As a liberal American Catholic, I’d like to add a few notes to Pope Francis’s recent open-letter to atheists:
Dear Atheist Brothers and Sisters,
Thanks. We need you.
Love, a Catholic guy.
Sometimes we forget that diversity and variety are the bedrock of our survival as a human race. We need all types to keep the garden of humanity growing. We can't just have sunlight, pretty flowers, and red tomatoes. We need worms and rain and manure and seeds and dead fish (I've heard this works). Doubt is essential to belief, and atheists are essential to the health of religion. Now I'm not saying that atheists are like dead fish (actually, sometimes it's the opposite), but, to take this metaphor to the extreme, we have to realize that for ideas to have any value, we need people that promote them and others that break them down, dissect them, and decompose them so that the idea can regrow stronger. Atheists have been around as long as there's been some member of a tribe who sat in the back of a mud hut during a ritual thinking, "Why do I have all this stuff on my face?" Atheists are crucial to religion's survival. God needs them.
When we "celebrate diversity" with a potluck at the office (I fear potlucks, but I reluctantly go with my Irish specialty--a bag of potato chips) we sometimes miss the point that diversity in life is not only cool, it is essential to its operation. Celebrate or ignore it all you want, but it is there and it is keeping us alive in more ways than we can imagine. There’s a good reason we can’t marry our cousins. If we were all one way, one thing, one type, one-minded, life would not just be awful, it would stop. It would not be life. The very essence of life is diversity and variety. Certainly a God who packed the world with 900,000 types of insects is a Guy (or Gal, or Ground of all Being) who likes variety. Ask any biologist: we would not live a month without all those insects. In religion, philosophy, and spirituality, diversity is essential to the workings of our humanity. We forget this every time we insist others think the way we do. We forget this every time we try to draft laws or codes that force everyone to do things the same way.
Atheism can arguably be considered its own religion today (see Stephen Prothero's book God Is Not One, a solid study of the differences in the main religions of our world), but it was around long before Doubting Thomas. Perhaps it was harder to be an atheist in the old days when a person lived inside one group or culture, but now atheists roam free without fear of being burned or dismembered. In my short life as a spiritual being I've met quite a few really cool atheists. I've been challenged by them, learned from them, fought with them, and became friends with them. It wasn't until recently that I realized I needed them. For starters, I need my Twitter feed to have updates from atheists organizations in order to balance out all the odd stuff I get from my Vatican feed (yeah, I subscribe to both). I need their daily challenge to think critically about what I believe in, an essential element to growth.
Here are the 6 reasons God (and I) love and need atheists:
1. They're Brave: I admire atheists for their fearless ability to say out loud what many of us, on bad days, think in our hearts: there is no God. Sure I think it sometimes, when I read about genocides and child abuse. But I'm too chicken. Even in my darkest moments, I'm inclined to Einstein's perspective that a betting man would believe in God, you know, just in case He's real and you want Him on your side in those last hours. Well, that sounds like a cop out, a bad insurance plan. Atheists are brave enough to throw all that out and just live in the pure unknown. I admire that. We could all be a little more fearless about our beliefs.
2. Atheists live in the present, which is the only place there is, and perhaps the only place to find God. Religion can be an opiate, and some faiths have this tendency to look for some later reward. Atheists accept their reward and their punishment right now. Hope is a beautiful thought, but sometimes you need to give up hope and focus on the now in order to really find what matters in life. If you're always waiting around for a promotion, retirement, or some eternal reward and forty virgins, you miss the one wild ride of life.
3. Atheists think deeply about our current situation because they don't push off big problems on a committee in the sky to decide later. There's no fall back plan with atheism, no God to wait on for some final accounting. Because of this, many Atheists do great things to make the present world better. Many great philosophers and thinkers were atheists (Voltaire, Marx, Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Freud, HG Wells, Robert Frost, to name a few), and whether we agree with them or not, we cannot deny their impact--light bulbs, socialism, modern psychology, and great poems about birch trees. We benefit daily from things atheists have done. Perhaps true radical thinking requires a rejection of the status quo. Their bravery made our lives better.
4. Atheists challenge religious and spiritual people to analyze their belief systems and grow. I learned more from my discussions with an atheist friend then I ever did in Sunday school.
5. Atheists raise cool, open-minded kids, which we need more of in our world. I especially appreciate atheists I know who take up the challenge of instilling beliefs and values in their children without the use of religion. It is a much more nuanced and perhaps difficult approach. When my kids are naughty, I just tell them they're going to hell. Atheists have to be more creative.
6. Finally, balance. Yin-Yang. Left Right. Peanut Butter and Jelly. In politics and religion, we thrive on the continuum of ideas. If everybody thought like me, we'd survive for about five minutes. Balance is essential. I think it is great to have the devoutly religious represented in our society, but we need the balance of atheists on the other end. Atheists keep us safe from the dangers of theocracy.
So go out and hug an atheist. They do more for the spiritual world than they know. Perhaps they were sent by God.
Andrew Andestic is a teacher, writer, musician, father, and wanna-be mystic. He founded Tall Trees Grow Deep, a site devoted to sharing resources for parents and teachers who want to raise awesome humans.