Free to Believe: A Voice from the United Reformed Church of England

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 July 2006 0 Comments
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I first encountered your religious philosophy and/or beliefs

watching your lecture on University of California Television

about one year ago. I have read several of your books and find

your thoughts to be the best and most sensible in understanding

the Christian faith. However, about three to four years ago I

made the decision to become an atheist based on reading two books

by John A. Henderson, "" and "Fear, Faith, Fact and


I kept this secret from my wife and even told her that your views

made the most sense to me and your religious philosophy gave me

hope that there might even be a Higher Power. However, about

three months ago, I read Sam Harris - "The End of Faith" and

since that time have felt very comfortable with being an atheist.

Moreover, I have taken several college level audio CD courses in

religion and philosophy, read several books by Elaine Pagels,

studied the findings of the Jesus Seminar, studied several essays

and books by Thomas Sheehan, Rudolph Bultmann and Robert Funk.

None of which has changed my mind.

The point I am trying to get to is: My wife has

always been a Born Again Christian and early in our marriage of

25 years, we attended the churches of her faith and those of my

original faith - Lutheran. Both of my parents are Lutheran. The

other night after a very pleasant evening out, we got into a

discussion about going to church again and I told her I was an

atheist. She almost made me stop the car and let her get out

because she would not be yoked to a non-believer. We are still

together and have tried to talk through this but she is having

great difficulty in accepting my decision. We are scheduled to

see a marriage counselor that we both liked when we had some

problems in our marriage about 10-15 years ago at her suggestion

and my total agreement.

Is there any insight or advice you might provide to

help us work through this situation? I do not want to be

divorced much less separated. Fortunately, we do not have any

children. But I am deeply alarmed that she might consider

separation because I am not a Christian. I did ask her what if I

had chosen Islam, Jewish or even a Taoist belief what would she

have done. She said, "Well, at least you would believe in



You did not sign your name so I have used the first

initial of your email address to preserve your anonymity. Thank

you for sharing your personal story with me.

First let me say that I consider atheism a profound

religious point of view that ought to be honored. The atheist is

not saying there is no God for nobody can finally make that

statement. What the atheist is saying is that there is no God

like the one I have grown up with - that God is not capable of

being God for me. The word atheist means literally "no theist."

Theism is the overwhelmingly human definition of God perpetrated

largely in the western world by the Judeo-Christian faith

tradition. Theism defines God as a being, sometimes called the

Supreme Being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external

to the world and periodically invading the world to split the Red

Sea, to impose the divine will, to bless or to punish or to

answer prayers. This definition of God has been largely

destroyed by the intellectual revolution that began in the 16th

century with Copernicus and continues in our day with discoveries

of DNA, the dimensions of space and so many other things. The

theistic God is now largely unemployed for everything that we

once thought God did, is now explained with no reference to God

at all - Tsunamis, hurricanes, sickness, death, etc. So if

atheism means, "I do not believe in a theistic God," it is a

religious statement and you have much company in the modern

world. Some in this company are conscious that is who they are,

while others are largely unconscious of the fact that they have

made that decision. They simply act it out.

If your claim of atheism means that you know all

there is to know about God and the world and have decided that

there is no room in the universe for God understood in any

manner, then you are as closed-minded as the most rabid


In regard to your wife and your marriage, other

issues are clearly operating and seeing a counselor is a wise

thing to do. Be aware of and sensitive to the fact that for many

people religion is a major part of their security system. They

cannot function without it. To disturb that security system

becomes an intolerable threat to the person hiding behind its

walls. Only when you understand that will you understand how it

is possible that your wife might leave a 25-year marriage because

you can no longer live inside the boundaries of what you perceive

the belief in God requires. So much of what we human beings are

is beneath the level of the conscious. Most of our fears are

there. When you disturb that level you get surprising and most

often irrational responses. They are symptoms not causes. A

25-year marriage is worth working to save. I hope you both will

do that. I send you my hopes and best wishes.

John Shelby Spong

P.S. I loved Sam Harris' book, "The End of Faith" and thought it

an appropriate critique of so much of contemporary religion. If

we had more Sam Harris's, we might get the reformation that

Christianity so desperately needs. Jss




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