"I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.I resonate with his earthy, naturalistic spirituality and I like his use of the phrase, "According to my definition of God..."
I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, “Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.” And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together."
I get heat now and then (and have even lost church members over the years) because they don't think I believe in what they call "god." People tend to get passionate and emotional about it, too, which is especially odd as we are talking about matters that lack clear definition.
At one time Pete Seeger called himself an atheist but in 2006 he said, "God is everything." He didn't change his philosophical views. He changed his definition of god to fit them. He said, "According to my definition of God, I'm not an atheist." He found a way to dismiss the term, atheist, and to retrieve the term, god.
So, along with Pete Seeger, according to my definition of god, I am not an atheist, even though like Pete Seeger, I don't believe in god in any traditional sense. There are many ways that I might define the term god in such a way that allows me to say "I believe in god." For instance, I believe in love. If love is god, then I believe in god.
As a minister, I honor my heritage that has used and still uses the term god. In worship, I find the use of the term to be rhetorically, liturgically, and metaphorically valuable. I often tell people in my congregation that we are BYOG (Bring Your Own God). You can define god anyway you wish and use it or not use it as you see fit. It is your life.
I find that according to popular consciousness god is "good" and atheist is "bad." I see little effort spent in defining terms. As long as you don't say you are an atheist and do say you believe in god everyone is supposedly happy. The labels are more important than the meaning behind the labels.
That for me is where the problem lies.
One of the reasons I resist throwing the term atheist (and actual atheists) under the bus is because of discrimination against atheists. My own state of Tennessee still has this law on the books:
"No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."Here are eleven things atheists cannot do because they don't believe in god according to an article in The Huffington Post. You might be alarmed.
A core principle of mine is resisting discrimination. I find much support for that in the Jesus tradition. This is why for my 21 years of ministry much of my effort has been to resist discrimination against LGBT people. Perhaps atheists are the new Gay?
It seems to me that people ought to be able to call themselves what they want and believe what they want. That is certainly true for civil society. I also think it is true for the church. In a time in which there is a great deal of change, exploration and experiment should be encouraged. Some of that exploration and encouragement may be about redefining the term god in a way that makes sense. It may also be about letting go of the term and embracing whatever term seems to be helpful.
I like to think there is room for all at the table.