Did you nominate anyone for the American Humanist Association contest last month?

“What contest?” you ask.

If you missed it, you missed your chance to collect the $1,000 finder’s fee the AHA awarded to the individual able to “out” the highest ranking atheist.

The winning nominee is a Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) of Fremont. Fremont is a city within the seven-county boundary of the San Francisco Bay area.

I know many of you are saying, “Humph! San Francisco, huh? No big surprise there.”

What probably does surprise you is that I’m spending valuable inches writing about atheists in my spiritual column. So, quickly — before Madelyn Murray O’Hare rolls over in her grave (wherever that is) — let me explain myself.

Truthfully, I think atheists have a thing or two to teach people of faith. I think they teach us to not be so sure of ourselves and that’s a good thing.

Over the years, I’ve received a lot of e-mail from people who are sure of themselves. I’ve gotten
e-mail from religious readers who, bless their hearts, have called me everything but a Child of God. Not too surprising, really.

But what does surprise me is the e-mails from self-described atheists or agnostics. These readers tell me they regularly avoid religious writing, but they often read my column.

Perhaps their endorsements boost the likelihood that I’ll be nominated next year, but I’d like to think these readers aren’t stereotypical atheists. These readers admit they are locked in a struggle with deeper questions. And I believe God will honor the sincerity of their struggle and will embrace those who continue to look for the answers to faith questions.

The problem I find in the hard line positions of some theists and some atheists is that they’ve become certain they now know all there is to know about God.

I’m not sure how they do that. Does one just get up in the morning and say, “I’ve researched the question of the universe and decided that I’m done now”?

How do you stop looking for the answers to spiritual questions such as: How did I get here? Not just in terms of molecules and genes, but in terms of how did I get into this moment? What does this moment mean for those I touch?

How does the hard-liner theist or the atheist exclaim with certitude the definitions of life and death so easily — especially questions that pertain to what happens after this life?

I’ll never forget the time I entered the room of an 80-year-old man and introduced myself as the chaplain.

He screamed at me to “Get out!”

“I don’t believe in chaplains!” he told me.

That was a funny thing to say, because there I stood before him.

He seemed determined he knew all there was to know about me from my humble title.

With a kind smile, and in the briefest of words, I explained to him I was here — whether he believed in my existence or not. I invited him to have a relational conversation with me and talk more openly about the pain he was struggling with.

The word “struggle” seemed to resonate with him and he invited me to stay.

By the end of conversation, he hadn’t exactly become a believer, but by acknowledging my existence, we were able to struggle in a search for the holy.

And that’s the kind of contest we can all win. It’s a win that certainly will bring an eternal finder’s fee.