Religion for Atheists: Truth and Human Potential

A new book came out recently by a philosopher called Alan de Boton. It’s called ‘Religion for Atheists’. I haven’t had chance to read it myself yet, but the reviews I’ve seen suggest that he isn’t just another atheist rant against religion – like those of Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. De Botton takes the world’s religions very seriously and says that there are positive things to learn from them – without actually signing up to all the ‘God’ bits. ‘Even if religion isn’t true,’ he asks, ‘can’t we enjoy the best bits?’

He says quite firmly that he is an atheist and doesn’t believe in anything supernatural. But he begins his book with this: ‘The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of a religion is whether or not it is true.’ I think he’s probably right on that. Because it would not be very helpful to go through every verse of the Bible, every section of our service this morning saying: ‘Ah. But is it true?’

We do, though, have to grapple with what we mean by ‘truth’. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ And the last verse of this morning’s gospel reading – also from John – says: ‘So the Word became human, and lived a human life like ours. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come to us.’

So obviously truth is important. But, as Pontius Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’

Well – there are different sorts of truth. And we all have to sort out in our own minds what sort of truth we’re dealing with. Saying the words ‘I love you’ for example. That may be true – though it’s probably impossible to prove it scientifically. Then in the world of science itself – you can say it’s true that the universe began with a big bang 13 billion years ago. But there’s still no absolute proof of that – it’s only a theory. A bit closer to home – it’s definitely true that London is the capital of the United Kingdom.

So – different kinds of truth. But where does religion fit into this? What sort of truth are we dealing with in church? In the Eucharist the priest invites you to affirm your Christian faith by joining in the words of the creed. But just look at some of the words for a moment. ‘God – maker of all that is.’ ‘Jesus Christ, only son of God, – begotten not made, of one being with the father.’ ‘Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the father’ – and so on. Which category of truth – if any – are we speaking here?

Or – think of some of the hymns we sing. Some of the words are quite fantastic when you really think about them. Take a look at Graham Kendrick’s well-known ‘Servant King’. The third verse says this:
Come see his hands and his feet,
The scars that speak of sacrifice.
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered.’

‘Hands that flung stars into space’ – words that echo this morning’s Gospel reading which refers to Christ as the ‘word of God’: ‘All things became what they are through the word; without the word, nothing ever became anything.’

This seems to suggest that Christ was indeed there with God at the beginning of everything – was his agent of creation. But ‘hands flinging stars into space’? Is there any way in which we can call that ‘true’? Not literally true – it can’t be. But perhaps we’re into the realm of poetic truth here.

One of the problems the Church faces today is that many within the Church and – probably – the majority outside the Church think that a Christian has to believe that everything in the Bible, in Christian theology, in our prayers and services, is literally true. And, of course, many scholars and theologians, from the very earliest days of the church, have tied themselves – and us – into knots trying to put everything into words, to prove that it’s all ‘true’.

And – quite frankly – it can’t be done. We have to be grown-up enough to see that. We shall go on looking for the right formula of words – and failing – until we take to heart the words of St Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.’

We are followers of a man who showed us in his own life, death and resurrection what being human is all about. The last bit of the gospel reading this morning again:
‘So the Word became human, and lived a human life like ours. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come to us.’

In Jesus we see what God is really like. And every human being has the potential to share the likeness of God that we see in Jesus. That’s a fantastic claim – but it’s the heart of the Gospel. There’s a saying attributed to Michelangelo: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Human beings may not all end up as angels – as works of art – but that is what God wants. That’s his aim for all his children.

But don’t worry if you can’t get your head around the theology of that. As the Bishop of Norwich said at the end of his Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ on Monday:
‘Some truths are too deep for easy words.’
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1 Response to “Religion for Atheists: Truth and Human Potential”

  1. 1 Val Carlill February 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    I have always thought that there is heaven & hell within each one of us. Similarly the capacity for good & also for evil. So to my mind what matters is that I tread this path of life trying to become the best person I can be. I accept that I will sometimes fail – I am only human, but I have a responsibility to try to right any wrongs & learn from any mistakes.

    I think that labels like Christian, Atheist or Muslim only focus us on difference. I probably have a lot in common with people of any faith, because we are all trying to live our lives within a moral code of behaviour in which truth is important. Sometimes I despair because what seems to be lacking in people of faith is tolerance of difference & interpretation.

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