

We can't cut ourselves in half. We can't continue in this endless battle over the soul of mankind.

As we learn more about other cultures, their religions, their realities and truths that they have chosen to serve them, we see similarities, and we understand how all of our stories about god has brought us to where we are.

But, if we are not able to see our same truths reflected in the spiritual traditions of other people, if we can only say that my truth is true, and so your truth has to be a lie, then we will be forever chasing the waning shadows our past.

I imagine a large curtain hanging across one of the walls of a church. On the other side of that curtain sits god, watching, listening.

Of course god could simply open the curtain, but chooses not to. Instead, we imagine that god commands us to choose faith over evidence, remaining silent while other men look behind the curtain and tell us what they see, what we should do, and whether we should trust others, or fear them.

Many are those who will tell us that they have seen behind the curtain, and that they have a special message for us about how we should belive, how we should act, what we should buy, or how we should vote. They will tell us how, by their authority, we can rest in the sacred knowledge that their truth is true, and all other truths are lies.

But until god steps out from behind the curtain, until god opens up the sky and winks at us with his kind and gentle eye, until god makes all speculation and denomination irrelevant by being obvious and undeniable, then all we have is the closed curtain and our beliefs about what is on the other side.

Whether we see god as alive and aware in the beyond, touching our world through prayer and miracles, or if we see god as that divine part of the human spirit granted to us through language and meaning, what we believe matters because it shapes us, how speak, how we act, and why.

Is there not some value to finding a belief that can guide our lives and our planet toward love, peace, dignity, and happiness for everyone? A belief where we don't have to choose between science and faith, and we don't have to be at war over who gets to own our soul?

I think sometimes we get stuck on the wrong questions. We're focusing on the wrong side of the curtain.

What matters is what we believe about ourselves in relation to the sanctity of humanity. What matters is how our beliefs manifest through our actions in this world.

My belief about our divine journey does not come from the doctrine of an established religion.

For me god, is not a consciousness. The creation of this world is not like my deciding to make a table and then building it. The creation of this world, from the universe to this planet down to my eye that sees it all is an inevitable unfolding of the structure of the cosmos.

My belief is that god is love. Not as a metaphor, but as a definition. To love, to understand, to listen and respect, and to walk gently through a harsh world is to be with god. To be angry, afraid, spiteful or hateful is to choose to be farther away from god.

Living in a simmering cauldron of emotions and intent is difficult. Forgiveness and understanding is essential. Laws are ways that we have found to live and explore and practice the art of humanity together.

Law is not sacred because god said it. God said it because it’s sacred.

To share the glory of understanding how this world works and what it is, brings us closer to god, and to deny the world as it is, is to choose to be farther away from god.

You can learn to see god in every smiling face. Every kind word and every childish giggle. You can see god in the warmth of friendship and in the hope of a nation.

We live together on a tiny, blue marble hanging in the cold empty depths of space. The nearest star is twenty-five trillion miles away. We're in this together. To wake up and see the sun rise in the sky every day is itself sublime. To be alive and aware and able to witness and understand is pure glory. To speak, to be a part of the flow of history, to tell stories, build tools, create art, write music, sing and dance is to be human.

God is everything about the human condition that is possible because of language and the ideas and beliefs that our words enable. God is what separates us from the other animals. God is love. God is law.

God is a word that we use to understand and to talk about the fundamental essence of this glorious human condition, expressed and celebrated a thousand different ways in a thousand different lands and with a thousand different names.

Atheism and theism can both be a sacred celebration of who we are and what we can become. The word doesn't really matter.

Who gets to define the reality of god?

If someone tells us that to believe in god we must follow a doctrine that diminishes god into a singular form that excludes the very idea of divinity in other beliefs, or that allows you to judge, to hate; if they ask us follow any idea that can be corrupted into a convoluted carrot and stick designed to keep us docile and afraid and separated from others; if they want us believe in a religion that asks us to turn our back on our home, this beautiful world and all of its magnificent ways that science reveals; if they demand that we follow any word or book that asks that we believe in a small, particular, selfish, or jealous god; if they preach to us that there is anything good about murdering an innocent man so that we can do evil without consequences; if they tell us that we are born in sin, and only their truth will set us free; and if this causes anyone to deny the truest god that speaks to everyone in every language, in the language of love and hope and possibilities together in our sacred journey...

If that is not a god that you can believe in, then who is the atheist here?

If I have this idea about god, if I believe in god in this way, am I actually an atheist? And if I am, what is it, specifically, that makes me an atheist?

The fundamental belief that I reject is that this sacred human condition of culture and law and meaning and truth and all of our imagined realities, is something that can be owned and controlled by any particular doctrine exclusively to the detriment of all others.

I reject that they have the right to steal my soul, and then sell it back to me at their price.

Through language, culture, history, and purpose, we are different from other animals. We are something more. We are spirit, by what ever name you might imagine: God. Science. Mind. Soul. Truth. Law. Physics. Mother nature. Love. Hope.

These can all be synonyms of our search and our destiny.

When I imagine opening the curtain, all I see is everything that we already have: law, language, laughter, and love; science, spirit, song, and sunrise. I see everyone together on this planet, living in peace, with justice and dignity, with love, hope and the courage to live well.

We live in a dream that has been crafted for us for thousands of years, and that has become the reality because that's what everyone has chosen to believe.

Whatever our beliefs about the beyond, all we can really do is follow our best ideas. Find the best reality for all of us together.

Embrace the best science that we can discover. Embrace whatever brings peace and fulfillment to yourself, your family, your village, and for every soul who struggles upon this tiny blue marble.