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A sermon by Ted Martin for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, August 9, 2009

Born Again Atheist
The Tale of a Lapsed Atheist Who Found His Way Back Home


I can remember in my late teenage years having a conversation with myself about whether or not to believe that there is a God. This may very well have been the first use of my adult intellect. An abbreviated version of that conversation goes something like this:
“Most people say there must be a God; otherwise where did the world come from?”
“But if that is so, then where did God come from?”
“Religious people would say that God is infinite.”
“I would agree that the answer to the question of the source of things is that there must be something that is infinite, but why does it have to be God? Based on the evidence that I am aware of, I reject the idea of God and choose to believe that it is the Universe which is infinite.”
During that time, thanks to an aunt and uncle of mine who were atheists, I was also exposed to the writings of Robert Ingersoll and other Freethinkers, which very effectively debunked the Bible and other Christian beliefs. Also, a few years later, in college, I became aware of the existentialist writers, such as Albert Camus and Alberto Moravia, who were concerned about individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad. Camus wrote, “If there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.” This idea of love as the only positive choice available to human beings in an otherwise meaningless universe became a core belief for me. So it’s no surprise that the love I felt for Lucille, who was soon to become my wife, was so important to me.

By the time I was 22, I had become a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and anti-religionist. I also had been married for two years and my first son had been born. A second son followed 2 years later. Lucille had only just begun to move towards becoming a lapsed Catholic, so I went along with her wish to have Jason and Evan baptized. But I was insistent that they have no further exposure to religion. Lucille didn’t resist, and I was well on the way to making my nuclear family the sole basis of meaning in my life.

Now let’s flash forward 20 years to 1989. Over this period of time, my emotional and psychological security within this nuclear family had become more and more established. I had become very comfortable with my life. I suppose I was even somewhat smug.

However, this self-satisfaction was suddenly and unexpectedly and completely demolished when Lucille, because of long-brewing identity and independence issues of her own, announced that she wanted a separation. In one quick stroke, it became painfully clear to me that Lucille had really been the center of the nucleus for me. As a result, this decision of hers was emotionally and intellectually devastating to me and resulted in a complete collapse of my ego.

I was really lost and didn’t know what to do. I had difficulty sleeping and lost my appetite. The reality was that I was depressed, and I began seeing a therapist and took a leave of absence from work. Most importantly, thanks to the urgings of my older sister, Ruth, who had been participating in different 12-step programs for a number of years, I began attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, which is an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous. My sister also urged me to read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, a book which proposes ways to deal with the pain of confronting problems that can enable us to reach a higher level of self-understanding. She felt that this book would be very helpful to me, and indeed it was. I also began attending services here at First Unitarian and quickly became a member.

All of these things were helping me to slowly re-build my ego. I had begun what is referred to in 12-step jargon as my “spiritual awakening”. Of course, the first 3 of the 12 steps are:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over the effects of alcoholism or other family dysfunction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.

You can imagine the extreme difficulty for a “dyed-in-the-wool” atheist to accept these last two steps! However, this is something that AA had dealt with from the very beginning of its founding by inserting the phrase “as we understand God” and using the term “higher power”. The key to being restored to sanity is to accept that you can not accomplish this by the mere force of your own will; you must be willing to turn yourself over to something outside of yourself. One option presented is to consider the larger group as your higher power.

This is the approach I took initially, but during the first couple of months I had a number of what I called “spiritual experiences”. I don’t have the time this morning to describe these experiences in detail, but the one characteristic that they had in common was that I had a very distinct and intense feeling that I was connected to something benevolent outside myself, and these experiences were extremely exhilarating. The idea of a higher power for me started to evolve into some kind of non-specific force or spirit (I couldn’t use the word “God”) that had the capacity to affect me positively. This idea went along well with my experiences here at church and with much of the reading that I was doing. I actually found myself listening with an open mind to people describe experiences they had undergone that I once would have dismissed as unscientific and ridiculous! I stopped calling myself an atheist and began to say that although I didn’t believe in a personal God who listened to our prayers or interceded in any way directly in our lives, I did believe that there is some force or spirit, benevolent in nature, which we can tap into.

Based on what Lucille and I had learned about ourselves and our relationship through much soul searching during the 6 months we had been separated, we decided that we would get back together and try to make our relationship work under these new circumstances.

Time passed, and we continued to work on our individual issues and our relationship, which was becoming more and more healthy and resilient. Lucille began attending First Unitarian and we both began to participate in church activities at our own pace, in our own way.

Over the next few years, I participated in many church programs. Especially important for me were the ones that Tom Ahlburn, our minister at the time, hosted. Through them -- and from listening to some of Tom’s sermons -- I began to develop an interest in meditation and Buddhism and recognized many connections between the 12 Steps and Buddhism. (I even organized a series of evening programs on “Buddhism and the 12 Steps” that was heavily attended, thanks to Tom’s participation.)

Early in 1993, Tom told me about a meditation center in western Massachusetts that offered courses in Vipassana, or Insight, meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, whom Tom had met in the early 1980’s when Goenka gave a talk at the Meeting House. Although this was not the type of meditation that Tom practiced, he thought it might be something I might want to try. So in August of that year, I sat on my first 10-day course. The regimen was extremely rigorous, with complete silence for the 10 days, and a strict daily schedule of sitting meditation -- and nothing but meditation -- from 4:30 am to 9:00 p.m., with just two meal breaks and a few additional rest breaks. This was probably as close as you could get to being a monk without actually being in a monastery.

Despite the intense difficulty of this initial exposure to this meditation technique, the end result was that I found it extremely helpful in achieving some sense of self-awareness, inner calm and clarity -- from time to time. Thus began my practice of daily meditation -- 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening plus attending at least 1 ten-day course a year -- which I continue to maintain to this day.

Over the next few years, as I continued to grow in my practice, it became more and more evident that many of those values that had been central to my spiritual awakening earlier were also key tenets of the Buddhist-based practice I had undertaken. To quote Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions, “Buddha’s approach to religion was … empirical, scientific, pragmatic, therapeutic, psychological, democratic, and directed to individuals.” Especially significant for me was the importance placed on introspection, staying in the moment, strict honesty, and service to others.

However, one thing that was conspicuously absent from my new practice was the presence of some supernatural intelligence or force exerting itself in my life. Buddha was a man, not a God, and the path to mental health, sanity, wholeness, Enlightenment, or whatever you want to call it, is a path that we must take, one step at a time, through our own efforts. We may be influenced or inspired by others, or someone may even show us the way, but we must work out our own salvation. In the words of the Buddha as adapted by Goenka:
“I do not carry anyone on my shoulders to take him to the final goal. Nobody can carry anyone else on his shoulders to the final goal. At most, with love and compassion one can say, ‘Well, this is the path, and this is how I have walked on it. You also work, you also walk, and you will reach the final goal.’ But each person has to walk himself, has to take every step on the path himself.”
Now, nearly 20 years after beginning to walk on this path, I find myself, in some ways, in much the same intellectual position that I held 40 years ago. I am grateful for the spiritual experiences that I went through, because I believe that they were critical for helping me move away from being stuck in the depression and angst I was going through and for moving me towards a more healthy way of thinking and being. However, I now believe that those experiences were psychological and physiological manifestations of my condition at the time and that they had nothing to do with some outside force. Now, I find myself resonating again with Camus’ assessment of the reality of existence -- that our ultimate destiny is to die, that there is no God and no absolute meaning or logic deriving therefrom. But he also believed that meaning can be present within the human experience through love and by struggling for a more humane and just world -- indeed, that it is only through this loving and this struggle (what he calls “rebellion”) that we can escape from a useless and senseless life.

So, T.S. Eliot’s lines ring very true to me, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." I believe that what Eliot means by “knowing the place for the first time” is that the experiences we have throughout our lifetime inform our exploration. Yes, I am in a place very similar to where I was 40 years ago, but it has been transformed by my experiences throughout that time. Yes, I once again consider myself an atheist, but although I believe that injustice and ignorance always need to be confronted forcefully, I try not to be the angry, judgmental, and intolerant atheist which I used to be. And although I believe that, overall, religion has been a negative and destructive force in the history of the world, I have also come to realize that spiritual motivation is, in fact, a very positive and loving force for many people. And so it is clear to me that if we are going to have any chance of moving toward a more just and enlightened world, then people who share that goal have to find ways to work together to accomplish it, regardless of their religious beliefs (or disbeliefs).