A broader perspective on the US atheist/believer controversy

By Andrea Stephens
9 Jan 2013

While over half of Americans claim to be Christian, the number of the unaffiliated has increased from 14 million in 1990 to 34 million in 2008.

Comment and research suggests that what might be described as 'insulated Christians' in the USA often rank atheists below criminals on their moral scale.

That reality, along with the often hostile and dismissive attitudes to belief on the part of 'new atheists', lies at the heart of US 'culture wars'.

Now a new book, Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind challenges this attitude by giving a much-needed voice to the 'good' people who have left their church but whose spirituality continues to mature.

“This is not a book against religion… It’s an invitation to consider a broader perspective,” author Margaret Placentra Johnston explains.

An optometrist, Johnston has made a career of helping people with their eyesight. Now she offers to correct blurred misconceptions on another level.

Faith Beyond Belief points beyond the atheist/believer controversy which many regard as wreaking divisive havoc in American culture today.

It will help doubters as well as those who are struggling to clarify their own spiritual vision to see things in a new light, say the publishers.

In the book, Ms Johnston correlates the work of 14 spiritual development theorists into a common thread, defining the spiritual journey as a growth process with several progressive stages. She then illustrates the process through ten real-life stories, bringing each stage to life.

Some of these accounts are by nonbelievers; others are by those among the growing numbers of the “spiritual but not religious.”

The author's second set of stories are of people at what she calls the “mystic” level who can tolerate paradox, see truth and reality as multidimensional and view spiritual concepts metaphorically.

They may even have returned to their original church, but now with the more evolved traits of humility, forgiveness, gratitude, acceptance and a unitive worldview in which religious differences are seen as mere details.

* Margaret Placentra, Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, USA, 2012). ISBN 978-0-8356-0905-0, 360 pages.

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Andrea Stephens is a musician, writer and critic.

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