The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode #20: “Can An Atheist Experience Grace?”

Hopefully, this moment from our recent past, is familiar. President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” captured something essential about grace itself.  And what it is.  From all appearances, grace is a thing to be wanted.  We should all aspire to live in “a state of grace” if by “a state of grace” we mean… ah — that’s the question, right there.  What do we mean by “grace”.  

Whatever grace is, clearly it’s in short supply these days.  We need to do something about that.    From a theological point of view, grace is something bestowed upon us from above — by a loving God.  But then, a landlord can extend grace toward a struggling tenant — with all the seeming power of a God granting grace.  It may not make a landlord God, but it sure can make her “god-like” in her generosity.

Isn’t that what grace really is?  Generosity — a “reservoir of goodness” of the wallet and the spirit?

In our previous podcast (“Confessions About Confession”), we discussed the “validity” of institutions allowing for and hearing confessions (I say that a good therapist can beat a “father confessor” any day of the week).  But, by the same token, a skilled religious leader can do infinitely more healing than the institution they work for.  In this podcast, we continue that conversation.  If it’s dubious whether or not an institution can stand in for God to hear you confess your sins, it’s just as dubious for said institution to grant you forgiveness for them.  They’re just another pair of ears, really.

Can anyone — person of faith, person of no faith — live in “a state of grace” or is that club “exclusive”?  Let’s discuss…

The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode #20: “Can An Atheist Experience Grace?”
The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode #20: “Can An Atheist Experience Grace?”



It is so perfect that we are starting this discussion with President Obama singing Amazing Grace.  Once you understand the story behind the lyrics and look back at the journey the song took to get from there to the lips of the first African-American President of the United States, we see how complex, how messy, and how amazing, grace is.  

John Newton, who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” has an incredible life story.   

“Newton was born in 1725 in London to a Puritan mother who died two weeks before his seventh birthday, and a stern sea-captain father who took him to sea at age 11. After many voyages and a reckless youth of drinking, Newton was impressed into the British navy. After attempting to desert, he received eight dozen lashes and was reduced to the rank of common seaman. 

While later serving on the Pegasus, a slave ship, Newton did not get along with the crew who left him in West Africa with Amos Clowe, a slave trader. Clowe gave Newton as a slave to his wife Princess Peye, an African royal…” of the Sherbo people of what is now Sierra Leone.  She treated him very poorly until he was rescued by another sea captain.

Newton then became the captain of a slave ship and an investor in the slave trade while also getting more involved in Christianity.  Over years he became an evangelical, and through the evangelicals of the day, a social activist; specifically, an abolitionist, and an Anglican clergyman.   

Now one of the hymns he wrote was sung by the first African-American President of the United States, President Obama.  Crazy, huh?

Grace.  Grace.  All is grace.

Grace came into English from Old French meaning “pardon, divine grace, mercy; as well as elegance and virtue.” Already we see two different emphases in the word.  In the early 13th century it became a short prayer before or after a meal.  In the 14th century grace as beauty of form or movement developed.  In the 1500s it became a title honor.  Its first recorded use in English was in 1579.

But I want to connect grace to another word; a word that used to be beautiful but has become a dirty word in our day, “predestination”.  The rejection of the word is understandable.  It is a word which was abused in theological circles to support a negative, judgemental outlook. But in the Bible, predestination is a beautiful word of gratitude.  It is used for reflecting back humbly on one’s life (instead of looking forward pridefully as one who is “in” who can tell who is “out” of the state of grace).  Predestination means you realize that all of the important things you have done are not about you at all. They can only be received as “gift”.   The idea is that the longer you live, the more you realize that everything is grace.

Neither providence nor grace mean “success”.  People who follow Jesus get this confused all the time; thinking that following Jesus is a way to make your life work exactly as you want it to work.  Strange since Jesus’ himself a less than successful ministry.  It only lasted about 3 years.  He didn’t write books, star in movies or go on talk shows.  He gathered 12 disciples, one of them betrayed him with a kiss.  And he was crucified. Hardly a “successful” career.  And yet he continues to be one of the most famous humans who has ever existed on the planet.

Jesus’ career trajectory tells us something really important about grace.  Grace doesn’t mean promise success.  Grace transcends success.  Grace takes pain, suffering, wounds, and redeems those experiences. 

I love this quote by Elizabeth Achtemeier:

“We moderns are accustomed to finding God in peace and beauty and silence. The Old Testament most often knows him present behind the violence and flow and clatter of everyday life.” 

My sister committed suicide.  Hearing that news was one of the more painful experiences of my life.  I wish it had never happened.  But years later, as a pastor in Los Angeles, that experience enabled me to build trust with a congregant whose wife had committed suicide.  I was  able to help him walk through the deep pain of this loss and officiated at his marriage to another woman in the church.  My sister’s suicide is still a wound. I still wish it hadn’t happened.  But that painful experience has been “redeemed”.  It has been used for good in someone else’s life.  This is grace.

When you are on your deathbed looking back, you can see that everything, the good and the bad; I hope you can look back on your life and see that it was all grace.

History can be read as a story of grace.  It is messy, it is deeply painful and unjust.  But, as we see in Newton’s life, it is filled with grace.

It’s also a thought that

The most intriguing contemporary description of grace I have read are the lyrics from a song by U2:

Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson
Grace lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

But there are two more ancient sources on grace which help me to understand it, experience it and treat others with grace:

The apostle Paul breaks into joyous writing when reflecting on the grace he experienced through Jesus:


3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance…

-Ephesians 1

We see in this passage a number of interesting things about the Christian view of grace.  Grace is:

-God’s initiative in choosing to be “for” people who have turned away.

-God dealing with humanity purely on the basis of infinite, undeserved mercy which is at the heart of who God is.

-There is a counter-intuitive, counterbalance between human failing and grace.  The grace of God expands as human failing is honestly admitted.  It shrinks the more that human woundedness and stumbling is covered over.

-The origin of the universe is found in this grace of God.

-Human life is rooted in this love of God which is beyond cause and effect.

And the second ancient source are the words of Jesus recorded in the gospel of Matthew.  

‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?   -Mt. 5

Let me end by suggesting a book for those who want to understand the Christian concept of grace more deeply.  It is Philip Yancey’s “What’s so amazing about grace”.  It is well written, challenging and well worth grappling with.

In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey describes a conference on comparative religions where experts from around the world debated which belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis happened to enter the room during the discussion. When he was told the topic was Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Lewis was right. No other religion places grace at its theological center. It was a revolutionary idea; as Mr. Yancey puts it, grace “seems to go against every instinct of humanity.” We are naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive.

Grace is different. It is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational. “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”



I’ve told my story here before.  I kept a secret from myself — protectively — for 45 years.  The darkness emanating from that secret nearly consumed me.  Now that I’m on the other side however, I feel… I’m going to use the word “graced”.  

As I’ve also said in these podcasts, I walk around in a perpetual state of bliss.  I’m hardly oblivious of how dire our circumstances are.  My bliss isn’t the product of my mood stabilizer or the copious amount of THC in me.  I have come face-to-face with my own mortality and walked away (I hope) better for it.  It ain’t a deity that saved me from my darkness, it was therapy, chemicals and perspective.  

I see “grace” differently than I do “beauty” or “racism”.  Beauty and racism are strictly in the eye of the beholder.  It’s not for the racist, for instance, to say whether or not they’re racist.  They have no idea whether they are or not.  They lack the perspective.  The only person WITH the proper perspective is the object of the racist’s racism.  If THEY feel you’re a racist, you’re a racist.  

Don’t deny your racism, talk to those who feel your racism’s sting.  If you really don’t want to be racist, your victims will be super helpful.  But — first — you have to WANT to be “helped”.  

Grace is the opposite.  One can BE graceful all by oneself through acts of genuine generosity.  One can, like a god, dispense grace.  One can, in fact, both receive AND dispense grace.  Wouldn’t that be the real definition of “a state of grace”?  Who needs a church for that?  Who needs a deity for that?  

My dad died with absolute grace.  He lived with grace.  In a state of grace, I’ll argue. 

My dad died in August 2013.  He was born in 1929, in Philadelphia, the youngest son of an upper middle class Jewish family.  My grandfather was a dermatologist.  My grandmother was a force of nature.  

When my dad was a kid, people feared polio even more than they feared the coronavirus today.  Before the Salk vaccine, as is happening now with multiple versions of a coronavirus vaccine being developed, multiple polio vaccines were being created.  It was a real scourge.

My grandparents were part of a large, smart community — mostly physicians and their families.  Among the physicians in their circle was a doctor who was developing a polio vaccine.  It seemed promising, I guess.  I hope that was why my grandparents allowed that doctor to “innoculate” my dad and his older brother.  The vaccine contained live polio virus.  My dad and his brother both CONTRACTED POLIO from the vaccination.

In other words, my dad didn’t “catch” polio, he was given it.  

My force-of-nature grandmother refused to see her sons as “diseased” (my dad especially — he got it far worse; his left leg became shrunken).  When my grandparents sent my dad’s older brother to sleepaway camp, they sent my dad, too.  They treated him as if he didn’t walk with a very noticeable limp.

But, he did.  My dad took his polio-constricted left leg and went to medical school (the University of Pennsylvania).  He became a general surgeon and practice — balanced on his good leg — until the mid 90’s when his good hip gave out.  

He quit medicine and devoted himself to his three other passions — photography, sailing and my mom.

Polio never really leaves — even after the worst has been knocked down.  Most polio victims later suffer from “post polio syndrome”.  The virus weakens other parts of the body.  Eventually, my dad’s good leg got infected — and had to be amputated, leaving him with just his polio leg.

An important detail about my dad: he was hilarious.  He was an empath, too.  That’s probably the more important detail.  He was a great surgeon because… well, frankly, he didn’t give a shit about money.  He cared about providing for his family, of course, but it wasn’t money that motivated him.  Ever.

And, as much as he might bitch and moan about some of his patients, it did not mean he didn’t care about them deeply.  He didn’t know how NOT to care about them deeply.  

Polio was as present in my dad’s life as oxygen.  But it never ever defined him — even after his good leg was gone.  We always knew he was tolerating a remarkable amount of pain.  How could he not?  But, he rarely if ever complained about it directly.  And he never — in my hearing — blamed anyone for his travails though he could have.  

Towards the end, relieving himself — simply peeing — was a huge hassle.  He was not going to surrender to diapers.  To avoid having to pee, he stopped drinking enough water.  He became dehydrated and his kidneys began to shut down.

Kidney failure was my dad’s official “cause of death”.  Interesting side note — among physicians, kidney failure is the favored way to die.  It slowly euthanizes your brain.  Relatively speaking?  It’s painless.

My dad was able to “forecast” the end.  Well, we all were.  I was able to fly to Silver Spring from LA and join my two sisters for my dad’s final weekend.  

I won’t go into any more detail than that because, frankly, I’ll lose it.  But, trust me: my dad went out with such grace… He made his death – made dying — acceptable.  

My takeaway?  Anyone — atheists included — CAN live in a state of grace.  It’s as much a “state of mind”.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: