Even though I haven’t believed in a personal god since 1996 or so, I have hesitated to call myself an atheist. No doubt a good bit of that hesitation arises from my long period as a Pentecostal Christian. I have little problem using the term atheist to describe myself to other atheists. However, with Christians and other theists, I seek to use less polarizing terms, like nontheist or even agnostic. The main reason I don’t want theists to consider me to be an atheist is that as believers, my atheism would be perceived by them as a rejection of something they consider intensely important in their lives. I want to affirm that I am open to loving even that part of who they are.
Loving people is very important to me, it’s something that I learned from those years of being a Christian. I was taught that Jesus loved everyone in the whole world and gave his life sacrificially to save them. I took very literally – more than most Christians actually do – that we are supposed love even our enemies. Yes, I was a Christian pacifist, a somewhat rare position to take. To this day, attempting to love even very unlovable human beings is still an essential part of my way of being.
I’ve written about what I mean by love in other places, and it is bound up with my vision of world transformation. I aspire to be a “Communist of Universal Love.” I see the abolition of private property that is the aim of Communism to only be truly meaningful as the expression of love. To each being, we should give love in proportion to their total authentic needs, from each being we should receive love from their authentic capabilities. Again, this idea of Communism as love is one that I trace to my years as a Christian.
As a nontheist who loves theists and who aims at loving as much of every person that I meet as possible, I have a duty to love their theism. Yes, I feel compelled to love their love and belief in God. In fact, it was my attempt as a Christian to love the atheism of people whose intelligence I respected that lead me to becoming a nontheist. I found that there was something truly admirable and lovable within atheism, commitments to objective truth and to working to improve the world without expecting a final judgment.
Many atheists believe that theism is inherently irrational and ultimately dangerous. I reject that viewpoint wholeheartedly. My heroes include Dr. King, Jesus, Buddha, and many others. On the nontheist side of the ledger Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin, Noam Chomsky, and others. Each of the people I count as heroes have done great work to make the world a better place.
When I was a Christian, as I implied, I worked at loving people who were not Christians. Now that I am a nontheist, I work at loving people who are not nontheists. This means often I am defending theists in the face of what I consider unfair atheist attacks. It also means that I am often defending atheists from unfair theist attacks. I sincerely believe that creating a world of love between theists and atheists is a necessary goal. There are not enough atheists to create Love’s Communism, so we need theists. Theists need atheists to keep them honest about the world and about the tendencies within theism to undervalue human life in favor of the afterlife.
If it were possible, I might try to be both a theist and a nontheist. Perhaps if I continue with my single-minded dedication to radical love, I can reach the place where neither theism nor nontheism seem to me to be more true, but both of them seem to be parts of a larger whole. I can’t really articulate what that would look like, since it is only an abstract idea at the moment. Some readings in Buddhism do seem to explicitly maintain this viewpoint, but perhaps I haven’t yet reached that enlightened mindset. But at least, I still have a grand challenge to work on.