I find that the depth of my Christian faith is enhanced when I hear from atheists and agnostics. This is especially the case when I am challenged or questioned or met with a shaking-of-the-head. It is not that I have learned to put up with their unbelief. Rather, it is that I have become more able and more willing and find it to be more necessary - to draw all things into question. Now, to draw all things into question does not mean that I drop them or throw them away or find that I can no longer find deep worth in that which is questioned. It is simply that I find more and more of the life of religious groups to be unnecessary. When I became a Lutheran, I really was thrilled by being able to let go of some things. Usually they were things that did not count - were not essential to the faith - could be moved to the side so that the brilliance of the story of God's love and nonviolence might prevail. In the liturgy that kind of stuff is labeled adiaphora - that which we can do without and it would not change the core of the faith. For me that meant that the Lord's Supper was essential - it was the essential story of God's love for us - handed to us - shaping us - inspiring us. On the other hand, the bowing - the proper setting of the table - the crossing of oneself here and there, did not advance the story - did not instill in me the way of Jesus.
In listening to ex-Muslims or reforming-Muslims I hear some of that same need to keep the core and dismiss and let loose all the fabric of the religion that is unnecessary to convey the wonder and depth of Islam. I remember growing up and having to attend CCD classes. Back then, as a Roman Catholic, the nuns wore black habits that revealed only a circle of their face. All else was covered. I know there were historic reasons for such garb, but it was not and is not essential to the faith. In time, the local nuns who were friends of mine in Detroit, looked like any other woman. And yet, their substance - their embodiment of their life as a follower of Jesus - remained the same. But now, it did not need any wardrobe to be the identifier of the faith. Sometimes I look at the Vatican and find it to be primarily an experience in creating that which does not matter. I'm sure there are reforming Jews who also long to be rid of that which does not matter.
But even as I say all this, I know that rituals and patterns and dress and lists of what is a correct way to embody the faith are helpful for some folks when they are trying to focus on that center - the love of God that endlessly seeks the peace of our humanity - the peace of the whole creation. I am also not saying that all the rituals and practices that historic churches or mosques or synagogues do need to be ended. In fact, I am most often offended when I hear about new and growing hip churches that incorporate new music, portray more of the culture around them, yet, the preacher still lives in an ancient mindset that looks at a holy book with eyes devoid of the insights of critical scholarship and instead continue being caught up in the tribalism of long ago. Nothing is easier than being a preacher who claims to be someone who preaches the bible. In such cases s/he spouts passages as though they enlarge and enrich his/her words. They use a vocabulary as ancient as the religion itself but without taking out the old-time religious meanings of words and stories that still leave us with a violent God who loves to love some and punish others.
I rant on here because I do not think there are any atheist or agnostics - at the fence. Those who are out at the fence serving as the mouth-pieces of a god who offers limited forgiveness and a singular path to live out life in the real world, have not critically looked at the faith they attempt to spread by megaphone - the signs they manufacture - the blame and shame they throw around as though it is at the core of that which is holy to them. Those at the fence are probably proud of the fact that there are no atheists or agnostics at the fence. They might say it is because all folks out at the fence have been bought into the religious zeal and certitude they need to keep their message correct and right in their eyes. It's often called conversion - it is really religious subjection. Therefore, the atheists and agnostics who relentlessly question would never be out at the fence. For out at the fence there is no dialogue - no vulnerability - no availability that shapes the actions at the fence. Usually, the message is one that says: to hell with all who do not line up at the fence and adhere to that which - I would say - is nonessential. I am finding more and more that I need to be bathed in the unbounded love of God for all and through all times and forget the god of retribution, condemnation, scapegoating, and violence of any kind.
I find atheist and agnostics do not try to change me. Although I am quite put off by some popular figures who find it necessary to be in constant battle mode whenever someone speaks of a life choice that has brought them into the faith they hold dear. Such voices as that - are basically violent and can be just as exclusive as the so-called faithful lives of others. My activism - as little as it may be at times - is inspired when I am pushed into the peaceable core of my faith journey. It has been the voices and questions of ex-religious or non-religious folks who have made it more essential for me to stand with people of other faiths whose core understanding of their faith holds up a gracious, benevolent, self-sacrificing notion of what it is to be fully human.
I will always find it difficult to accept the adiaphora of religious people. In fact, I know that what I may call adiaphora - unnecessary to the faith - may sound like an offensive word to them. But, I find that as we are open to being offended, we may see in our own ways and words that which reveals how little we seek to embody a loving God whose Spirit is working to make us whole - with all. At the fence - things are right or wrong. They point to Scripture for that notion. That may be why I am not out at the fence but simply listen to their rants as I discuss what faithfulness means with those who question everything about my faithfulness. I find it an interesting and challenging journey.