I used to be fine when people used the word God. I had an image of what they meant, and the picture popped right into my head whenever I heard the word. I knew they were talking about the God we’ve all seen pictured of on the Sistine Chapel, with his finger reaching out to touch Adam. The one we talk about like a big Geppetto in the sky, who makes all the puppets and pulls all the strings. The one you call out to when your keys are lost or you need a parking spot. But one day, something happened that changed everything.
I was carpooling in an RV with two women from San Diego, heading to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I was leading a workshop. My book Divining the Body had just come out and the three-day workshop offered a way for women to reclaim the sacredness of their bodies.
We hadn’t gotten out of San Diego county when my artist friend Jane announced she was an atheist. I had known her for years, but for some reason this never came up. She was sitting in the passenger seat, her long legs propped up on the massive dashboard of the Class A RV. I looked over at her and laughed.
“Oh, this is good. You’re an atheist and you’re going to a workshop called Divining the Body. You’re going to be the only atheist in the room.”
“That’s OK. I usually am.”
“What do you do when everybody talks about God like they do?”
“Oh, I’m used to it. It won’t matter.”
“It might not matter to you, but it makes a difference to me,” I said, though I wasn’t able to say exactly how or why.
Julie chimed in from the back, asking if we wanted drinks or snacks, and that was the end of our conversation about atheism.
But I couldn’t forget about it. I drove hundreds of miles pondering how I could make this feel as good for Jane at it was going to feel for everyone else. I didn’t want her to feel excluded. I didn’t want to use language that was foreign to her. My job as a facilitator is to create a sense of oneness. I knew I would have to do something different, but I didn’t know what.
We stopped at the Albuquerque airport to pick up three women from Missouri who had flown in to attend the workshop. They started talking about God the moment they arrived: God did this. God did that. That word had a whole different feeling now—there was nothing casual about it. My ears burned when I heard it.
“It was raining, but God gave us a great taxi-driver who got us there on time.”
“I was married to an alcoholic, but God set it up that way so I’d learn patience.”
“God helped me find just the right man on e-harmony… God gave me a child with disabilities… God gave me cancer because…”
Every time I heard the word God I wanted to say, “Who exactly are you talking about and how does this work?”
I wanted them to say what they thought was really happening and keep this invisible Sky God out of the conversation. I wanted their sentences to be God-free. It was as if I was the atheist. If they knew they were with someone who didn’t believe in this God of theirs, I wondered if they’d come up with a new way of speaking about their lives—just the way you simplify your speech at a gathering if there is a person who does not speak English well. You accommodate the outsider. You make it easier for them by being conscious about your words. You speak more slowly. You use simpler words. You are in the service of unity, so everything changes.
Marble - Maggie Chiang
We finally made it to Santa Fe, pulled into our meeting place, and had two hours before our first gathering. I still had no idea how to handle things. I sat in my room for an hour, open to insights. Nothing came. I went for a walk around the grounds, praying for a solution. Nothing came. It was time to meet, so I headed to the room. It wasn’t till I pulled the door open that an idea occurred to me.
We got ourselves situated in a circle, and before we went around and introduced ourselves, I said to the group, “There’s only one rule for the entire weekend. You can share anything you want, but you can’t use the word G-O-D.” (I spelled it out.)
Voices from three different directions called out, “WHAT?”
Women looked at me with bewilderment, and huge question marks filled the space between us.
“You can’t use the word G-O-D,” I repeated.
Discontent was in the air.
“Why not?” someone asked.
“Because we’re trying an experiment—we’re trying to take things to a deeper level here. We’re trying to stay in our bodies and identify that sacredness. If we have to come up with new ways to describe what we’re talking about, we’ll get clearer about what it really is. We’re trying to avoid conceptual words, trying to keep our language grounded.”
“How are we even going to talk,” asked one of the Missouri women.
“It’ll take some getting used to, but it’ll be good in the long run. The world is changing, and not everyone shares the same notion of God. We’re going to see what it feels like to take that word out of our vocabulary and still say what we want to say. It’s an experiment,” I repeated. “Trust me.”
The group agreed, and we started our introductions. We were all surprised at how often a woman blurted out the word before she even realized it. They tried to stay grounded, but so many veered off into celestial realms without even noticing. It was an eye-opener for me—something I’d never picked up on before, but now that Jane was with us, I had the ears of a bat.
Women were diligent about the rule all weekend. As soon as they slipped up, they covered their mouths and tried again. All day Friday, all day Saturday, they practiced giving credit to themselves instead of some external deity. They practiced saying I did this, I did that. It had nothing to do with pride or humility—it had to do with saying what was really true, claiming their agency, admitting their power over circumstances.
By Sunday lunchtime, a palpable energy surged through the room. It was almost visible. Women’s words radiated with self-authority. As they spoke from their gut, their bellies, their wombs, they found their voice, offered up their wisdom, speaking of their lives as their own creations. Though it didn’t come naturally at first, by the end of the weekend they were pros at communicating their essence. No one had to point to the heavens, abdicate their power, give credit to some other being pulling the strings of their lives. Instead, they praised themselves, acknowledged their courage, and claimed the very gifts that the disciples of Jesus failed to claim. A miracle happened that weekend and we were all witness to it. We were the practitioners that caused it to happen.
Having Jane admit to me that day in the RV that she was an atheist was the best thing that could have happened to our group. I think it caused us all to stretch, to go deeper and wider in our regard for others and in the revelation of our selves. This is how we’re served by the ideas of “the other.” This is how we complete and improve each other, how we benefit from diversity.
I have continued to practice “atheism” a few days a week in my spiritual practice. I light my candle and, instead of imagining an invisible Presence, I place myself in the void of Nothingness. Where I usually feel a sense of communion, on those days I feel nothing but the presence of what is around me and beneath me. It is the Earth and me—not a Transcendent Other. I train my thoughts only on the real, the visible, the perceivable—and I stay there in that silence. There is nothing missing.
But soon my senses are flooded with the sounds of the birds, the wind rustling, the squirrels scurrying, the smell of jasmine, the sight of sunlight on the palm fronds near my window, the image of my own hands, open for receiving, open for giving. And all that is as much a sacrament as what happens in any sanctuary. All that is the altar of the earth upon which I offer daily praise and thanksgiving. All that is what awakened me to this new understanding:
If there is a God, I am in awe.
If there is not a God, I am in greater awe.