I give thanks to God for the 21% of atheists who, according to the recent study by Pew, affirm their belief in Her or Him, and I am blown away by the holiness of such people who manage to pray once a week. In fact, I think that I aspire to being one of them (though with a bit more regular prayer).
Of course the quick response to such a finding is that American atheists must not be a very bright group if over a fifth of them say that they believe in God. Don’t they know what the word means?! But in truth, they may be way ahead of many of us who count ourselves among the faithful.
Perhaps what this twenty-one percent is expressing is their awareness that the categories of both “faith in God” and “atheism,” as both are commonly used, are too narrow to capture the complexity of that which they believe and that which they do not. It seems to me entirely reasonable to deny the existence of the old man in the sky which most people have in mind when they use the word “God”, affirm belief in something/someone, and accept that one may as well use the word that most people use when they want to talk about something which is, almost by definition, beyond human language.
The disbelief of these atheists sparkles with a holiness that in Jewish tradition has been the hallmark of none less than the biblical Abraham and the great Moses Maimonides. It was the latter who insisted that no positive statements could be made about God because they would constraint an infinite being to finite language.
According to Maimonides, one could not speak of God as great or merciful or anything else that relied on human experience to understand. One could only affirm the existence of a god who was beyond all measure and comparison – in other words, One who is truly infinite.
I appreciate that praying to such a god, especially in times of need, crises, or pain can be almost impossible. At least I find it so. I want that loving presence, that perfect parent in the sky who hears my prayers, notices me and my family, etc. But I also know that if such a God exists, He or She has a funny way of listening to some of us and failing to notice others!
Abraham knew that long ago, which is why the Bible’s first monotheist is also its first atheist. It was Abraham who heard God’s plan about destroying Sodom and argued that doing so failed to meet the criteria of good judgment; that if God was the most righteous, He should act more justly! In effect, Abraham was willing to deny God’s godliness if He didn’t measure up to Abraham’s understanding of justice. While that might be a bit arrogant, it strikes me as a very healthy corrective for the same man who was willing to “blindly” alter his life and that of his family just because God called him to do so.
It seems to me that Abraham’s holy atheism is the needed balance to a life of passionate faith in which one give’s themselves over to that which they most believe. In fact, the more we believe in something, the more ready we need to be to question it and even to walk away from it. Abraham lived that lesson and so I think, do those twenty-one percent.
For more really fascinating responses to the question of what it means to be a self-defined atheist who believes in God, check out responses at the Newsweek & Washington Post site, On Faith.