Late last month I blogged about how the Unitarian Universalist Association essentially betrayed its atheist and agnostic members and clergy by re-affiliating with the Boy Scouts of America. Apparently 18 years wasn’t too long to stand up for the LGBTQ community, but non-theists weren’t worth a day of boycotting. In response to this situation, I wrote a very critical blog post. It got quite a bit of attention, as did one a week or so later in which I expressed hope for Humanism in the UUA. As we’re approaching one month since that first post, I thought this week I should bring the topic up again. I did so, on Twitter, and the result was disappointing, to say the very least.
You can go back to the original Twitter thread (I can’t do so easily, as she blocked me) and see that at no point in time was I insulting, demeaning or dismissive. Unfortunately, the reverend from New Orleans was all those things toward me, and in later tweets towards atheists in general. Since most who read this blog and follow me on Twitter do not know me personally, here’s a glimpse of who I am and what I want.
My life began in rural Missouri. I was raised Catholic, and believed not only in a god, but also in angels and saints. As a teen I explored other religious beliefs, and ended up leaving the Roman Catholic Church at 17 to become evangelical. This was not through the influence of friends or some charismatic youth pastor, but rather through my own solitary study of the Bible and the scriptures of other religions.
In my college years I was baptized by immersion and began supply preaching for little country churches. In the course of time I felt called to mission work, and prepared to take on this role in Brazil. I learned Portuguese and completed a Bachelor of Ministry degree at Harding University, a school affiliated with the a cappella Church of Christ.
Over the years I went from evangelical to fundamentalist to progressive. It was in no way predictable that I would become an atheist, and it only happened, I think, because of a year I spent alone. My then-wife and children moved ahead of me, back to Brazil, and I stayed stateside to continue working. I paid off our debts and sent money to the family to keep them going and prepare for my move. During those 14 months I prayed through a list of specific requests every day, was faithful in church and volunteer work, and read through the Bible cover-to-cover.
The night before my wife arrived back from Brazil to go to the consulate to sponsor me for a visa, I prayed through the list one last time, with the intention of retiring it and making a new one. Suddenly, halfway through, I realized that every petition realized came about through my efforts or with the help of others, and those items that required divine intervention simply hadn’t taken place. That, combined with terrible things I’d finally allowed myself to see in the Bible, led to the end of my faith in about 4 weeks time.
Let me be clear: as a Christian I absolutely hated atheists. I thought they were disrespectful, immoral, hateful people who should just keep their mouths shut and go away. It made absolutely no sense to me that anyone would think God isn’t real, and so I decided they were in willful denial.
Oh, the irony.
Now I find myself in the position of being described by an ordained UU minister as a ‘rabid atheist’ because I don’t think it’s right that the UUA claims to accept atheists and agnostics, but doesn’t seem to actively promote including them in the life of the association. The behavior of that minister is, sadly, much the same as would have come from me only 3 or so years ago.
It seems that many in the UUA think that atheists in the association want to shut down all god-talk and exploration of spiritual ideas. While it may be true that some UU non-theists would like to see the UUA become an atheists-only club, that is not what I have found among most. Just this past Sunday I saw members of my congregation’s Humanist group (all of whom, to my knowledge, self-identify as atheists or agnostics) actively serving tables and ushering for the Seder service. There was definitely a lot of ‘god-talk’ there, and we were all fine.
Speaking only for myself, here’s what I would like to see happen:
First, the UUA needs a common language for the entire fellowship that does not bias against atheists. This means that individuals should feel welcomed and affirmed in saying, respectfully, whatever they believe as they engage with others in a free and responsible search for meaning. However, the UUA as a denomination should seek to include openly atheist members in its life, and as a national organization tone down exclusive language. Note that this is not something I ask or expect of individuals or congregations.
Second, it is fully understood that there are overtly Christian UU congregations. There are also still some that identify as Humanist and make it clear that they mean ‘non-theist’ when they use that term. In a congregational system, this is perfectly acceptable. People who consider attending regularly or even joining such congregations will end up self-selecting. It would be absurd and wrong of someone to ask such churches to change their identity for the comfort of one person. However, caution with this is needed.
Third, many UU congregations identify with no single faith tradition, having members who range from atheists to neo-pagans to Christians to Jews and so forth. In the larger of such congregations it’s no problem to have multiple services that accommodate different perspectives, such is the case at All Souls in Tulsa. That church has a Humanist (non-theistic) service, a traditional service, and a contemporary service. Such is not the reality of most UU congregations, which tend to be fairly small. In such churches it would be wise to adopt the most inclusive language possible in the main services, toning down as appropriate on theism while still making it truly welcoming to liberal Christians and others. Special interest groups in the congregation (UU Christians, UU Humanists, etc) can do much of the work of satisfying other needs.
Fourth, this is a lot of talk about words, but in reality it’s about respect. The UU faith affirms that people from very diverse perspectives can join together in community for fellowship and service, and yet this is a very difficult reality to attain. To do so requires far more patience and wisdom than many of us have readily available, whether theists or atheists. And yet, it is one of the central challenges and callings of our faith.
The UUA should not be affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America so long as children and adults are excluded because they cannot in good conscience affirm belief in a god in any sense. Every so often at the congregation I attend, the Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, ‘god,’ ‘lord,’ or ‘spirit of life’ comes up in a song or sermon. My feathers aren’t ruffled a bit. I simply skip over the verses talking about the supernatural. I can do that because affirmation of belief in invisible beings is not a requirement for membership. The BSA situation is fundamentally different, presenting us with a requirement that violates the consciences of some. A don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy is always wrong, and that much should be obvious.
Those who think I should focus on Sunday Assembly and leave the UUA alone are missing the point both of what I’m saying and what the UU faith is all about. Telling me to go away or be quiet. I’m asking for respect, welcome, and affirmation, the same that anyone wants.
Far from being a ‘rabid atheist,’ I attend events regularly at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, engage in interfaith dialogue, provide affirmative counsel (along the lines of pastoral counseling) that does not seek to deconvert anyone to those who want it, and I enjoy reading the Bible and works on theology for intellectual satisfaction. I’m actually more fond now of a certain wonder-working, apocalyptic preacher from Galilee than ever before. Once Sunday Assembly NYC is on a solid path to growth, and Camp Quest New York is going strong, I hope to move on to planting a post-theistic Christian church in NYC, ultimately seeking affiliation both with the UUA and – if they’ll have us – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Please do not judge all non-theists based on the words and deeds of people like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss. They speak for a single faction of atheists, similar to how Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr most certainly represent only one variety of Christianity. Please don’t fly into a rage when an atheist or agnostic in your congregation expresses feeling excluded. Listen, think, dialogue…attempt to pay attention to the better angels of your nature. Just don’t dismiss people, implying they need to be quiet or go away.
I assure you, my friends, I have no intention of shutting up until the UUA actively promotes a true embrace of its 7 Principles and 6 Sources, and I’ll only go away on the day I die or if the UUA amends its formal statements to make clear that atheists are not welcome in its midst. This ‘faith’ is my own, and I’m here to stay.