Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: atheists in church

I remember a joke that went something like, "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason." I was reminded of this from an article in the Greensboro, NC News-Record, "Unitarian church extends welcome to nonbelievers."

It seems that it is quite common for people who identify themselves as atheists to come to Unitarian services in that North Carolina town:

This is Sunday morning service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, where even if the day's message wasn't "Embracing Atheism," the people here have that unique level of acceptance. They unite around such concepts as respect and a sense of community ? not the things that divide them, such as belief and non belief.


"I decided way back as a teenager that my God was no different from the God of the Buddhist, was no different than the God of the native African who was practicing whatever religion they might be practicing, or the Native American ? one divine energy, which made me the Unitarian" [said Rev. Alex Richardson].

The church's collective and individual search for truth and meaning is broad enough to include atheists, he said.

"In this place that we call church, as I understand it, every day someone is asking 'Is there a God?' 'Where are you God?' 'How do I know what you want me to do God?' 'How are you present in my life?' All of these are religious questions. To me, the atheist with his 'no' answer is every bit as religious as the person who says, 'Yes by God I hear you and I know you came to deliver your truth to me through the person Jesus.' They're all asking the same questions."

The undergirding, Richardson said of the congregation, is a sense of ethics and morality. "I think it's critically important that people come together in groups and learn how to -- care not only for themselves but for the larger world," he said. (News-Record)

I'm sympathetic to the tolerant attitude expressed by the good Reverend, although I don't agree atheists are all asking the same question as believers. Maybe some do, but most of us don't. Atheism isn't another kind of religious view, any more than not believing in Zeus is another kind of Mythology. Some atheists are interested in questions religious people might identify as spiritual, but that's a matter of terminology. If you don't believe in supernatural entities you are not just another version of someone who does.

Reverend Richardson makes some interesting points about books that call attention to the bad effects of religion. He worries that the spate of books decrying religious fundamentalisms have a side effect of inciting anti-Muslim sentiment. They probably do. Religions are themselves subject to natural selection, and the competing species of religion will use whatever weapons are at hand to gain a selective advantage. Interestingly, Richardson views the high profile books by non-believers -- Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and most importantly, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion -- much more favorably:

The popularity of the books suggests another insight, he said -- avowed atheists can't be the only ones reading them, and that's a good thing.

"I think good Christians are probably drawing good wisdom from what Dawkins and Harris have to say," he said. "They both affirm the importance of spiritual community."

I don't know if I -- or they -- are affirming the importance of spiritual communities. Maybe. But there's no harm in saying it -- at least in this context.

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One observation for the record; It has been my observation that often when there are legal attacks of traditional Christian activities involving government (e.g., the annual assaults on Nativity scenes where government is a party) it frequently involves Unitarians as a plaintiff. It also appears to be the case that when the ACLU is mounting a legal attack on a traditional Christian denomination or activity and they want to try to pretend that "religious" people support the anti-Christian position there is often a Unitarian group to play that role. I am not drawing a conclusion from this however, it has been my observation.

It seems that Unitarianism's broad acceptance of differing religious views necessitates a significant dilution of the meaning of words. Seriously. All that exclusiveness rhetoric within the doctrines of religions must be discarded. For example: "Jesus is the only way to get to heaven" has to somehow not actually mean that. The words have to lose their meaning. As long as words don't have to mean what they're supposed to, one can say things like atheism is really just another religious view; or Dawkins is affirming the importance of a spirtual community.

Everything's the same, you see? Everything is united as one. It's all universal. It's all metaphorical. Michael Jackson is my cousin. God is an atheist. Dawkins is pretty much the brother of Jesus, who was basically a Venezuelan medicine man. Sam Harris is a Wiccan Warrior. [/end Unitarian rhetoric]

I do respect the tolerant attitude, though. I also think that as long as people are going to be religious, unitarianism seems like a good idea.

Gee Carl, Unitarians defending the US Constitution?
How awful.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 19 Nov 2006 #permalink

As far as I'm concerned, the good reverend really doesn't understand what an "atheist" truly is. There are those that call themselves atheists who are devout believers in a higher being such as a god or something. Denial is belief in many ways.


Time for some more Bierce:

TRINITY, n. In the multiplex theism of certain Christian churches, three entirely distinct deities consistent with only one. Subordinate deities of the polytheistic faith, such as devils and angels, are not dowered with the power of combination, and must urge individually their claims to adoration and propitiation. The Trinity is one of the most sublime mysteries of our holy religion. In rejecting it because it is incomprehensible, Unitarians betray their inadequate sense of theological fundamentals. In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as a part of the latter.

UNITARIAN, n. One who denies the divinity of a Trinitarian.

By tympanachus (not verified) on 19 Nov 2006 #permalink

reading all this I will like to say somethings:
Is important to distinguish beleives from religion,religion is the way the human being use to aproach his intimate, personal idea of God this can be also include negation of God.Humans are subject of mistakes or misuderstanding.
Maybe we shall say extranatural instead of supranatural,is a matter of modesty because we know very little of all.

Please excuse my limited english,many more things I would like to say but I prefer not to do so ,something that can be
not exactly what I try to mean

Dawkins has also suggested that cultures including religions are subject to the same evolutionary forces as living things. (I belive it was in The Selfish Gene, but I could be wrong on that.) Speciation and discrimination allow for improving the fitness of a gene pool for the given environment.

Hyrbidization, on the other hand, is an odd beast. Is it because of (a)theistic migration that congregations like the Reverend's exist? If evolutionary forces are at work, and I think they are, then this congregations and others like it suggest that the fitness (literally a survival measurement in evolutionary biology) of religion is going down.

Fitness is always relative though. Are hybrids increasing in fitness? Atheists? What about the oblivious/apathetic, do they 'count' in the overall equation? In two generations, the congregation numbers have significantly declined across almost all religions in the United States. While I contend the pendulum will swing back some, I don't think it will ever swing back as far ever again.

My family and I attended Unitarian services off and on for years, and this was the only "church" experience my kids had. They learned about other religions, enjoyed the activities, and reaped what most want from organized religion - a sense of community. As far as we're concerned, all humans share all relgions' ideas, myths, and so on. It is all part of our human heritage. So though my family does not believe in any one religion, we still enjoy all the holidays and the myths, even the one about the baby born in a manger. We even wait until Christman morning to put the baby in the little crib under the tree which, I believe, is a pagan symbol for the winter solstice.

peggy: I have no real problem with it either. Christmas is my favorite holiday. The commercialization of it doesn't bother me a bit. It's still about giving gifts to people you care about and making them happy. True, WalMart gets rich from it even as they impoverish American workers. But the underlying idea of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Everyone and make a loved one happy with something they want is pretty good as far as I'm concerned. I'm quite serious and not being sarcastic or ironic. I really like Christmas for these reasons. It's great for little kids, too. Easter, on the other hand . . .

Nothing new here--Unitarian churches welcome people of all creeds and beliefs. Kurt Vonnegut once characterized Unitarians as "athiests with children". I went years ago but found the practice to be wanting. Too much of the self-congratulatory liberalism you can find without a church membership. And the lack of religious doctrine makes it more difficult to make church a transcendent experience. basically, get a religion or find something else to do with Sunday, like brunch or reading the Sunday NY Times.