Our congregation has a tradition of “auction sermons,” in which the ministers invite people to bid at our annual fundraising auction on the right to choose a sermon topic. I love it–the topics always stretch and challenge me to learn new things and think outside my familiar comfort zones. Here’s this year’s auction sermon, imagining the “New Atheism” and mysticism in dialogue–enjoy.
I know I’m not the only one struggling to make sense
of the violence we’ve seen around the country this summer.
You remember three weeks ago
a man involved with white-supremacist, neo-Nazi groups
killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
He didn’t even know them, but he had made up his mind
that they were—what?—somehow a threat to him
because they looked different from him,
because they came from a different culture
and followed a different religious path?
How is it that we are so threatened by difference?
And just a few days ago, almost in our own back yard,
an activist who claimed to be defending LGBT rights shot a security guard
at the conservative Family Research Council in downtown DC
because, as he said, “I don’t like your politics.”
Thank goodness the guard survived and it looks like he’ll be OK.
I want to lift up the sorrow and confusion and frustration
that I think many of us are feeling about this.
I don’t like the Family Research Council’s politics either,
but I know this is not the way.
Mercifully this guy, this kind of violent behavior,
is the extreme exception, not the norm.
But we have to wonder, how is it that even one person makes the leap
from political disagreement to violent assault?
There are always a million explanations for why such tragedies happen.
We may never fully understand what goes on in the minds of such people.
But I do wonder, I wonder a lot,
about the extreme polarization in our society,
in matters of politics,
in matters of faith.
We are, many of us, so entrenched in our positions
that we see anyone who disagrees with us as the enemy,
rather than the fellow human being they are,
precious just as we are.
This is what’s been on my mind
as I wrestle with the preaching challenge one of our congregants gave me this week.
This was the winning bidder on the right to choose one of my sermon topics at this past year’s Auction.
He has been curious about the so-called “New Atheists,”
a group of writers including, most famously, Christopher Hitchens,
Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.
They all argue rather forcefully
that religion is irrational and harmful,
bad for humanity, bad for the world.
Their tone is aggressive and snarky;
they believe they are right
and they will skewer anyone who disagrees with them—
at least verbally.
Our congregant knows that a lot of Unitarian Universalists
who identify as atheists or humanists
have been reading these New Atheists (capital N, capital A).
There’s a lot of buzz around them;
these books show up on a lot of best-seller lists.
But he is wondering, and I think rightfully so,
whether there is room in a liberal religious community like ours
for this particular way of being atheist,
which so aggressively rejects any and all kinds of religion.
I confess, I have not been a fan of Hitchens and his colleagues.
I find it hard to relate to their style, which I experience as
strident, snooty, and judgmental.
I also get irritated by their lumping all religions together,
all sorts of beliefs and practices and expressions,
and labeling it all as bad and foolish.
So I was prepared to be displeased when I picked up Hitchens’ book
with the aggressive title God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
(in case you’re wondering how he really feels!).
I’m afraid he lost me almost immediately with the statement on p. 13
that “people of faith are in their different ways
planning your and my destruction,
and the destruction of all [our] hard-won human attainments….
Religion poisons everything.”
I don’t think he knows us very well!
So this was a tough read for me.
However: I have a personal rule that when someone drives me that nuts,
it’s time to do some inner work.
I need to work at getting back in touch with my better self,
the part of me that doesn’t want to waste time
being outraged by other people’s deliberate provocations;
the part of me that really wants to get past all that silliness
and connect and understand.
I try to go back to a way of thinking I learned from Karen Armstrong,
the historian of religion who wrote A History of God.
She says, and I think she’s right,
when you talk about a religious idea or belief that seems foreign to you,
or a person whose beliefs are very different from your own,
you can’t just dismiss that person and their ideas
because they don’t fit with your own perspective,
the culture and the beliefs you’ve absorbed from your own time and place.
You have to temporarily put aside your own perspective
and try to understand the perspective of the other person.
You have to keep on asking why they think as they do—
study and learn about their culture and context
until you can imagine yourself in their shoes, believing the same.
And I do feel an obligation to try, because if I can’t do that,
if I can’t find any common ground or any sympathy with that person,
if I let myself dismiss anyone as stupid or bad or incomprehensible
just because I haven’t put in the time it takes to understand them,
I am just reinforcing the epidemic of polarization and hate
that is devastating our country daily.
I don’t want to do that.
I want to model a different way,
a way of relating to other people based on compassion,
trying to understand them,
and I think you do too.
So here I am looking for common ground with this guy
who thinks pretty much all religious people are brainwashed
and out to destroy him.
I have to keep saying to myself, let the style go, look behind the snarkiness
and look for what I can connect with.
And, truly, it’s not so hard once I get going.
I read in Hitchens’ book about the young Christopher,
starting to ask questions about the doctrines he was learning,
discovering it didn’t make sense to him;
it didn’t feel true inside him—
finding he just couldn’t believe what he was being taught.
I could empathize with that.
I wanted to say to that child, “I hear you!
Hang in there! That’s not the way all religion is!”
And I read about the grown-up Christopher Hitchens, the journalist
who had interviewed victims of horrific religious violence
all over the world—in Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Serbia, Iraq,
to name only a few.
I felt his anger and outrage and sorrow
that people should be killing each other over matters of faith.
I agree with him, it’s tragic and it’s wrong.
And so I want say to him,
Mr. Hitchens, maybe we’re not so utterly far apart after all.
I want to say to him,
I’m grateful for your blazing clarity
about the evil of religious violence.
I’m grateful for your reminders to us—
and this is the biggie I want you all to hear—
I am grateful, Mr. Hitchens, for your biting reminders
that religious people fall into error
and can become complicit in violence
whenever they make the mistake of conflating their ideas about reality
with reality itself.
Let me say that again,
because I think this is the core message of his that we can learn from:
religious people fall into error
and can become complicit in violence
whenever they make the mistake of conflating their ideas about reality
with reality itself.
Stay with me while I explicate that a little, OK?
It’s a bit tricky and very important.
Mr. Hitchens is pointing out, as many others have,
that every religious group makes different claims
about the nature of reality—
and when I say reality in this case I’m talking about
the force that many of us feel and believe and think
must be operating in the universe,
whatever it is that creates and sustains and destroys and creates anew—
the force we often call the Spirit of Life,
what many people of faith call God or Goddess;
Allah, nirvana, Brahman, the unconditioned;
the energy of the universe.
All these different ways of naming and talking about
this Really Big Thing.
Every religion finds different names, different language
to try to talk about it.
We know this;
Unitarian Universalists are so used to holding all these names lightly,
recognizing they’re all just different ways
of talking about something we’re never going to understand completely.
But Hitchens is exactly right to warn us
that too many religious people in every tradition
believe that they have it all figured out,
too many people think they know all there is to know.
Too many people have made the mistake of thinking
their favorite language about reality is the same thing as reality itself.
And the moment we decide that our favorite name,
our favorite language for talking about the big mystery—
the moment we decide our favorite way of talking about reality
is not just our favorite but also the best one or the right one for everyone,
that is the moment we are in grave danger of becoming complicit
in religious violence.
the moment we decide our limited understanding is absolute truth,
that’s the moment it starts to seem OK to force everyone to agree with us.
From that moment, it’s a very slippery slope to the drawing of weapons,
the beginning of wars.
Now, I want you to hear something else,
and now I’m extrapolating from Mr. Hitchens’ work;
this is me talking,
but I don’t think he would disagree with me:
Unitarian Universalists need to hear this too!
Each one of us, myself included,
needs to be very, very careful to remember
that our favorite ways of understanding the world,
our favorite words and symbols and ideas
are the ones that work for us; they’re not the truth for all time and all people.
I love our faith, and I know it’s not the best one for everyone.
It’s where I need to be;
I am deeply, deeply grateful for it;
but I also know we do not have a monopoly on the truth.
Yet how many times do we find ourselves slipping into careless ways of talking
that make it sound like our faith is the best, the most truthful?
How often have we found ourselves saying
about anyone we think of as an open-minded person,
“They’re really a UU; they just don’t know it yet?”
As if we had a monopoly on open-mindedness
and appreciation of difference?
Thank goodness we don’t!
Thank goodness our faith is one of many
filled with people who are truly trying to live a good and peaceful life.
Thank goodness it’s not just us!
OK, end of rant.
Obviously toward the end there I’m parting ways with Mr. Hitchens
in terms of our ideas.
But I find his “tell it like it is!” style is actually feeling quite liberating today!
So thank you for that too, Mr. Hitchens.
Maybe by now he’ll let me call him Christopher?
So, Christopher, I bow to your anger and clarity,
even when I don’t agree with it.
Which still is rather often.
And to explain why—
why in the end I really do need to say to him,
“You do not have the whole story!”—
I have to invite our colleague Karen Armstrong
back into this imaginary conversation,
Karen Armstrong who taught me to try to hang in there
with people and ideas I don’t understand right away.
Because Karen has done this wonderful cross-cultural study
of mysticism worldwide,
and she tells us, in every major world religion,
there’s a tradition of mysticism reminding us
that all our language about God or spirit or not-God
or however we name whatever it is that’s going on—
all our religious language is completely incapable of truly naming or describing or speaking about reality,
completely incapable of describing the truth
about this Really Big Thing—and of course those words are wrong too;
there’s just no way of speaking about it.
She has this wonderful trippy passage in one of her books
where she says—check this out—
“We cannot even say that God ‘exists’
because our experience is based solely on individual, finite beings
whose mode of being bears no relation to being itself.”
The way I think of it is like this:
There’s something going on in this world,
something big and important, actually the most important thing of all,
but our human brains are limited
and it’s not possible for us to fully understand it;
we physically can’t understand it,
but each of us can grasp little pieces of it;
we make up these ways of talking about it
so we can try to communicate with each other about it,
but all our language is just words, sometimes more helpful, sometimes less,
but not at all the same thing as the thing itself,
which these human brains in human bodies simply cannot grasp.
Do you understand?
And because of this,
I think Karen Armstrong needs to say to our friend Mr. Hitchens,
Christopher, do you understand?
Do you see how you’re making the very same mistake
you are so right to point out in other people?
Do you see how you think you have it all figured out?
Do you see how you’re insisting that your view is the correct one?
Do you see how you can’t really know that,
how it makes no sense to assume
that you are uniquely right out of all the people in the world?
Do you see how the violence in your words is possible
only because of the false certainty of your thoughts?
Do you see how the violent words and actions
you condemn so rightly in other people
have their root in the false belief that we are the only ones with the truth,
and that this is a danger we all have to watch for in ourselves?
I’m not sure Mr. Hitchens was able to hear that.
I don’t think he was before his death;
he died quite young, at 62, just this past December.
I hear he was cantankerous till the end, and that’s OK.
But I’ve spent enough time hanging out with his words
to feel, if not exactly hopeful, still, longing for a reconciliation.
To that end I want to invite in our friend Rumi,
the mystic from the great Sufi tradition of Islam,
to offer us a blessing from his wonderful poem
about Moses and the shepherd.
Do you remember: Moses, the irascible, cranky,
so sure of his rightness,
a cousin to our New Atheist friends in his certainty if not in his belief;
Moses, so ready to condemn the shepherd for praying the wrong way;
Moses who finally learns that each person has
a separate and unique way
of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.
What seems wrong to you is right for him.
What is poison to one is honey to someone else….
Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better
or worse than one another….
It’s all praise, and it’s all right….
Ways of worshipping, or not worshipping, are not to be ranked
as better or worse than one another.
Because in the end it’s just our human words,
it’s just our language that can’t really touch what truly is.
And I find I do have faith in the poet’s words,
just words though they may be:
When you eventually see through the veils to
how things really are, you will keep saying
again and again, “This is certainly not like
we thought it was!”
Blessings to all.
So may it be.
 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Hachette/Twelve, 2009), p. 13.
 Karen Armstrong, interview on Speaking of Faith, May 8, 2008.
 Hitchens, p. 3.
 Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Knopf, 2009), p. 125.
 Rumi, “Moses and the Shepherd.”