Meeting at Infinity: What Theists and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other

A talk by Doug Muder at the Unitarian Church of Quincy in Quincy, Illinois on 2 April 2006

Opening Words

The opening words are from the Roman historian Plutarch: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled,it is a fire to be kindled.”


A Footnote to All Prayers by C. S. Lewis

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow

When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,

And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart

Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme

Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,

And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address

The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless

Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert

Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;

And all men are idolaters, crying unheard

To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great

Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

Interview with Salman Rushdie by Nathan Gardels

One of the reasons my name is Rushdie is that my father was an admirer of Ibn Rush’d, the 12th century Arab philosopher known as Averroes in the West. In his time, he was making the non-literalist case for interpreting the Koran.

One argument of his with which I’ve also had sympathy is this: In the Judeo-Christian idea, God created man in his own image and, therefore, they share some characteristics. By contrast, the Koran says God has no human characteristics. It would be demeaning God to say that [God has human characteristics]. We are merely human. He is God.

Ibn Rush’d and others in his time argued that language, too, is a human characteristic. Therefore it is improper – in Koranic terms – to argue that God speaks Arabic or any other language. That God would speak at all would mean he has a mouth and human form.

So, Ibn Rush’d said, if God doesn’t use human language, then the writing down of the Koran, as received in the human mind from the Angel Gabriel, is itself an act of interpretation.

The original text is itself an act of interpretation.

From The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

We instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be unique.

Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”


A Unitarian Universalist church is just about the only place in American society where theists and atheists can meet, be open about their beliefs, and compare notes about their experiences. That’s because we don’t have an official doctrine of God – the institution doesn’t tell you what to believe.

Now, you might think this would lead to some amazing discussions, the kind of conversations you can’t hear anywhere else. I don’t know whether you manage to have them here in Quincy or not, but in my experience such conversations are disappointingly rare. Most Unitarians, whether they believe in God or not, have learned to avoid the subject. It just starts arguments, the arguments are always the same, and no one is ever convinced. Why go there?

Last year I heard this riddle: Why do so many UU’s go to divinity school? Because they can’t talk about God in church.

I think this is unfortunate, because theists and atheists experience life differently, and learn some very different lessons from their experiences. Probably any particular bit of wisdom can be learned on either path, but some bits are easier to learn on one path than the other. Which is why I think that theists and atheists could teach each other a lot if they could only sit and talk calmly.

Today I hope to give that conversation a nudge by pointing out how much there is to gain and how to avoid some common dead ends.

Theist, Atheist, Agnostic

Before going on, I need to dispose of the word agnostic.

An agnostic, literally, is someone who doesn’t know, and claiming to be an agnostic is a polite way to drop out of those dull and unproductive debates. “I don’t know, you work it out among yourselves. Call me when you get it solved.”

But what, exactly, is the agnostic claiming not to know?

For example, I’m agnostic about the capital of Bangladesh; I don’t know what it is. I’m agnostic about the existence of intelligent life in nearby solar systems. It’s a good question but I just don’t know the answer. God is a different kind of question, because the word God means so many different things to different people. Whose God is the agnostic claiming not to know about?

Spinoza, for example, identified God with the natural workings of the universe, and left no room in his theology for miracles or responses to prayer. He didn’t think he was an atheist – his books are full of references to God – but everyone else in the 1600s thought he was. And in order to be agnostic about Spinoza’s God, you’d have to doubt the existence of the universe.

The C. S. Lewis poem points to an even deeper problem. It isn’t just that God has many different meanings, but that any God worth the name is actually beyond human conception. To Lewis, if you have a definition of God, you’re wrong. Because, unlike other words, God doesn’t point to an object or a concept, but rather points outside conceptual systems altogether. It is a word for something beyond words.

That’s why, for example, orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to say the name of God, but rather refer to God as ha Shem, the Name. That practice reminds them that even though they talk about God, they don’t really have a handle on him.

For the purposes of this talk, I’m going to use a pragmatist definition of theism and atheism that should do away with the need for the word agnostic and so block that way out of the discussion: If you have in your head any concept of God, and if that concept influences your behavior, then you are a functional theist. If not you are a functional atheist.

In other words, in the course of your everyday life, does God come up? Do you make different choices, live differently, or handle your anxieties differently, because you think about God?

That test should push most agnostics into one camp or the other. And it may push some self-professed theists or atheists into the opposite camp. A believer whose belief doesn’t affect his life comes out as a functional atheist, and an anti-believer who tries very hard to annoy God – he counts as a functional theist.

One thing I like about this definition is that it makes theism a matter of degree: Some lives are profoundly altered by a belief in God, while others are just influenced a little around the edges.Only those not affected at all count as atheists. But much of what I have to say about theists and atheists also applies to discussions between people who are theists to a greater or lesser extent.

Small Gods

So, assuming that you’re a functional theist, what of value might you learn by talking to a functional atheist?

First, as you try to communicate your concept of God to a doubter, you may notice that it has gotten small. In general, when you only hang around with people who agree with you, your concepts tend to shrink, like clothes that are washed and washed, but never worn. It’s the tension of opposition that keeps a concept stretched out.

The Christian writer Ruth Tucker tells of a friend who took her grandson out to play miniature golf. The sky looked threatening, but the boy announced that he would pray for God to hold back the rain until they had finished. That’s exactly what happened, and both the boy and his grandmother took this as evidence of the power of prayer. But Tucker wonders “if we really want our grandchildren or anyone else to have that image of God – one who holds back the rain for us to play golf. Is God then like a genie in a bottle, ready to do our bidding?”

To hear many fundamentalists tell it, God is a character in a book. He has a personality. He has moods, gets angry, and would do terrible things if cooler heads like Moses didn’t calm him down. And over the years he’s made so many promises and commitments – which he’s incapable of breaking – that he’s completely bound up. If we repent, he has to forgive us. If we believe and are baptized, he’s forced to take us to heaven. We’ve got God in a box. We’re the ones in control.

Compare than tiny notion of God to the one Salman Rushdie described: a God so great that his will and wisdom cannot be captured by any human language, one for whom even the original scripture can only be a human interpretation. The medieval Christian theologian William of Ockham put forward the notion of the radical freedom of God. Omnipotence, he taught, can’t be bound. You can’t bargain with it. You can’t make deals. Whatever you think you’ve been promised, God is free to do as He will.

That’s what a truly large God looks like. If you spend more time with atheists, their skepticism may keep your God from shrinking.

False Security

Atheistic concepts can shrink too. They settle, like the corn flakes that don’t fill up the box any more. Atheists are often too complacent about the potential of science to solve all the mysteries of life.

Sometimes when I hear atheists talk among themselves, it’s as if they’re back in the 1700’s, when Newton had all the basic laws of the universe worked out, and any question could be answered if we only had better instruments and could do longer calculations.

In one sense the optimism of that era was justified: Science has gone on to solve many mysteries. Many phenomena that once could only be explained by God’s whims now are understood as the workings of natural law. But that progress cost Newtonian science some of its most treasured concepts: time, space, and causality. Today’s science shows us a much weirder universe than Newton could have imagined. I doubt he’d be comfortable here.

Einstein lived long enough to be uncomfortable with the next scientific revolution: quantum mechanics, which brought randomness back into physics. “God,” Einstein protested, “doesn’t play dice with the Universe.”

And Bohr is supposed to have answered, “Albert, stop telling God what to do.”

The advance of science leaves no room for complacency. If science does unlock the most basic mysteries of life and human consciousness, it won’t just be a matter of learning a few more facts and tweaking the theory. Our current worldviews, no matter how scientifically sound they seem today, will be shaken to the ground.

If you hang around with believers, you may pick up an attitude of awe and humility in the face of the unknown. And that, I believe, would be healthy.

Depth: the Universal Problem

There’s a lesson here for both sides. Everybody who builds a worldview – whether they center it on God or not – has trouble getting the depth right. Your worldview has to be simple enough that you can function in it, and yet it has to be complicated enough to let you think about the real problems of life. That’s hard.

Knowing how hard it is, when intelligent theists and atheists contemplate each other’s worldviews, the immediate impression on both sides is that the other view must be too shallow. The theist imagines that an atheist world is just meaningless mechanism. The atheist imagines that the theist attributes every mystery to God’s will, and leaves it at that. In fact, everybody has trouble getting the depth right. You might compare notes on that.

Taking Theist Experience Seriously

Another thing theists and atheists might teach each other is the value of individual experience as opposed to abstract ideas. If you talk to believers, you’ll often hear a story like this: “For years I didn’t take religion seriously. And then one day I realized that God loves me and wants me to have a better life. Now, after years of struggle, I have that life.”

The content of the struggle differs from person to person. Maybe this believer had to give up drinking, while that one had to patch up a marriage or stop lying or focus on the kids. Some had to dedicate themselves to a social issue like peace or hunger. They did it for God, and life is better now.

You may object to this way of telling the story. You might point out that they could have done those things anyway, without God. But that’s not how it happened. And you’re never going to convince a person that the events of his own life didn’t happen or aren’t significant.

And so, all those atheist arguments about ideas – about the problem of evil and the contradictions in scripture – they just don’t hit anything. The theist may look bewildered and have no response, but you’re not persuading him.

Taking Atheist Experience Seriously

On the other hand, theists are too quick to project their experiences onto atheists. They imagine the atheist must have a god-sized hole inside him, that he must feel empty and hollow.

What if he doesn’t?

Oh, everyone feels discouraged or disheartened from time to time, but in the long run you’re never going to convince a person with a full life that he actually has an empty one.

And you know the conversion experience? That moment when you found God? How suddenly the world looked new and anything seemed possible? Believers need to understand that everybody gets that experience. It’s not specific to any particular religion. A lot of atheists had that experience when they dropped their concept of God. And so, you can testify until you’re blue in the face, but all you’re doing is reminding the atheist how good it felt to become an atheist.

Both sides need to understand this: Not everyone who disagrees with you is stupid or obstinate or hard-hearted or evil. Maybe they disagree because they have experiences that don’t fit neatly into your categories. You need to respect that possibility if you’re going to have a productive conversation.

When God Speaks

Nothing separates theists and atheists more than the phenomenon known as the voice of God. At certain peak moments, and sometimes even more often, a believer may feel the presence of a higher intelligence, commune with it, learn something about what it wants,
and even hear it as an audible voice.

To the atheist, this is all insanity. Worse, he can take a step back and see many groups of people, all claiming to hear the voice of God, and all wanting to do completely different things. Often they kill each other in riots or wars, and it only seems a matter of time until two sets of believers square off with nuclear weapons.

It may seem like there’s nothing to talk about here.

If you’re an atheist, and one of your friends suddenly knows what God wants him to do – or worse, knows what God wants you to do – it’s a real conversation-stopper. Where can you go from there?

And from the other side, you’ve just had one of the most meaningful experiences of your life, and your atheist friend wants to check you into a mental hospital – what’s to discuss?

If the choices are either that you know the will of God Almighty or that you’ve gone stark raving mad, there isn’t much to discuss. But I want to close by suggesting a third possibility, something that reasonable people on both sides may be able to talk about.

Two Kinds of Epiphany

The word epiphany has two common usages. In religious settings, it means witnessing a manifestation of the divine. Hearing the voice of God, for example, is an epiphany. In secular settings, an epiphany is a sudden realization, an a-ha! or eureka! experience. I want to suggest that these two usages have more in common than we usually think.

Let me explain. My first career was in mathematics, which may be the oldest intellectual tradition on the planet. It goes back at least as far as Egypt and Sumer, and the earliest human writings were probably tally marks to help people count. Whenever you have a tradition like that, where many people work on a common enterprise over centuries, they create structures of thought that are finer and grander than individuals can think up for themselves.

And there are moments – I’ve experienced them myself and seen them in my students – where a piece of that fine, grand tradition explodes into your consciousness. In an instant, after hours of apparently fruitless effort, the student suddenly understands not just what I’m saying or what the book is saying, but what mathematics is saying. Suddenly, the student has his own relationship with mathematics, and may even tell me how I could have expressed the idea better.

I used to think mathematics was unique, but recently I’ve been having the same experience reading legal decisions. At some point, you stop hearing the individual voice
of this judge or that one, and start to hear the voice of the Law, the voice of the centuries-old legal tradition that the judge is trying to represent.

Here’s what this secular experience of epiphany feels like to me: I suddenly have thoughts in my head that are bigger and grander and even louder than anything I’ve ever thought on my own.

They sound a little like the voice of God.

Respect versus Reductionism

There’s a danger in observations like this. For generations, unbelievers have trivialized religious experiences by classifying them with similar secular experiences, usually disreputable ones. The visions of saints get lumped together with those of schizophrenics. St. Paul just had an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus. And so on.

Believers are right to object to this treatment.

But at the same time, they shouldn’t be like William James’ imaginary crab, who is offended to be classified as a crustacean. It is possible to discuss the secular context of religious experiences respectfully. Religious objects may not be just human objects, but they are at least human objects. Cathedrals are at least buildings. Scriptures are at least books. The things we know about buildings and books are relevant to them.

Whatever else a religion may be, it is at the very least a tradition in which many people have been thinking about the same questions for a long time. Like mathematics. Like law. Religions contain some of those fine, grand ideas that are too big for anybody to create alone. And when you study a religion, those ideas can explode into your head in an epiphany.

But which kind? Are those loud, grand thoughts in your head a manifestation of God? Or are you having an a-ha experience about your religion? How would you tell the difference?

The Human Tradition

Admitting the possibility of a secular epiphany with religious content changes both sides of the discussion. It allows the atheist to admit that the believer may sane; that the epiphany may contain deep wisdom;and that it may indeed be one of the most significant experiences of a person’s life.

And if you are a believer, this possibility allows room for interpretation and thought. The higher intelligence you have communed with may or may not be God Almighty. Possibly you have heard the voice of your religious tradition, the collective intelligence of all those ingenious people who have believed before you. That is no small thing.

It does not trivialize your experience to accept that someone else may hear the voice of his religious tradition, or even the voice of his secular tradition. He may also have ideas in his head that are bigger and finer and grander than either of you could have invented.

His revelation may sound different from yours. This is not something to get angry about or try to suppress. This is a marvel. This is a wonder. This is something to sit and contemplate in humility.

When this possibility is acknowledged, suddenly there is more to this business of religion than geniuses and lunatics, more to it than true prophets and false ones. Your tradition and mine may each represent collective intelligences beyond our individual ability to encompass. And yet God, if there is one, may be greater still. God may be greater than words and voices.

And if we – people of all religions or of no religion – can remain in heartfelt communion, if your revelation and mine can speak and listen to each other, then the streams of our separate traditions can flow together. And we create the possibility that somewhere down that stream, somewhere in the distant future, someone may have an epiphany of the human tradition that encompasses us all.

Closing Words

The closing words are by the British occultist Austin Osman Spare: “In a universe that defies description, all systems of belief can only be false.”

Read more sermons by Doug Muder