Someone in an email said she/he (we need a gender-neutral pronoun for people in English) didn’t think I was an atheist, but he/she couldn’t determine just what I was. Caused me to think.
The first problem in this piece is to define just what in the heck atheism is.
By literal translation, “theism” means the belief in at least one deity. The “a” prefix negates the theism and we have “no belief in deity”. But, like most things religious, definitions are not so simple. Religion stretches our use of language, even the very meaning of words.
There is a Wikipedia article that discusses the various and sundry meanings of atheism in great detail, and is a good source to begin a study of what atheism has meant in various times and places and to different people, but two definitions seem to fit my specific circumstances:
1. The term atheism originated as a pejorative epithet applied to any person or belief in conflict with established religion
2. One of the definitions of so-called “Practical Atheism”- “Absence of religious motivation or the belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action”
The footnote to the first definition cites some interesting etymology (that the word is not Greek, per se, but has a Greek construction) and quotes the Oxford English Dictionary as follows:
An Atheist is taken two ways, for him who is an enemy to the Gods, and for him who believeth there are no Gods.
Alternatively, in America, an Atheist is a God-hating anti-capitalist.
Now for a little, um, reflection. Yeah, the title of this article.
“In conflict with established religion” fits me pretty well. I have not really experienced any religion other than Christianity in its many widely diverse forms–Roman Catholic, Baptist (Missionary, Free-Will and Southern), United Methodist, Latter-day Saint (LDS or Mormon). It is plain I am in conflict with them—that is, I disagree with one or more tenets of their doctrines.
Part of the problem comes from the fact I learned all these differing doctrines, with each group believing they had the will of God all figured out (well, to be truthful, Methodists assert we each have to figure it out for ourselves and then somehow merge all this theoretically diverse thought into one denomination; sounds good in theory, but in practical terms, there is too much homogenous thought in the denomination for this to have really worked as stated).
In all these denominations, all claiming to be “of one faith”, there is little, if any agreement on what has to be the central concept: what it means to be saved and how one is saved. (There are significant doctrinal differences in other areas as well, but I will restrict my discussion to salvation doctrine for this article.)
I made a cardinal error: I tried to understand what scripture has to say to us about the relationships of people to each other and between people and God.
I tried to understand how salvation works and what it means; I tried to discern how a just and loving God could consign so much of his beloved creation to solitude; for hell is real, it is nothing other than the absence of God in the face of an eternity.
I read and studied Romans, Paul’s treatise on salvation. Perhaps I have tried to understand this book from too many points of view. From the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a teenager, to the Southern Baptist Church as a young adult and the United Methodist Church later, I was exposed to theologies and doctrines that are vastly different, and all point to Romans as a primal source. When reading Romans, I see all sorts of salvation theory present in it: Salvation by Works, Salvation by Grace, Predestination of the state of Salvation and, ultimately, Universal Salvation for all.
Eventually, I settled on a form of Universal Salvation, which I used to refer to as “All Dogs go to Heaven” to somewhat lighten or defer the scorn and ridicule this belief brought me by many I had respected. Many began to question if I could be “saved” if I believed this way and the more I thought about it, the more I saw myself in conflict with the Christian religion, the only one I really know. So when I stumbled upon the definition above, it seemed to strike a chord.
But, most people nowadays are not thinking of this definition when they use the word; they are thinking of a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: An Atheist is taken two ways, for him who is an enemy to the Gods, and for him who believes there are no Gods.
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My actions are not based upon either the desire to be saved in the traditional sense— a desire to avoid hell (in a negative statement of belief) or to live forever with God (in the positive affirming statement)—or to please God, per se. This confounds many Christians.
What I think about this is that if you do good solely for the purpose of achieving heaven, avoiding hell or pleasing God, then your motivation is not pure, not what I think Jesus taught.
In some sense, if the motivation for doing good is going to heaven/avoiding hell, we are trying to earn our way into heaven, or prove to God we are good enough. The LDS church has a concept of “worthiness” which fits this belief system. To be worthy in the LDS system of beliefs means your life is lived in accordance with all the commandments and you are without blemish and because of this, you are able to enter into God’s presence; inversely, if you are not pure and without blemish, then you cannot enter into God’s presence.
Even a cursory reading of the Bible will result in the understanding that one cannot earn God’s favor; it is a gift. It’s called Grace, which, as the Catechism states, is “God’s unmerited favor.” While most Christians will assert the LDS position is extreme at best and plainly non-Christian at worst, there are elements of it hiding in the nooks and crannies of more orthodox Christianity.
For example, most Southern Baptists believe in the concept of “Once saved, always saved.” But then they also identify those who are “back-slidden”, that is, fallen backwards, perhaps out of the grace of God. How can this be, if once being saved you are always saved? It’s a logic twist of pretzel proportions: if you are not now saved (“with us”), then you never were; that is, if you are now back-slidden, it is probable you never were saved to begin with—that your baptism was probably not valid because of a defect of some kind— because God cannot tolerate the stain of sin in His presence. My head hurts.
We should treat other people with respect and, if you will, in accordance with the “Golden Rule”, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But not because of the need to earn our way into heaven, because as Paul states in Romans, Chapter 3, vs. 10 to 20:
The Scriptures tell us, “No one is acceptable to God! Not one of them understands or even searches for God. They have all turned away and are worthless. There isn’t one person who does right. Their words are like an open pit, and their tongues are good only for telling lies. Each word is as deadly as the fangs of a snake, and they say nothing but bitter curses. These people quickly become violent. Wherever they go, they leave ruin and destruction. They don’t know how to live in peace. They don’t even fear God.” We know that everything in the Law was written for those who are under its power. The Law says these things to stop anyone from making excuses and to let God show that the whole world is guilty. God doesn’t accept people simply because they obey the Law. No, indeed! All the Law does is to point out our sin.
It is obvious to me we cannot earn our way into heaven under any honest reading of the Bible, but then, many honest people read the Bible and disagree. So there it is, my conflict.
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We should do good for and with and to others because in doing so, we better the world for all, not because there is some cosmic record-keeper in a heaven somewhere.
The motivation to do good without trying to please a God or achieve heaven is purer than doing good because there might be a reward.
John Lennon’s masterpiece says it very well: Imagine there’s no Heaven; It’s easy if you try; No hell below us; Above us only sky; Imagine all the people living for today.
Wicca, with its “rule of three” seems to be closer to what I believe than works for salvation.
I will not speak to Lennon’s lyrics (I don’t know if he believed them or just found them) or try to classify them, but he said it better than I could: Imagine a world where we don’t live for a God’s reward but to make everyone better today. That is the ideal to me, and while I believe it is the ideal taught by most religions, it places me decidedly outside of mainstream Christianity, “in conflict”, and because my actions are not motivated by the presence of a God, I am, in a practical sense and for all intents and purposes, an atheist.
These beliefs have resulted in people labeling me apostate, heretic, heathen, Son of Perdition (an odd LDS concept), and, yes, Atheist.
It is not my choice, it is a term that has been thrust upon me by others, and really, if others think that of me, it is their concern and not mine, because I do believe in God, it’s just that the shape into which I craft Him is different than what is crafted by others.
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Johnjoe McFadden of the Guardian, in an article (see it here) discussing a study led by Lee Ross of Stanford University in California, writes
Love thy neighbour, so long as he is not an illegal immigrant. Blessed are the poor, so long as they are deserving. And, though it may be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than to pass through the eye of a needle, multimillionaires should have no problem passing through the door of the Oval Office.. .
Perhaps not surprisingly, Christian Republicans imagined a Jesus who tended to be against wealth redistribution, illegal immigrants, abortion and same-sex marriage; whereas the Jesus of Democrat -voting Christians would have had far more liberal opinions. The Bible may claim that God created man in his own image, but the study suggests man creates God in his own image.. .
Preachers, politicians and co-believers tend to emphasise and de-emphasise different aspects of the Christian canon; so conservative Americans study the Old Testament with its homophobic rhetoric and eye-for-an-eye morality, whereas liberals look to the New Testament Jesus who was sympathetic to the poor and the meek.
How’s the saying go? Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as the head of the church and Baptist don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.