Monday, April 26, 2010

Able to Not Believe: Guest Post by Alan Shefsky

I don’t believe in God.   At least I don’t believe I do.  Which is to say that for the most part I travel through my days reasonably contented in the idea that the world of rocks and plants and beings, and the vast universe besides, is what there is.   This isn’t to say that I think that there is only the physical, the tangible; rather that the world of the not-tangible, the universe of mystery and poetry, of love and dark matter, are tied to and inseparable from the physical.  There is love because there are lovers, and except in the rhyming sense it isn’t tied to the heavens above.   If there is transcendence it is of a human kind; I don’t believe in transcendence in any metaphysical or spiritual sense.   I believe we are born into a life of potentially profound wonder, and I believe that when we die, alas, we die.   Precious, then, is this life and its moments, truly painful the times of darkness.

How to account for my non-belief, my belief in a world of no-God?   I am reasonably sure that it has always been with me.   I grew up in Reform Judaism, attended religious school and Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, and although God-language was certainly present, God-presence—for me— was not, nor God-existence.   The idea, to the extent that it struck me, simply never struck me as real.   Still, being Jewish struck me as real, and so, Jewish I continued and continue to be.   There are of course some wrinkles in being Jewish and believing in the non-being of God, and I haven’t smoothed them all out, nor do I expect that I will.   Yet I am able to live my Jewish-ness, and to study and reflect on it, such as I do.  And I am able to not believe.

There are wrinkles, too, in being a Jewish non-believer in God and having as a very close friend a person who is a Christian believer in God, and ours a friendship in which deep and wide-ranging discussions are a central, delightful part.  Of course, wrinkles in a friendship aren’t necessarily a bad thing; indeed the wrinkles, in time, become part of the texture of the friendship.  And too, we learn from each other.

This friend is (you may have guessed) Priscilla, the author/artist of this very blog, who is among other things “a theological kind of gal . . . incarnational and sacramental . . .”   She is a person who engages deeply and questions radically matters of religion and faith, someone for whom religion and faith provide meaning and nourishment, and for whom God’s presence is, at times, present. Her faith and her practice are part of who she is, and the kind of friend she is, and how she lives.  

My friendship with Priscilla is also, happily, a friendship with her husband Larry, with whom I’ve been known to engage in a conversation or two on matters sublime and ridiculous.   He is, also, a theological kind of guy in his own right, as well as a man of letters (and numbers), a thinker and writer on matters of faith and on a vast range of other topics.

So it is that I come (finally) to the topic of this present essay, a consideration of the just released book, “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagements with the New Atheism, in which a short story by Mr. Larry Gilman appears.   The book, edited by Andrew David, Christopher J. Keller, and Jon Stanley, published by Cascade Books, seeks to respond, from a Christian perspective, to the new crop of atheists whose books have splashed into bookstores recently (those by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.), as well as simply to explore matters of faith and religion.   Besides Larry’s story, the book is comprised of essays, interviews, poetry, and visual art. The pieces touch on a number of different points on the theological and philosophical map, from Augustine and Aristotle, to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, to Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry.  In the essays that treat of the New Atheists, the general consensus seems to be that their arguments are so weak as to hardly merit response, though they are in fact taken to task for, among other things, their poor understanding of theology, their lack of depth, and their tendency to ramble.

I confess, however, to being far more interested in the pieces that explored faith in the writer’s own terms, not so much in the context of response.   Also, as a poet myself, I was drawn to the nuance and metaphor in the several poems, the visual art, and of course the one piece of fiction, Larry’s lively “The King of the Mice: An Earnest Fable for My Atheist Friends.”

One challenge for me in reading these pieces was simply the unfamiliarity of the terrain.  These are, after all, Christian-centered writings, so the language and the references are quite different from what I’ve encountered in Jewish theological and historical texts.  There is also the way that atheism as a concern exists differently in Christian than in Jewish history and imagination, where practice perhaps receives more attention than belief, and identity and continuity—and perceived threats to them—tend to be the more pressing concerns.  Further, it seems clearly to be the case that the New Atheists, themselves coming from a Christian background and from within largely Christian societies, position themselves especially against religion-as-Christianity.   So for me as a Jew, it can feel like I’m reading about someone else’s battle.

Additionally challenging to me were those arguments — theological and/or specifically Christian — that were stated in absolute terms.   It is compelling to read of God as the ground of being, and to imagine the writer’s profound experience of that grounding presence; also to read of the Christian experience of faith, of community, of love.   It is less compelling to read that those not so inclined or so moved are, therefore, groundless; that their lives can be defined only in terms of absence or a not-choosing.   Absolute certainty is fascinating to see, to try to imagine, but in the end I cannot help but find it disagreeable.   I don’t believe in God, but I also don’t believe in (that is, agree with,) atheistic — or theistic, or Christian — certainty.

By way of providing a more specific look at God is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, here are some notable excerpts. 

D. Stephen Long, writing in the Forward, considers various kinds of atheism and asks:  “Is all such atheism worthy of engagement?  And how should Christians in particular respond to its resurgence?”   He continues, in effect laying out the terms of the engagement for many of the book’s essayists: “No one should be surprised by its resurgence.  A-theism is a parasitical consequence of the ‘return of religion,’ a return that continues to surprise persons who seem confused as to how to respond to it . . . .  That reasonable people still have faith — and actually practice it — strikes some as odd.  Many of these skeptics were convinced by the narratives spun by the great masters of suspicion, narratives insisting that the gains of the Enlightenment would surely be irreversible by the twenty-first century and that these gains would result in reasonable people eschewing belief.” [xiv]

Ronald A. Kuipers also references the Enlightenment in his essay “Faith as the Art of the Possible: Invigorating Religious Tradition in an Amnesiac Society”: “I have been trained in an intellectual tradition that rejects the Enlightenment belief in the possibility of religious neutrality, that is, of anyone not being religious in some sense.” [146]  I guess I remain under the Enlightenment’s sway, as I am inclined to think that it is indeed possible to not be religious in any sense, and that the perception otherwise might be caused by religion-tinted glasses.

Merold Westphal, in his insightful essay “Atheism for Lent,” discusses at length the philosophies of three major “masters of suspicion”: Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.   Westphal doesn’t attempt to respond to or refute these philosophies; rather he recommends that believers themselves engage in a kind of suspicion, a “Lenten self-examination leading to repentance.”  His message is an affirming one, leading him to caution against cynicism, lest “in practicing suspicion we may lose sight of grace, God’s ever-present help in forgiving us and creating within us a clean heart.” [77–78]

As for the “New Atheists,” whom the book seeks to engage, the typical sentiment is expressed here by Stanley Fish, interviewed by Stanley Hauerwas: “They think that they are refuting something, where in fact they haven’t even taken seriously the existence and primacy of that which they think to refute even as a possibility.  In a way . . . I find their work profoundly uninteresting.” [111]

Charles Taylor, interviewed by Ronald A. Kuipers, elaborates:  “I happen to have quite a negative view of these folks.  I think their work is very intellectually shoddy.”  He continues, “They all believe that there really are some knockdown arguments against belief in God.  And of course, this is something you can only believe if you have a scientistic, reductionist conception and explanation of everything in the world, including human beings.  If you do have such a view that everything is to be explained in terms of physics and the movement of atoms and the like, then certain forms of access to God are just closed.  For example, there are certain human experiences that might direct us to God, but these would all be illusory if everything could be explained in scientistic terms.” [126]

The idea of atheism as being somehow essentially and necessarily linked to “reductionism and scientism” is an idea that occurs in several essays, and it is one that I believe draws too simple a dichotomy between a theism that respects mystery and transcendence, and an atheism that appreciates only cold, hard facts.   For my part, I am interested in the experiences that “might direct us to God,” or that might instead direct us to a profounder sense of meaning and of being.

Taking the criticism of atheism even further is Ben Suriano, in his essay “On What Could Rightly Pass as a Fetish,” in which he criticizes the “popular valorization” of atheism, which “chooses to ignore that the predominant form of modern atheism is deeply dependent upon and perpetuates an ideological, and therein idolatrous, construction—one that is itself not a progressive coming-of-age or a sobering up, but rather the preservation and refinement of a pagan trajectory of power seeking.” [27–28]

Another of the book’s recurring themes concerns the ideas that atheists hold about religious belief and seeks to respond to these ideas and present religious belief more clearly.  Thomas Inchausti writes, in his essay “Thomas Merton’s Apologies to an Unbeliever”: “The god they do not believe in is certainly not a god I ever believed in . . .  Merton believed that the religious problem of the twentieth century was twofold:  (1) atheists identify faith itself with the most mindless expressions of religious fanatics, and (2) the ‘faith’ many ‘believers’ have kept is sentimental and self-aggrandizing . . .” [4]  Inchausti explains, “Merton would agree with those atheists who deny God’s existence as some sort of super ‘decider,’ concept, or thing, but he would disagree with those who then draw the conclusion that God, therefore, does not exist.  What does not exist is the God-object.  What does exist is a presence revealed in and through the love that rises in us out of a ground that lies beyond us.” [6–7]

Again, it is this kind of exploration of belief that I find most compelling, more so than description of atheist non-belief.  Also and especially compelling is description of how belief might manifest itself, how religious practice might enhance the practice of living.  Ronald Kuipers, in the essay noted above, discusses
what it might mean to partake in and pass along a religious tradition . . . that, when healthy, invigorates its members for the ongoing task of healing and restoring . . .  society . . .  Membership in such a religion. . . can, at its best . . . inspire a kind of faith that I will describe as ‘the art of the possible.’  Such a faith can give those graced by it the courage to shape their lives in relation to the mysterious contours of what the agrarian poet, novelist, and philosopher Wendell Berry calls ‘the human definition.’  Although such an art of living does indeed call upon us to relinquish the push for cosmic mastery that has come to dominate our species, such a responsive, creaturely life involves much more than merely acquiescing before some authoritarian limit.  Crafting such a life should be understood, instead, as a work of love that makes space for the beloved, a life that readies a place that may be graced by new and unpredictable redemptive possibility.  [147]
It is just such a life, just such religious practice that I see Priscilla and Larry engaged in.  And so it is in my knowing of them in this context that I come to the reading of this book and the writing of this essay.  In this context, how not have deep respect for belief and religious practice?  Also, knowing Priscilla, and knowing the ways that her religious practice and her illness “practice” delicately, deliberately intermingle, how not consider the place of my own chronic illness in my coming to or moving from belief, and the place of non-belief in my experience of illness?  What might “ground of being” and “being in the presence” mean when one’s being, in the present moment, is so familiar to pain, when one’s very ground feels unforgiving?

Recently in one of our meandering conversations, Priscilla and I talked about gratefulness, about what it means to be grateful and, especially, whether one can experience it — and express it — without having in mind, believing in, a transcendent ground/source of being.  Priscilla thought yes, certainly yes; I thought probably no: no God, no “one” to be grateful to.   And still I am grateful.

Alan's poetry and other writing can be read on his website,


  1. Interesting thoughts. Gratitude is possible without a specific being to direct it to, but it feels awkward sometimes. I mused about this myself a couple weeks ago.

  2. This is atheism I can love. I'm hungry for more of this kind of writing.

  3. I find my atheism and my buddhism rub along pretty well together -- I was raised atheist, and that's my habit of mind; I don't find arguments either for or against the existence of God very compelling, usually, so I just stick with what I was raised with. But to me the arguments for spiritual practice are knockdown. A life without meditation or prayer feels to me like a life deliberately made extremely difficult.

    I don't at all miss someone to pray to -- Buddhist prayer isn't ordinarily about petition -- but I do miss someone to be grateful to. The gratitude is so overwhelming, sometimes. Like being in love, but not being able to speak.

    That's an argument for the existence of God that I do find compelling.

  4. It is important for us to re-read this post now, even after several years.
    May his memory be for a blessing.
    Please note that Alan's work can now be found at:


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