The harder you search for god, the more you realize he isn’t there!

By Guest Author: Don Severs

I am a religious atheist. I share the ultimate concerns of religious people, but my search for God has led me away from gods.

Many atheists are religious. We yearn for meaning and purpose, we’re animated by concern for humanity, and we recognize the power of working together. Of course, there are non-religious atheists. They are suspicious of group prayer, hymn singing and the pulpit. I share these misgivings, but there is much good in religion I want to cultivate. I attend a Unitarian church. It has far more atheist members than my local atheist group. But Unitarian churches have no creed, so there is nothing to surrender to, except the joint desire to come together and do good. I lend my voice, but I also scan the hymn lyrics and often withhold it, sometimes mid-verse.

If I hear something troubling from the pulpit, I go home and write a response. I act as an at-large committee member, not a Party member. I am wary of groupthink and headless mobs, even liberal ones. I am as hard on my own thinking as I am on others. An unexamined belief is not only not worth having, it’s not really even a belief if we don’t understand its consequences.

Already, we can see that ‘religion’ is a big word like ‘politics’. If fact, religion is largely politics. It is an effort to get people to work together. As such, it is going to be aggravating, uplifting and full of compromises. But it is worth it and we can’t do nothing. Our humanity requires us to try.

But religion isn’t just politics. It is usually polluted with supernaturalism and unreason. Faith is declared be a virtue, without mentioning that it is a road to anywhere. We are often programmed to believe that following the rules of invisible gods is necessary for us to be good people. These often include dietary and sexual restrictions that have nothing to do with human well-being. They are like being told which peg to hang your coat on. And billions of people take them very seriously, to the point that they restrict the rights of women and minorities because of them. We are told we can live forever, but there are conditions. We are told our faith is correct but other faiths are wrong. Or we are told they’re all correct, which is itself unbelievable.

So why am I religious? Well, I’m not religious if religion requires faith. And I’m not religious if it requires God. I am religious because I’m concerned with the things that religion lays claim to: morality, ethics, meaning, purpose and knowledge. I want to help rescue religion from its supernatural corruptions. Carl Sagan:

“A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by traditional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

It’s already here. Unitarian Universalism is close, but we don’t need its imprimatur. Sagan’s religion comprises perhaps a billion dispersed people who don’t know they are members. They are people who live moral, meaningful lives without supernaturalism. Many of us have found each other in UU churches, atheist groups and on the internet. We are more visible and politically involved than ever.

Being a religious person, I am open to God, but I can’t find one. It is common for atheists to be knowledgeable and interested in religion. In my own investigations, all the gods I have encountered are unworthy of my devotion. Why? I have several scientific, logical and moral reasons, but the clincher is this: Little kids suffer needlessly. That’s it.

It is impossible to believe that Indonesia, Haiti and Japan were the best an all-powerful god could do. It is impossible to believe that he couldn’t have reduced the suffering of even one kid a little bit. But we don’t need spectacular disasters to know this. We have always had smallpox, birth defects, mental illness and neglect as demonstrations of God’s character. Yet, when I point this out to believers (typically Christians), they make excuses for God! As if God needs primates to defend him. Come out and answer for your crimes! Where are you? No Greater Good, no happy ending justifies the real, present abandonment and torture of children.

You might think this is unfair. We shouldn’t expect God to meddle with nature and make everything fair and safe. I couldn’t agree more. But then you have to stop saying he helps you and he is a loving God. It isn’t loving to help some people through a divorce or a child’s illness, then do nothing for a kid with a brainstem tumor. You have to admit that, if God exists, he plays favorites. You can’t have it both ways.

Am I angry at God? I would be if he were real. If believers love God, they should do what a good defense attorney would do: try to convince us that God is absent from the scene of the crime. Deists understand this. They like to think Something started the universe, but then retired or died. Ordinary human compassion requires it. It is unthinkable that any God presides over the epic, ongoing suffering we read about in the news every day. We would pillory anyone in our community who did the same. It is also more than a little selfish to take comfort in a God who isn’t for everyone.

So, the best thing we can say for God is that he is absent. Anything else implicates him in crimes against humanity.

But wait! Doesn’t God deserve a good defense? Absolutely. I’d love to hear it. But consider this: the defendant is all-powerful, created the universe and populated it with planets and species. Yet you want a jury to believe he couldn’t allow one more drop of rainwater to fall in a child’s mouth before she died from gangrene in her crushed legs? See you in court.

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers donsevers

    >it sure does water down our potency when theists can point to things like the Unitarian church as an example.

    Or, it refutes their claims that we are amoral and anti-social. Let's face it, atheists have an image problem. The worst one, in fact. I love checking in on Facebook that I'm at church. Everyone knows I'm a nonbeliever who is (nonetheless!) a caring, progressive member of the community.

    Going to church certainly isn't the only way to contribute to a community, but it is one way. My local atheist group has adopted a section of I35 for litter cleanup, they volunteer at the Planned Parenthood book sale, etc. Some of us go to UU church. People on both sides should know that there is nothing incongruous about that.

  • http://www.theatheistadvocate.com Kenny Duit

    "Or, it refutes their claims that we are amoral and anti-social. Let’s face it, atheists have an image problem. The worst one, in fact. I love checking in on Facebook that I’m at church."

    Their claims of our immorality is a reflection on them. I choose to refute that through my personal actions, rather than joining them in church , which lends to legitimizing their claim that one must be a church goer to have morals. For me, posting that I'm in church on a specific day of worship would undermine my core values. I refuse to appease them by joining in their delusion.

    "Going to church certainly isn’t the only way to contribute to a community, but it is one way."

    That will take some explaining. Sitting in god's house communing and praying with agnostics and deists doesn't seem to be a contribution at all. I much prefer going to meetups at the pub or restaurant simply for the friendship. My contributions to the community are in feeding the needy (even by contribution to the ministry food-bank) and "raising barns" when neighbors need a helping hand. I mingle with all my xtian neighbors at community yard sales, funerals, weddings and the like. I don't separate myself simply because I think differently. They learn that I am more trustworthy and have a higher moral code then most through my interactions and they learn the truth about atheists through that exposure. But they also know they will never see me in the pew next them on Sunday. ;)

    Like I said, live-and-let-live. If that floats your boat then it meets my highest and most important aspect of life itself; Do what it is that makes you happy, as long as it causes no harm. one of the many harms here, as I see it, is the monetary commitment to keep a church afloat, which could be put to far greater use.

  • http://www.theatheistadvocate.com Kenny Duit

    Can’t say I’m an advocate of atheists claiming they are religious and attend church, as this totally negates our efforts to thwart those who claim atheism is simply another religion. Live-and-let-live I always say, but it sure does water down our potency when theists can point to things like the Unitarian church as an example.

    The Unitarians are, by definition, those who deny the divinity of Jesus but still believe in god. Unitarians deny the deity of Christ. They believe that only the Father should be worshiped, but their attitude to Jesus varies, reflecting their application of reasoned individual judgment to the Bible, and their reluctance to formulate creeds. Their views developed with the Reformation, notably through Michael Servetus (1511-53). So in attending this church, you are pretty much NOT an atheist in my view.

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers donsevers

    UUs definitely have a Christian heritage, but the membership is the real story. Lots of real atheists. You could say we’ve infiltrated it and are changing it from within.

    There is more than one way to handle the “Atheism is a religion” charge. The easiest is to accept it but deny that supernaturalism and faith are necessary parts of religion. This is my view. Atheists don’t really have problems with ritual, community or service, so why fight against religion as a whole?

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers donsevers

    Some UUs call themselves ‘fellowships’ or ‘societies’. Ours is called a church, but only after much debate. In any event, it’s not any god’s house. It’s a gathering place for humans.

    I have many issues with capitalism, but I don’t avoid the marketplace. I have many issues with government, but I go to the statehouse to support or oppose bills. I have many issues with my atheist group, but I attend anyway. I have many issues with US foreign policy, but I’m proud to be an American and I’m not leaving the country. I prefer to be involved and cultivate our common ground.

  • http://www.theatheistadvocate.com Kenny Duit

    Sounds like you have a lot of issues to work out! ;) Chill brother, how about I just say “Your right” and you should keep representing. All I’m sayin’ is, it ain’t for me. You don’t need to proselytize nor defend.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    Am I angry at God? I would be if he were real. If believers love God, they should do what a good defense attorney would do: try to convince us that God is absent from the scene of the crime. Deists understand this. They like to think Something started the universe, but then retired or died. Ordinary human compassion requires it. It is unthinkable that any God presides over the epic, ongoing suffering we read about in the news every day. We would pillory anyone in our community who did the same. It is also more than a little selfish to take comfort in a God who isn’t for everyone.

    So, the best thing we can say for God is that he is absent. Anything else implicates him in crimes against humanity.

    But wait! Doesn’t God deserve a good defense? Absolutely. I’d love to hear it. But consider this: the defendant is all-powerful, created the universe and populated it with planets and species. Yet you want a jury to believe he couldn’t allow one more drop of rainwater to fall in a child’s mouth before she died from gangrene in her crushed legs? See you in court.

    This is an excellent point, and I love the way you’ve written it.

    Personally, I’m not a member of any church. I think the things you’ve mentioned (morality, ethics, meaning, purpose and knowledge) don’t necessarily have to be addressed from a religious point of view; they can be addressed from a secular point of view. I can relate to what you’re writing about your search for God leading you away from God, since something similar happened to me. In an attempt to figure out what God was like, what he wanted us to do, I began to see how it the stories contradicted themselves and contradicted reality.

    Thanks for writing!

  • Doug

    "I think the things you’ve mentioned (morality, ethics, meaning, purpose and knowledge) don’t necessarily have to be addressed from a religious point of view; they can be addressed from a secular point of view."

    Well put Ani Sharmin.

    That's the rub for me. I don't think a legitimate definition of religion is any community based club with previously agreed upon axioms. Then republican is a religion and we will have to refer to most of ourselves as a-sewing circle-ists. Unless supernatural and truth claims lay somewhere in the definition, everything is a religion.

    So I would define religion as a community of people who profess to share the same belief system and that belief system both makes a truth claim about the way the world works and involves the supernatural; or makes the claim that truth about the universe is inherently subjective or a personal matter, a la UU churches.

    The definition of religion here is too broad; secular communities are much better defined as just that, communities. Adding the church and religion tags just muddy the waters and confuse others.

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers Donald Severs

    I can go along with that. I don't care if we keep the word religion, but there are things associated with religion we must keep: community and service, for example.

    This is why I say I'm a religious atheist:

    "The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver."

    — Richard Dawkins

    But I accept that we don't have to characterize such feelings as religious, since religion is not their only source. They just overlap with religion a great deal.

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers donsevers

    I’m getting some feedback that I’m guilty of obscurantism in my use of ‘religion’ when I say it doesn’t have to include supernaturalism. I think people have a point when they say its meaning should include the supernatural and that it’s just confusing to say ‘religious atheist’.

    We can use whatever word we like if we are clear about what we mean. But in a soundbite world, we invite misunderstanding if we do. I titled my piece ‘Religious Atheist’ to grab readers, then I offered my views. My real aim was to explore together what it means to be religious. I can see both sides in this case.

  • colluvial

    I am religious because I’m concerned with the things that religion lays claim to: morality, ethics, meaning, purpose and knowledge.

    Religion may lay claim to them, but it doesn’t mean it ever successfully gets a hold on them.

  • Doug

    I forgot to thank you for writing this piece! Gyah, where are my manners?

    I really appreciate atheist writing about the importance of community and about the distinction between religious and secular because I think it's very important for atheists and the atheism movement. Keep up the good work; and who knows? Maybe someday when the stigma of religion being what it is has faded, it will be easier to call ourselves religious atheists without the problems there are now.

    Well done, sir.

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  • http://facebook.com/donsevers Don Severs

    I failed to mention humanism. Many humanists identify as ‘religious humanists’: “To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation.”

    http://www.americanhumanist.org/Who_We_Are/About_Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_I

    “There is great danger of a final, and we believe fatal, identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century. Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life. Their end has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult), established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion. This fact explains the changefulness of religions through the centuries. But through all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life.

    Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfactions may appear to many people as a complete break with the past. While this age does owe a vast debt to the traditional religions, it is none the less obvious that any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation. “

  • Paul Murray

    UU is a christian denomination.

    Untiarian: God is not triune, but singular.
    Univesralist: Everyone will be “saved”.

    These doctrines make it a bit easier to go along if you are an atheist, but it is still most certainly not only theist, but christian.

    My view on moderate religious people is rather like my view on Typhoid Mary. They may be asymptomatic and not exhibit fanaticism, but the problem with religion is not the people that carry it, but the disease itself.

  • http://facebook.com/donsevers donsevers

    I agree that moderate religious people smuggle bad ideas. No argument there. But avoiding them accomplishes nothing. I prefer to engage them. Cultivating the areas we agree on creates a relationship, a channel through which we can discuss areas of disagreement.

    As I said above: UUs definitely have a Christian heritage, but the membership is the real story. Lots of real atheists. You could say we’ve infiltrated it and are changing it from within.

    Atheists shouldn't avoid religion any more than we should avoid politics. What influence can we have if we don't show up?

  • jb

    I don’t know how I ended up here but all I can say is you folks are missing out.

    I grew up as a Catholic that didn’t care much about religion. There werepoints in my life that I doubted the existence of god. The more I took religion seriously and open my eyes to God,.the more I feel his.presence.

    Open the holy bible,.read and understand
    Jesus even said. “Seek and you shall find”

    We’re here on.earth as servants of God and no the masters..

    It won’t hurt you to believe. One thing is for sure. Non of us are physically immortal.