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Finding Fellowship (while avoiding the spots in the carpet where the furniture used to be)

One of the joke variations I used to enjoy making was the variant involving “Atheist God”. Stuff like “I’ll pray to Atheist God for you” or “I swear to Atheist God” (or similar). As time went on, I found the jokes to be somewhat less funny because, for whatever reason, I usually found myself actually doing exactly that. Instead of talking about what these prayers/affirmations were, it makes more sense to say what they weren’t. Not necessarily making entreaties… there was no “please, Atheist God, give someone else (or me) the (something)”… but neither was it some form of creative visualization. They were unprayers. Snapshots of adjectives and nouns. Perhaps adverbs and verbs. Perhaps half-promises.

It seemed silly to pray except for the fact that I found myself doing it reflexively, almost constantly when I had a moment to sit still. If someone asked “why don’t you just stop?”, I would have answered something like “I think I tried, but I don’t know how to not.”

“Even to something that isn’t there?”

“I don’t think it’s about the something that isn’t there.”

Time went on and the jokes faded while the prayers became somewhat more recognizably prayers, and I was invited to a friend’s church.

A Unitarian Universalist Church.

I admit to having been taken aback. I mean, seriously, I’m an atheist… but, even so… well, I was reminded of a quotation of Phillip Pullman’s:

But because of my upbringing I’m a Christian atheist, and I’m a church atheist. And I’m very specifically, because I was brought in my grandfather’s household and he was a Church of England priest when the old prayer book was used, so I’m a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, a Hymns Ancient and Modern atheist, and King James Bible atheist.

That flavor of atheism probably sounds silly to most Christians out there (and probably half the atheists), but it was something that made sense to me… and it was in that vein that I tended to see Unitarian Universalism as kind of silly. I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that “I can worship God just as much by lying in bed and sleeping in”, well, this is an argument that made twice as much sense to me for the religion whose fundamental tenet I had always paraphrased as “well, there probably isn’t more than one God”.

I was raised in the church in which I was raised, and we made big deals out of feasts of fried meats and mashed carbs and 17 kinds of desserts and singing songs like:

And that was before we’d have our trip to the cemetery to visit the family plots and we’d point out where our ancestors were and then the much closer plots where we would be buried someday. Looking back, those were obvious fantasies. Silly daydreams about an eventual future that would, of course, be utopian compared to this one… Best left behind. Yet those memories were the memories sticking with me when I was invited to the UUs.

I wondered: What would the Unitarian Universalists eat? Would they make tubes of tofu available for visitors? Five or six kinds of herbal teas? What would *shudder* the music be like? I played Look For The Union Label through my head twice (both commercials) and agreed that I would show up and see what it was like.

What I found was a church that, at first glance, pretty much appealed to my prejudices. It felt… “progressive”. It was the church version of walking into a Whole Foods. As I watched people interact and then sit down, I noticed a bit of dancing around what might be an elephant in the room. A church where everyone was stepping around a very obvious thing. Then, as I settled in myself, I was better situated to examine how they were moving around… they weren’t stepping around an obvious thing. They were stepping around a thing that wasn’t there anymore.

As I listened to the pastor discuss fellowship and community and justice and grace and all of the various words you’d expect to hear someone say as he greeted a congregation, the word “God” was not there. But it wasn’t not there in the same way that he didn’t talk about the Soccer World Cup. It was an absence like, well, an unpresence. It slowly dawned on me that I was sitting in a church that was trying to do many, many things… but one of the main things it was trying to do was figure out how to deal with Atheist God.

I admit, though it ought not to have been, it was something of a surprise. I had expected to go to the church wearing one of two hats (perhaps alternating them throughout the service). The first was of Former Southern Babtist (the sermon didn’t even crack 20 minutes!) and the second was of amateur anthropologist (how do they deal with visitors? how are the cookies from the fellowship table?). Instead, I found myself wondering “what is their name for Atheist God?” and “Does Church *REALLY* help with (waves hand around) all of this?”

I mean, one of the things that I’ve had problems with is shoving the nihilism away. The service didn’t seem like it’d provide much help to deal with that. If anything, it seemed to be teetering on the edge of coming out and saying “yeah, we’re just muddling through, just like everybody.” Because, seriously, I can muddle through just as well on Sunday morning by sleeping in… but then they switched topics to missionary work.

Now, as a Babtist, we had no shortage of Missionary segments. Show some pictures of backwards people living in backwards places, show how we sent a doctor to give them vaccinations, clear up some of their malnutrition issues by sending food and clearing up some of the food taboos, but most importantly: planting churches in places that had not yet heard the name of Jesus. I expected… I don’t even know *WHAT* I expected. Probably some variant of the same. Instead I got missionary work that I agreed with so very much that I found myself wondering if I was, indeed, in a UU church.

I was floored.

They were exporting Capitalism, you see. They were going into third-world countries and talking to women and training women into new careers. Initial discussions with the women were usually of the form “well, I’m doing pretty good with ducks and chickens… maybe I could cultivate *MORE* ducks and chickens?” And the response was “you could be doing so much more with your time and getting so much more of a return… here are some trades you could learn and, on top of that, here are some marketing techniques you could use” and teaching the women how to start their own businesses and make money for themselves and their families.

I sat there aghast. I had expected part of my brain to be giving a mocking running commentary on everything I sat through but there I was thinking “I’ve never seen a missionary program I’ve ever agreed with more.” When they sent the offering basket around, I couldn’t reach for my wallet quickly enough.

The missionary segment ended, and we were back to having one of several “reflections”. (Where Babtists would read scripture, Unitarians quote other books or pop culture or whatever may have been handy that morning (“indeed, though Lucky complains about people wanting his Lucky Charms, isn’t he better off whenever he acknowledges his relationship and responsibility to others and their need for blue diamonds, pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers, and purple horseshoes”)). In this particular reflection, a lay minister’s voice broke as he gave a short reading and asked us to take a minute to think about it afterwards. A speech in which he seemed to struggle to find words to fit exactly what he wanted us to do or why. It seemed to me, from where I was sitting, that the points in the sentence where he stopped and stumbled would be the points in the sentence where I, were I giving the sentence, would be talking about Atheist God.

(I should note, of course, that not everyone there fit this particular mold. Some were liberal Christians, some were pantheists, some were polytheists, and some were pagans. Indeed, I’m sure that a large number of these folks would take great issue with my interpretation of their missionary work and they’d explain to me, at length, that it wasn’t “capitalism” but “womens’ self-sufficiency” (or similar) being taught in these foreign countries. I should absolutely acknowledge the former and, for the latter, this seems to be a case where we are saying the same word with different regional dialects.)

Digesting the service for the next few days, It hit me: I was absolutely narcissistic to think that my struggles were anything close to unique. My struggles, existential though they were, were struggled through by millions (billions?) of people all over everywhere and it was blindness on my part to not see it. Sure, I dealt with it my way but not everybody is introverted like I am, or analytical about it like I am, or are even helped by having something like a structure to deal with it… and not everyone is (or *CAN* be) a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. Some of us are stuck being Beckett atheists: It will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

The “come up with a good zinger!” back of my head is saying something to the effect of “I guess extroverts have existential crises too” but that’s just being vaguely jerky. While there was a (small) chunk of my worst fears manifesting at the service, it was more than balanced by a (larger) chunk of people trying to deal with the absence of God using the best tools they have. Communion, fellowship, meditation, gratitude, and something that looks a lot like prayer from a distance in service to… well, something that doesn’t seem to be there at all. But, it seems, that’s not the point. And that’s okay.

It’s not about the something that isn’t there.

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114 thoughts on “Finding Fellowship (while avoiding the spots in the carpet where the furniture used to be)

  1. Running out of faith (as I have) doesn’t mean abandoning your past (as I haven’t). My personal flavor of atheism is High Episcopalian, shaped by four years of boarding school in New England in the late 70s.

    And as the “Nones” grow in numbers and hopefully mature in attitude, the questions about community, charity, responsibility and fellowship will become more important — even if (maybe especially if) there’s no central belief around which to organize the community.

    Good post. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  2. While i was exposed, mostly tangentially, too my parents faiths i was raised without one. They weren’t religious at all so neither was i. As a long term outside i can clearly see the organized benefits of religion like community, fellowship and such. In fact my In laws are fairly observant Jews so i get some of that stuff now and its nice. Not cosmic, so to speak, but nice. As a typical teen i had my standard dose of ennui and existential wonder but once that passed, well once that passed and i moved on from being shy, awkward and oppressively introverted i found there was nothing missing. It’s just the place i’m coming from but i don’t miss any god, gods or goddesses since i never had any. There is no hole that yearns to be filled like some church folk seem to feel there should be. In fact nihilism or depression about whatever isn’t’ there either. I did feel some of that in my awkward teen years, but in retrospect that was more that time of my life. My feeling is that a lot of existential crisis is more just individual depression and anxiety that people overlay with a religious frame.

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    • I’ll second this, I share a similar bland not antireligious but religious indifferent upbringing and I didn’t even have the wonder or ennui you had. Religion is just this interesting or exasperating or worrisome thing other people do.

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  3. Nice.

    Sometimes I wonder if, for us — those for whom God is an “unpresence” rather than a complete and therefore unnoticable absence — the unpresence of God isn’t a being or beings or even a vague sense of a type of being, but a lack that comes from the sort of community and fellowship that, while in today’s world (at least here in the West) it doesn’t do it as well as it used to, a church (in the broad, not specifically Christian sense) provides. If you look at ancient religions, they’re all about community and tribe and sacrifice for kin and countryman, they’re all about promoting community and keeping it close. What’s more, where we came from was small communities with close kin and non-kin connections, where our very sense of ourselves was wrapped up in our social and cultural connections. Alienation, the sense of going this alone, comes not from a loss of any God or gods, but from a loss of community, and for those of us raised in a religion but alienated from it as well, our minds go to it for some relief. I’d even speculate that one of the reasons people are turning away from organized religion in greater and greater numbers throughout the West is that, in an individualistic, materialistic culture, even organized religion, which we approach with individualist, materialist minds, can’t fill in the space enough. It just leaves many of us feeling even more lost, because even in the place where God is supposed to be, we feel separate and alone.

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    • There’s a part where I’d love to find a small babtist church like I had in my teen years and start going there again. (It was mostly apolitical apart from the whole abortion thing) Sermons tended toward more of the teaching the gospel, light hellfire/brimstone, fruits of the spirit, and the Grace of God… but, more importantly, nice music in the hymnal, spaghetti dinners, and chock full of people who showed up Sunday nights and Wednesday nights too.

      But, being an atheist, I would always feel like I was lying to these nice people… and stuck between not telling them (which strikes me as cheating) and telling them (which would create drama) and so it was always easier to just not go.

      The UUs didn’t have that dilemma, which was awfully nice. I was just left with this sinking feeling that I was the rightmost person in the room by a damn sight.

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      • I have the same feeling about going back to church: I would love a lot of the stuff we did back then, but I’d hate to feel like a liar. Maybe I’ll check out the UUs in Austin. I know some people who go.

        This Sunday I’m, going to church with my parents, at the non-denominational, “Gospel-centered” church they go to in Nashville. I will definitely be the left-most person there, and they all know I’m an atheist, so they treat me like a curiosity (they speak a lot about atheists, but few of them know any open ones). I do not feel comfortable there, but parents, eh?

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  4. I realized during the 2004 presidential race that I am a Catholic atheist. I paid more attention to those nuns than I realized, but the “Jesus” and “God” stuff was just so preposterous. The other stuff was fine, but they never made a fuss about contraception back then.

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  5. I’ve been mulling around in my mind a post reflecting on the expansion of Britain’s “Sunday Assembly” movement to the United States, which I was going to title “There Should Be No Atheist Church.” Of course, I’d have recognized the good intentions of the SA and UU types, but gone on to be critical of other aspects of SA’s emulation of religious entities.

    But this post has made me question my premise. Maybe there should be an atheist church. After all, what I really meant to argue was that atheists should not proselytize atheism. But a church? A formally-organized community, with rituals and regular gatherings and social expectations and charity work and activism and mutual education and fellowship, into which all the members contribute and share a stake? Yeah, I suppose that could be a very good thing indeed.

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    • I can see why some atheists might look askance at the Sunday Assemblies and other might find them to be a really neat idea. For more than a few atheists, it seems that the organized part of organized religion is just as bad as the religion part. The organized part suggests all the coerciveness and bad parts of being in a community. To be an atheist is to be a “freethinking” individual and you can’t do that as part of community.

      Atheists who simply see themselves as non-believers in the divine probably like the community feeling provided by Sunday Assemblies. If they grew up religiously than they might miss the sense of community fostered by religious organizations and seek to immediate this. Its why a lot of Jews belong to synagogues and participate in some services despite being basically atheists or agnostic.

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      • Because it won’t stick unless it comes from within — unless it turns from atheism to antitheism, which is a different sort of animal. Lots of reasons why I believe this to be the case, some of which I’m not sure how to articulate without causing needless and unintended distress to believers. But atheism shouldn’t be about catalyzing needless and unproductive conflict with one’s friends and family.

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    • As someone who used to proselytize his atheism, I have a weird relationship with doing so.

      For the most part, I agree that it’s best avoided because, in my experience, it’s an obnoxious habit that owes as much (or more) to self-regard as trying to make the other person be better off.

      HOWEVER.

      There are some cases where one encounters someone who is being made somewhat miserable by their own religion. In those cases, I think that proselytizing is more than appropriate.

      (I mean, let’s face it, religion as it is practiced is Mostly Harmless and the harms that are done are best addressed using tools other than “you should change/abandon religions”.)

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      • 75/25 on the Mostly Harmless part. And the 25% is harmful enough that (that portion) should be ended, if at all possible.
        Sadly, it’s a part of humanity…

        … maybe we can breed it out?

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  6. Excellent post!

    How about going back to that UU church with the express purpose of putting the seat of your pants on the seat of your chair and thinking about being a better human being for one hour a week?

    That’s my rationale.

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  7. “Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that I be forgiven for anything I may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which I may be eligible after the destruction of my body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.”

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  8. I think you’re right that the sense of community is a major attraction, perhaps the primary attraction, of organised religion. It’s not something I feel myself – maybe because I’m a raised atheist, so I never felt like there should be something out there or maybe because I’m so introverted that I don’t find an extensive community all that useful; but I can see that other people benefit from it, which means it is important.

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    • I so appreciate your comment!

      But, make no mistake, you too feel an attraction toward community. That you’re still commenting here, even after all the Blaise drama when you insisted you wouldn’t, speaks to it. That you’re a social scientist speaks to it. Your atheist upbringing is as ultimately irrelevant as my own Christian upbringing: in the end, we still feel a primal tug towards community. Online communities are perhaps seductive, but they can only go so far. (Why else would the Gents strive to plan meet-and-greet events? Maybe they get it.)

      Homo sapiens, along with many other social animal species, instinctively seek to fulfill their sense of community. For most folks, it’s probably religion that has managed to both meet and exploit that need. Which is to say that there’s clearly a lot wrong with it, but there’s also a lot that’s right with it.

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      • {{{Can you point me to a link where the blowup occurred? I’m very consciously curious about BP’s absence at this site, but have no idea what events transpired …}}}

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      • I don’t have a link, but I’ll offer a nutshell breakdown.

        During a conversation about the current state of the NBA, BP referred to the players as orangoutangs because of his belief that there was still rampant rim-hanging going on in the game. When he was called out for the ugliness of referring to a group predominantly comprised of black men as orangoutangs, he double, tripled, and quadrupled down on the comment before storming off in a huff. He hasn’t been seen since.

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      • Thanks kazzy. I remember being a part of that thread. Lots of opposition to his view, of course, but I didn’t for a second think it was enough to drive him off. I’m sad he’s not with us anymore. Interesting guy.

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      • I was curious about BP’s absence; curious enough to inquire. My take (as a matter of impressions) is that Blaise was given an uncharitable reading*, and made his lot worse by digging in rather than walking off**, which led to an unfortunate turn of events.

        In the end, there are things more important than simply being in the right.
        I’ve learned over the years that holding one’s tongue can often promote peace. In trivial matters, I often do. I’m not afraid of going to war, but I want to make sure it’s a matter of substance before I do.

        * I completely discounted all mention of “white man’s guilt” for a very long time. The recent thread on Freddie Mercury changed my mind. I remember seeing Queen on The Midnight Special. Not once did Wolfman Jack mention Freddie’s ethnicity (or sexuality). From the documentaries I have seen, Freddie tried really hard to fit in with his peers, that his differences should go unnoticed or overlooked; and from an intimate knowledge of this mindset, this is likely how his tendencies to play the crowd developed.
        Yet now, there is an insistence on hyper-vigilance regarding his race. I know a bit about hyper-vigilance as well, and it is not a natural state; not a comfortable one either.
        And I see that on this thread; with the implication being that references to white athletes are to be taken differently– the implication being something inherently nefarious in association of a black man with an orangutan. It is the conviction of the validity of that nefariousness which betrays the White Man’s Guilt.
        I suggest that BP, having been raised in Africa, understands orangutans and their behaviors, probably much more so than any of us.

        This is much the same as me receiving information of persons of my own faith, quite literally, held for years without trial, and on the basis of their faith (some are still imprisoned); of people being dragged from their homes to have horseshoes nailed to the bottoms of their feet– and yet I read of people being offended by something so mundane as decorations for a holiday.
        And I think, “How wonderful it must be, to have the luxury of being offended by a thing so mundane!”
        I would prefer to see more decorations of all religious holidays– even those not widely observed***. I believe that to be a much better option.
        If there is any holiday whose decorations I would find to be offensive, it is Halloween. Very unlike Day of the Dead.

        ** Recently, a commenter complained that I wasn’t making sense in a given thread.
        I had no heart to tell him that it was something terribly funny, right up until the time that it needed explaining.
        Sometimes, things are to be read separately rather than as a part of a whole.

        *** One holiday not widely observed (or recognized, or even heard of) outside of my own faith that I would very much like to see more decorations for is a festival of lanterns. It happens every evening for a few weeks in early spring. A lantern is placed outside, or a candle set in a window, or walkways lined with paper bags with candles inside of them.
        It only means “Welcome,” to every person known and to every stranger.
        I would like to see more of that.

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      • Yes there is a hyper-vigilance towards perceived insult among some groups. Those groups tend to be ones that have been persecuted and f’d over for years. Is that hyper-vigilance good, well not always since it hasn’t a state someone can stay in for a long time. However it also natural for groups that are digging their way out third class status to be understandable prickly about the kind of insults they heard for years. Trying to be respectful seems like a good policy. That would suggest if someone tells you that they are offended by something you said, you should at the least try to say thing in a less offensive manner if not just apologize. It isn’t about PC ( which is mostly a bs whine at this point) its about tryign to treat people decently.

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      • I get all that.
        This is different, in that:
        1) it was not a protest coming from such members of a historically discriminated group (to my understanding), but in anticipation of such members; and
        2) it presupposes the validity of such nefarious implications.

        That is, a distinct double-mindedness.

        Forked tongue, double mind; double mind, forked tongue.

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  9. Well would the UUs say they were teaching Capitalism? ;) Perhaps not.

    A few years ago I belonged to another internet community. There were several atheists of the Dawkins type, mainly refuges from deeply fundamentalist families. They would always wonder at people who described themselves as Jewish Atheists or Atheist Jews. They wanted nothing to do with their pasts and believed that being an atheist meant a complete lack of religion even fuzzy UU types of services.

    I disagree though. I am largely on the agnostic-atheist line about whether there is a God or not but still consider myself to be culturally, ethnically, and philosophically Jewish. I can’t help but have my Judaism and Jewish past reflect my worldview.

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  10. When they start teaching women how to profit from high-risk loans by dividing them into random collections and selling factional shares of those, that’ll be capitalism.

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  11. Great post JB!

    I have recently been thinking a lot about religion verses culture in the sense that there is just as much a Catholic culture as there is a Jewish culture and Belief is only part of the requirement for membership. I am reminded of a line from The Brothers McMullen, “Believing in God has nothing to do with being a good Catholic.”

    I love going to Church and I love the fellowship but I am very much NOT a Christian though I very much AM a Believer. I have no trouble with believing in God but a lot of trouble believing in Jesus. This makes conversations with Christians difficult at times so I dance around it and just default to my Catholicism.

    Rambling here…but I guess my point is that I find those who struggle with faith or have taken a long road filled with changing beliefs often spend a lot more time thinking about their beliefs than those who have it all figured out at an early age. The glory is in the struggle and I have preferred my journey to blind devotion.

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    • What is Catholic Culture, anyway?

      “I am very much NOT a Christian though I very much AM a Believer. I have no trouble with believing in God but a lot of trouble believing in Jesus”
      … people who start thinking like this ought to at least look at Judaism. For all its flaws (and there are many), at least it doesn’t subscribe to ritual cannibalism. *ducks*

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  12. A few days ago, Rod Dreher wrote a piece about Phil Robertson, saying that while his backwoods sensibilities may cause him to say obnoxious things about gay people, they also lead him to personally counsels neighbors with drug problems (which he’s experienced himself and overcome), not something every millionaire would find time for. And Dreher’s right. Community: it’s not just a sitcom.

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  13. Lovely piece, Jaybird.

    The term I use for myself is agnosto-Christian. I suspect I was raised in a church similar to yours, though from what you describe mine was far more political. But I remember being surrounded by people with good hearts, there Sunday morning and night and Wednesday night besides, and the comfort that being surrounded thusly brought.

    Sadly, having a theology I have come to despise would make any kind of return to same pretty much impossible, and I’ve found a faith community now that makes space for all kinds of people like me. It’s much more Christian in its trappings, but there is an expansiveness to its understanding of God that makes me feel at home.

    My memory of going to a UU church most recently was a wedding. As I sat there waiting, I found myself flipping through the hymnal and noting that many of the hymns I knew growing up had been slightly modified to de-God them. Gone were references for any kind of defined God, or Lord, and certainly Jesus or Christ. It felt tonally off to me, like they’d made natural a few random sharps and flats. One hymn in particular, though I no longer recall which, had had the word “God” replaced with something else that ended up making no sense. It was uncomfortably similar to the elisions and edits Orwell put in the hands of the Ministry of Truth. And I remember thinking “Why include that particular hymn if you can’t do so in a way that both retains some meaning and comports with your values?” It seemed to want its cake and to eat it, too.

    But I really enjoyed your take on it.

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    • I was sitting there in the UU chair thinking that they got some stuff SO RIGHT and they were wrestling with the right stuff but then, from there, they acted as if the best way to protest was “too much”. (There was a Christmas service in which they pointed out how they could totally celebrate the birth of Jesus for what it *REALLY* meant, without believing that Jesus was God, and while still loving teachers such as Gandhi or Darwin and I was sitting there with pursed lips thinking “who in the hell shoehorned *THAT* sentence in there?”)

      I wonder how grownups in the past dealt with this. Just self-sorting among the various protestant churches until one found an 80% solution?

      I would like to find a nice little faith community in Colorado. I would think that a nice little church with lively hymns, carbs for supper, and vaguely moral-but-apolitical sermons would do very well anywhere in the country… but, it seems, sermons that cater to The Culture War do a better job of putting butts in the seats. And, well, if you’ve gone that far, might as well go whole hog and talk about the god that would most likely hold the views of your side.

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    • While my principal reason for unease at the God-shaped hole in the social structure describes in the OP is not this obvious de-Godification, when I’ve encountered it I’ve felt just a bit queasy as well. It makes me want to grab fellow non-believers at the shoulders, shake them gently, and say “Can’t we at least think up our own traditions and songs and rituals?”

      And my unease at describing other sorts of reasons for believing that atheists ought not to proselytize their atheism comes, in part, from observing experiences like describes — finding a thriving, welcoming, and nurturing community, one that offers true fellowship and support, that’s a good thing. I don’t want to be the one to tell people that such a good thing must be rejected on the basis of the absence of evidence for the existence of the supernatural because there are so many other good reasons to be part of such a group.

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      • It makes me want to grab fellow non-believers at the shoulders, shake them gently, and say “Can’t we at least think up our own traditions and songs and rituals?”

        Reading the post and the responses called to mind the years that I was a vegetarian. For a while I was buying those meat substitute products to try to ward off my carnivorous cravings. But inevitably, the faux meat was nowhere near good enough to satisfy me — it usually just made me want the real thing even more. I was much better off when I focused on having good, truly vegetarian meals that weren’t trying to be something else.

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      • Out of curiosity Kenb, what is your favorite vegitarian dish (or sub in a dish you think would most appeal to omnivors if you think your favorite dish is too much an acquired taste)? +100 quatloos if you can also include a link to a receipi.

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      • — exactly. If you’re going to be a vegetarian, faux meat isn’t going to make you a better vegetarian. If you’re going to be an atheist, faux religion isn’t going to make you a better atheist. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from other peoples’ experiences, but it does mean you have to follow your own path.

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      • I leaned towards ethnic food — felafels, Indian food, etc. My family was a little less adventurous than I was back then, so family meals tended towards pasta, potatoes, rice and beans. I’m afraid I don’t have a particular recommendation or recipe, though.

        That’s my reaction, but I should add that I’m not trying to criticize other people’s choices — not for me to say what other people should find meaningful.

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      • It makes me want to grab fellow non-believers at the shoulders, shake them gently, and say “Can’t we at least think up our own traditions and songs and rituals?”

        I know exactly what you mean. The tricky part is that creating new traditions at a societal level is hard. Traditions like that become meaningful because the whole community is doing it, and getting that kind of consensus takes a lot of coordination. It doesn’t help that because of the community aspect to organised religion, the sort of people who self-identify as atheists tend to be more individualistic than average.

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      • North,
        my favorite vegetarian dish is pizza. (okay, so maybe not. but mine’s homemade, and it’s fantastic. And CHEAP! which means I eat it a lot).

        my favorite vegan dish is Tamatar Khabli Chana Usal. It’s a main dish, and it is absolutely one where folks wont’ be saying “where’s the meat”

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  14. bless you.

    You get at what, to me, the essential heart of it. Humans need something of religion. It’s woven into the fabric of social. If the wolf pack has the hunt, the gander of geese the lead in the V of flight, humans have the stories of belief that set social norm. They need to reach out their minds and ask for help in the rush of fear, of fright, of empathetic pain. The need the comfort of reward if they make the right choice. They need the bonding of shared light and music and food. They need the grace of knowing aid will come in moment of need because the give aid when needed.

    Thank you.

    And to all, this hedge witch wishes you a jolly heart that lets imagined slights roll off like rain on the thick fleece on well-grown sheep.

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    • t. Humans need something of religion… They need to reach out their minds and ask for help in the rush of fear, of fright, of empathetic pain. The need the comfort of reward if they make the right choice. They need the bonding of shared light and music and food. They need the grace of knowing aid will come in moment of need because the give aid when needed.

      I agree that humans have social needs, but I think this has more to do with culture than religion because of our evolutionary history as social animals. This only becomes religion when it’s tied in with a formula of specific beliefs and practices tied to those beliefs.

      People can find all of the things you mentioned above without resorting to religion, and in fact, they’re probably stronger when they cultivate these behaviors for themselves without the crutch of religion. I think it’s better to do the right thing because you’ve thought it through and discovered that it’s right rather than because some distant, omnipotent being decided that on your behalf.

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      • I think it’s better to do the right thing because you’ve thought it through and discovered that it’s right

        I doubt that atheists generally think more about why things are wrong or right than religious folk. Most people don’t think all that much about why some things are right and some things are wrong. When they do, their thinking very often doesn’t even escape the socio- cultural circumstances they are mired in. I’m pretty sure religious people don’t go through life deciding not to be nasty people because of some religious authority figure. I really doubt whether all that many atheists have thought that hard about right and wrong because if more atheists did, then there would be more libertarians around. *grin*

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  15. “It’s not about the something that isn’t there.”

    For some of us it is. I tend to the viewpoint that discussions of this sort ought to stay at the most basic level. An atheist qua atheist is someone without a deity. While it’s all well and good to ruminate on what particular “flavor” your atheism might be, the sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of your fellow citizens have no conception of God other than “the proper name of an ancient tribal, latterly hellenized, deity.” And frankly, I think that when it comes to deities, for me the vulgar conception is plenty adequate. So maybe that makes my “flavor” vanilla.

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    • Hey, Heliopause, I’ve been chewing on this for a while and want to say that there were two major “conversion” type experiences related to my atheism. The first was the moment when I changed (or first was willing to admit that I had changed). When I “came out” to myself, if I may steal a metaphor from people treated far worse than I was.

      The second was when I forgave God for not existing. Or when I first was willing to admit that I had forgiven God for not existing. (I want to say that that was when my non-relationship with Atheist God was finally able to proceed.)

      It was *THEN* that I was able to hammer out what I did and didn’t believe in… and *THEN* was I able to (finally) put God down.

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      • “I ‘came out’ to myself”

        My experience is perhaps similar. I was raised in a religious household and as I got older the beliefs gradually, one-by-one went away. I finally reached a point in my internal conversation where I said, “just call a spade a spade.”

        “I forgave God for not existing”

        Not sure exactly what you mean here but I’ll just respond by saying that I hold no animus toward anybody except in-your-face bigots.

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      • He stole the line from Terry Pratchett. (Or maybe they both stole it from someone else but I heard it from Pratchett first.)

        Basically, it’s that you believe that there is no God but there ought to be, because how could it be at all rational for intelligence to randomly evolve enough to feel sorrow and pain?

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      • I’m pretty sure that I more got the phrase from somewhere else… perhaps somewhere that got it from there but the only Pratchett I’ve read is the Pratchett thrust into my hands by all y’all.

        I’d more say that it has to do with Catch-22:
        “Stop it! Stop it!”

        “What the hell are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

        “I don’t,” she sobbed, burting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.”

        Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in a God you want to, and I won’t believe in a God I want to. Is that a deal?”

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  16. Very well-written article, Jaybird, and very interesting. I’m radically different from you, I guess, not just in belief but in personality type. The idea of attending church for the community is alien to me. I’ve never gone to religion for comfort – I’ve found it there sometimes, but that’s not why I’d ever be interested in religion. I don’t even know how to respond to this, but I’m glad I read it.

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    • Pinky, I’m different enough from you that I can’t think of a reason for going to church that doesn’t entail doing so for personal comfort. From my pov, why else go to church?

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      • I find this odd; and as it encapsulates a number of what I would term “anthropological errors” properly quite apart from any meaningful consideration of God, I would like to step through a few basics here before proceeding to the inquiry at hand.

        First, God is not “supernatural” so much as “infranatural;” that is, God is not apart from nature, but a priori. God is not inseparable from nature, but nature is inseparable from God.
        This is meaningful in that the Schrodinger model teaches us that matter is a form of energy. When we look to material things to describe God, we should properly look to some form of energy.
        I reject the view that religion is concerned largely with the afterlife and death. We have no evidence that the dead observe any manner of religion. Such views on death and the afterlife are more properly a “cosmology,” a full understanding of which may or may not be integral to observance of religion. Religion is for the living.
        Similarly, I reject the view that God is necessarily anthropomorphic or Hellenized, or any other such construct persons may wish to impose on Him. God supersedes His attributes; failure to recognize this is error of the most basic type.

        Thus, prayer is properly not a succession of words, but a focusing of the attention by means of such words. The prayer itself is apart from the wording of it. Similar function is achieved in various traditions through dance, song, and other means.
        I now return to the words of the Nazarene, that “Where two are more are gathered in my name . . .” Here, the force of synergy is described, an outflow of focused energy from more than one source directed toward the same aim.
        I believe the proper term for this is “communion.”

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      • Sorry, Will, I don’t understand what you’re saying. My guess is that you’re arguing against a personal god, and there’s no reason that God would have to be personal, but based on revelation that I believe in, He is. I should explain: I first looked to various religions and philosophies to figure out the truth, then, having come to believe the Christian story, I now go to church for God. The reason that Jaybird and (for example) Zic seem so alien to me is that it was never about comfort for me, only truth, and then God.

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      • I realized after I hit the [Post Comment] button, I had forgotten to include the analogy that ties that all together.

        Suppose your eyesight was very poor, and then you received glasses.
        Don’t you suppose that glasses would provide some degree of comfort, even were the glasses themselves somewhat uncomfortable?
        But is it proper to state that people wear glasses as a means of finding comfort?

        It is to be expected that people would feel energized from the focus of shared energy.
        I find it odd that some would find achieving afterglow as the objective of sex.
        That’s all.

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      • I’m still not sure I get your analogy. But we definitely are talking about primary objectives and secondary benefits here. Different people get different benefits out of different things. (And that’s the worst sentence I’ve ever typed.) Zic says that humans get something social out of religion. I don’t, particularly. For me, maybe the analogy isn’t sex but love. You don’t spend time with a lover for yourself; you do it for the sake of the lover. I spend time in prayer and in church in order to get closer to God. I’m happy in a church by myself, probably even moreso than when other people are around.

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      • Pinky, zic said the humans need *something* out of religion, and that that something is woven into social life. At least, that’s my reading anyway.

        So the thing people need isn’t necessarily social bonding. It could be a bonding with God which is realized (and only realized!) in an architecturally inspiring building (or something more mundane) filled with people sharing a desire for that experience. That’s the way the need for communion is reflected in social life, it seems to me.

        If communion with God can happen independently of a Church and Priests, then we’re talking about an individual activity which isn’t social (in at least one sense of that word).

        But to get back to the issue of “comfort”, I agree that it’s possible to have an experience of communion with God which isn’t motivated by a desire for comfort. To think so requires getting all psychological and analytical and stuff like that.

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      • Pinky, we are saying the very same thing; or more to the point, you’re demonstrating my point.

        You speak of what you get out of religion. A sense of truth, as defined by a Christian God. That sense creates quite a convenient platform for you and I have to hold a discussion; it permeates most of our culture.

        I didn’t express my particular experience; I expressed my observation of humans in general; for some reason we need religion of some sort; some explanation for what we cannot explain, some place to turn, something to set standards of fair and just and right and wrong. It plays many complex rolls in our lives, and is bound through the fabric of our societies; just as it gives you a sense of truth and you and I a common set of understandings that we bring to this discussion.

        But understand full well; I’m not alien because I don’t hold your particular set of beliefs. Rather, we are kin because we both need that mystical understanding, community, and guidelines.

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      • Zic, what you’re sayng sounds like a huge stretch to me. Or maybe an insignificant stretch. If you mean that religion serves some purpose, and that religion affects our social interactions, then you could say the same thing about airports, money, or peeing. There’s almost nothing that you can’t describe as serving some purpose and affecting our social interactions. If, on the other hand, you’re saying that religion’s purpose is social, then I disagree, and I’d have to see a really strong argument to persuade me of that.

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  17. Jaybird,

    I’m glad you wrote this:

    a large number of these folks would take great issue with my interpretation of their missionary work and they’d explain to me, at length, that it wasn’t “capitalism” but “womens’ self-sufficiency” (or similar) being taught in these foreign countries. I should absolutely acknowledge the former and, for the latter, this seems to be a case where we are saying the same word with different regional dialects

    Because when you had said they were “exporting Capitalism,” I was all set to go on a mini-rant about how I see the word “capitalism” in a similar way that Roger (and others, including me) sees the word “rights.” It carries a lot of baggage, probably too much baggage. [/mini-mini-rant]

    Now, however, I’ll just say that from what you describe, they aren’t *exporting* anything. Not that there aren’t normative implications to what the UU’s appear to be doing, but only that it’s more of a do something to help people help themselves even more than they already are than it is help people by exposing them to a new belief system.

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    • Heh. I’m pretty sure Jaybird used the phrase “exporting capitalism” quite consciously because he *knew* it would raise hackles, challenge preconceptions, inspire thought, lead to some interesting discussions in comments….

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      • While that’s true, I *WAS* sitting there slack-jawed thinking “holy crap… they’re exporting capitalism”. Even taking into account all of the word choices that other people think I should have used instead, this is missionary work that I agree with to a scary degree.

        (Edit: if the argument is “Jaybird, you should have been thinking something else entirely!”, that could very easily be the case and I suppose I’d be willing to concede the point. But I was sitting there thinking that.)

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      • I got that right away, JB. You used the word entirely sincerely as define it, fully well knowing that other people don’t define it that way. I mean, it sent bells off in my head until I realized that *that’s* how you understand the term. Regional dialects and all that. Which is quite a nice distinction, actually.

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  18. Stopped into my old LOOG church. The pews are empty. Cheers, me brothers, those of you still keeping the doors open.

    The faithful.

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  19. Attempting to fulfill one’s basic need for meaningful community is an intrinsically human endeavor. Even for introverts and/or jaded ex-religionists.

    Near as I can tell, no one on this thread is, or ever was, a UU.

    Except for me. I’ve been a UU for — holy cow! now that I do the math — nearly 25 years.

    It is indeed a uniquely diverse “religion”, perhaps especially in that our congregations are governed by lay leadership, not clergy. In fact, a number of UUA congregations intentionally choose to self-identify as Societies rather than Churches. Along with our more notorious pagan membership, we also have our less notorious Christian UUs. (They totally dig the teachings of JC as Wise Sage, but don’t actually hold to the supernatural mythology that otherwise informs Christianity in general.)

    Jaybird, even though you hail from CO — the mystical land of liberal Denver/Boulder– I’m not surprised that you’re just now learning a tiny bit about UUism. Maybe you’ll dig it, maybe you won’t. (They’re largely liberals. Some have a more libertarian bent than others, but seriously, try flying your capitalism comment by them. Unlike your League friends, they’re not online. They’ll actually be live.)

    Meanwhile, if anyone’s genuinely interested in UUism: uua.org.*

    Fwiw, I was raised in a non-denominational, fundamentalist Christian church and, K thru 8, educated in a Southern Baptist private school. Which is to say that I can pretty much quote Bible verses with the best of them. Many aspects of my upbringing were, well, they were seriously messed up. And so, any hard feelings I might hold toward Christianity, or religion in general, are surely understandable.

    Except that I don’t, ultimately, hold any hard feelings. I did for a time, yes. But I let go of that baggage a very, very long time ago.

    *UUism boasts a fascinating heritage. Also too, UU jokes never get old. This one always cracks me up: When the fire breaks out on church row, the churches are empty. When the priest hears the news, he runs into the church long enough to bring out the consecrated wine and wafers. The rabbi rescues the Ark of the Torah. Of course the UU minister and the church council rushed into the church and held A DISCUSSION GROUP about what to save. Eventually they emerged carrying the conference table.

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    • Christian UUs. (They totally dig the teachings of JC as Wise Sage, but don’t actually hold to the supernatural mythology that otherwise informs Christianity in general.)

      I’m curious about this (mildly so, since I’m not looking for a new church home). I go to a theologically (and politically) liberal mainline Protestant church, and I know there are a number of members like me who treat God and Jesus more as metaphors than actual divine beings (and the pastors know this too and aren’t bothered by it); however, it’s still a bridge too far to bring up this idea directly in the context of the worship service.

      Probably my ideal church home would be one that has all the trappings of my current church but that is explicitly welcoming of people who don’t even have the desire to believe in an actually-existing God. I’ve occasionally thought about attending a UU service to see how close it is to the traditions I know (especially the music), but it hasn’t happened yet.

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      • Probably my ideal church home would be one that has all the trappings of my current church but that is explicitly welcoming of people who don’t even have the desire to believe in an actually-existing God.

        Sounds like you’re already a UU … maybe you just don’t know it. ;)

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    • “They totally dig the teachings of JC as Wise Sage, but don’t actually hold to the supernatural mythology that otherwise informs Christianity in general.”

      So Juanita from Snow Crash was actually a Unitarian Universalist? Because this is pretty much exactly what she says in the book.

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