Tag Archives: Social Studies

What an Atheist Is Teaching Me about the Nature of Faith

The day after Thanksgiving, my son and I talked about God and gratitude, religion and reason, faith and Ricky Gervais.

I knew the British comedian as the originator of The Office. Turns out he’s also a “pathological atheist,” according to former CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, and a surprisingly articulate authority on the wisdom of living in the here and now.

“I get frustrated when people say that atheists live a less fulfilling life because they lack spirituality and they believe nothing comes after we die,” said my son, 19, a college sophomore and recently declared religious studies major.

“Ricky Gervais made the point —and somewhat facetiously, because he’s a comedian — that atheists have more to live for because they’re not spending their lives anticipating what comes afterward. So they want to make the most of what they have.”

And so commenced a conversation that held more meaning for me than the facile reminders of “gratitude” that every listserv and website I subscribe to threw at me in the days before Thanksgiving.

Christmas ChristiansXmas Tree

I regret that my husband and I didn’t raise our children with a stronger religious faith. They don’t know the Lord’s Prayer or a Thanksgiving grace or the traditional Christmas hymns, and I feel the loss of that during these frenetic five weeks we have come to call “the holidays.”

Baptized a Methodist (my childhood religion) and raised in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship during his elementary school years, Nate at 19 is now an atheist. He questions why I would pine for some shared, sentimental religious feeling that our family hasn’t earned.

“An atheist’s approach to the holidays isn’t that different from the average Christian’s approach,” he says. “Christians will just say grace before the meal. I think Christmas has been secularized in the majority of the United States. There are plenty of casual Christians and families that aren’t religious who celebrate Christmas for the sake of giving gifts and having a meal.”

Studies support his claim. According to the Pew Research “Religion and Public Life” project, 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, but only half view it as “mostly” a religious holiday, and fully a third say it’s cultural — a chance to gather with friends and family.

My own family celebrated Thanksgiving this year at the home of non-religious friends. No one offered to lead a prayer before the meal, so I raised a toast to the cooks who had prepared two entrées, three desserts, four appetizers and more.

During our talk the next day I asked my son whether he prays, in any form.

“No, not prayer,” he said. “Because prayer implies something religious, and I’m not religious. It doesn’t mean I don’t hope for things. I hope that I’ll do well on my finals, but I’m certainly not going to pray to God to let me get an A.”

What about offering thanks to whomever or whatever may be guiding our lives?

“For the most part, I think gratitude is expressed in small moments on a day-to-day basis. You make me a sandwich and I say, ‘Thanks, Mom. That was nice of you to do.’ There are bigger things, like being grateful for the people in your life who are a constant, who are there through thick-and-thin.”

And whom you can love and honor, he contends, without attaching those feelings to religious faith. “I’m grateful for things that are tangible, as opposed to thanking God when there’s no apparent intervention on God’s part.”

An atheist explains

Nathaniel Gage Studer

Nathaniel Gage Studer

When I tell my son that I am “saddened” by his atheism, or find it to be a cynical choice at his age, he points out that this is a considered decision — not a failing or a whim — and that believers have no corner on moral virtue.

“If I was being very cynical,” he counters, “I’d say a lot of people weren’t fully educated in matters of religion. I think a lot of people just grew up in a church: ‘Well, it’s how I was raised, it’s what I’m going to stick with.’”

Schooled in the importance of what he calls religious literacy, Nate would choose Buddhism if he had to follow a particular practice. “But that’s true of many non-religious people,” he says. “Buddhism involves coming to terms with yourself and your surroundings, and involves less of the dogma that comes with other religions.”

However reasoned his choice, my son will have an uphill climb to convince anyone other than his mother that atheism makes sense. Americans overall regard atheists only slightly more warmly than they do Muslims and seven points below Mormons, according to a July 2014 study by Pew Research.

Black Protestants and older Americans hold atheists in especially low esteem.

Asked what frustrates him most about people’s misconceptions of atheists, Nate said it’s “the idea that every atheist hates religion and is against religion.” In fact, he says, knowledge of the world’s religions helps him understand other cultures and history’s course.

“Even though I’m not religious, I think it’s important that I understand how and why other people are religious. By being religiously literate, people can better understand what’s going on in the Middle East, why 9/11 happened — almost all that happens in the world.”

He challenges whether I, as an unchurched believer, am willing to learn more about what atheists do believe. I begin with Ricky Gervais’ distinction between spirituality and religion: “One is a very personal feeling, a journey, a hope, a need, a joy,” the comedian said on CNN last year, “and the other is an organized body that uses that for power and corruption, in many cases.”

How Shabbat Can Heal the Tyranny of Busyness

I attended my first Shabbat service on a recent Friday evening, surprising in its sense of joy and celebration. “We love to sing,” said the program for Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, where my nephew, Eric Gage, on the cusp of 13, would become B’nei Mitzvah the next day.

I felt both eager and unprepared as I stepped into the reform temple, with its unfamiliar language and practices. My brother helped my sisters and me — raised Methodist, none of us regular church-goers — through the English translations of the Hebrew text. I struggled self-consciously with the left-to-right turning of the pages in the prayer book, before I finally sank into my pew and focused outward, upward.

“Our everyday lives are so busy,” the evening’s program read. “We invite you to relax and enjoy this time away from the quickened pace of the world outside these walls. Please enjoy the gift that is Shabbat by turning off your cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone or anything else that goes ‘buzz.’”

A sense of placekeep-calm-and-shabbat-shalom_SMALL

The word Shabbat literally means “ceasing” or “stopping,” a concept I am only beginning to grasp at middle age — and one made more difficult in a time when being digitally connected (always on, forever reachable) is expected, if not embraced.

“The Sabbath comes to us from the Jewish tradition. In the story of creation in Genesis, each of God’s six acts of creation is like an act in a play. And the climax is: God rests,” says a 2003 article from the UU World, the magazine (and now website and Twitter feed) of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

“It is the rests in the music that make the music,” says a friend of mine who became a UU minister in her 40s.

UUism is my adopted though ill-practiced faith, and I am turning to its teachings and seven principles more often as I discuss my concepts of God and religion with my 19-year-old son, a declared atheist. Absent a relationship with a UU congregation, however, I have lost my sense of the Sabbath, or Shabbat.

I have no place, no church, no sanctuary whose sanctity demands that I leave the buzzing iPhone at home and turn off the incessant buzzing in my brain. Sunday no longer is a special day, with its own quieter rhythms. I go to yoga early in the morning. My husband and I often take in a movie in the afternoon. Beyond that, it’s just another working day when I don’t have to don work clothes.

“Observing the Sabbath, observing a day of mindfulness, taking a real day off . . . call(s) for the intentional creation of sacred space and time,” says the same article in the UU World, a reprint of a sermon by the Reverend Amanda Aikman. “It takes a little discipline. It also calls us to overcome our fear of what we will find in the silence and the emptiness.”

‘Be more, do less’

In my ongoing quest for meaning at midlife — for a greater sense of purpose beyond my work and myself — I am turning to secular sources of inspiration that name the problem but seldom offer any lasting solution:

  • “Be more, do less,” a T-shirt at my yoga studio reads.
  • “We wear our busyness like a badge,” says Duluth, Minnesota–based yogi and teacher Deborah Adele in The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Describing Brachmacharya, the concept of non-excess, she notes how we Type A drivers tend to soothe ourselves with alcohol or food, shopping or sex, how we habitually overschedule our time. “My ego likes to feel important, and it doesn’t feel very important when I am resting,” Adele says.
  • “Weekends are awful for women who do too much,” says psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef in the handbook Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. “We do not like the lack of schedule, and we feel lost without our work.”

I used to find sacred space and time on my daily dog walks in the natural lands around Northfield, Minnesota, where my husband and I raised our two sons. Now, in the city, surrounded by traffic and people, I struggle to recreate the sense of gratitude and connectedness that came upon me, unbidden, on those leisurely walks through uninhabited woods and prairies.

When I wrote the “Seeker’s Diary” column for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune — visiting Baptist and Moravian and Buddhist and Jewish and Catholic and Lutheran houses of worship throughout the Twin Cities — I often envied the congregants’ sense of moral and spiritual certainty, even as I watched the traditions and customs from a distance.

More than anything, I envied them the luxury of being removed from the world. Isn’t that the very essence of carefree?

And so, because increasingly I crave the quiet, my choices are to return to a religious community or to practice and prioritize the Sabbath on my own.

“Walk slowly at night” and “unplug all your devices” are among the tips in a Time magazine cover story called “Finding God in the Dark,” about author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. A water-stained copy of the issue has sat near my bathtub for six months. Time to start reading.

Learn more: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-29751577