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3 The Faith of Atheists

Those who inherit from the dead are themselves dead, and all they inherit is death. Those who inherit what is living are alive, and they lay claim to all that belongs to the living and the dead. The dead are heirs to nothing. For how can the dead inherit? If the dead inherited from the living, they would live.

Those who haven't understood the truth do not die, because they have never been born. Only those who have found the truth have found life. For this one, death would be a tragedy, because they live!
Gospel of Philip 3-4

No right mind can believe that its will is stronger than God's. If, then, a mind believes that its will is different from His, it can only decide either that there is no God or that God's Will is fearful. The former accounts for the atheist and the latter for the martyr, who believes that God demands sacrifices. Either of these insane decisions will induce panic, because the atheist believes he is alone, and the martyr believes that God is crucifying him.
Course in Miracles Text 9:I:8 1-4 p.161
What is to be reduced, must first be expanded.
What is to be weakened, must first be made strong.
Tao te Ching 36

In my divine studio
What I have been working on is this:

Painting the Truth,
A more realistic picture of God,

Tearing down the cruel walls
That separate you from the tenderness of Fire.

Someone must be withholding
The crucial lines
In all those stories you have heard of our

For there is still too much fear
And pallor upon your cheeks,

And I rarely see you
In the marvelous Theater of Freedom.

~ Hafiz ~
(The Subject Tonight is Love -- versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky)

3. The Faith of Atheists

Jean-Yves Leloup's translation of this passage begins, "Atheists do not die, because they have never lived." To translate "Those who haven't understood the truth" as "atheists" is a theological leap which imposes traditional Christianity backwards onto Philip. It puts theists or "believers" in the inverse role as those who have understood the truth, and assumes that we're already there, simply because the words "God" and "Christ" are in our vocabularies.

The Course in Miracles offers two categories for those who haven't understood the truth. One is the atheist and the other is "the martyr, who believes that God demands sacrifices." In orthodox Christian thought, Jesus made the sacrifice of suffering and death that God required in order to forgive us. What kind of parent is this God, who demands the blood of the innocent in order to forgive? If we believe that suffering and death are the will of a loving God, then we must fear the God we say we love. Who's closer to understanding the truth, someone who misunderstands it or someone who believes it as fearful?

An atheist is one step away from considering new possibilities for God. Applying the Tao, the doubt that would be reduced must first be expanded. The contradiction that would be resolved must first be acknowledged. The question that would be answered must first be asked. A believer is two steps away from understanding, because they have to clear the room for truth to enter. As Steve Hagar says in Buddhism Plain and Simple, "Seeing is believing. But the fact is that believing in not true seeing. In fact, they're opposites.1" Once you see, you have no need to believe. If you believe that you already know, you stop looking. And if your salvation depends on your conviction, you can't afford to open your eyes.

Atheists and Ethics

Atheists, in my experience, are often generous and globally responsible. There's no one else who's going to save the world, in their belief system. Ecological destruction is a concern, since there's no escape clause for a select few in their Armageddon. Social inequality isn't preordained by God. Wars are won through weapons and power, not divine right. In other words, the results don't reverse-justify the means - I succeeded, therefore what I did was right, no matter how I got there. Atheism can be a basis for hope - no oracle has said that the poor will always be with us or that humanity is inherently flawed. Atheism can be a basis for equality, because we're all equal in the crosshairs of a blindfolded marksman. Atheism can be an open heart to compassion and an open mind to experience. The atheist who believes in their connection to all other people, in my opinion, is on their way to understanding the truth.

Likewise, a theist who connects themselves to humanity is open to the truth, no matter which name they use for God. The Christ is the mind conscious of our unity, which can also be called the Tao, the Ruach, or the atman. I think that the truth wants us to challenge it, to demand proof. Our lives, our society and our economy are designed "as-if" - as if we're disconnected to one another, other than family and those we choose as friends. What if we tried an experiment? Say that you took 1% of your monthly income and used it as-if a family halfway around the world was your family. Then see what happens in your life. Are you more or less happy than if you'd spent the money on yourself? There isn't any need to fake it - the truth doesn't need us to defend it. Just look to your experience and see.

Atheists and Theists in Foxholes

They say that there are no atheists in foxholes. Are there theists in foxholes? The belief in a God who cares equally for all doesn't seem particularly comforting when you're shooting at the other side. The only God of any use is one who favors you over them. If you're sure of God's favor, why cower in a foxhole? Why not walk boldly out, wrapped in your cloak of divine invulnerability, and take the enemy by the throat? Eva Braun is reported to have said, "Then there is no God" as the Allied forces shelled the bunker where she hid with Hitler2. The desire to believe in a God who favors us may reach a crescendo in wartime. But doubt must also reach an all-time high also when you're under fire.

How can we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with the reality of death and suffering? The atheist gives up the concept of God altogether. The martyr and the fundamentalist, in order to believe in God, give up the concept that God is all-loving. They believe in a God who demands sacrifice, either from themselves or from a crucified Son of God, as substitutionary atonement. The implication is clear - if God would ask that from his beloved Son, what can we expect? So is there a way to reconcile an all-loving God with the reality of the world?

The answer is yes, if God is not all-powerful. What could limit God's power? In a word, love. If our fear of a punishing God wants to keep God out, God can't override our free will without making us into His slave. If my daughter was afraid of me and hiding, could I force her to come out and stop being afraid? What if I had the power to wipe her fear clean from her mind? Would I want a Stepford child in place of the independent-minded, creative daughter I adore? I can't negate her power to create her own fear without negating her power to create. I can only wait for her to invite me back in - which is harder than we Christians tend to think. The first step is inviting back in our Self.

Only those who hold to the truth - who exist in relationship to the whole - know what life is. "For this one, death would be a tragedy, because they live!" This last line is one of Philip's several examples of sly humor. Rather than worrying about death, Philip is saying to worry first about being born. I don't think he means an individual process, like being born again, but a collective process of becoming aware of who we really are.

This hopeful passage again tells us that the journey to life is a one-way street. There is no death, only the growing awareness of life. There's no going back because once you see, you see. As individuals, we may be taking small steps, but it's bringing us as humanity slowly into our right mind. The direction is fixed, only the time it takes is up to us. We're already irrevocably caught up in the process of re-integration, in the melting of our boundaries, in dissolving the capsule of our time-release resurrection.

1Hagen, Steve. Buddhism Plain and Simple. New York: Broadway Books, 1997. p.26
2Carroll, James. Constantine's Sword.