More than a few times, I have introduced myself as chaplain to a patient only to hear him respond, “I’m an atheist”
“Tell me more,” I say.
“I don’t believe in a genocidal god who wipes out people.”
“I don’t believe in that kind of god either,” I offer. “Under your definition, maybe I’m an atheist, too.”
My response often disarms a person long enough to suspend debate and allow us to engage in a meaningful dialogue about their personal spirituality.
I suspect that many of you would like to have a consequential conversation about the divine but have trouble finding a way to initiate it.
As a chaplain who’s served in both the military and health care worlds, allow me to offer a few suggestions I’ve found to be helpful.
First, begin with an open-ended and inclusive question. I often ask, “Do you have any particular religious or spiritual beliefs?”
I want people to tell me how they see the world outside their sphere of influence. Their answer tells me if they see purpose and design in their world, or if they consider everything a spinning accident.
Unless they tell me outright that they are religious, I don’t ask what church they attend. That communicates a presumption that the person must be like me. In worst case, the person feels shame for not being like me.
You might also ask something like the following:
“Where do you go to reconnect with the holy?”
I ask this because you learn a lot about folks when they tell you where they go to meet the holy. Some people attend church to reconnect; others lie on the beach or hike in the forest. Some of my friends play golf.
When I need contemplative time, I find a lake, pool, beach or waterfall. My friend Tamara Chin calls these places a “God spot,” a physical location where you feel God’s presence.
For you, maybe this place is a field, a mountain, a space in your home or a place of worship. Mostly, it’s where you find a moment of peace and presence outside yourself. Wherever it is, one needs to find their “God spot” and go there often.
If you want to move the conversation to a personal place, ask folks what they are praying for. Or, to avoid parochial divisions, I often amend that to, “What are you hoping for?”
Tell me what you are really hoping or praying for, and our conversations avoid religious debates and move into the deeply personal. We disclose our hurts and we open ourselves to healing.
Which leads me to ask, “How does forgiveness work within your beliefs?”
Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The question of forgiveness surpasses religious division. No matter what our individual ideas are about the eternal, forgiveness will spawn profound spiritual healing in all our lives.
My last query is the one all of us, religious or not, wonder about from time to time: “Do you think this life is our end?” Or, “What do you see happening after this life?” This question is the great equalizer. It humbles both the inquisitor and the responder.
Finally, a warning: The sure-fire way to implode your inquisitive efforts is to use these questions to debate with people or to try to prove your brand is the right one.
Proverbs 15:14 says, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, But the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness.”
If you seek understanding, I suspect you’ll find that all people — both the atheist and the church-goer — are spiritual.
We are all seeking answers to the questions of life’s purpose, and I pray we will find unity in our search.