Atheist and agnostics have much to teach religious people who think they have the source of everything sussed

Chris Duggan comments in the Guardian that “In a world dominated by Middle East conflicts, it is more urgent than ever that words and creeds emerge from the trenches and dare to divest themselves of the armour that is designed to shore up a reassuring sense of identity, under the guise of religious faith. This process has always been a central concern of the mystical tradition of all the world religions: those who penetrate to the heart of their faith invite their coreligionists to go beyond words and concepts to a level of experience that escapes definition. It is at this point that the dialogue with atheism and agnosticism begins. Ibn Arabi, a hugely important thinker from medieval Andalusia, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim ideas freely cross-fertilised, preferred al-Haq to any of the other 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition. If this is translated as “the Truth”, it sounds like a metaphysical entity. If it is translated as “the Real”, or just “reality”, transcendence is brought down to earth, where it belongs.

This can spark a train of thought about just what we mean by God, and whether all that believers attach to that loaded word is really the preserve of theism. Is it too much to argue that to speak of God is idolatrous? To avoid the word completely may be impractical for believers, but to hesitate to name what is beyond words is a good discipline. The Jews have long insisted that the letters YHWH that denote God should not be pronounced. I find substituting the word “life” for “God” in religious texts very illuminating.

It is tempting to think that the mystic’s “cloud of unknowing” is some transcendental, floaty experience that has nothing to do with the unknowing of the agnostic. And yet the position of the atheist or the agnostic, rejecting any notion of God as a concept that can be defined, has much to teach religious people who think they have the source of everything sussed. So does the inquiring scepticism of a scientist approaching nature with an open mind.”

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