Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Your Non-God is Too Small

What is an atheist? My general rule is that if you want to know how folks define themselves you ought to ask them. When that happens you find that things are generally not so simple. People define themselves for different reasons and mean many different things. At times our self-definition changes depending upon how the categories are defined.

I agree with many atheists in that I don't believe in the god they don't believe in either. But that doesn't mean much. If a person makes a straw man of my belief, I likely won't accept his or her definition. Often the terms are defined too narrowly (by both Christians and atheists). Robert Jensen points this out in his latest book (due in June 2009):

My basic beliefs about the concept of God haven't changed much since I joined St. Andrew's, though I no longer use the term "atheist" or "agnostic" to describe myself. That's in part because since this phase of my life began there has been a renewed public discussion about atheism, sparked in large part by the publication of several books, all of which leave me unsatisfied [in a footnote he lists titles by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens]. These authors, routinely referred to as the "new atheists" in media reports, offer much useful critical analysis of the supernatural claims of religion and the often destructive effects of religion, but they strike me--in their public comments as well as in their writing--as smug and self-satisfied....p. 39
He quotes Daniel Dennett's definition of religion:
"...social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought..." and the core phenomenon of religion as an invocation of "gods who are effective agents in real time, and who play a central role in the way the participants think about what they ought to do." p. 26-27
If that is religion, I don't belong either. As Jensen puts it wryly:
It appears that the orthodox folks from the presbytery and the new atheists might agree on, if nothing else, how to define religion--narrowly. p. 26
Exactly. It is too simplistic and polarizing. Many progressive Christians reject these narrow definitions of religion. Robert Jensen describes his journey at St. Andrew's:
But more important than my dissatisfaction with the new atheists is my positive experience at St. Andrew's. I continue to read, think, and discuss these issues with my pastor, fellow church members, and a wider public. I have had engaging discussions with a number of progressive thinkers from other faiths that have deepened my identification as a member of a Christian church. In short, my core beliefs haven't changed much, but I don't feel like an atheist or agnostic. p. 26
Religious practice is a great deal more complex and nuanced than how it is defined by both its proponents and opponents. Robert Jensen's saga at St. Andrew's and his new book that recounts this journey is one that will resonate with many.

To both sides we say, your god and your non-god is too small.


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