I do still pray. If anyone was to read my mind while I was doing it, I’ll admit it would seem a lot like day dreaming, but the general metaphysical drift – searching for answers as to who I am and what I should do in life, thinking about loved ones and hoping for their well-being &c. – is very much the same as when I had faith. That these thoughts are no longer directed toward a higher power does not, in my belief, make them any less important or effectual. In fact, to my mind, lack of recourse to the divine lays the burden of prayer’s efficacy squarely on my shoulders not cast onto Jesus’. But efficacy aside, what I’d really like to do here is pray a prayer, an Atheist’s prayer, and see how many people say Amen.
The other night I watched a documentary called ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, narrated and coauthored by Slavoj Zizek. Something he said while analysing the film, The Last Temptation of Christ really struck me. I’ll quote him here:
The only way really to be an atheist is to go through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism which can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust in “The Big Other”. This “Big Other” can be called ‘natural necessity’, ‘evolution’ or whatever, we humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within a harmonious whole… the difficult thing to accept is that there is no big other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.
For Zizek, the true power of the passion story is that Jesus’ final words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” express the realisation of an ultimate truth. The answer to Christ’s dying question is that his forsakenness is not some cruel rejection but the experience of a cold truth – nothing, or no one, is there to guarantee his life, his suffering, meaning.
Accepting this truth – the utter rejection of any claim to big otherness – was a long and painful process but one that I think has positioned me to live more authentically. I think this
1. because if God does not exist then any ethic or purposive action based on the assumption that He does would necessarily be misguided, and
2. because, while I readily and happily acknowledge the beneficial role faith played in shaping me as a person, the ultimate rejection of it has allowed me to begin to free myself from its more archaic and condemnatory elements.
Now when people ask me how I feel about my former faith and current spiritual journey I frame my answer in this way: Faith made me a better person, relinquishing it better still.
Although I in no way want to align myself with the rabid atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, I do think that their arguments concerning the dangers of delusion, myth and superstition, are valid. Unlike them, I think that religion can retain an important role, albeit as a teaching tool, a means to the greater end of unmitigated personal responsibility and unpredicated self-determination.
And so my prayer goes thusly:
Dear God, thank you for the long history of dedication you continue to honour in striving towards developing a reflective, moral and compassionate people. From the depth and integrity of humanity’s interior life to the intricacies of increasingly benevolent judicial systems the world over, the benefits of Your input are immeasurable.
I pray that as we continue to seek for answers to today’s most pressing moral issues you would gently ween us off of our reliance on the limited, culturally specific, and occasionally unChristlike precepts of those who founded our religion 2000 years ago.
Jesus, as you have begun to do with those identified as progressive, emergent, or liberal, I would ask that you continue to distance the particularity of your personhood from our conception of your moral example so that the more universal and flexible ideals of love, forgiveness and harmony can govern our moral rulings unhindered by pre-modern precedents.
As we slowly recognise that what is good about the Christian faith is its insistence on community and the values that support its harmonious life, I pray God that you would help us to focus less on superstitious distractions such as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the hypostatic union, or the nature of an afterlife, which just create contention and alienation.
Holy Spirit, I ask that you would continue your work among us, wherein the very notion of God, tri-personal or otherwise, is slowly dismantled. Where Christ is no longer God incarnate but humanity evolved. Where the Father is no longer Father but simply an ordering principle and where you finally reveal yourself to be, not some unearthly force, but zeitgeist.
God, I pray that you would open the eyes of your followers to their unnecessary retention of scripture, formulaic church services, and the veneration of long dead reformers when many of them have already come so far from anything resembling Christian orthodoxy. As your dissolution into amorphous and postmodern values continues, I pray that you would grant us the resolve to see this project to the end. An end in which post-religious people can stand unencumbered by tradition, a law unto themselves (Romans 2:14-16).