A few years ago I had a phone conversation with a former business colleague who was having difficulty believing that I had left my consulting career and enrolled in seminary. He said I was “too rational to believe in God.” I asked about the God he doesn’t believe in, and he described the stereotypical old man in the sky with long white hair and a beard, much like popular depictions of Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin. It’s the God who controls the weather and occasionally intervenes in human affairs, seemingly answers prayers more or less at random, and supposedly loves humanity yet allows good people to suffer while rewarding the bad ones. For most people in Minnesota, it’s the God who allowed his son to be tortured and killed in the place of those who may have actually deserved such a fate. I don’t believe in that God either.
God means different things to different people, and the meaning often changes over time. I have a very different understanding of God than I did during my childhood. I also have a different understanding of atheism. The common definition of atheist is someone who does not believe in God, but it once had a very different meaning. The word atheist ultimately derives from the ancient Greek word theos, which means god (hence, theology). Understanding an ancient Greek word requires understanding the culture, and in order to be historically accurate an atheist would simply be someone who does not worship the Greek pantheon of gods such as Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon.
The English word atheism comes more directly from the French word athéisme, which first appeared in the 16th century, an era that produced the Protestant Reformation and its Catholic counterpart. Varieties of Protestantism spread throughout Europe and beyond, providing a veritable buffet of God images and theological doctrines. Meanwhile, France embraced a revitalized, back-to-the-basics Catholicism with the patriarchal sky-god sitting on a celestial throne as the undisputed supreme deity. Athéisme emerged precisely at this time in direct response to the dominant religion of the area.
But there were other concepts of God even within Christianity, as evidenced by the religious pluralism of Protestantism. As science evolved to help explain the how of nature, religious and spiritual practices also evolved to help us to ponder the why. It is important to note that spirituality is not the same as religion. Religion is a specific set of beliefs and practices. Spirituality is simply the innate desire to connect to something larger than ourselves; it does not require nor preclude belief in a divinity.
I am an ordained minister in a mainstream Christian denomination. According to the 16th century definition, I am also an atheist, although non-theist would be the preferred term today. I have been told that I’m more like a psychologist than a minister, and I consider it a compliment. After all, the root word of psychology is the Greek psyche, which has several meanings, including soul, spirit, and life. I can talk religion, but most of the conversations I have as a spiritual counselor are primarily about community, relationships, forgiveness, gratitude, purpose, and hope – the things that help us to feel connected.
Believing in a higher power does not necessarily mean believing in a deity. My family is a higher power than I am alone. Any kind of community is a higher power simply because there is strength in numbers. My partner’s objectivity is often a higher power that helps me to get through difficult times. My meditation practice helps me to remember that I am always connected to those higher powers as well as to the higher power within.
I understand atheists who reject the notion of a supreme being. I’m right there with you. I don’t understand atheists who deny the existence of anything beyond what can be experienced with the physical senses, especially if that denial is supposedly based on science. After all, quantum physicists are producing scientific evidence that everything is connected and that the essence of life is an energy that may change form but does not cease to exist. Spiritual mystics have been teaching those ideas for centuries.
Spiritual atheism. It’s for people who are too rational to limit God.