Waiting for God in the Dark Night of the Soul: On Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent

Peter Rollins, via theexileinny / Flickr.

Peter Rollins, via theexileinny / Flickr.

I love Peter Rollins' honesty about his dark night of the soul.

He's popularized a term for the intellectual position accompanying the dark night of the soul: a/theism. I interpret Peter's thought as being in relation to an experience of God's absence. [Note: corrected this paragraph's content from "even coined" to "popularized. Turns out another author coined a/theism."]

I thought it was hilarious that Tony Jones challenged Peter to give up atheism for Lent on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.

But I took it seriously when Micah Bales, one of my best friends, wrote a post challenging Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent. You can't give up God because God is a felt presence. (Peter later responded to Micah. And Brian Merritt a piece about who Micah is.) Our conversations got me thinking about what I value about Peter Rollin's voice and what I might challenge about a/theism as I understand it. In order to talk about why a person believes or disbelieves in God, you have to talk about a personal spiritual journey.

What, Exactly, Is a 'Fatheist'?

Chris Stedman is the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of the new book, “Fatheist."

As the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, Chris Stedman coordinates its “Values in Action” program. In his recent book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, he tells how he went from a closeted gay evangelical Christian to an “out” atheist, and, eventually, a Humanist.

On the blog NonProphet Status, and now in the book, Stedman calls for atheists and the religious to come together around interfaith work. It is a position that has earned him both strident -- even violent -- condemnation and high praise. Stedman talked with RNS about how and why the religious and atheists should work together.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does the term “faitheist” mean? Is it a positive label or a derisive one?

A: It's one of several words used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion. But to me, being a faitheist means that I prioritize the pursuit of common ground, and that I’m willing to put “faith” in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice.

Arizona Democrat to Replace Defeated Pete Stark as Sole Atheist in Congress

Pete Stark

Pete Stark

Rep. Pete Stark, (D-Calif.), the only openly atheist member of Congress, lost his race for another term on Tuesday.

But nonbelievers will not remain unrepresented in the Capitol. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a former Arizona state senator, Mormon-turned-nontheist and a bisexual, has narrowly won her pitch for a House seat by 2,000 votes.

“We are sad to see Pete Stark go,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, which gave Stark its Humanist of the Year award in 2008.

“He was a pioneer for us, and by being open about his lack of a belief in God we hope that he has opened the door for people like Kyrsten Sinema and others that will come after her.”

Stark, who turns 80 this year, is the dean of the California congressional delegation and has served Fremont, a religiously diverse community near San Jose, since 1972. He “came out” as a nonbeliever in 2007, and went on to win two re-election bids. But this time he faced recent redistricting and a fellow Democratic challenger, Eric Salwell, almost 50 years his junior. 

“I don’t think his lack of belief in a god had anything to do with the results of this election,” Speckhardt said. “The numbers were close.”

Mass. Supreme Court to Hear Case Against ‘Under God’

Massachusetts state seal.

Massachusetts state seal.

Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear the appeal of a non-religious family that's challenging the mandatory daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in their children’s classrooms.

The family, who are secular humanists, claim that the phrase “under God” in the pledge is a violation of the state’s constitutional ban on religious discrimination.

In June, a lower court ruled against the family, saying the required recitation of the pledge was not discriminatory because it did not uphold one religion over another. The family appealed, and will now gain a hearing from the state’s highest court.

The battle to remove “under God” from the pledge has been a long and, so far, unsuccessful one within atheist circles. California atheist Michael Newdow unsuccessfully argued for its removal before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004.

This time, the suit seeks protection under a state constitution’s equal protection measure, not under the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the separation of church and state.

“There is very little case law that precedes this,” said Bill Burgess, director of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which is representing the plaintiffs. “The court will be making new law when it issues its decision.”

Meet the Nones: A General Profile of the Unaffiliated

 RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Thousands of atheists and unbelievers, including Alberto Valdez from Del Rio, Texas. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Meet John Q. Nones, a young, white male who is making a big impression on the American religious landscape for something he doesn't do: align with any religious group.

The rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” as documented in a new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, has major implications for almost all aspects of American life -- from religion to business to culture.

Whether you believe the proliferation of Mr. Nones is a depressing or hopeful trend, it pays to get to know him.

Who is John Q. Nones? Here's a snapshot drawn from the Pew Forum’s new poll.

Professor to Atheists: 'Stop Whining'

Professor Berlinerblau

Professor Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau wastes no ink in his new book trying to flatter his fellow nonbelievers.

"American atheist movements, though fancying themselves a lion, are more like the gimpy little zebra crossing the river full of crocs," he writes in How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.    


"In terms of both political gains and popular appeal, nonbelievers in the United States have little to show. They are encircled by cunning, swarming [religious] Revivalist adversaries who know how to play the atheist card."    

Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University biblical scholar who teaches a course on secularism, wants to rescue that little zebra. But his plan may be a hard-sell with some atheists — he wants atheist groups to drop their black-and-white opposition to religion and its adherents in order to preserve the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.    

"The gimpy zebra remark was a little goofing on this over-the-top chest-thumping that emerges from Movement Atheists," he said in an interview, referring to atheist organizations with political goals, like American Atheists. "They wildly overestimate their numbers. They tend to overestimate the efficacy of their activism. They underestimate how disciplined and organized their adversaries in the religious right are, too."  

How a Mormon Scholar Went From Doubter to Believer

As an 11-year-old boy, Don Bradley went looking for gold plates.

After all, Mormon founder Joseph Smith said he was directed to a set of such plates, buried in a hill near his house in upstate New York.    

On a childhood visit to that hill, Bradley turned over lots of rocks, feeling certain he might find some sacred record overlooked by others.    

That quest for Mormon gold became a metaphor for Bradley's lifelong spiritual journey. It led him first to dig into Smith's history to enhance his LDS devotion and then to uncover uncomfortable facts and omissions in the faith's story, which bred disillusionment and distance.    

Eventually, Bradley's research helped bring him back to the Mormon fold, this time with a broader view of Smith's spiritual abilities.    

"I could describe many of the events of Joseph Smith's life, but I couldn't explain the thing that really mattered: why it all worked," Bradley, now 42, said in a July speech at the annual Sunstone Symposium, a conference in Salt Lake City for Mormon intellectuals. "Joseph Smith wasn't of interest because he'd been a merchant, a mayor, or even a much-married husband, but because he was the founder of a religion. And it was precisely the religious dimension I couldn't account for."    

Besides rediscovering Mormonism, Bradley learned how to balance faith and facts, science and spirituality, reason and revelation.  

Atheists Find a New Venue for the Godless: On Film

RNS photo courtesy

“In God We Teach" documentary movie poster. RNS photo courtesy

There were no red carpets, no paparazzi, no celebrities, and definitely no God at the recent annual Atheist Film Festival.

Instead, there were more than a dozen films, long and short, about separation of church and state, freedom of religion (and no religion), the conflict between science and religion in public schools, and a couple hundred people eager to see them.

“If we don’t do this, who will?" said festival organizer Dave Fitzgerald, as people picked up atheist-themed books and T-shirts at the Aug. 10-11 festival. “Atheists are not well-represented by Hollywood, and a lot of people don’t get any exposure to real atheist thought except through things like this.”

Fitzgerald, who calls himself “a freelance heretic,” started the festival four years ago. His main criteria for including a film is that it shows at least one atheist figure in a positive light.

“My motto is: Are they heretic friendly?" Fitzgerald said. “We are in a position where we can actually turn away movies because their hearts might be in the right place, but they may be stilted and preachy.”

Poll: Most Americans Would Vote for an Atheist Presidential Candidate

For the second time in less than a year, the Gallup poll reports that a majority of Americans would vote for an atheist for president.

The latest survey, from June, found that 54 percent of those asked said they would vote a “well- qualified” atheist into the Oval Office — the highest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 1958, when only 18 percent said they would back a nonbeliever.

On the other hand, the survey showed that those who do not believe in God still come in behind every other group polled for, including gays and lesbians (68 percent) and Muslims (58 percent).

Still, an imaginary atheist candidate passed the 50 percent threshold for the first time when Gallup asked the question in August 2011, so the trend is upward.

“We have seen an enormous change over time in the willingness to vote for an atheist,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, which reports the numbers in its current newsletter.

“But I think the numbers also remind us that this is a deeply religious country. That doesn’t mean we are all going to church on Sunday, but that having religion in your life is valuable to most Americans and I think that explains the resistance.”

The Free Ticket: Traveling With An Atheist to the 2012 Wild Goose Festival

Wild Goose 2012 weekend, Photo by Cathleen Falsani / Sojourners

Wild Goose 2012 weekend, Photo by Cathleen Falsani / Sojourners

Chris is an atheist and a humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He is the only explicitly nonreligious speaker invited to the 2012 Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, N.C.—a festival that is generally (and with exception) aimed at the liberal, often-invisible fringe members of the Christian community. Being that I theoretically fall into this group, Chris offered me his plus-one free ticket.  

While it generally takes an act of God (or, “a series of convergences” Chris might say) for me to make a decision, I told him I’d go. After all, I’d been experiencing my own dark night of the soul where almost every conversation I’ve had about religion/ Christianity over the last year has been doubt-ridden and cynical. In my best mood, I hoped my attendance would put me in touch with some other cynics, believing it might relieve my cosmic guilt. What I secretly feared, however, was that I was going to Wild Goose to break up with the Christian faith I’d grown up under.