by James Flanagan

September 20, 1992: Raleigh, NC
February 7, 1993: Boone, NC
March 26, 1995, Hillsboro NC
June, 1995, Chapel Hill, NC

At SUUSI [Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute: "Church Camp" for liberals] several years ago I had the good fortune to take two short courses from a fellow named tom kunesh, one course concerning atheism, and another about heresy. tom is very knowledgeable about religious history and a provocative thinker and teacher. If some of you attend SUUSI, I hope that you will have the opportunity to take one or more of his courses.

tom is the author of the book The Shaman Atheist. He has combined it in a single volume with his own translation of the Tao Te Ching, which he has titled The Dao of Atheism. This talk grew out of ideas that I picked up from his classes and books.

I entered tom's class because I was curious about atheism. But I also had some preconceived notions on the subject, one of which was that "atheism" is simply too dogmatic for my taste. As a rationalist, a trained scientist, I reject dogmatism about the nonexistence of God, just as I reject the many dogmatic theistic beliefs. I went into that classroom with a fixed definition of atheism, which was: "the belief that God does not exist." This was combined with a rather ill-defined conception of who atheists really were. I knew of Madalyn Murray-O'Hair who was an outspoken atheist in the sixties and seventies; but her positions seemed to me too shrill, too defensive, and too destructive for my taste.

At the beginning of the class, tom went around the room so that all of us could express our points of view, and say what we hoped to get out of the class. When it got around to me, I expressed the difficulty I had with the categorical rejection of the possibility of god, and said that I found agnosticism a more rationally acceptable position.

But tom just averted his eyes -- and smiled. One of those infuriating little smiles that says "I know something that you don't know." In my remaining three-and-a-half hours in that workshop I found out what he was smiling about.


Today I would like to share with you my new understanding of atheism and heresy, which are of fundamental importance in the history of religious thought. While it is not my intention to talk extensively about Taoism, it is a convenient perspective from which to view atheism and heresy in the development of human civilization.

Taoism is a very ancient philosophy or system of thought that emphasizes harmony with nature and the flow of life. "Tao" is the term for this great force. Some might equate Tao with God, but the emphasis is different. The Tao is more like a rushing river in which everything is swept along. It is not personal. It is the universe and everything within. It is matter, space, time, energy, action, values, logic, beauty, and evil. It is the determinism of Newtonian physics and the ambiguity of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. The modern science of Cosmology perhaps echoes some of the spirit of Taoism.

In human terms, the only sin is to resist the Tao. Taoism provides a philosophical framework from which ethics and morals can arise naturally, without the imperatives handed down by an all powerful god. However, living in accord with the Tao ultimately ensures nothing but peace of mind. There is no guarantee of heaven in Taoism.

In addition to the Taoist concept of universal flow, complementarity - symbolized by the yin and yang is a central theme. Taoism recognizes that for every void there is something to fill that void, even if it is only empty space. Good and evil are complementary, but complements need not be intrinsically either good or bad, black or white. Red and green are complementary colors, just as belief in god and atheism are complementary. I would like to use these two ancient concepts -- complementarity and universal flow -- to illustrate how atheisms and heresies arise naturally and unavoidably in a living, changing world.


Heresy illustrates the principle of flow. As a river or stream flows to the sea, divisions will naturally occur. Side shoots that wander this way or that, while the main river continues along its course. A heresy is simply a diversion from a central direction; a choice; a fork in the road. Heresies evolve within a cultural and historical context defined by their parent orthodoxies. A heresy uses the same set of facts, but arranges its conclusions in new ways. Heresies will arise spontaneously; they are necessary for continued evolution of thought.

We, the Unitarian Universalists, are the descendants of two heresies that arose from mainstream Christianity. The Unitarian heresy was championed by the Arians at the Council of Nicea. Briefly, the conflict was between the Trinitarians, who believed in the separate divinity of Jesus, and the Unitarians who believed in a single god, and held Jesus to be less than god. The Arians were heretics, not atheists, because they still called themselves Christians. They accepted most of the same beliefs as the Trinitarians. They were not out to overthrow Christianity.

The Universalist heresy stresses the love of God, one who would not consign his children to perdition. They denied the doctrine of salvation of the elect, and stressed the power of love in the world. That this heresy of universal love has arisen at many times and in many places would seem to validate it as being in tune with the Tao. Universal love is simply another way of saying that everyone and every thing is part of something greater, some universal fabric of existence that we all share.

In recent times, the Unitarian and Universalist heresies have joined forces, creating the Unitarian-Universalist denomination. Though I suppose theoretically there could still be Trinitarian Universalists, and Unitarians who believe in salvation of the elect. With the passage of time the original Christian orientation has become less important. Contemporary Unitarian-Universalism has taken these two heresies and many other philosophical and religious ideas and has woven them into almost a meta-religion that can accommodate multiple belief systems and lines of theological, spiritual, and intellectual inquiry.


Atheism in its relationship to conventional religions exemplifies the complementary relationship of the yin and yang. Neither good nor evil. One completes the other. An atheism cannot exist without reference to religion, and a particular system of religious belief automatically implies one -- or more -- atheisms. Just as a string or piece of rope must always have two ends, religion and atheism must always coexist. Atheism is the yin for religion's yang.

If a particular religion is the thesis, then atheism is the anti-thesis. And thesis plus anti-thesis yield synthesis. Sometimes. Though often religion plus atheism yield fireworks.

When there is a violent reaction between the prevailing theology and its complementary atheism, the atheism often comes out the loser. But where the atheism is valid and the theology corrupt, the atheism will eventually prevail. In accord with the principles of universal flow, truth is a mighty flood that cannot be resisted.


A-theism comes from Greek roots that mean, literally, "without god." But it is not really that simple. Atheism has many more connotations than merely the denial of a supreme being, the Creator-God. Atheism, as a word and as an idea, has been around for thousands of years, and so has picked up many nuances of meaning and historical context.

I would like to focus on two particular interpretations of atheism: "anti-theism" and "non-theism." Anti-theism is an active antagonism toward god and religion generally; non-theism is simply living without need for god, or without the experience of god.

The way that I had originally encountered atheism was in the rabble-rousing anti-theism of Madalyn Murray-O'Hair. Many of us carry this image of the atheist as a subversive, an anarchist, a destroyer, a sinner. A true atheist/anti-theist, intent on challenging or destroying the system, is a far more dangerous person than the heretic, who simply has a different point of view. The outspoken anti-theist is often prophetic of things that are yet to be. But anger and inability to compromise must necessarily lead to ridicule and failure. However, despite temporary failure, if the atheism is based on valid principles it will eventually prevail, just as a flood overcomes everything in its path.

The other way that the term atheism can be understood is as non-theism. That is, living without the need for god or without reference to god. Many unchurched people in our society are really non-theists, though they would strongly object to being called atheist. Many ancient world religions or philosophical systems are essentially non-theist. Buddha did not emphasize or personalize god in his teachings. Other eastern religions and philosophies, including Taoism and Confucianism, are also non-theist in orientation.

Many Unitarian-Universalists and others, making a break from their childhood religion, go through a period of anti-theism. Usually this does not last, and most will eventually "mellow out." Some will enter a state of non-theism, living totally secular lives, ignoring the Great Questions. But others of us are seekers. We cannot ignore pondering the ultimate, even when answers are not forthcoming. So instead of saying that god does not matter, we say that god is unknown.

But others remain locked in their anti-theism all their lives. This type of atheism may be deeply rooted in the person's original system of reference. For example, tom kunesh considers himself a Catholic Atheist, because he was brought up Roman Catholic.


Western religious thought has been so dominated by Jehovah and Allah, that the non-theistic religions and philosophies have had much less influence here than in the East. But let's not forget that one of the World's great non-theistic documents is the American Bill of Rights, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion. Let us now have a secular-humanist moment of silence.

Western humanism, a rationalistic system in which the human condition is the measure of all things, is an important, though limited, movement. It gained brief attention during the election of 1980, when Mr. Falwell and his associates raised the specter of "secular humanists" teaching our young, impressionable children. I don't know why they used the term "secular" attached to humanist; maybe it was a sly way to emphasize the "godless" orientation, without using the tired term "atheist."

Forty years ago, Senator Joe McCarthy had no such compunctions about tarring people with the epithet "atheist," along with red, homosexual, and fellow traveler. Branding a person an atheist for political advantage has had a long history. Socrates was convicted of atheism, among other charges. Legend has it, though, that he did indeed worship the conventional Greek gods. For those in power, who found Socrates to be a nuisance, it was convenient to fabricate the charge of atheism based on his not believing in the "correct" gods. By that criterion, was Jesus an atheist, since he resisted the established accommodation between the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans?


I last talked about this subject in 1993. Since then, I've met a lot of new humanist friends thanks to Compuserve and the Internet. I even asked for help in updating this sermon. If you are not familiar with how these computer bulletin boards and lists work, you simply send your comments to a particular address in computer space. Within a day or two, many people who subscribe to the list will have read your posting and have the option of responding. It's like a very slow party line. The advantages are that you can take your time composing replies and people from all over the world can talk as if they lived across the street. I subscribe to several such services, including Internet groups on secular humanism, Womenspirit, and the U-U discussion list. I also dial in to the Bulletin Board, American Atheists On-Line, which is Madalyn Murray's organization in Austin, Texas.

These humanist computer forums are interesting because the word "god" gets mentioned more by professed atheists and humanists than by most other conventionally religious people I know. Back in 1972 it was said that "only Nixon could have gone to China," because a liberal would be accused of being soft on Communism for doing the same thing. In the same way, humanists can explore obscure corners of Christian dogma and get away with it. Some of these people are obviously quite knowledgeable in Old and New Testament history.


Since the term "atheist" has been coopted by demagogues for their own purposes, it seems appropriate to invent a definition for the word "theism" to include any system of beliefs that society or the individual holds in highest regard. Communism and Nazism are obvious examples. What is your "theism?" Is it belief in a greybeard God sitting on a golden throne? Is it a Fuehrer who rules you and millions like you in abject fear and denial of your own humanity? Is it money, power, sex -- or middle-class security?

Identify your "theisms" and the corresponding atheisms will be apparent.

So why was tom smiling when I voiced my preconceptions about atheism? I think it was because he recognized in me a very common type of modern "theist." Yes, I worship at the altar of Science and Rationality. In the 18th century I would have said that the laws of physics can predict the path of every particle in the universe to the last decimal place. Modern discoveries such as the uncertainty principle, Goedel's completeness theorem, and chaos theory have unseated determinism, but in me as within many people today, there is an abiding faith in the bards of Cambridge and Chapel Hill. Our priests teach in the university and design our VCRs. Our bishops chair departments and edit journals. Our Popes are anointed in Stockholm.

The tension between scientific rationalism and theology is not a new development. The term "agnosticism" was coined the mid-nineteenth century by Thomas Henry Huxley, to put a label on his rationalistic, scientific world view. But it rested on the legacy of Galileo, Copernicus, and Darwin. This tradition is enlarged and enriched by the 20th century contributions of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Hawking.

But if modern scientific rationalism constitutes a kind of religion, what are its corresponding atheisms? If rationalism is orthodoxy what are the corresponding heresies? How do yin and yang remain in balance?

One of these modern atheisms has been the environmental movement. I first became aware of this movement in the early 1960s with the publication ofSilent Spring. A few years later the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, and for more than twenty years EPA has overseen the cleanup of our air and water. Extreme environmentalists have a revulsion, often based on valid principles, for what science and technology have done to the world. They were shrill, but they changed the world and created a new orthodoxy. Moderates took up the cause. The environmentalist atheism challenged the orthodoxy of laissez faire and won. The time was right for environmentalism, and in accord with the Tao it prevailed.

We see in our congress today a new stripe of atheists who want to unseat the environmentalist orthodoxy lorded over by the priests, prelates, hierophants, clerics, confessors, and inquisitors of the Federal Government's entrenched bureaucracy. Take, for example, the Delaney Amendment, which prohibits from food any amount of any chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in human or in animal. As our analytical methods become more and more sensitive, you can find a little bit of anything in food, air, and water. In this day and age, the Delaney Amendment makes as much sense as a literal interpretation of Genesis. Much good has been done environmentally -- look at the Great Lakes, the removal of lead from gasoline -- but it may well be time for a correction. Mindless obedience to rules and regulations seems to have taken the place of common sense, much as in the Catholic Church before Luther posted his 95 theses. I wonder if Newt Gingrich would like being called an atheist for his anti-theism to our current regulatory bureaucracy.

Another current atheism is the resurgent Biblical literalist/creationist movement, which is a partially reaction to our increasingly rational, scientific society. Insofar as these people deny the evidence of science and seek to turn back the clock to another era, they deny truth and the Tao, and must ultimately fail in their attempt.

One of the more gentle heresies that has arisen in reaction to modern rationalism is a resurgence of personal spirituality. Those who accept many of the givens of modern living, but choose another path toward personal fulfillment. Among these are the New Age spiritualists, many of whom have found their way into Unitarian Universalism. And welcome. The spiritual element is a precious rediscovery that works well in an increasingly technological world.


When I first heard the term "religious atheist" I was confused. How can one who rejects conventional definitions of the soul, god, and the afterlife be religious? I would have denied being an atheist before taking tom's courses. A sceptic, maybe, but not an atheist. Now I'm not so sure. Atheist with respect to what? Is there a "theism" that cries out for a good atheism?

Copyright by James B. Flanagan