Friday, January 9, 2009

The Wheels of Faith Go Round and Round

This time two days ago I was basking in the glow of a Sydney summer sun. It was awesome. I felt so empowered; ready to take on any challenge but not in need of a challenge. It’s amazing how much I miss the sun in the Michigan winter. The sun doesn’t announce itself, or claim any name or identity. It has nothing to prove. It just is, in its silent glory. And yet it achieves so much.

That’s how I want to live my life. I am determined to overcome jetlag quickly. I am determined to begin 2009 with the same grounded optimism I felt on the beach in Sydney. I am determined to carry the sun with me as I venture into another 3 months of veil’d sunlight. I want to make a difference in the world, by being a grounded presence, and without building an identity around making a difference in the world.

I had no intention of writing today. With a million emails to answer, mail to open, people to attend to and a sermon to write before Sunday, it’s hard to justify the time spent writing. But I wanted to write something that helped to clarify my thoughts leading into Sunday; thoughts about faith.

Some of the emails I arrived back to were from my spiritual atheist friends, who were sharing thoughts about the atheist bus movement in the UK. Atheist buses? Well, I have at times waited for buses long enough to doubt their existence. I have traveled on buses so tight with sweaty bodies that it felt like I had died and gone to hell. But, what is an atheist bus? A group of atheists in the UK raised enough funds to run ads on 800 buses that counter evangelical ads preaching eternal hell and damnation. I like it.

Their message? “There’s Probably No God: Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” I like the word “probably”. Atheists have no more right to claim absolute certainty than theists. It’s a matter of probability and necessity. Odds are stacked against the existence of a theistic God. Faith in this God is unreasonable, and becoming less reasonable by the day. More importantly, the supernatural God is no longer necessary. All the comfort, challenge, inspiration, empowerment, peace, awe and wonder that we all long for can be experienced from within nature and in the present moment.

The church has traditionally used the supernatural God to elicit fear and guilt from its members. As the church bulletin board proudly proclaims- ”Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.” There is probably no God out there, waiting to pounce on your mistakes with metaphysical judgment. There is probably no afterlife in which your life deeds will be rewarded or punished in kind.

I agree with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, the conductor and driver of the new atheist movement. This is probably the end of faith that is the suspension of human reason in deference to outmoded and improbable religious beliefs. This is probably the end of faith that claims religious superiority over the rest of the planet. This is probably the end of faith that thinly veils political agendas and empires. This is probably the end of faith that reads the Bible as literal and moral edicts. But it need not be the end of faith.

On Sunday, I want to state a case for the emergence of a new kind of faith that is both rational and mysteriously impassioned. No religion has a monopoly on this faith. Religion can do no more than inspire and resource an experience of faith. Faith is universal. It is the quality of pausing in astonishment at the size and scope of life, offering your humanity for the good of all, and shining like the sun with no need for recognition.

As Joseph Campbell said- “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.”

Stay tuned. I will let you know how successful I am at both conquering jet lag and defining a new faith. Feel free to write and describe what faith means to you. It will help in my preparation for Sunday. I’m very grateful to be on this liberating and open ended journey with all of you; atheists, spiritual atheists, religious folk, spiritual but not religious folk alike. We all journey together and learn as we go.


Peter said...

Wouldn't an atheist saying "probably" change his or her status to agnostic? Or is this an acceptable distinction in atheist circles between belief and knowledge? ie: belives in no god, but allows for the possiblility of being wrong

Brian Johnson said...

love it, Ian!

welcome back and here's to the greatest year of our lives,


Ian Lawton said...

Hi Peter- my sense is that reasonable atheists would say "probably". For example, this is how Dawkins ended an article he wrote on the question in 2006-

"We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can't disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can't disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable."

Richard Powell said...

Ian, I love the funny bit of levity that the word "probably" brings to the slogan. I just can't help smiling when I think about it. That has got to be a good thing, especially with the seriousness of the subject!

On a reflective note, I doubt that faith in the traditional God(s) will disappear anytime soon because people experience deep fears when they grasp the full ramifications of an evolving universe. The story of salvation by an all-powerful deity is ever so effective a balm for that condition, even if it is a delusion. “Quick, ease my existential angst!”

I do think that the change in tone of some atheists — I’m thinking of Stephen Jay Gould before he died, and Daniel Dennett’s comments on the evolution of religions at TED — herald a maturation that is going on in brilliant minds as scientists realize the real physiological need we all have for a sense of something bigger than ourselves. Religion has met that need for thousands of years. What will meet it now that God is “probably” disproved?

Ian Lawton said...

Thanks for your thoughts Richard. My gut tells me that many people are beginning to find the "something greater" within as a sense of self in community with all that is, rather than in an external force. The massive interest in Tolle's A New Earth with the expanded sense of self is evidence of this. I see this as a very exciting trend.