I grew up with an Irish father who called himself an atheist while also claiming that, like Einstein, the mystery of life and awe, wonder, and joy in its truth, beauty, and kindness were enough “religion” for him. Despite his beliefs, from childhood I was forcibly immersed in the world of Catholicism, and couldn’t understand what he meant. But after rejecting religious institutions I found myself saying, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I’ve heard many others use these words, expressing the deep separation between two groups of people with views so different that they cannot be overcome or bridged. This stark divide between people of religion and without religion is crude and destructive.
I brought this consciousness into my teaching and expected to be rejected by religious students. But I was repeatedly surprised that they found a home in my classes, often openly proclaiming their beliefs along with gratitude for the safe space to do so. Reflecting on my formative experiences in childhood has brought some clarity. Reading Religion Without God, by Ronald Dworkin, has also helped to give me a new wider perspective.
Religion Without God accepts Einstein’s assertion that he was an atheist who was religious.
To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive form––this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in the sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.
Religion Without God proclaims that religion is deeper than God. A belief in a god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of a worldview that values everything, that sees the universe and its creatures as awe-inspiring, that believes human life has purpose and the universe order. This faith is possible for nonbelievers as well as believers. So some atheists share a commitment with some theists that is more fundamental than what divides them. And that shared faith can be a foundation for communication between them.
This is my experience in teaching thousands of college students of diverse faiths. I find that many youth who call themselves atheists have convictions and experiences similar to and just as profound as those that believers call religious. They say that though they do not believe in a personal god, they believe in a force, or higher power in the universe that is greater than we are. They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, respecting the lives of others, and giving their lives for others. They strive for a life they think well lived and do not want to waste their lives. They find a deep sense of awe and wonder in nature and in the interconnectedness of all life.
I find that thinking of religion as deeper than God helps in understanding how my atheist and theist students are able to come together in peace and harmony and create diverse and inclusive healing communities. Rather than seeing the divide of spiritual and religious, we see the connection. Instead of hiding in fear behind walls, we courageously cross borders and are together in oneness.