I’ve been reading another smart and literate atheist arguing the absurdity of belief in God. Someone asked me once if I was threatened by the recent self-assertiveness of atheists and, surprisingly, I could offer a confident “no.” The fact is that I am heartened by the resurgence of atheism because I agree with almost all of it. The kind of shallow, or at least, immature systems of belief that atheism attacks, should be debunked and I feel like I play my own part in debunking them from the pulpit most Sunday mornings. But the arguments of the atheists never get to the real point or even address the heart of real faith.
Atheists generally make the mistake of assuming that belief in God is an assertion of fact or truth about the world. They think of it as a claim of truth that can be examined, debated, argued and then affirmed or found wanting. And of course it is always found wanting. But of course, real faith is not some intellectual assertion about the world at all. What one believes (in the modern sense of the word) has got very little to do with the heart of religion. As a person of faith, I certainly don’t believe in some kind of a super “being” who lives beyond the stars and controls things here on earth. I don’t believe in a vast white-bearded person with super-powers. For that matter, I don’t believe in any virgin births, any water-top walking, any dead bodies escaping from graves or anybody or anything coming into the world riding on the clouds. But I am still a person of faith nonetheless and even still a Christian.
The atheists make the same mistake of literalism that the fundamentalists make. They seem unable to understand the metaphoric nature of myth or the role of scripture as a narrative that conveys meaning rather than a factual literalism. It’s as if they are criticizing poetry for being bad science or condemning Shakespeare’s tragedies for being faulty history. They regularly lampoon the ideas of God popular in third grade Sunday schools but never seem to wrestle with more abstract conceptions of God or more profound levels of religious understanding.
But most importantly atheism doesn’t seem to understand that what you believe in your head is beside the point and not really the religious issue at all. Once, when the English language was younger, the word belief was a pretty good synonym for faith. It comes from the German word “belieben” which originally meant, “to give one’s heart to.” Our way of using belief today is very different and this gets to the real distinction. Faith is about what we choose to live for and live with. It is about commitment. It is about what it is that we value in an ultimate way—what we give our heart to. In that sense, of course, there is no such thing as atheism. Everyone gives their life to something. Everyone holds something to be of more value to them than anything else. We all get up in the morning and choose to live one way rather than another because of what we feel is important and what we see as the purpose of our living. In that sense, everyone has a god even if they would never choose to call it by that name. We now use the word belief about what intellectual propositions we think to be true. That sense of the word is not the heart of the issue of faith at all. Tillich called faith one’s “ultimate concern.” We all have something that concerns us in an ultimate way. That is our faith, whether that ultimate thing to us is family, money, success, power, a flat-screen TV, or something that we call god.
Faith is more like falling in love than it is about some logical proposition. When we truly fall in love, when we “give our heart” to someone, as we know, logic and good sense go out the window. Some friend can tell us that the person we love is not right for us, or not good looking enough or too bossy, or doesn’t seem like a good match in any of a dozen ways, and it doesn’t matter. It’s not really about the head—it’s about the heart.
Being an atheist also has a component of heart. There is something that feels almost heroic about it. I know this because this “spirit” of atheism was handed down to me from my own father and I revere it. It means having the strength to face the hard truth about the world, that we are on our own and death is total extinction. Friedrich Niezsche once wrote to his sister, “If you want to have safety and security, then believe, but if you want to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” The heroic pursuit of truth no matter where it leads, no matter how cold and hard it makes the world seem is an end in itself. It is noble. But it is not without its component of faith. Some abstract vision of truth is the ultimate value. Some idea of the nobility of the human being standing alone and strong in the face of cold truth, and in the face of so much of humanity choosing to follow the easier, safer and wishful-thinking path of the general herd. Nietzche sees himself as the beginning of the emergence of the “ubermensch,” reclaiming the power and nobility of human life that religion has childishly projected into the heavens. To be a real atheist is to give ones self to this noble calling as a seeker of truth. There is a genuine beauty in that. It too represents the religious impulse.
At the center of the religious impulse is not a literal assertion of some kind of super-being. It is, instead, the longing to give ones life to some larger vision, some quest, some purpose beyond just the littleness of our everyday routines. For people of faith, it is the discovery, at the heart of human life of some connection with a larger reality of which we are a part. Rather than the nobility of standing strong and alone, faith finds that there is relationship at the heart of life. The one assertion of the New Testament that, I think, we can take quite literally, is the claim that “God is love.” God is not some being that we can debate the existence of. God is instead, this connection between each of us that holds us together. When Paul Tillich defined God as “the ground of being,” he was saying that rather than God being some separate entity, God is the totality of what is.
But the key religious claim here is that there is a totality. Human life is not just a bunch of separate beings; the whole cosmos is not just a bunch of separate worlds spinning in empty space. There is a connection. At heart we are all one. At heart everything is connected and those connections are more important and more central to life than anything else. God as love is metaphorically like the force of gravity in physics. We are all these separate beings, so idiosyncratic, so different in background, influences, history, and psychology. It is so easy for us to simply spin in our separate orbits, with so many centrifugal forces pushing us farther and farther away from one another. But there is this other force. Physics calls gravity the “weak force” because compared to all of the others, it hardly seems important, but it is constant, omnipresent, relentless, and unyielding, pulling all of those separate things inexorably together.
This is how God as love works among us, mysteriously but inexorably drawing us toward one another. So many things come between us and divide us, but at the heart of each one of us there is this other force pulling us into oneness. It is expressed in us in sympathy, compassion, empathy, and the need to love and care. People of faith call that connection God. We are those who have fallen in love with all of what we call creation and are convinced that our oneness with one another and even with all that is, is what we need to give our lives to. How we make sense of this love affair in intellectual terms is just not the point. Whether to call that connection God or something else is just not the point. We are in love and no one can talk us out of it. We have given our heart to a vision of reality that sees all of life as this web of connectedness. No, we are not nobly and strongly standing alone for truth; we are hanging on to each other for dear life and believing that this love between us has something to do with the nature of being itself. We are part of this grander, unfolding, reality that is in fact eternal and so we are eternal with it.