Barker (DB) - The word "infidel" simply means "without
faith." However, as with many words that have a usage that
is broader than the literal meaning--such as "godless,"
which is defined in some dictionaries as "wicked--"infidel”
has been colored as a pejorative by many reigning religions
around the world. It has come to mean "outside the true
faith" or "one who has no religion," and consequently,
if morality is equated with religion, "immoral" and
It is a relative word. In Alabama, a Muslim would be an infidel;
in Kabul it is the Southern Baptist who is the infidel. Or the
This is not hypothetical. During the Crusades both sides called
the other "godless heathens." Saladin and Richard
the Lionhearted equally claimed religious justification for
trying to kill the other, each using the word "infidel."
Personally, since I am without faith, I can wear "infidel"
as a badge of honor. If such a simple concept can be turned
into a pejorative, then why not try to reshape it as a compliment?
I think this is what happened when homosexuals adopted the term
"gay," turning a dismissive label ("gay'' = "wanton")
into a positive name.
For most of us who might embrace the label "infidel"
(I sometimes wear an FFRF t-shirt with the word), it is not
simply because we have discarded faith--although that would
be enough in itself to recommend it, since faith can be dangerous--but
because we also champion reason as its replacement, as the only
viable tool of knowledge.
So "infidel" can be heard as a positive concept, as
a double negative: "without faith." Many positive
ideas are constructed as negatives: independence, nonviolence,
antidote, for example.
The Unitarian-Universalist association has a proud heritage
of religious diversity and openness, welcoming people of all
faiths and of no faith. I am often privileged to perform or
speak at UU fellowships, and in every single one I visit, I
encounter a subset of atheists and agnostics, humanists and
skeptics, mixing happily with the (mostly liberal) Christians,
Jews, Buddhists, and other religious identities. In some cases,
these freethinkers comprise the majority of the fellowship.
Certainly, "infidels" have always been a part of the
rich fabric of Unitarian Universalism.
-Members of the Infidels regularly quarrel about the definitions
of religion and spirituality. If you don't mind, I'd like to
ask you for comments on three questions pertaining to this matter:
All dictionaries (that I've read anyway) define religion as
a "belief in a superhuman power," "divinity,"
or "divinities." At the same time, the definition
often is stretched to include the belief in any ethical system,
including--say--Humanism. To your thinking, is this broad definition
of religion confusing or maybe even dangerous, giving fodder
who want to argue that scientific humanism is a "religion1'
taught in our schools?
-Yes. If any system of human morality, philosophy or common
purpose can be called a "religion," then the word
does not mean anything. Stamp collecting might someday be a
religion. Or potty training.
Most people understand the word "religion" to refer
to a collection of beliefs and practices connected to a claim
of transcendence: there is something, or someone, "out
there" to give us direction and meaning--an overriding
cosmic principle or personality. Secular humanism makes no such
claim, and therefore is not really a religion. (There's the
old joke that if atheism is a religion then baldness is a hair
course, as some might do with the word "infidel,"
others might try to broaden the word "religion" beyond
what has been historically understood. But good luck. To my
mind, the word "religion" seems stuck to the supernatural.
And since we already have perfectly good natural terms for secular
philosophies and moralities, why make things needlessly ambiguous
with such a loaded term as "religion"?
Some religious leaders and theologians, like the Dalai Lama
and George Pox, are calling for spirituality distinct from religion.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, calls for a "secular spirituality"
based on compassion and love, and on scientific research into
matters like meditation. Do you separate religion from spirituality?
Do you think the American public, in general, makes this distinction,
or is it too nuanced?
-I think the word "spiritual" is meaningless. No one
has ever defined what a "spirit" is, except in terms
that tell us what it is not: "intangible," "ineffable,"
"noncorporeal essence," "non-physical personality,"
and so on.
Jefferson wrote to John Adams (August, 1820), saying:
"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings.
To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is
to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels,
no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.” (This does not mean
Jefferson was an atheist: as a deist, he conceived of God as
a material being, or as nature itself.)
Of course, we atheists and agnostics might borrow a religious
word for a secular purpose. I could say that the "spirit
of Thomas Jefferson is still in America," and no one would
think his ghost is floating in the air above Virginia.
The word "spirit" can be a synonym for natural concepts
such as personality, liveliness, emotion, consciousness, love,
or aesthetics. We infidels can agree with the Dalai Lama that
such ideas can be championed. But calling this a "secular
spirituality" has it backwards. We humans possess these
things, naturally. Religious people are welcome to get into
the act, and if they do, we might more accurately label them
practitioners of "religious secularism" instead of
accusing us naturalists of "secular spirituality."
Such things do not originate from religion or "spirituality"
(whatever that means). We already own them.
When people like the Dalai Lama suggest that our values originate
outside of ourselves--in some "spiritual" realm--they
inadvertently insult our species, as if we are just too weak
to figure things out on our own. I know he means his phrase
as a compliment, and his motives may be truly humanistic, and
I can join him in those activities. I may deem to be truly moral
and beautiful, but pretending to welcome us "secularists"
as outsiders invited to his lofty "spiritual" table
misses what it truly means to be human and moral.
You know that Unitarian Universalism accepts atheists, agnostics,
and freethinkers. Have you ever wondered why non-believers or
skeptics would belong to a religion? Do you see a contradiction
in an atheist reconciling non-belief with a religious tradition?
-Religion is one way (not the only way) to bring people together.
A key component of religion is the sense of community it provides;
but this can cut both ways. On the one hand, the clumping into
groups can produce a dangerous "we versus them" mentality,
as too often happens with fundamentalist and conservative religions.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with community. Many
atheists and agnostics feel isolated in their (non) beliefs
and long for an opportunity to socially interact with similarly
open-minded individuals and join a group working for charitable,
social and activist causes. We want to laugh, sing, learn, compare
notes, and feel connected with the world.
The "religious tradition" of Unitarian Universalism--today
a truly creedless religion--has consistently de-emphasized the
polarizing and potential insular effects of community and re-emphasized
the humanistic values that unite us all. For Unitarian Universalists,
community means "open the gates and let everyone in,"
not "lock the doors and keep the evil ones out."
Many atheists and agnostics who love being around people are
comfortable, indeed happy with this tolerant attitude. Although
some infidels might squirm a bit while observing the symbolic
religious rituals at some Unitarian Universalist fellowships,
it is a small price to pay for the privilege of being a part
of a quality congregation. This give-and-take works as long
as the unbelievers know that their views are equally welcome,
that they are not simply token outsiders.
I should point out that many atheists and agnostics do not feel
a need for "religious community" and would never join
a Unitarian Universalist, Ethical Culture or any other "church"
no matter how nice the people are. Many infidels already have
all the community and purpose they need without "playing
But for those who do feel such a need-- and it may be something
as simple as wanting to sing in a choir--the Unitarian Universalist
tradition is near perfect.
-Here are two questions about the controversy surrounding "the
language of reverence, "which swirls within Unitarian Universalism.
As you know, Rev. William Sinkford, President of the UUA, complained
that the Principles and Purposes of the UUA were bereft of religious
language. He then encouraged UU1s to "reclaim" that
vocabulary, while mentioning his own strong belief in God.
Your organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote
to Sinkford: “Your proposal flies in the face of the UUA
motto to affirm 'the inherent worth and dignity of every person’
by slamming the door in the face of some of the nation's most
thoughtful and peace- loving citizens--those who reject belief
in the supernatural.”
Is it possible that Sinkford's proposal simply reflects the
conservative trends within American religious groups, in general?
On the other hand, could his be an attempt to "mainstream"
UUism by making it “sound” like other religions?
-Yes, I think that is true. Many still have not shaken off the
popular and erroneous conception that "religion = good."
This implies, of course, that being nonreligious is lacking
something good--or worse, that non-religion is bad.
But there are millions of good Americans who are not religious.
(The "nonreligious," by the way, are the fastest growing
religious group in the country, currently at 14.3% of the adult
population, up from 8% in 1990. American Religious Identification
Survey, CUNY) We unbelievers vote, pay taxes, sit on juries,
serve in the military, give to charity, work for social and
political causes, contribute to art, literature, science, and
education. We are good people, and we are proudly not religious.
We think rebellion and nonconformity are good things.
The United States of America, for example, is a proudly rebellious
nation. We fought a Revolutionary War kicking out the king,
dictator, lord. There is value in not bowing to traditions that
imply subservience to a Master--we are not slaves. Yet most
religious language suggests the opposite: we must worship that
which is above us and adore or obey the Father/Mother/Creator
who guides our lives.
I do think the UUism has a problem. Since it is not really a
religion--or just barely a religion--it is perceived as radical,
liberal, challenging to conservative traditions; but this strength
(in my opinion) limits the number of potential adherents. Wanting
to increase membership, it is only natural for someone like
Sinkford to try to broaden the appeal. But, then, what are you
About twelve years ago I performed a concert at a Unitarian
fellowship in the midwest where the minister is an open atheist.
She told me that her board had cautioned her to downplay her
atheism and criticism of religion before the congregation because
they need to keep people in the pews. They had just remodeled
part of the sanctuary and had a hefty mortgage to pay off and
did not want to scare off any new young families who might be
using Unitarianism as a transition out of a stricter more conservative
religion. She felt muzzled, complaining that she thought Unitarianism
was supposed to improve the world, not keep it ignorant.
But her board, and Sinkford, have a point. If your goal is quantity
over quality, then you do what you have to do to get people
in the door.
With Sinkford's proposal, use of the word "God" is
being revitalized. Some UU ministers are theists, but many define
the word God conceptually, as "the ultimate" or one's
"ultimate concerns," or as a yearning for the "sacred."
Of course, redefining God is nothing new, particularly since
Paul Tillich, but what are your impressions of this attempt
to reissue the word and definition of "God" for Unitarians?
-If "God" simply means something for which we already
have perfectly good terms, then why not use those terms? Why
muddy the concepts with such a heavily- loaded, ambiguous, sure-to-misinterpret
label such as "God"?
-In some academic circles, particularly those with a postmodern
bent, it's suggested that Enlightenment secularism is at a dead
end, and so we now are in the throes of a religious revival
to fill the vacuum. There does seem to be an attempt to interface
science with religion [Newsweek's "Science Finds God"],
with the upshot that our use of scientific and spiritual languages
blur. Any thoughts about this?
-What is the vacuum, exactly? Someday, when sexism or racism
are about to be finally eradicated from the planet, are some
people going to step forth and say, "How do we fill the
Weinberg, the physics Nobel laureate, points out that
it is only the religious community making attempts to unite
science and religion. Scientists generally are concerned with
finding out the facts of nature and don't feel this need to
integrate religion and science. Why do it?
Carl Sagan was once asked by a college student after a lecture:
"If there is no God, then how do we find a meaning for
life?" Carl looked at the student and simply said, "Do
There is no purpose of life: there is purpose in life. If there
were a purpose of life, then that would cheapen life: it would
make us slaves or tools of some "higher plan." As
long as there are problems to solve, facts to find, beauty to
create, then there will be plenty of purpose in life.
following biography of Dan Barker is derived from his personal
web site: www.ffrf.org/lfif/biodan.html
Dan Barker was an evangelist at the age of 15 and received a
degree in religion from Azusa Pacific University. He was ordained
to the ministry by the Standard Community Church, California,
in 1975, and maintained a touring musical ministry for seventeen
years. An accomplished pianist, recording producer, arranger
and songwriter, he worked for Christian music companies and
also accompanied on the piano such Christian personalities as
Pat Boone and Jimmy Roberts. One of Dan’s Christian songs,
“There is One,” was performed by Rev. Robert Schuller’s
television choir on the “Hour of Power” broadcast.
Following five years of reading, Dan gradually outgrew his religious
beliefs. “If I had limited myself to Christian authors,
I’d still be a Christian today,” Dan says. “I
just lost faith in faith.” He announced his atheism publicly
in January, 1984.
Dan has been a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
since 1987. He writes a regular column for Freethought Today,
the Foundation’s newspaper. Dan’s letters and opinion
columns on state/church separation have been printed in many
newspapers across the country. He is featured in the Foundation’s
60-second TV/radio commercial.