Godless Religion

Pete Hautman’s Young Adult Novel Godless

Pete Hautman’s Young Adult Novel Godless

This is an updated version of my June 10, 2007 sermon to the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton. I wanted to post this sermon sooner rather than later because of the importance I feel for the project it lays out of securing all the benefits of religion to unbelievers in the supernatural–even those benefits that seem most intimately tied to supernatural beliefs. (See my post “What Do You Mean by ‘Supernatural’?” for my best attempt at defining what I mean by “supernatural.”)

Although this sermon was originally addressed to Unitarian Universalists, I think it has a worthy message for anyone who is largely secular in beliefs, but aware of the evidence that religion seems to help people in many ways.


Abstract: Religion serves many critical functions for individuals and for societies. Many religions see a belief in God as essential for serving those functions. Unitarian-Universalism aims to serve the critical functions of religion without insisting on a belief in God. This sermon argues that figuring out how to make “godless” or “agnostic” religion work in the fullest sense is a world-historic task for which Unitarian-Universalism plays an important role.

To explain what I mean by my title “Godless Religion,” let me quote the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die:

In this postmodern world, those who still claim allegiance to the Christian religion find themselves, I believe, living in a similar kind of exile. Our God has also been taken away from us.  For us, however, that removal of God did not occur in a single moment of violent defeat. It rather happened over a period of centuries as the steady and relentless advances in knowledge altered forever our ability to believe in the God content that stood at the heart of our sacred tradition.

To see his point:

  • Imagine in your mind’s eye what the Copernican Revolution putting the Sun at the center rather than the Earth did to the Biblical worldview.
  • Think of modern discoveries about the Big Bang and the size of the Universe.
  • Think of what modern advances in neuroscience mean about the connection between the material and the spiritual (an area explored in depth by my erudite Harvard classmate and friend Anne Harrington). 
  • Think of the discoveries of anthropology about the wide range of often very firm religious beliefs different cultures hold (see for example Pascal Boyer’s wonderful book Religion Explained).
  • Think of Darwin’s theory of evolution and modern advances in understanding genes, with the lengthening of the history of the Earth from a few thousand years to billions of years, the idea that human beings could have arisen through evolution, and the idea that genes determine a large fraction of the way we are.

These scientific advances, let alone all the scientific advances now being discovered and yet to come, have shaken old religious interpretations to the core wherever people have taken the implications of that science seriously. In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has compared the idea of evolution to a universal acid that changes everything it touches. Among scientific ideas, it is not the only universal acid. 

Think of what will become of religion in the next fifty years as these scientific ideas take even greater hold on the imaginations of the people of the world. Traditional religion will face a crisis–forcing it either to turn away from science or from a literal interpretation of its traditions.  Liberal religions like Unitarian-Universalism hold the key to giving people the benefits of religion while honestly facing up to the implications of modern science. Today I want to argue that in order to give people the benefits of religion while honestly facing up to the implications of modern science, we need to explicitly sift through to identify the truly valuable things that godly religions do, and figure out how to accomplish these tasks without requiring a belief in God or the supernatural.

One piece of jujutsu that may help is the paradoxical concept of worshiping a nonexistent God. When the apostle Paul visited Athens, he stood in the middle of the marketplace and said,

You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you.

When my son Jordan was younger, I drove him to his Taekwondo class several times a week, and while he was in class, got some exercise by walking as fast as I could in one direction for 20 minutes and then turned around to get back by the time Jordan’s karate class was over. One day, I passed a street preacher on the corner of State Street and North University in Ann Arbor. Annoyed at some of the things he was saying, I thought about how I could answer him in a way that would begin to express my own beliefs without getting into a long discussion. So as I passed him on the way back, without slowing down, I raised my arms and called out “All hail the nonexistent God.” To his credit, the street preacher continued on without losing a beat: “Yes, God is nonexistent in people’s lives and people’s hearts….”  Of course, what I meant was the exact opposite: there is a god of sorts alive in people’s lives and hearts that–according to my belief–does not correspond to any supernatural being out there in the Universe or beyond the Universe. This is the nonexistent god that I preach to you.

In thinking of a nonexistent God, I am motivated by a rejection of the so-called ontological argument for the existence of God. The ontological argument for the existence of God goes something like this summary of Millard Erickson’s:

God is the greatest of all conceivable beings. Now a being which does not exist cannot be the greatest of all conceivable beings (for the nonexistent being of our conceptions would be greater if it had the attribute of existence). Therefore, by definition, God must exist.

The trouble with this argument is that actual existence is not an ordinary attribute like “blueness” or “bigness” or “goodness.”  And existence in the imagination is not the same thing as existence in the real world.  Nevertheless, for some purposes, existence in the imagination is quite powerful.  

Think of the question “What Would Jesus Do?”  There are many cases where there is no textual evidence about what the historical Jesus would have done. Still, most people have no problem telling you what they think Jesus would do. For many Christians of a generous spirit, the conception of Jesus’ personality is a synthesis of all the best human traits: love, justice, mercy, wisdom, strength, compassion, commitment to truth, and so on. This is a Jesus I can worship even if it happens that it is a Jesus who never existed. If the Western Tradition has distilled a vision of an ideal human, I should sit up and take notice, even if that vision of an ideal human has been falsely attributed to a particular historical individual. 

This is an example of a larger point: so much of humanity’s best efforts have been expressed in religious terms, that to throw out religion lock, stock and barrel is to throw out the gold along with the dross. This is obvious to those who love classical music. But religious texts and religious institutions also have valuable lessons. Because they are less likely to duplicate examples you know already, I would like to give some examples from Mormonism, in which I clocked 40 years worth of participant observation. 

  1. Like many people, I can be a bit stubborn. So the following passage from the Book of Mormon moved me: “And now I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; …”  (Alma 7:23). 
  2. One of the worst aspects of Mormonism is its insistent emphasis on following church leaders, without any second-guessing.  Fortunately, within the tradition are countervailing ideas.  Joseph Smith wrote: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness and by love unfeigned; …” (D&C 121:41).  
  3. An even more powerful counterweight to the notion of blind obedience is the story in Mormon texts of how at the beginning of the world, Satan offered to act as savior, and promised that he would make sure everyone behaved. God then rejected Satan’s plan because it would have destroyed human freedom. This story helped me stay convinced of the value of critical thinking. (See my post “The Mormon View of Jesus.”)
  4. Institutionally, there are many things one can learn from Mormonism.  First, although Mormonism is highly centralized, and is suffused by patriarchy, at the local level, it has a certain democratic aspect. Everyone has a church position and the pulpit is fully shared, with almost everyone taking a turn giving sermons. Even the position of bishop, at the head of the congregation, is rotated at every five years or so. 
  5. Besides trying to make everyone feel like a minor officer of the church, one of the secrets to the strong sense of community in Mormon congregations is the simple strategy the Mormon Church follows of keeping each congregation relatively small. Whenever a congregation grows beyond a few hundred people, it is split into two separate congregations that often share the same building, but operate with a separate organizational structure. 
  6. For those interested in social engineering, Mormonism provides some clues:  
  • The reason Mormonism grows fast is very simple: it has a massive proselyting effort.  The trick is how a majority of Mormon young men can be convinced to spend two years of their lives persuading other people to become Mormons.  Subjective spiritual experiences work as motivation for some, and parental pressure works for others. But for many others, the key motivating factor is that most believing Mormon women will not marry a man who has not served a two-year Mormon mission. Of course, in the terms economists use, this is a perfectly good equilibrium that makes sense for the Mormon women as well. If not completing a mission is a sign of failure for a Mormon man, then a man who does not serve a mission will not look like attractive marriage material. (It is still unclear what the October 2012 reduction in the age at which Mormon women can go on missions to 19 from 21 and the reduction of the minimum age for Mormon men from 19 to 18 will do to this equilibrium.)  
  • During their time on a mission, Mormon young men are motivated partly by altruistic motives, but also in many cases by desire to gain the honor of moving up in the ranks from junior companion to senior companion to district leader to zone leader to assistant to the mission president. The (usually middle-aged) mission president can seem like a godlike figure who regularly interviews all of the missionaries and every month decides which missionaries will move from one station and rank to another station and rank. (I am speaking from my own experience as a missionary in the Tokyo North Mission from 1979 to 1981 under a very good mission president.)
  • The same kind of desire to become (sociologically speaking) a minor local godling by gaining church rank helps to motivate people to take on the job of bishop, which, while totally unpaid, involves most of the counseling and leadership responsibilities that a minister in another church would have. That is not so say that these considerations of honor and rank are the main motivation for the onerous unpaid service one takes on as a Mormon bishop, but that the motivations of honor and rank sometimes fill in where more idealistic motivations fall short.  

The lesson I draw from all of this is that, for better or worse, it really is possible to motivate people to do a lot by the assignment of honor and rank instead of the payment of money. None of this is terribly inspiring (to me at least) when the end is simply to make more Mormons, but imagine a world in which the same kinds of motivational tools were used to achieve a more worthy goal, such as the utopian Book of Mormon goal of an end to poverty. (See my post “Will Mitt’s Mormonism Make Him a Supply-Side Liberal,” which is about the strong Book of Mormon message of social justice in the sense of making sure the poor are taken care of.) 

I suspect that the ideal among feasible societies would involve such an inequality of honor and rank.  People have to be motivated somehow, but it is better for those at the bottom to be dealing with low rank than too little money to buy the necessities of life. Low rank is particularly easy to deal with if there are customs of treating everyone with basic respect and dignity as a human being. (I remember my Dad telling me based on the book Kabloonathat among many of the Inuit, those who don’t bring in food still get fed, but enjoy much less honor in the community.)

Besides Mormonism and Unitarian-Universalism, my religious quest led me through many other religions and quasi-religions.  I have been in psychotherapy, with all the values of gentle respect for individual differences and calmly solving problems that fosters. I try to do Transcendental Meditation every morning as my main replacement for prayer. And I take my views on the meaning of life from the existentialist teachings of the Landmark Forum: life is inherently empty and meaningless, but that is OK, it just means that we need to choose our own meaning.  Each person needs to choose what he or she wants to stand for. The simple fill-in-the-blank procedure of completing the sentence “I am the possibility of all people ….” enforces the Kantian categorical imperative of transcending self-centeredness.  Mine is “I am the possibility of all people being joined together in discovery and wonder.” (On Landmark, see also my post “So You Want to Save the World.”) Even my profession of economics contains some religious wisdom: gains from trade arising from diversity, letting bygones be bygones, and a nonjudgmental approach to our flawed humanity. 

Finally, to the bemusement of my wife, Gail, I often listen to Contemporary Christian Music. Besides the general treatment of the ups and downs of life, even the Christian beliefs that I reject as a literal reality, often have a psychological charge for me.

I don’t believe in Jesus as a savior, but Susan Ashton’s song “In Amazing Grace Land” provides some salve for my irrational fear that I am fundamentally bad.  The chorus goes like this: 

Without your love, there’d be no healing.  There’d be no blood, raining down to cover me.  I once was lost, but you found me and brought me here.  Now there’s a halo over me, in amazing grace land. (Lyrics; Youtube audio.)

And in her song “Hold the Intangible,” in words whose literal meaning I think is disgraceful, is an expression of the desire that leads me to embrace the paradox of worshiping the nonexistent God: 

There is a chamber, in the soul of the believer, it holds reason in defiance, the demanding hand of science may not enter. (Lyrics; MySpace audio.) 

I will resolutely hold to reason and to the demanding hand of science.  Nevertheless, there is wisdom and food for the soul in the fictions of traditional religions, that we can safely enjoy if we retain our critical faculties along with the same capacity for the temporary suspension of disbelief that we use to appreciate a novel, a movie or an opera. 

Back when I was a Mormon, I made a list of three criteria by which a religion could be judged: the degree to which a religion 

  1. fosters joyfully living an ethical, responsible life,
  2. fosters community, and
  3. fosters intellectual, emotional and spiritual discovery.

Spiritual discovery, in particular, involves aspects of our psyches that we do not understand very well. And unfortunately, much of what has been discovered about the spiritual side of life has been framed in terms of a God who I believe does not exist. Thus, until our understanding is much deeper than it is now, godless religion that feeds the soul will require some fancy footwork. I hope that over time we can gain a greater understanding of how religion works, so that we can design an ever better godless religion that matches all of the benefits of traditional religion while allowing us to fully appreciate the scientific wonders of the actual Universe all around us.