I Doubt It

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, APRIL 28th, 2019

I have a problem with atheism. Not a personal problem, you understand, since it would be pretty hard to do my job if I didn’t believe in God…

Rather, I have a problem with people who say that they are atheists.

As you know, the letter ‘A’ means ‘without’ when placed in front of certain words. Place the letter ‘A’ in front of the word, ‘moral’ and it means, of course, ‘without morals’. ‘Theos’ in Greek means ‘God’. So ‘atheism’ means ‘without God’.

If someone is ‘amoral’, that doesn’t mean that morals don’t exist. They do, but that person has jettisoned morality. Someone who is amoral doesn’t think that morals don’t exist, per se, just that they have decided to live without them.

If you took the same argument for atheism, then what it would mean is that rather than arguing that God does not exist, they would argue that they do without God. However, what actually seems to be the case is that atheists vehemently believe that there is no God for them, or for anyone else either.

The problem I have with atheism is this: I find it supremely arrogant and closed-minded. I think that it is pure fundamentalism, actually. I think that atheists have closed their minds to anything or anyone that in any way differs from them. These are kind of people that think they are right about anything and everything and anyone who happens not to agree with them they judge to be idiots, little realizing that the only idiots in the room are they themselves.In some ways, curious though it might seem, I think that atheists and religious fundamentalists have more in common than they might think. In fact, I think that atheists ARE religious fundamentalists. Like any fundamentalist, all of their energy is devoted to the self-belief that they are right, and everyone else is wrong; and they end up having to devote every waking moment to ensuring that everything fits with their world view, which, quite apart from anything else sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

Fundamentalists, whether atheists, or Christians, or Muslims, or Buddhists (hard to believe that there are fundamentalist Buddhists, but there you go….) share in common the traits of intolerance, arrogance, closed-mindedness and contempt for others. Not exactly stuff to put on your resume, is it?

So, now, a little aside. As I got to this point in writing my sermon I had a dawning realization. My views about atheists were… well, how could I put it…. a little closed-minded and judgmental? This is the supreme irony of ironies, isn’t it? I had become closed-minded about people being closed-minded. See how easy it is… it happens without one even noticing.

Professor Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine launching an atheism bus ad campaign.

Professor Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine launching an atheism bus ad campaign.

Professor Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine launching a bus ad campaign for atheism.

Professor Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine launching a bus ad campaign for atheism.

You see, the thing is that I thought I was absolutely right about atheists, and that they were wrong. But who am I to say where or where not they are in their minds? People are often on a journey. Even Professor Richard Dawkins, who is kind of the ‘Pope’ of atheism, likes to go to his Oxford college chapel for the service of Choral Evensong, which, in his own words, he describes as ‘transcendent’. Almost like his heart was looking for something that his head didn’t want him to look for.

Although sometimes people lump together atheism and agnosticism as kindred, I believe them to be absolutely worlds apart.

There’s that little prefix again, that leading letter ‘A’. This time tacked on to the Greek word ‘gnosis’, rather than ‘Theos’. ‘Gnosis’ means, in Greek, ‘knowledge’. From it we get words such as ‘diagnosis’ and ‘prognosis’. So, ‘agnosis’, the state of being of an ‘agnostic’ simply means ‘without knowledge’. Or, in other words, that we need more information before we can reach a conclusion. This connotes someone who is open-minded, open-minded enough that, if they see otherwise, they are more than prepared to change their outlook or belief.

By my definitions, then, the apostle, Thomas, in today’s Gospel reading, is an agnostic – for the first part of the reading, anyway. Presumably a big chunk of his discipleship, before Jesus was crucified, he would have counted himself a true believer. But then he becomes agnostic. And then, by the end of the reading, he becomes a true believer again. He is open-minded.

It is (as I have so amply reminded myself in the course of writing this sermon) SO important to stay open-minded. And if you ARE open-minded, then it goes without saying that you will cycle through belief, agnosticism, belief, agnosticism time and time again throughout your life.


That’s just the way it goes, and if – I should say, WHEN – you are beset with doubts about the existence of God, the nature of Jesus Christ, the big cloud of unknowing about the afterlife…. When you wake up at 3.00 am and can’t get back to sleep, and wonder why this world exists, and how, and if there is a God, then where did he come from – or if he is a she, or neither, and if, when we die, everything will cease to be, like a light switched off…. When you think all of those things, don’t worry… because this is what keeps our faith alive and fresh. Because we remain open-minded, and prepared to be presented with new knowledge, and allowing ourselves to grow and advance and mature.

I would also want to add this: that we’re on a belief continuum. We don’t believe everything all of the time. When you get up in a minute to say the Creed, there are things that you personally will find more challenging to believe than other things. It is not required that you have to have drunk the Kool-Aid on absolutely everything in the Episcopal catechism in order to call yourself a Christian. Only, don’t conclude that what you might think now is always what you will think. Stay open-minded. If you struggle with the concept of the Virgin Birth, for instance, that doesn’t mean that you always will. Stay open-minded, and ask God to help you with some guidance. You don’t have to do this stuff alone. And remember that God’s guidance will come in many forms, including what those around you might say.

And so, in conclusion, back to our friend Thomas.

‘The Incredulity of Thomas’, by Caravaggio

‘The Incredulity of Thomas’, by Caravaggio

Frankly, I think Thomas is one of the best role models out there. Because in so many ways he is the most believable of the apostles. The one that in so many ways we can identify with most easily. If we find it harder to identify with the other apostles, then I would say that actually that makes them less compelling as role models. But to have someone right there in the thick of the action that we imagine could be us… well, that’s something special, isn’t it? ‘Doubting Thomas’. That pejorative phrase which ought to be anything but pejorative. Let’s hear it for Thomas, because he was on the right track.

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