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Atheism ... Spirituality -- answers to perennial questions.

Byline: Rami Shapiro

Why Aren't You An Atheist? . . . Why Connect Spirituality & Health?

To these perennial questions, I offer some answers, not to close a conversation but to broaden one.

I would like to believe in God, but it seems so childish. You seem reasonably intelligent, so why aren't you an atheist?

To some people I am; it all depends on how you define "God."

There are five basic approaches to God: theist, atheist, agnostic, pantheist, and panentheist. The first three agree that "God" is a self-conscious supernatural entity outside of time and space who created the world and judges, rewards, and punishes everyone in it. They disagree over whether or not this "God" exists. Theists say yes; atheists say no; and agnostics say they aren't sure. Since I don't define God as a self-conscious supernatural entity, I find their argument irrelevant.

Pantheists (meaning "all is God") believe that God and nature are synonymous. Unless you deny the existence of nature, you should have no trouble believing in the "God" of pantheism. My problem with pantheism is that it seems unnecessary. If God and Nature are synonymous, why confuse things by using the word God at all?

I am a panentheist (meaning "all in God"). I believe that God includes and transcends the universe. Nature is not other than God, nature is just not all of God. Nature is God manifest in and as time and space, and evolution is the way Nature becomes aware of this fact.

My panentheism is less a belief and more a sense of inner knowing or understanding acquired over years of meditation and study. My experience tells me there is something that includes and transcends the universe. Whatever this Something is, however, has little to do with religion, sacred texts, chosen tribes, or heavens and hells. It is simply the way things are. The wise work with it, the foolish work against it.

I have been reading the Bible and the Koran and I find them both pretty violent. Is this fair? Is religion intrinsically violent?

There are two questions to respond to here. One is the question of how to read scripture, and the other is why the religious commit violence. I will address the latter first.

The seventeenth century French philosopher Pascal wrote, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." When men (they are almost always men) operate from fear rather than love, they endorse terror rather than justice, and therefore the religion they offer is intrinsically violent.

Unquestioned religious conviction can put us at the mercy of people whom we believe are speaking the Absolute Truth. To free religion from violence, therefore, we must free ourselves from conviction at the expense of compassion. And we must dare to examine our respective traditions, texts, and theologies with a critical eye. In doing this we are following the patriarch Abraham, who challenged God's decision to destroy Sodom, saying, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25). In other words, for Abraham himself there was a higher standard to which even God must conform. While Abraham failed to save Sodom, he may have saved religion by providing us with a model for challenging both blind faith and the god it imagines.

When I read the scripture of any religion, I do so from a particular perspective, which I will share here. Read this as a catalyst to forming your own guidelines.
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Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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