Thursday, October 17, 2013


my front yard

Yesterday I had one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had in my life. Off and on, for a good part of the day I had an online conversation with a person who was a self-avowed atheist. We were talking about what it meant to be an atheist.  The thing that was so interesting to me was that he constantly referred to himself as an "orthodox" atheist ( yes, he actually used the word "orthodox"). 

In our conversation I was told that there is a right way to "not" believe and there is a wrong way to "not" believe. Responding to a post I wrote on my blog (in which I talked about the spiritual side of every human being-even atheists), this person explained that a real and true atheist only believes in science and reason. A true atheist does not seek out ways to feed his/her spiritual nature. In fact a real atheist does not even admit to having a spiritual nature. He essentially went on to tell me that anyone that does not think this way is not an "orthodox" atheist.

By the end of this day-long, back and forth conversation, we couldn't even agree to disagree (I felt like I was a member of congress).  He was so firm in his position, so adamantly sure he was right that he wouldn't even entertain other ways of thinking.  He was, after all an "orthodox" atheist.

The word "orthodoxy" is a Greek word originating from the fourth century church.  It means "right thinking" or "true beliefs." After the creeds of the church were articulated, "orthodoxy" was demanded and expected from believers. Everyone was expected to hold the carefully spelled out "right beliefs" contained in the creeds. In fact people were labeled as heretics if they didn't hold orthodox beliefs, and some were persecuted, tortured, burned at the stake for their lack of orthodoxy (that's why I find the use of the word "orthodoxy" so odd when the word is applied to atheism).

As I see it "orthodoxy" of any kind is dangerous and lifeless. If there is only one way to be a Christian-an atheist-an American- a Republican, a Democrat (fill the blanks), then there is no possibility of dialogue with people who hold different views. And it is only in the "dialogue of diversity" that truth emerges and new life is breathed into old and tired ideas. 

I also doubt that human beings even have the capacity to be truly "orthodox"- everyone holding onto the same beliefs- the right beliefs.  We all carry around our own personal and cultural baggage and so no two people are ever "exactly" on the same page" with regard to anything. This is especially true when it comes to articulating and thinking about "abstract" ideas like "God" or "sin" or "prayer" or "everlasting life." People might recite a creed and say the same words but it hardly means they are all holding onto the same "orthodox" beliefs.  

After my conversation yesterday with my atheist friend, I ran across this wonderful reflection by Richard Rodriquez ("A Spiritual Autobiography"). He wrote it one Sunday in church after the recitation of the "Nicene Creed."

The congregation does not believe one thing; we believe a multitude of hazy, crazy things. Some among us are smart; some serene; some feeble, poor, practical, guilt-ridden; some are lazy, some arrogant, rich, pious, prurient, bitter, injured, sad. We gather in belief of one big thing: that we matter somehow. We all matter.

I am totally unconcerned about orthodoxy. In fact I think orthodoxy is dangerous and I don't even think orthodoxy is possible for any of us - even for an atheist.

I love the messiness of it all. The only "true belief" I hold is that "we all matter."

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