I was standing in line with God, buying tickets to see M onsters University. He’s a big Billy Crystal fan.
“So,” I said, “have you heard about these religious atheists?”
God gave me a look. “Is this a joke?” He asked. “Like, two rabbis and a duck walk into a bar?”
“No,” I said. “It’s a story that ran in the Washington Post recently about religion in America. It was fascinating. Turns out 12 percent of those who say they don’t believe in you nevertheless pray. Some of them pray to something they call a ‘universal spirit.’ It also said 18 percent of atheists say religion has some importance in their lives.”
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“Really?” said God as the line edged forward. “So where’s this coming from?”
“It was from a Pew study that came out in October. For some reason, the study didn’t get much traction, but the Post story has been making noise all over the Internet. People are blogging about it, tweeting about it.”
“I hadn’t heard,” said God. “My Internet’s been down.”
“So anyway, I said, “about these religious atheists . . .”
“What about them?”
“You don’t think it’s weird? They don’t believe in you, but they pray?”
“To this ‘universal spirit,’ ” said God.
“Yeah.” We edged forward again.
“Why should that bother me?” asked God. “I am a universal spirit.”
“But it’s hypocritical,” I insisted. “The story even talks about atheists who mimic religious practices, who gather in so-called ‘godless congregations’ on Sundays to, I don’t know, meditate and reflect.”
“This annoys you?” God waggled His fingers at a toddler who was staring at Him.
“A little,” I conceded. “Just seems like they’re trying to have it both ways. Heck, some of them throw hissy fits at any passing mention of you. If I write some innocuous line — ‘Lord, have mercy,’ let’s say — suddenly, I’ve got atheists out the wazoo.”
“Sounds painful,” He said, “atheists out the wazoo.”
“I’m just saying: If you believe, believe. If you don’t, don’t. Make up your mind.”
“You think it’s that simple? It’s not. Faith and doubt do not oppose each other. They define each other, like light and shadow.”
“Wow,” I said, “that’s deep.”
“I have my moments,” said God.
We got to the window. “Two for Monsters,” I said. God showed his AARP card and got the senior discount.
“Here’s the thing,” said God as we lined up at the snack counter. “I designed you to seek me, to feel a need for me. Some people — that 12 percent you’re so fired up about — maybe they don’t find me in what you call ‘religion.’ Maybe that means they’re missing something. Or maybe religion is.”
“What if they don’t find you at all?”
“Finding is important,” said God. “But seeking is important, too. Seeking teaches patience, opens your mind, shows you your own limitations. That’s where wisdom begins.”
“But come on,” I said, “ ‘universal spirit?’ Doesn’t that sound cheesy?”
God shrugged. “I’ve been called worse. Besides, have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of God.”
He looked sad. “I wish, more often, they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God. I would like that very much.”
We got to the snack counter.
I ordered popcorn and a cherry Icee.
“He’ll have water,” said God and when I looked at him, He said, “I gave you good, strong teeth. Why do you want to rot them?”
The kid behind the counter handed the water bottle to God, who handed it to me.
“Don’t forget to recycle,” He said. “My oceans are not garbage dumps.”
I sighed. “Yes, universal spirit,” I said.