May 19, 1991, was the first time I ever got up in front of a religious congregation to regale them with my ideas. The occasion that Sunday was my confirmation at my mainline Protestant church, a fairly liberal congregation in the suburbs. During the service, I stood in front of the church and told the assembled multitudes that I believed in "God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth" and in "Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord," who was crucified and was resurrected for our sins.
That was a long time ago.
Actually, as a ninth grader who had been dreading confirmation day for months, I was already pretty sure I didn't believe most of those things. Basically, I was very confused and unsure about theological matters, but I knew there wasn't much room for my doubts in the expectations of my very faithfully Protestant family. I despaired at finding a community that welcomed my skepticism.
Later on in high school, after plenty of reading and thinking, I realized that I didn't believe that a God existed--that I was an atheist. In college, that life was actually kind of exciting; I got to do a lot of reading about the history of religious dissent and doubt--a history thousands of years old, with plenty of heroes like Socrates and Margaret Sanger, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, Salman Rushdie, and many more.
It also made for lots of fun discussions with friends of many different religious persuasions. My best male friend, the guy who will be the best man at my wedding next month [August 2006], is a conservative Christian I got to know in college through tooth-and-nail debates we had about God. And two other college friends and I started a discussion group for atheists, agnostics and other non-believers. It was great.
So by time I moved back here at the end of college, I felt much more at home with myself theologically than I had at my confirmation. Without my college friends, though, I had very little in the way of a community to call home.
Some of my friends suggested that I ought to give this thing called "Unitarian Universalism" a try. They said UUism was a church that would welcome a skeptic like me; it sounded promising. I really liked the sound of the first few things I read; I appreciated the acknowledgment of Humanism, science and reason in the Sources, and two of the Principles really spoke to me: "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" and "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning." Those two affirmations are still my favorite things about UUism--suffice it to say that they were not a part of my Protestant confirmation.
But back then, I needed to know a lot more about this UUism thing. I picked up A Chosen Faith, a book that the UUA's Beacon Press calls "the classic introductory text on Unitarian Universalism." It sure looked authoritative--the book is co-written by Rev. John A. Buehrens, who was President of the UUA at that time [1993-2001], and Rev. Forrest Church, who was the senior minister at the largest UU church in New York City.
So I plowed into the book, looking to be inspired by a church that would even have room for me.
I'm sorry to say that I was severely disappointed. In A Chosen Faith I found a picture of a group of people who had nothing but scorn for any negative take on "God," on the Bible, on Jesus, or several other elements of traditional religion.
In the book, both Church and Buehrens heap abuse on nonbelievers: Buehrens calls our attempt to live lives outside of religion "a form of self delusion." He argues that our ideals leave us spiritually empty, and tells us that "Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit." He quotes passages from the Bible and from C.S. Lewis, a conservative Christian apologist, at us to demonstrate that beliefs like mine are "demonic pseudoreligion."
Rev. Church is a little more indirect: he writes that skeptics, "having traded God for truth, ... are left with neither."
Anyway, in those passages and many others, I found that A Chosen Faith treats skeptical viewpoints like mine unfairly, dishonestly and disrespectfully--even cruelly. But even worse was that that treatment was entirely uniform: I couldn't find a single kind word about me in the whole book, not one word that conceded any value in the way atheists view the world. I came to UUism in search of a community I could call my own, and A Chosen Faith informed me that nothing but scorn awaited me here.
I was chastened--I didn't come to this church several years ago, when I lived in this area; it took until a year later, when I was a graduate student in another city, for my friends to finally convince me that real UU churches aren't like A Chosen Faith. Eventually, my friends got me to try it, and I found that the Unitarian church in that city is a really neat place. When I moved back here, I found the same thing about this church; I really appreciate that this community has room for my ideals.
As you can tell, it's enormously important to me that UUism has room for the skeptical ideas I hold. After many years of reading and studying and thinking and discussing, there are a lot of impious things about the way I see the world--for example, I don't believe that a god exists; I think the contents of the Bible, the Koran, and some other holy books are more bad than good; and I'm not convinced that the Jesus character depicted in the Bible is a very good person.
Now, I don't think there is any controversy--or at least there shouldn't be any--that ideas contrary to mine are entirely welcome in UUism, and in our church. Saying "yes" to the idea of God, saying "yes" to the virtue of the Koran, saying "yes" to Jesus as an inspiration--these are answers that thousands of UUs give, and I wouldn't dream of denigrating them.
But my contention this morning is that if we are to live up to our ideals, we need to be a welcoming place for people who say "no," theologically, to those ideas and many more. If we really do affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, I think we're forced to accept, and to welcome, anyone whose search leads them to say "yes" to integrity, "yes" to meaning, "yes" to justice, "yes" to life by saying "no" to other things--even if that means saying "no" to ideas that many of us hold dear.
American society doesn't think much of atheists. This has been true for a long time: in 1793, Thomas Paine was imprisoned by the Revolutionary government in France, and the American administration let him rot there for more than a year because they considered him "a filthy little atheist." He'd just written a book that harshly criticized the Bible, and that made him a political liability.
More recently, the Gallup Organization and the Pew Research Center have polled public attitudes about minorities. In the most recent Pew poll [this is the site I had consulted], only forty-nine percent of respondents answered that they could bring themselves to vote for an atheist for President, even if the atheist were a member of their party and generally well qualified otherwise. Forty-nine percent is a substantially lower trustworthiness number than any other minority group addressed in the poll--much lower than Catholics, Jews, Muslims, women.... and gays and lesbians, who used to bring up the rear in these polls until they passed us by in the 1980s. Looking at numbers like these, University of Minnesota sociology professor Penny Edgell wrote that atheists
offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years. ... It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy--and in America, that 'core' has historically been religious. ... Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.This antipathy toward nonbelievers has real consequnces. A few of the atheist friends I made during college had been thrown out of their homes--one was even disowned--when their families learned that they didn't believe in God. I had it a lot easier in a liberal mainline-Protestant church.
But we're all vulnerable. This past Spring, the UCLA Law Review published an article examining the role of religious skepticism in child custody disputes. The author found more than seventy published cases from the past thirty years in which an atheist, agnostic or religiously apathetic parent was denied custody in favor of a more religious parent. In each of the seventy-plus cases--which included one or more from our area--, the court cited as one basis for its decision that the skeptical parent could not be trusted to provide a proper religious upbringing for her children.
In this church, I don't think I need to explain how terrifying it is to know that I could be denied custody of my children because a public official has bigoted ideas about who and what I am.
So. We nonbelievers aren't terribly popular.
In this church, though, we Unitarian Unversalists pride ourselves on bucking the trend in matters like these. The best and proudest example, I think, is human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people--for a long time, a large portion of the society around us has not valued gay love. But this church does, and I for one am very proud of that. We work hard to prevent the homophobia of our surrounding society from getting inside these walls--and, though I realize it's awfully easy for a straight guy to say this, I think we generally succeed at keeping that hatred out.
The question I'd like to pose is whether Unitarian Universalism is doing quite as good a job at keeping our society's anti-atheist sentiment out of our association. As I mentioned, I think I've come across some unnerving signs that the nastiness is leaking in. And that frightens me.
Last summer, I decided one way to take stock of the situation was to see what it was that prominent UUs were saying about us nonbelievers. So I ran a bunch of Google searches through the UU World magazine website, and uua.org, and the seminary websites, and the thousands of UU sermons that are posted online. I kept track of every article or speech or sermon that talked at any length about atheists, or agnostics, or humanists, or so on.
I found some nice things, as I'll mention a little later. But what stuck out to me was that I found, once again, a lot of unkindness directed by UU ministers at people like me.
Leading the pack, unfortunately, were John Buehrens and Forrest Church, who are still given to saying horrible things about nonbelievers. In 2003, Church gave a speech at General Assembly in Boston where he declared that "secular materialist" worldviews like mine lead to "gulags and crematoria." Church argued that we out-of-the-closet skeptics are "fundamentalists of the left." He declared:
Fundamentalists of the right enshrine a tiny God on their altar. Fundamentalists of the left reject this tiny God, imagining that by so doing they have done something creative and important. Both groups are in thralldom to the same tiny God.[Here's the e-mail I sent to Rev. Church in response to that sermon.]
Buehrens has followed right along; in a summer 2003 article in UU World magazine, he wrote that the word "humanism," when it's not "biblical," means
refusing to think about God or to search for transcendence ..., using [one's] critical skills to tear apart or dismiss the religious experience of others in the name of [one's] supposed 'scientific' superiority or cultural modernity.That's the former president of the UUA, writing in UU World magazine.
A few other ministers seem to be following in those cruel footsteps. A minister from the Boston area wrote the following statements as comments to a UU online weblog:
Who are these people who still think that it's special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity? Are they the same guys who sit with me at weddings and let drop the bomb that they respect what I do but, rilly, they're "spiritual but not religious??" "That's fascinating and special, dear," I tell them. "But I'd love it so much if we could conclude this conversation right this minute and you'd go fetch me another cocktail."I have a hard time seeing comments like that as anything other than terrible bigotry; but it's an ordained UU minister--and a prominent one, who's been quoted in the national press--who wrote that.
It hasn't happened yet but I swear...!
[And then, after I complained about the above....]
For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a- theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygienist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it.
Perhaps worse than insults like those, though, were the more subtle things I found on the UU web--such as the consistent trend among sermons that discussed nonbelievers. The message of a huge portion of the sermons I found was that there's just something wrong with atheists, and that's why we doubt the things we doubt.
One UU minister in South Carolina wrote that my kind doesn't believe because we have a "tin ear for the sacred." [Here's my response.] A minister in Colorado complained about skeptics who "project[ ] our own childhood frustrations and inadequacies onto an unloving God." A minister in Minnesota told a story about a colleague of hers who was "strict and unabashed and atheist" and who was therefore miserable. The colleague's problems were solved when she became a UU Christian. [My response is part of this post.]
Very few of these sermons or articles actually say that all atheists are ignorant, or wounded, or pathetic. But that's not much of a help, because none of them give any other description of us. When every portrayal of an atheist or some other doubter is of a person who is somehow crippled or uneducated, I get the message: these folks think there's something really wrong with me. In the UU cultural narrative about atheism, I see my ideals, my beliefs, dismissed as ignorant, "tin eared" foolishness.
I think we atheists, like everyone else, are on a search for truth and meaning, and many of us have worked very hard at it. But these sermons and speeches and articles--and I'm afraid to report that I've found a lot of them--they send the message that some of my most fundamental beliefs are just the result of emotional scars, or pettiness, or ignorance.
My thesis this morning is that that message violates our principles. If the only image of religious doubt that UU churches deliver is the picture of the atheist jerk on the corner haranguing innocent Christians, then our search for truth and meaning isn't free. If people who are uncomfortable with ideas like "God" or the Bible or Jesus are told that we're spiritually handicapped, "tin eared," then our search isn't free. If we aren't allowed to say "no," theologically, to ideas that are popular and beloved, then our search isn't free.
The problem that all of this presents, of course, is that pluralism is hard. UUs revere the famous line from Francis David, the 16th Century Unitarian theologian: "We need not think alike to love alike." That's true, and we're right to strive toward that standard--but boy, can it be difficult in practice. Upholding and cherishing the "inherent worth and dignity" of people who see the world very differently than we do is not something that comes easily to most of us. One important goal of UU community is "unity within diversity"--it's just that that's easier said than done.
So I should add: in this sermon I'm definitely not saying that it's inappropriate for our church to talk about God, or to describe itself as a community of faith, or to speak approvingly about Jesus--the free and responsible search for truth and meaning brings many of you to different places than it brings me. You don't deserve to be demeaned or ignored any more than I do.
I just think that our pluralist ideal means we have to be able to discuss our ideas and perspectives on these issues openly and respectfully--and do it in a way that doesn't demean or stereotype anyone in the conversation. I think a cultural narrative that constantly depicts atheism as a personal flaw, or a symptom of ignorance or spiritual disability--makes our discussions very difficult.
Being the minister of a group that's as diverse as a UU congregation has got to be really difficult. I think the ministers of this church, for one, do a fantastic job.
Our senior minister has expressed ideas from this pulpit that I disagree with, but every time I've heard him he's put things in a way that makes it really clear that he respects those of us who see things differently. I appreciate that enormously.
And a few years ago, our associate minister gave a sermon about humanism that was so beautiful it brought me to tears. It was a contribution to the cultural narrative about my beliefs that made me feel like this church was the right place for me.
And on that note--earlier I mentioned my internet search for UU sermons that dealt with atheism, and I talked about some of the ugly things I found in that search. But in addition to the ugly stuff, I also found two sermons from UU ministers who believe in God but who had some very nice--very humanizing--things to say about those of us who don't believe. I wanted to close with a passage from one of those two sermons. [Here's the other one.] It's from Reverend Roger Fritts, a UU minister in Bethesda, Maryland:
The discrimination, the hostility, the taboo, against atheists in our country is a crime. Some of my best friends are atheists. They don't believe in God. They never pray. And yet they are good, caring, honest people, sensitive to the needs of others, generous with their time, their love, their wealth. I have known the kindness, the sincerity, and the thoughtfulness of many atheists. Their friendships have enriched my life and their insights have added to my understanding.Wow. (Tears again.) When I hear UUs saying things like that, the feeling is unavoidable that I'm in the right place--a place where I can say "no" to a theological idea, but at the same time "yes" to a beloved community.
So to all the atheists within the sound of my voice, I say: belief in God is not a requirement of membership in this religious community. Theists and agnostics are no more noble or more honest than atheists, and I have never met a person who could be judged solely on the basis of a theological position. To all atheists, I say that you are welcome and that your presence enriches the life of our religious community.
In proclaiming their views atheists help free us from the chains of illusion. They say to us:Use your mind!And to this I say (if you will pardon a word from the Christian tradition), Amen!
Make reasonable judgments!
Dig for more insights!
Examine the evidence!
Think for yourself!
The congregation gave me a standing ovation, which I have to admit felt pretty nice. Regardless, though, it's occurred to me that the sermon above is a fairly good encapsulation of my thoughts, circa summer 2006, about Unitarian Universalism.
Since then, I'm sorry to say, the Buehrens/Church faction has won out over the Fritts faction, and I've decided that I can no longer consider myself a Unitarian Universalist. My post describing that decision process is available here.
What do you think?
[Cross-posted to chalice_circle]