Image by Rennett Stowe. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Image by Rennett Stowe. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Reblogged from CNN:

How many ways are there to disbelieve in God?

At least six, according to a new study.

Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.

“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.

Click here to read the full article

I had fun with this study because, although I don’t ascribe the label atheist to myself, I am not a theist in the classical sense.  For those who may not be familiar with the terms: Classical Theism refers to belief in an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, and personal deity who is responsible for the creation of the universe, exists separately from it, and interferes with its normal operations at least occasionally.  Depending on who you ask, the God of classical theism might also be defined as omnipresent, immutable (unchanging) and/or impassable (incapable of feeling or suffering).

I really like a conversational strategy adopted by Unitarian Universalist minister John Buehrens: whenever someone says, “I don’t believe in God,” Buehrens responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”  Most of the time, he says, he is able to say that he doesn’t believe in that God either.  Likewise with me: if the classical theist concept of divinity is the only legitimate definition of the word God, then I would be forced to classify myself as an atheist.  For various reasons, I reject outright the ideas of immutability, impassability, and separateness from the universe.  I radically redefine concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, creativity, and personality in ways that would make them nearly unrecognizable to a classical theist.  For reasons that I admit are not entirely rational, I continue to accept the quality of benevolence as central to my understanding of the idea of God.

There are two thinkers with whom I tend to resonate when it comes to talking about God.  The first is philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich who famously declared that God is not “a being” but “Being Itself” or “the Ground of Being”.  This is also vaguely reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas who said (not in so many words) that God does not “exist” but “is existence”.  In more recent years, Forrest Church (another Unitarian Universalist) wrote in his book The Cathedral of the World, “God is not God’s name.  God is our name for that which is greater than all, yet present in each.”

Like most atheists, I have no trouble acknowledging that God is a mythical concept devised by human minds in a particular cultural milieu.  I utterly reject the hypothesis that there is actually an “old man in the sky” who created the world, controls everything, and condemns earth to destruction and the majority of humanity to eternal postmortem torture as punishment for various moral and dogmatic infractions.  If that’s who God must be, then you can call me an atheist.

When it comes to the six types of atheists, I might be classified somewhere between a 3 (seeker-agnostic) and a 6 (ritual atheist).

Regarding the 3 (seeker-agnostic) the article says this:

This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.

Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”

That doesn’t mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

Regarding the 6 (ritual atheist) the article says:

They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the “profound symbolism” inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.

If I had to classify myself as an atheist, based on my rejection of classical theism, it would probably look like some combination of these two categories.  However, I don’t consider myself an atheist because even a combination of these recently expanded ideas is still too dogmatically confining for me.

So here I am: neither a classical theist nor an atheist.  If there is a widely acknowledged category that most closely describes the place where I live, it would be panentheism (God exists within the universe and the universe exists within God).  Unlike pantheism (God is the universe and the universe is God), panentheism leaves more room for mystery and transcendence beyond the realm of time/space/matter/energy.

However, because I like to challenge conventional labels and make up new words, I’ve been playing with the term alt/theism as a description for where I’m at.  Don’t read too much into it or get your torches and pitchforks ready, this is just pure fun with words.

For me, as an alt/theist, faith in God is based on a meta-rational “hunch” about the mysteries of existence, connection, personality, and harmony.  My hunch (which I cannot prove as fact but cannot reject as possbility) is that each of these experienced realities is derivative from some larger source or whole that can never be fully understood or explained by human reason.  To this mystery, the language of my Christian tradition attaches the name God.  My only hope in the quest for understanding is to approach the very tip of reason’s precipice and peer over the edge into the ongoing mystery with my eyes, ears, heart, mind, and mouth hanging open in wonder.

“God” is not God’s name

God language can tie people into knots, of course.  In part, that is because “God” is not God’s name.  Referring to the highest power we can imagine, “God” is our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each…

Proposing that “God” is not God’s name is anything but blasphemous.  When Moses asks whom he is talking to up there on Mount Sinai, the answer is not “God,” but “I am who I am,” or “I do what I do.”  That’s what the word “Yahweh” means.  When the Hebrews later insisted that it not be written out in full, they were guarding against idolatry: the worshiping of a part (in this case the word-symbol for God) in place of the whole (that toward which the word-symbol points).

So it was for the biblical Jacob, who wrestled for life and meaning with a mysterious heavenly messenger.  When dawn finally broke after a nightlong struggle, Jacob demanded to know his adversary’s name.  “Don’t worry about my name,” God replied.  “It is completely unimportant.  All that matters is that you held your own during a night of intense struggle.  You will walk with a limp for the remainder of your days.  Yet that is simply proof that in wrestling for meaning you did not retreat, but gave your all.  Therefore, though my name is unimportant, I shall give you a new name, Israel, ‘one who wrestled with both divinity and humanity, and prevailed.'”

-Forrest Church in The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press: 2009), p.3