Religion for atheists: A sermon of affirmation

Second Sunday After the Epiphany
Year B
John 1:43-51

A few years ago my wife and I went to the Moxie to see the film Religulous?, which features comedian and social commentator Bill Maher, best known as the host of HBO’s political show Real Time with Bill Maher.

As an influential public figure, Maher makes no bones about it: he views religion as one of the most — if not the most — destructive element in society today, and Religulous was one of his attempts to point out what he views as the absurdity of religious belief. The title comes from linking the two words religion and ridiculous, a combination that implies our world would be much better off with much less religion.

It’s not an uncommon argument. From viral YouTube videos to books such as The God Delusion or God is Not Great, religion has been castigated as the opiate of the masses and the crutch humanity would do well to get rid of. Religion = Ridiculous.

There are, of course, several valid points made by Maher and others. Religion hardly has its hands clean. It has been responsible for perpetuating great violence on others, from so-called holy wars to inquisitions to the subjugation of those who don’t conform or belong to the most powerful class or gender or race or orientation. What’s more — and we especially see this in the churches today — people all too often don’t take the time to critically analyze religious beliefs they are told they are supposed to hold. They believe whatever the pastor or church tells them to believe, even when such beliefs are potentially unhealthy or dangerous, not to mention in-credible, all of which further perpetuate religion’s dangerous inclinations toward violence.


But if only it was so easy to rid ourselves of religion (I have tried!). If only it was so easy to debase the value of religion. If only it was so easy to forget religion, to write it off, to view it as an artifact of the past. If only it was so easy.

But it’s not so easy, it’s not so easy at all. Either for Bill Maher, or for myself, or for any of us for that matter. Because somewhere along the way, unless we are dead (figuratively or literally), somewhere along the way, our hearts – believers and atheists alike – beat for another world, a different world, a better world, to be born. Our hearts are restless.

For all of the problems with religion, for all of its checkered past, there is a reason that we still dream with Martin Luther King Jr., atheists and believers alike. There is a reason we still march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., atheists and believers alike. For the dream of another world to come – a world in which justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream – the dream of another world to come transcends all of our categories of religious belief (or unbelief).

For there is a claim visited upon our lives for a better world to be born that will not leave us alone, atheist and believer alike.

There is a claim visited upon our lives that will not give us peace until there is peace, atheist and believer alike.

There is a stirring in our hearts that relentlessly pursues us, that hounds us, that makes our hearts restless, atheist and believer alike.

This is why Bill Maher’s film Religulous, for all of its criticisms of religion, is actually a deeply religious film: for it is hungry for another world to be born – a world that is more fair, more just, more right – and it asks us to join in its creation.

This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” for all of its criticisms of religion, is actually a deeply religious song:
Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will live as one

This is why we can even imagine a cultured despiser of religion like Karl Marx operating from, dare I say it, a religious heart. While Marx, as one scholar describes, “viewed himself a cold-hearted scientist who was dispassionately exposing the futility of religious illusion in the name of revolutionary historical progress,” can we not say that he still yet “had a bit of the wild-eyed Jewish prophet about him”? While working with what he and others viewed as cold economic laws, the “science” of political economy, all without God of course, could we not say that he was also doing all of this work because he longed for a better world to be born, even as he was debunking religion? As John Caputo writes, “Marx was praying and weeping for an age in which the rich stop feeding off the poor and making their fortunes on the bent backs of the most defenseless people in our society.” Is this not in line with what the Hebrew prophets who longed for justice for the poor did, what Martin Luther King did, what Desmond Tutu did?

This is why the distinction between believers and atheists is a little more unstable than most people think, and why language about the death of religion is ultimately misleading. To speak of the death of religion in any final sense, Caputo has said, would be to speak of the death of desire, the death of love, the death of affirmation, the death of what we hope for with a hope against hope and a desire beyond desire, of what we can’t express with our words yet what we long for with all our hearts. I have a dream, Dr. King said, and so do we…

When we relegate religion only to the affirmation or negation of certain (superstitious sounding) belief systems, not only do we trivialize the claim that has been visited upon our lives, but, perhaps more troubling, we neglect to honor the part of our lives that leaves us hoping and sighing and dreaming and weeping for our world to be different, for our lives to be different, for transformation to occur, for a new world to be born, for us to be born, again — atheist and believer alike. I have a dream, Dr. King said, and so do we…

Now it doesn’t matter if we refer to such longings or hopes as religious or not. The point is that as soon as we close off this part of ourselves then a very significant part of us dies. I have a dream, Dr. King said, and so do we…


When Philip and the early disciples were confronted by Jesus all those years ago, a claim was visited upon their lives, and they knew that unless they wanted to spend the rest of their lives regretting it they had better drop everything and follow. When a claim is visited upon our lives for another world to be born, for a different world to be born, may we have the courage and the wisdom to respond as well, whether we consider ourselves religious or not, whether we believe in God or not, lest we spend the rest of our lives regretting it. May we have the courage to dream.

8 thoughts on “Religion for atheists: A sermon of affirmation

  • Bill Maher as spiritual … nice insight on human commonality ! Nice post , well delivered and framed so all can see each other more generously . Thanks Phil , going on my FB page .

  • Hey Phil! Interesting post…does this make the assumption, though, that ‘everyone’ (you qualified this by excluding those who are figuratively or literally dead) is yearning for peace and a better world? And what about the figuratively dead? How are they revived to regain a yearning for peace and a better world? Is it possible? And back to the figuratively living, if everyone is yearning for peace and a better world, why aren’t we living in one? In the past, those might have been leading questions, or stepping stones to my own answer…except that I don’t have an answer, anymore. So, I am actually curious how this a/theo-philosophy addresses those things? The more I think about my conservative Christian upbringing, and about the Bible I was raised to revere and turn to for answers, the more I think that it doesn’t actually have a cohesive answer to these questions, either. I’m re-reading and re-contemplating the passage in the Bible that might come closest to answering these questions, Paul’s description of his relationship to sin in Romans 7…but I am finding that that is about as obscure an answer as I will find anywhere, haha. Contrary to the modern evangelical take on sin–which I would describe as being a description of choices that people make, ie- some choices are righteous and some choices are sinful–Paul’s sin is very personified…or anthropomorphic. It is an overpowering monster that lives within him. It is a power that oppresses and controls him, and he is incapable of doing good because of this force that is distinct from him but that conquers him, no matter how hard he wills to do what is right and good. While Paul’s answer is not much help from a modern philosophical standpoint, I do find it a rather accurate and beautiful story about why *I* fail to live up to the yearning for peace and a better world. It’s almost like Paul recognizes that there is no good explanation, and this figurative language about sin is the best way he can come up with to explain our failure, and the feeling of our failure. What do you think of all this?

    • Travis — Your questions are right on. I need to offer a couple of “Phil’s rhetorical disclaimers” as part of my response: When I evoke the longing of our hearts for another world to be born, I’m not envisioning this only in terms of peace or justice issues, though it is certainly encompassing of them — I am thinking also in terms of strained relationships, failed pasts, regrets, etc. (items in need of redemption we might say). Second, when I say “everyone,” it is admittedly a bit of a rhetorical flair, simply because I can’t offer as many disclaimers as necessary within the context of the sermon. Sermons, I think, are best viewed as poems (as opposed to informational essays or something). I have written at length about the latter disclaimer elsewhere, but here is a brief excerpt that gets at my response (pay attention especially to the parts about the future):
      “There is a certain structure to experience, what constitutes experience as experience, that, dare I say, all of us share. I beg you to hear me out on this one before casting the first stone. Let’s start with a quote from Caputo:
      [EXT]Instead of distinguishing “religious people,” the ones who go to church on Sunday mornings, from non-religious people, the ones who stay home and read The Sunday New York Times, I would rather speak of the religious in people, in all of us. I take “religion” to mean the being-religious of human beings, which I put on a par with being political or being artistic. By “the religious,” I mean a basic structure of human experience and even, as I hope to show, the very thing that most constitutes human experience as experience, as something that is really happening. [/EXT]
      But so as to not worry us too much, or send us into premature cardiac arrest, Caputo quickly offers a disclaimer: “And once again, we need to remind ourselves, the religious sense of life would never mean just one thing for everybody, as if it had some sort of common ahistorical, universal, transcendental structure. I try to swear off thinking like that about anything.” What Caputo has in mind when he talks about “the very thing that most constitutes human experience as experience” is the structure of the messianic, the longing for the impossible, as we examined in chapter 4. What all of us have in common—provided we have life—is the future. We live in the mundane, foreseeable, conventional future, where nothing is really going on. But the very thing that constitutes experience as experience is when the unforeseeable future comes over us and shatters the horizon of our present and opens up a new way of being. This is the time of the messiah, the event that groans to be born, the truth-event of Christianity. And it’s what makes our hearts beat. As Derrida writes: “The future is that which—tomorrow, later, next century—will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future to come (l’avenir) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this known future, it’s l’avenir in that it’s the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.”
      While the truth-event very well may come over us in different ways (it doesn’t have “some sort of common ahistorical, universal, transcendental structure”), we deeply long for it, whether we consider ourselves religious or not. While I find most of the criticisms hurled at the New Homiletic to be legitimate—I would never argue for some sort of Common Human Experience—I tend to think Fred Craddock is more right than wrong when he states:
      [EXT]I used to work so hard at being relevant. I think now more about what is really going on, and I notice Flannery O’Connor can write about southern Protestant illiterate preachers and stir a genuine conversation among Jewish people sitting on the porch in the Adirondacks. What do they have in common? One thing: life. Adults, educated adults, sat in theaters, while upon the screen a strange little creature called E.T.—he was sort of greenish brown and had either two or three fingers. I mean, greenish brown with two or three fingers from another planet, and American adults sat there crying and said to each other, “This is the third time I’ve come to see this.” Now do not tell me people cannot make shifts. Maya Angelou came out of the cotton patch of Arkansas and moved the elite of New York. What do they have in common? Life. [/EXT]
      I am not sure I would go so far as to say, with Craddock, that “even in the multicultural context, beneath the surface people are more alike than they are different,” and, to be sure, Craddock is analyzing contextual life in the United States, with all of its history and particularities. I would not begin to try to extend his analysis to some sort of Universal Experience of How Life Is. I don’t advocate trying to definitively name the Essence or Meaning of Life, but to leave such questions open, and irreducibly so. We are, as Augustine put it, a question unto ourselves, and, to add a motif from Caputo and Derrida, the answer to the question “Who are we?” is “We do not know who we are. That is who we are.” What is the Secret to life? That there is no secret. Yet even amid the contingencies that shape our lives, that are forged in time and circumstance, that are irreducibly plural, we do share one thing: life—the secret that we do not know what life means, the secret that there is no secret. Further, there is a hunger and a restlessness for the event harbored in the name of what goes by many different names in many different cultures, that is evoked in words and in languages, that stirs in our limit concepts, with the word God functioning as perhaps the most famous of all the limit concepts, at least in the West. The lives of those in the slums of Calcutta and in the opulence of Orange County are not the same—but the experience of a different future that is unforeseen, that comes over us, that transforms our lives—constitutes experience as experience, though in very different ways that are inevitably intertwined with culture and circumstance.”

      OK, excerpt over. Back to Phil’s response to Travis: There are likely always exceptions to the rule, and the matrix in which each pulpit is constituted — not to mention each listener — is varied (hence the reason liberation theology plays so well in churches of the poor!). But the idea that we share a hunger for a future that is unforeseen — that shatters the horizon of our expectations — is at the heart of human experience. And I think we (generally speaking) hunger for such transformation. Now that I think about it, perhaps in hindsight I should have said we hunger for a different future *especially* if we are figuratively dead! That’s when we really need a new future (the event of the other) to come upon us. After all, it’s the experience of transformation that lies at the heart of religion, whether we call it religious or not. And it is precisely when we feel most hopeless that hope is truly hope. Faith is faith when we aren’t sure what the future holds, otherwise it’s a calculated guess based on knowledge (gnosis).
      The beauty of a theology of the event is that it celebrates the rupture that transforms our lives and world, that is not entirely of our doing. It celebrates sites of transformation, second chances, and so on (perhaps especially for the figuratively dead) in which the normalcy of civilization (Crossan’s phrase) is subverted and something new emerges. It celebrates new futures that we couldn’t foresee or imagine (consider tropes such as the gift or forgiveness in Caputo’s thought). As the U2 song puts it, “The greatest melody is one we haven’t heard.”

      Of course, there is no sovereignty backing any of this up, so the transformative truth-event comes in pockets, if it comes at all. It’s risky indeed. But hearts do change, transformation does occur. In pockets. And that is what I want to celebrate from the pulpit. It’s a weak theology indeed, but unlike conservativism and liberalism it doesn’t lead to what I ultimately view as nihilsm.

  • Thanks for the thoughts, Phil…I think it will take me awhile to chew on them. Of the top of my head, though…

    My theology has gotten progressively weaker, recently, but still grows out of the story of God dieing on a cross. If you haven’t noticed my note on Facebook, called ‘The Servant, God’, that pretty well encapsulates in a thirty second read what my theology looks like right now. Honestly, our ‘theologies’ are so very close, except mine still retains a God with personality and presence (being), while yours doesn’t (I don’t think?). What struck me while I read Caputo’s “The Weakness of God,” which I really connected with in some ways, was that I couldn’t get on board with what I understood as a sucking away of the personhood of God…by describing God as the transformative Event, to me it was like reducing God…and…this is going to sound harsh, but it is the way I felt…it felt similar to the way some Pentecostals treat the name of God or Jesus, almost as if it is just a magical name that they can invoke to get things. The Event felt similar to that in the sense that God is only used for utilitarian purposes. In the case of the Event, God–or the name of God that houses the Event–is only as important as the transformation that it brings about…I have a hard time understanding the concept of love in a schema like that. The question that always comes to my mind is: what if I treated people in a similar way, only ascribing value to them as far as they are a tool to transform situations, other people, or myself? And I still may be misunderstanding the Event theology, some, I have to admit…these are just some of the feelings/thoughts I’ve had.

    Okay, so, the other thing that caught my eye right off was your last sentence, where you suggested that liberalism and conservatism lead to nihilism (in your opinion). I understand what you are saying in regard to a conservatism that is only trying to escape the world to a heaven beyond…and I think I understand the nihilism of liberalism, because without the hope of transformation that comes from the Other or the Outside, in all the good that we try to do we are ultimately just spinning our wheels…or something like that? I have to be honest, though, that I have had a hard time seeing how the Event theology, weak theology, isn’t nihilistic in its own way, also…and, I have to admit that sometimes I feel like my own theology– depending on exactly the direction I go with it–could come off as nihilistic in the same way that weak theology appears to me.

    There was one sermon you preached in particular, I think toward the beginning of last December, in which I simply left the church feeling in despair. It is the first sermon I had heard from you that left me feeling that way. It came across to me as a ‘we’re struggling, some of us in really bad shape, but we just have to keep hanging on’ sermon, but with no good reason to keep hanging on, haha. And I think that is the reason that, though I resonate somewhat with this Event/weak theology, I keep returning to the death and resurrection of Christ (though I can’t explain it…see my short note on Facebook called ‘Thoughts on Resurrection’)…because as ‘unbelievable’ as something like resurrection is–and believe me, it is nigh unbelievable to me…it is something I have to fight for, internally–it actually gives me a hope to hang onto and a reason to keep hanging on.

    Anyway…I love you, man! :)

    • First things first, I sense a conversation at the Ethic brewing. Maybe sometime next week? Very briefly, especially regarding a theology of the event: I would encourage you to take another look at JC’s intro to TWOG, where it seems to me that he isn’t trying to use a theology of the event in terms of what he can gain from it from a utilitarian perspective, but rather is interested in describing the structure of experience, a phenomenology if you will, and it just so happens to have quite a few similarities to religious language and categories and such. He doesn’t turn to religion to *get* something, but rather is doing phenomenological work, related to Derridean deconstruction. He is also interested in the call that emanates from the cross, so you might take another look at that chapter — not that I’m a JC apologist or anything ;). One other thing: I would reiterate that deconstruction is fundamentally affirmative. All of which we can talk about over coffee I hope?? And I’m dying to hear more about the December sermon. Surely I didn’t instill a sense of the despair and fatigue that I trouble so many progressives about did I?! I am the chief of sinners…

  • I hope one day that the world at large redefines religion the way you and Caputo do—away from the particular belief system and toward a hopeful future (ahh—see what I did there? ;)

    But until that language evolution takes place, can we not find common ground with Mahers and Dawkinses and Lennons by talking about them as dreamers and hopers instead of religious people? Do we need them to adopt the mantle of religious language, or could the religious community meet them halfway, and build a bridge on faith-neutral language as it’s used today?

    Hope you’re doing great, Phil. It’s been too long! Thanks for the interesting read. :)

    • First things first, I *love* what you did with the hopeful future bit. Very nice. Second, in response to your question, I am totally cool with that. In fact I think I would say that I am in favor of it. Good to hear from you as always. Hope you’re doing well!

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