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How do you define an Atheist?


Question & Answer

Q: By Bert
In your recent Question & Answer dated March 25, 2021, you mentioned being an atheist. This term has too many diverse meanings. I don’t believe in the Greek God Thor and don’t expect him to change the weather for me. Does that make me an Atheist? Gods of Mythology come down to earth from heaven and literally fight your battles. I don’t believe in any of the Gods of Mythology, not even the Christian three-part God that was invented in the fourth century under Roman Caesar Constantine. All religions seem to have Gods that are “God in the image of man”. But I do believe in life after biological death. I do believe in a source of creation that lies outside the time-space continuum and therefore is not observable by the scientific method. The source of creation is infinite and undefinable, so calling it a God is just too limiting. I am not comfortable with calling myself an Atheist since that often implies belief in no life after biological death. How do you define an Atheist? 
A: By Rev. Gretta Vosper
Dear Bert,

Thanks for this important question. Your reflections on the gods you don’t believe in remind me of Richard Dawkins’ comment in his book The God Delusion: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” But it seems to me that your concern is not so much about the gods contrived of the human mind, or even about why I use the word “atheist”, but about those things that we cannot yet, and may never, answer: what is the source of all that we experience and what happens to it and to us when our lives end. That, my friend, I do not know.

Still, my answer to the question “How do you define an Atheist?” is quite simple: An atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods. They are of two types: those who do not believe because there is no proof and who would believe should such proof be provided, and those who would not believe in either case. I am the former, a position known as “weak atheism.”

I did not identify as an atheist until bloggers in Bangladesh were being assassinated for doing so. It seemed important to me that those of us who enjoy the privilege of believing whatever we choose identify with those whose governments purport to protect them but refuse to do so. Subsequently, my congregation sponsored one of those Bangladeshi bloggers as a refugee; he’s been in Canada for two years with his family. Welcoming them was one of the most significant undertakings and greatest joys of my ministry.

I do not believe we continue to exist beyond death, but what we do lives on, as you well know. When I am required to describe what the term “god” means to me, I describe what it is we have the privilege of creating between us: beauty, forgiveness, love, kindness. It is the power of that, distributed throughout all our relationships that brings us courage in times of fear, strength in times of defeat and loss, and challenges us to love when hatred would seem the more rational response. When we die, those to whom we have given these strengths in relationship continue to hold them, continue to draw on them. We live on, sewn into the fabric of their being by what it is we have shared with them. This is why it is so important that we love extravagantly, wrestle with the hurt we’ve experienced until we find our way to peace and then live out that peace, and why we must call one another to right relationship with self, others, and the planet. Each time we do any of these things, we strengthen that thing so many refer to as “god”. I just don’t use the word for all the reasons you’ve noted: it simply makes no sense to use such a limiting word for a reality too impossible to define.

~ Rev. Gretta Vosper
About the Author
The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is an atheist. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers. Visit her website here.

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