Joy of Atheism

Sermon given at the Stow Acton Unitarian-Universalist Church by Paul Reisberg

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

So it was with me. In the beginning I was bothered by the word and that word was god, it was one of those words like love and sex that mean different things at different times and to different people. It was a problem of clarity. Which god were we talking about?

Loving Grandfather image

or Vengeful Jealous god

Gentle Nurturing Mother Nature

Or an omnipotent being that demands worship and obedience 

Spirit of Life

The disinterested creator of the deists.

The capricous, petty god that tortured Job

or  do we mean just God is Love

One-Half of a God-Satan duality

1/3 of a trinity

one of a multitude of heavenly hosts

a protector, guardian and  grantor of favors who likes to be asked directly or indirectly by prayeror

the damner of unbaptized souls

the quitessential essence and ether that surrounds us

or a  being who becomes flesh as the communal wafer is consumed.

So when we say god do we mean a spirit, a being, a companion, a taskmaster, a judge, a concept, a principle? All of the above, none of the above,  a and c not e? The word god was getting lost in a world full of gods.

For me the answer was to tease out the different aspects rather than use the word god. Creator if that was what was meant. Spirit of life, almighty lord, loving spirit .. whatever was appropriate. But it was a slippery slope and as I abandoned the word as not useful with time I  found the concept itself becoming decreasingly useful


I could observe how others could use god as an imprimator of what we value and deem important, a label to identify our values. For example, defining god as mother nature says something of our world view and how we view environmental issues.


I also noticed many use god as a bridge or a vehicle to connect us to the universe, the other, the mystery and awe that envelopes and overwhelms us.

But for me the opposite was true, god did not help me make this connection but instead got in the way. Seeing a sunset as itself and trying to come to terms with it was more powerful than framing it as an aspect of god's creation.

Atheism became a way of seeing things as inherently themselves without the filtering framework of a god and her plan. As I identified myself as an atheist to others I was surprised by the shocked reactions I would get. It was as if I had admitted to cannibalism.  Generally the argument would be made that without god there can be no morality, no reason not to rape, steal and murder. I stop and think: if that is what they believe, I am really, really glad this person believes in god. But I don't buy it. Belief in justice, love, beauty and truth is quite possible without a belief in supreme beings. Perhaps these things are even  stronger in the nonbeliever.You've probably noticed I've included a list of what we call freethinkers, certainly not a rogues gallery of murderers, thieves and rapists.All can agree the world is full of injustice. The orthodox argue that since god is just, all will be made up in the end, in the afterlife. The nonbeliever instead sees the injustice and feels a need to roll one's sleeves up and get to work. This is the reason I believe the great social movements in this country: the American Revolution, Abolition, Woman's Suffrage, Civil Rights, Arms Control, and Gay Rights were led by Unitarians, Deists and Atheists and not the orthodox..

So that's my personal journey, what however has energized me to speak before you has been the attacks on atheists as a group and the desire to call your attention to a growing intolerance of the nonbeliever.  I'll let you judge for yourselves what passes for freedom of religion in Texas. I am very worried about our President select's plans for an Office of Faith Based Action, and can only guess what mischief may result from the $8 billion he wishes to funnel through the chrurches.

I have noted the contrast between the uproar over the Boy Scout's exclusion of Gays versus the silence following their earlier ban on atheists. I came across a poll that asked "Could you vote for an othewise qualified candidate of your party who happened to be ______?"  Black, Baptist, gay, Jewish, Woman, Mormon, Catholic, Atheist. In 1937 only Baptists had a majority. Today over 90 % felt they could support a black, a catholic, a homosexual, a jew or a women, 80% a Mormon, while a majority could not yet bring themselves to vote for an atheist. There are also the affronts that have become just part of the scenery but I ask you to consider if non believers were as heavy handed as believers and court trials featured "I swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth without any help from  gods" .What if the pledge to the flag ended "one nation free of gods, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all". What if our money repeated endlessly the message "you can't trust god".

I just offer this as Food for thought. Atheism can be seen as too sterile and lacking in spirituality. (how can one be spiritual without spirits?) The magnificient wonder of life is often offered as a reason for belief. So it has struck me how the great romantic poets, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley etc. were all atheists. Indeed Shelley was dismissed from Oxford because of his pamphlet On the Necessity of Atheism, The poet Wallace Stevens explains, that though the concept of god is too silly to believe, not believing leaves a hole that we need poetry to fill and to connect us with the other. And just as truth is stranger than fiction, reality stirs the imagination and resonates more deeply in us than fantasy can ever do. That poetry is about truth is what moves us so deeply.

My main thought: Life is overwhelmingly complicated, and our universe is incalculably immense. We find ourselves plagued with questions of origin, of purpose, of duty, of meaning, where are we going, why does the world seem so unjust etc. To prevent ourselves from falling into a catatonic stasis we establish frameworks of meaning and use god as the answer for the questions we can't handle. When a toddler keeps asking why , why, why, eventually the parent resorts to " because", I noticed we use god as a final answer to questions that don't go away  as an adult way of saying "just because". A so called god of the gaps that exists in our areas of ignorance.

This creates a problem in believing we have answered the question (though I would argue we haven't ,that god is no better answer than because) and we forget we even had a question. Thus the fundamental questions of life become forgotten., unpursued and unanswered.

If god created us, there is no need for evolution and cosmology. If morality is obeying god, there is no need to sort out ethics and morality and evil and justice.If our purpose is to worship god and then go to heaven, there is no need to find meaning in our lives.

But just as a child needs to separate from its parents to grow, I would argue that we likewise need to distance ourselves from god as an answer. And then we must start wrestling with the issues of meaning we have long avoided.  

A final thought. We often use our gods as a bridge to connect us to the universe that surrounds us. Likewise, god can be a vehicle taking us to the transcendent, just as we need a car or a plane to get to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. But as far as vehicles are concerned, I have noticed I see far more from the front seat than the back and I am even more aware if I am driving.  Taking a bike is even better for I feel I am now in the world and not just observing  it. I can feel the sun and wind and my vision is undistorted by glass. But better still is to abandon my  vehicle entirely, to be able to roll in snow or grass, splash among puddles, wrestle with the mud, smell the earth's perfumes, hug a tree -feeling its textured bark, see the universe in  a snowflake or my dreams in clouds or in the eyes of a friend. Or like Eve discover the spirit of life in the taste of an apple.