It is all too common for those of us in the church to disregard people in these categories. We might dismiss them with “There are no atheists in foxholes” and similar sayings. And while I struggle to find ways of communicating my understandings of the Divine to those whose unbelief is more of a reaction to the abuses of church and religion, I also recognize that there are many good, thoughtful, moral people who do not feel the need for a Higher Power. Yet more and more of them are joining the interfaith conversation (you see why interfaith and interreligious are problematic terms!).
During the summer months, we welcome guests from different religious and non-religious traditions to speak at our church on a specific topic. Two years ago the subject was caring for creation. Most of our guests were easy to describe, e.g. Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim. But one speaker, was not so easy to categorize. He didn’t like using any labels at all, but finally settled on “free-thinking naturalist.” Beginning his talk, he jokingly said that he had deliberately avoided the “A” word when referring to himself.
Atheism is a tricky subject. It used to be simple: an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students. He recounts,
“Every term, one or more of them says to me after class, ‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’- here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath- ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’” 
As Borg tells it, the student then describes a version of God perhaps learned in Sunday school, from parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.
As more people discover that there are other ways of thinking about their concept of God, the old definition of “not believing” becomes more problematic. Also, we are becoming more familiar with religions that are non-theistic (hence a-theistic), such as Buddhism, which has no concept of a creator God or divine intercessor. It is not so much that Buddhists do not believe in God (as if a conscious negative choice) as the fact that those are simply not aspects of their tradition.
Karen Armstrong has this to say:
“Atheism is often a transitional state: Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all called atheists by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. The people who have been dubbed atheists over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. But is the God who is rejected by atheists today the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics, or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated, but they are very different from one another. Perhaps modern atheism is a similar denial of a God that is no longer adequate to the problems of our time.”
Of course there are those who do not believe in any kind of Divine being, no matter how we might reimagine what that means. Many of these folks are also interested in being part of interreligious conversations. Henry, a long-time member of the board at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio is a co-founder of an organization in Berkeley called Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word meaning ‘nonviolence’). One of the goals of the organization is “to encourage dialogues and public forums on issues which bridge spirituality and science and society.” Henry is also an avowed atheist, yet appreciates deeply the opportunity to work on projects together with others who want to be peacemakers in the world.
I contrast Chris and Henry with militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, who denounce the God they don’t believe in, but are never willing to listen to or discuss any other possibilities. I consider them to be as intractable as any fundamentalist of any religion.
I will admit that I never got the consternation that many Christians had about humanists (or as one elderly church member called them hoomanists). I thought humanists were pretty good people. I do now understand why they are considered by some to be fair game for Christian conversion: they value human agency and critical thinking over faith and doctrine. It could be said that humanism is a kinder, gentler atheism. As Nathan Phelps has said, “What I am is a proud humanist. Atheism says what I don’t accept, humanism says what I do.”
But these terms are very fluid. Another guest in our speaker series was Vanessa, who is very involved in the interfaith scene and describes herself (at least for today, she said) as a Secular Humanist. However, she said that others have called her a “faitheist.” This was the first I had heard of the term, which comes from the book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found CommonGround with the Religious by Chris Stedman. Stedman’s point is that atheists should be involved in respectful dialogue with those of religious persuasion. Vanessa said, however, that being called a “faitheist” was not a compliment. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “an atheist who is ‘soft’ on religious belief, and tolerant of even the worst intellectual and moral excesses of religion; an atheist accommodationist.” For some reason, it gives me satisfaction to know that there are factions even among the non-believers!
What I have learned from listening to those on the interfaith scene who describe themselves with the “A” word or with other isms is that these are people of good will and great love for humanity and the world. I welcome the opportunity to be in dialogue. Right now I have members in my congregation with family members who are declared atheists. I would love to have the “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” conversation with them – not in order to convince them that they are wrong, but to see where they really fit in the wide range of what atheism means today. And what “God” means today.
- Do you know someone who is an atheist? Have you ever had or could you have a conversation with him or her about what that means?
- How do you think it is possible for an atheist, agnostic or humanist can participate in interreligious dialogue?
- Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman
 Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity. Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 68-69.
 “A New Axial Age: Karen Armstrong on the History—and the Future—of God” by Jessica Roemischer, http://www.adishakti.org/_/a_new_axial_age_by_karen_armstrong.htm (accessed February 26, 2016).
 http://ahimsaberkeley.org (accessed February 26, 2016).
 Nathan Phelps is the son of Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps. He responded to my inquiry that this quote was something he had posted on Facebook and now has become a meme.
 Stedman, Chris, How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 2012.
 Urban Dictionary, s.v. “faitheist,” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=faitheist (accessed February 26, 2016).
 Trent, Dana, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Baptist Minister Married a Hindu Monk, Nashville, TN: Fresh Air Books, 2013.
 Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. “Welcoming the Spiritually Independent.” patheos.com.
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dailylifeasspiritualpractice/2013/09/welcoming-the-spiritually-independent/ (accessed February 26, 2016).
 Shapiro, Rami, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2013.
 Stedman, Chris, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.