An Atheist with a Religion?

An Atheist with a Religion?

So then, I took the plunge and joined my Unitarian Universalist church. I signed the book, went to new member orientation, made a financial pledge, and signed up for volunteer opportunities. I’ve decided that this is how I want to raise my daughter.

I am also co-organizer for Louisville Atheists & Freethinkers, and co-hosting on the Blasphemy in the Bluegrass podcast and participating with other local atheist organizations.

I have developed a rather weird relationship with religion, one that doesn’t get talked about much in the public discussion between atheists and believers. That is, being an atheist and identifying as an atheist but also having a church and a religion. What makes that even possible is the one big overlap between the atheist community and the UU church: they both full of heretics, and generally proud of it. A heretic being someone who decides for themself what they believe rather than accepting the word of an authority.

A Google search for “Unitarian universalist atheist” usually brings up a handful of posts about why atheists should not join Unitarian Universalist churches. So I’m pretty aware that there are voices in the atheist community who do not agree with me. At an earlier stage of my life, when I first encountered the UU’s I agreed with them. Their arguments usually focus on some disparaging things a former president of the UUA said about secular humanism. But the thing is, I haven’t encountered those attitudes in my own congregation. The other thing is that it is OK to disagree with the leadership here. For the first time in my life I can listen to a sermon and not feel deep shame and self-doubt if the minister says something that makes me uncomfortable. I just take a deep breath and acknowledge that I don’t think that is right and then continue listening calmly. If it’s important enough to me I can bring it up later. I could say it’s part of my spirituality right now to practice listening and resist giving into the temptation to have a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. (I can split hairs on what ‘spirituality’ means later. :-p)

I’ll be writing more about this in the near future.

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“I don’t believe in that God either?”

“I don’t believe in that God either?”

One phrase I’ve come across with liberal religious people (most recently in a ‘common read’ book I was reading that had a bit about interfaith cooperation) is “I don’t believe in that God either.” You know, that judgemental God that hates gays and sends people to hell. The one that thinks women are not worth as much as men and commanded genocide in the Old Testament.

As an atheist I have a problem with this, because it always feels to me like the intent is to take all the oomph out of the atheist position, as if our objections were trivial. “I don’t believe in God.” “Well, tell me about the god you don’t believe in and I probably don’t believe in that God either!”

I don’t mind at all if someone believes in a thing they call ‘God’ so long as they do believe in a “live and let live” way. That is, if you are not trying to push your beliefs on me — verbally or by voting for politicians who want to erode the rights of the non-religious — I don’t mind if you believe something that you label ‘God’ or not. But this attempt at asserting common ground is misleading. I don’t believe in a God who is always kind and loving to everyone regardless of their religious belief either. Or one that created the universe. Or is one with the universe. Or created consciousness in the human mind (or in other animals or even plants). Or that used evolution and the big bang to create the world. I don’t believe in any of those gods either (though I accept the underlying natural processes as far as I understand them.) I simply don’t believe in supernatural forces and I don’t think we should apply the ‘God’ label to natural forces or objects.

“Tell me about the God you don’t believe in and I probably don’t believe in him either” is not a good way for the liberal religious to find common ground with atheists. I find it very off-putting. We can get along with each other while admitting and accepting that sometimes we just don’t agree about theology or what labels we should use. What matters is sharing the same basic set of values, regardless of your personal theology.

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Christian Mythology for Kids

Christian Mythology for Kids

I bought this book for my daughter, who is now almost 11 months old and not yet old enough to appreciate it. However, I have benefited from it enough to make the purchase worthwhile even if she never reads it.

christianmythologyforkidsThe concept behind this book is to introduce kids in secular families to the Christian stories without exposing them to the dogmatic and ham-fisted fundamentalist/evangelical interpretations of those stories. But this book is not just for kids. Going back and rereading the stories as an ex-Christian has been incredibly entertaining and therapeutic. And not only does it go into the Biblical stories but it also tells the extra-Biblical traditional stories about the fall of Lucifer from heaven before the creation of the world and it explains the ideas of heaven and hell  (and purgatory and limbo) and the final judgement. Ideas that are so clearly mythological, but when you have been indoctrinated with them from early in your life it can be hard to see that.

The book has also reminded me of some old stories that I’d almost completely forgotten. One of my favorites is Jonah and the Whale. So much of the fundamentalist interpretation is wrapped up making apologetics for the notion that a man could survive inside a fish — for three days no less — that the myth is ruined. Seriously, trying to interpret a myth as actual history ruins it! When you look at this story as a fable, clearly there was someone (who knows who) who was trying to expand the idea of God’s concern to the people of Nineveh — the capital city of the empire that had swallowed and scattered the people of Israel and Judah. Before this story the enemies of Israel were usually just destroyed wholesale. Here, Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh and warn them that they have displeased God and they will be destroyed if they don’t repent of their ways. Jonah hates the Ninevites and does not want to do it and tries to run away to sea and this is where that side story about the fish/whale comes in. Jonah finally learns he can’t run from God and ends up being a street preacher in Nineveh for a few days. Forget the impossibility of Jonah surviving being eaten by a fish. How about an entire empire capital city listening seriously to the crazy ramblings of the “end is near” guy? #thisneverhappens Anyway… since they do repent God does not send the promised calamity and Jonah is pissed. He wanted to see some punishment! Ah, poor bigoted Jonah.

Reading these old stories as myths and not stuffing them into a literal historical interpretation (or as a supposed foreshadowing of the future coming of Jesus) has been very beneficial to me as an ex-Christian. The book also has a beautiful illustrations. I highly recommend it.

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What I learned at Skepticon 7

I just got back home from Skepticon 7 late last night, and now is the time to recover and reflect. (If you don’t know what Skepticon is, visit http://skepticon.org/what/.) This year they had lots of speakers that I had not heard before (despite having gone to plenty of atheist conventions and hearing the most famous speakers multiple times). There was a very good variety of speakers and I commend the organizers for putting together such a fantastic lineup!

Here are some of the main ideas and learnings that I took away from Skepticon 7.

I learned about Ben’s firsthand experience of a Humanist Service Trip with the Pathfinders Project. The trip included teaching kids, helping villages develop a system to access clean water, a visit to a camp for accused witches in Uganda (and the heartbreaking results of superstition), and building latrines in Haiti. Also, a dangerous bout with malaria, reinterpreted as a process of personal transformation. Honestly, I am starting to cry as I write this, it was so heartwrenching and inspiring at the same time. So go to http://pathfindersproject.com and check out what they are doing. (Ben ‘Sweatervest’ Blanchard)

I learned that experiments with rats that show them helping other rats get out of a trap show that empathy and helping are hard-wired into mammals and do not require fancy cognition or culture. (Peggy Mason)

I learned that a careful analysis of studies that address the correlation of religion and wellbeing shows that when atheists are actually included in the studies and when the survey questions are relevant to atheists, the commonly media-touted claims about the religious being mentally healthier than atheists falls apart. It is a stable worldview is correlated to mental wellbeing, not a commited faith. (Melanie Brewster)

I also learned a concept of ‘minority stress’ that can affect atheists because of pervasive religous and anti-atheist prejudices in American culture. When atheists are compelled to self-censor out of fear of social censure from religous family or neighbors, and when they are exposed to frequent anti-atheist comments, the stress can cause mental and emotional damage. This is the major reason why atheist meetups and communities are important — they are safe spaces where atheists can get away from the sources of minority stress. (Melanie Brewster)

The distinction between natural and supernatural claims — between scientific and religous claims — is an illusion. There is no good reason not to think of the ‘supernatural’ (if it exists) as a natural realm that follows rules just like the natural world that we know. This idea has interesting implications for the sorts of claims that the religous make about God. (Scott Clifton)

I learned about ‘citizen science’ and there are websites like http://scistarter.com that anyone can go to to participate in the data-gathering process for scientific experiements, and participate in a casual or commited way depending on their own motivation and time. (Nichole Gigliucci)

I learned how an outsider to our culture can give a fresh perspective on the taboos and unspoken rules of our culture. (Heina Dababhoy)

I learned that ‘genderqueer’ is a gender category. I’d encountered the term before in blogs and speeches, but I never quite had a clear idea what it actually meant. I also learned that if you see something like ‘they/them’ in an online profile that means that those are the pronouns that the person wishes to be addressed by instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Also, that it is appropriate to ask a person identifying as genderqueer what pronouns they prefer if you are not sure. (Twitter conversations in the #sk7 hashtag)

And last but not least, I learned that Skepticon organizers and participants put on the best Prom ever! XD

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Today’s Church Experience

Today’s Church Experience

Today I attended Sunday morning services with four other atheists from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville. For an explanation of what we were doing in a church, see my post immediately before this one: I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why. If you haven’t read that one yet, I recommend it for the back story before you continue with this post.

The church we attended was Walnut Street Baptist Church in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The service was very typical of my experiences both growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and in visiting Baptist churches when I was looking for something different. The sizable sanctuary was well filled with mostly white  but also a scattering of black middle-class families, mostly dressed in casual and semi-dressy clothes. As far as looks go, our group fit right in. No one would have known we were not typical church-goers unless they recognized us or heard our post-service conversation.

wsbc

This is the view from where we were sitting. This photo was taken while the choir was singing.

The order of the service was as I expected, except that the taking of the offering happened at the end just before the benediction, and not right after the congregational singing. Otherwise the service was pretty much identical to the ones I had grown up in. The call to worship (the opening song) was “Because of Who You Are,” and it felt surreal to me to sit and listen to it because I used to be incredibly moved by that song but now I was just rather bored and waiting for it to end. I thought the same of most of the song service, which was a mix of contemporary songs and hymns. The one song that I enjoyed was “It is Well With My Soul.” It is a pretty song and was always one of my favorites. It started out with a trumpet solo and then the congregation joined in and I sang as well. It was the best part of the entire service.

The sermon was about worry and anxiety, and drew from Matthew 6:25-34. It started with an anecdote about distraction, namely the distraction of the pastor himself when he was a young child on a baseball team. As we all know, very young children are very distractible. He transitions into the rest of the sermon by saying the things that distract Christians the most from following Jesus are worry and anxiety. Without reproducing the entire sermon, which was fairly well organized with three sets of three points each, I’ll jump straight to the main point. According to this sermon, anxiety is experienced by Christians who forget to keep their focus on Jesus and instead worry about making preparations for their future. The point of the passage is that we should not worry about what will happen tomorrow or what we will eat or wear, since God will take care of all that. And Jesus is good and doesn’t want us to be anxious. Given that everyone in that congregation looked pretty well fed and clothed, I doubt that this pastor was making points about basic sustenance (like Jesus was) as much as about desiring the best clothes or the best food–things not necessary for survival and a basic level of sustenance and personal security.  I assume that at least the adults in the congregation are not so naïve as to think that they should not therefore store up provisions for the future for themselves and their children. After all, even the bird of the air starve to death when there is a drought or overpopulation or other such misfortune. In part because, as the Bible says, they don’t store up in barns. Perhaps we should be more like the squirrels of the trees than the birds of the air…but now I am getting off topic.

The part of the sermon that bothered me the most was the pastor’s response to the obvious objection to his message: What about when God is NOT providing for me what I need? After all, there are a lot of starving people in the world, and some of them are Christians. Here is his answer: “God will provide what is sufficient to do what he wants us to do.” In other words, if you are praying and begging and not getting what you need, it’s all part of God’s plan. He will reward you in the afterlife. Oh, also “your definition of good is not the same as God’s.” Well then. Stop complaining and trust the one who is invisible and inaudible. Just don’t worry.

I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad. I always got frustrated with sermons because I have expected them to give a rational and persuasive case, but most church sermons are not persuasive speeches. You just either just believe what the pastor says, or you don’t.

It was an interesting experience to see church though the eyes of a total nonbeliever, as an open atheist. As expected the people were precious and I would have no problem associating with any of them. But (most of the) music and the doctrine and sermons are clearly not for me. But I don’t mind attending to raise money for a worthy cause. 🙂

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