American Atheists Embarrasses Us Again

American Atheists says that people who don’t believe in gods should clearly identify themselves as ‘atheists,’ avoiding terms like ‘Humanist’ and ‘Freethinker’ in order to ‘normalize atheism.’ And yet, that same organization regularly takes up frivilous causes that only harm the public image of atheists. Take their recent lawsuit against an animal shelter’s animal blessing event.https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNJ.com%2Fposts%2F10155376086091234&width=500They might win this legal battle, but in the court of public opinion in only does non-theists more damage. This is, however, fully in keeping with the grand-standing history of American Atheists.

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A Bunch of Skeptics Walked Into a Bar….

This week Northern New Jersey Skeptics in The Pub met for the first time. This group, organized by me on behalf of the Humanists of Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ, is an opportunity for Skeptics, Freethinkers, Humanists, atheists, and agnostics to get together for beverages and good conversation with other secular-minded people. 

For this first event we were pleased to welcome Dr. Brian Regal as our speaker. He shared with us about his research into the Jersey Devil. Far from a cryptozoologist, he is a historian who does what a responsible professional in his position should do: he goes to the primary sources.

His talk took us through the background of the legend of the Jersey Devil, providing the larger historical context before revealing his thoughts on the source of this fiction. It was a fascinating and engaging look at the social, religious, and political scenario of the pre-revolution American colonies.

Though this was billed as ‘a toast to the Jersey Devil,’ after hearing the talk I thought it more appropriate to toast Daniel Leeds. More than that I won’t say, preferring to leave it to you to read Dr. Regal’s articles online or – even better – to buy a copy of his book when it is published later this year or early next year (I’ll share where to purchase a copy and most certainly write a review later).

The next meeting of Northern New Jersey Skeptics in The Pub will take place in December, although I have not yet picked a date. We all greatly enjoyed being at Marco Polo, and hope to meet there next time as well. What will be the theme of the December meetup? FESTIVUS, of course!

Keep an eye on the Beacon Humanists Meetup page, as well as the Facebook page and Twitter feed of Northern NJ Skeptics in The Pub for upcoming events. 

The Relief of Unbelief

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There are so many Bible passages that once seemed profound to me, and now feel irrelevant. One of these is Hebrews 2:14-15, which in the New International Version reads as follows:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

These verses are talking about how the death of Jesus on the cross is supposed to have delivered people. The key takeaway for me was always that as a Christian I had nothing to fear in death, something that for everyone else in the world is The Great Unknown. The trouble is, it didn’t work like that. I still feared death. I’d pray before a long journey, anxious that I’d have a car accident along the way. In darker hours I was uneasy about my faith, wondering if it was strong or good enough to really save me. Occasionally I worried that I might be believing the wrong things, as I thought I had earlier in life, first as a Catholic and then as a faith-only evangelical.Then there was uncertainty about exactly what happens after death. The popular view, not well supported by the Bible, is that people die and then go to ‘heaven’ and hang out with God and his angels and saints. Others belief in ‘soul sleep,’ where people who ‘died in Christ’ are unconscious until Jesus returns to earth and the dead are resurrected.

As you can see, there is abundant cause for Christians to feel insecure about life after death, leaving aside the fact that there’s no way to directly test and verify what people claim happens after death.

The first few days after my faith ended were a time of shock for me. I suddenly felt very alone. Then, clarity set in. I realized that all those times I thought ‘God’ had gotten me through, it was me surviving and overcoming…if not entirely on my own, with the help of friends and family. Then, after reflecting on the idea of returning to the non-existence that preceded my conception and birth, the fear of death fell away.

Mind you, I still fear dying and worry that if I were to die now it would complicate the lives of my children. Also, there are many things I still want to do before I die. However, being dead holds no fear for me, as it will simply be nothing. There won’t be a ‘me’ to know that I’m dead.

Although my values have become considerably more progressive since my faith ended and reason kicked in, I’m still fundamentally the same person. I haven’t become a rapist, murderer, or wanton glutton. However, I have become more accepting, and with that has come a sense of peace.

For me, unbelief is very truly a relief.

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The Amish Atheist

There are two things I can say about this guy, but first read the article about his life. 

Here goes:

  1. He apparently was never completely satisfied with his religious life. I can relate, somewhat, and wonder if that’s the fate of everyone who leaves the religion of their youth in search of a different option (rather than no religion at all).
  2. He’s either cold-hearted or incredibly honest, since he could always fake belief and go through the motions to continue surrounded by his family. I tend to believe the latter, and I respect his integrity.

Unitarian Universalist Humanism

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Every so often I mention here that I’m a ‘Unitarian Universalist Humanist.’ While for some people that all makes perfect sense, I suspect that many have no idea what that means. Although I’m afraid I can’t quite do the topic justice, I’ll try to get the basic idea across.

‘Humanism’ can mean different things, depending on the context and who is involved. When I use the term, I’m referring to the lifestance of Humanism, an outlook that is described in such documents as Humanism And Its Aspirations and The Amsterdam Declaration. It’s important to note that while these are statements of the fundamental principles of Humanism, they are not creeds. Humanists tend to agree with the contents of these manifestos, but they are not required or expected to agree with every detail.

As for ‘Unitarian Universalist,’ this refers to a religion that descended from Congregationalism in Puritan New England as well as from a homegrown movement in favor of Universalism. The former departed from mainstream Christianity in denying the Trinity, while the latter did so in affirming the eventual salvation of all humankind. In the 1950s these two groups merged, and nowadays ‘Unitarian Universalism’ can be interpreted to mean that we believe we all arose from the same source and share a common destiny. The details of the identities of that source and destiny are left to individuals to decide, as the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole, as well as its member congregations, don’t attempt to define and impose a particular view. In other words, a UU Christian can believe that ‘God’ is the source of everything and that eventual union with that deity is our final end, while a UU Humanist might say that the Big Bang is our source and the eventual heat death (or contraction) of our universe is how everything will end up. Both views, and various others, are welcome.

That said, it isn’t all wine and roses in the UUA among the various ‘tribes.’ UU Christians have complained about being marginalized for wanting to use Bible passages or traditional Christian language and practices at times. UU Humanists, for their part, have been maligned and mocked. I got a taste of this first hand last year when I expressed my displeasure on Twitter with the fact that the UUA had renewed its relationship with the Boy Scouts, despite the fact that the BSA continues to have an official policy of exclusion. Click here if you want to take a look at that exchange.

Unitarian Universalist Humanism, just like UUism and Humanism by themselves, varies between people due to different interpretations. There is a group dedicated to promoting Humanism within the UUA and beyond, called the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the board.) Our mission statement:

The Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association (formerly HUUmanists) is committed to Humanist principles of reason, compassion, and human fulfillment enumerated in the Humanist Manifestos and in the seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  We seek (1) to promote a broad acceptance of Humanism in our society, particularly throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association and its congregations, and (2) to provide an active interface between Unitarian Universalists and the secular community.

 

What sets us apart primarily from other Humanists is the connection with Unitarian Universalism. Frankly, many Humanists want nothing to do with UUism, seeing it as just another religious group. Free of religious obligations, many non-theists are perfectly happy sleeping in on Sundays and doing their socializing and community service in other ways, if at all. For a few, the thought of tolerating theists in virtually any context is unacceptable.

UU Humanists tend to be more tolerant of other viewpoints, not getting our hackles up at a passing mention of ‘god’ in the service or a hymn mentioning ‘the spirit of life.’ That isn’t to say we’re pushovers. We face situations at times that call for us to speak up to maintain the inclusion and affirmation of non-theists in the UUA.

If you go to a Humanist conference and ask around, you’ll likely find some who are members or former members of UU congregations. The former members are likely to express irritation at the UUA and/or the congregation in which they had participated. Some of this is no doubt justified, as there are some very negative or at least cavalier attitudes towards non-theism in UU circles. Then again, I’ve also encountered people who clearly just wanted to bend the community to conform to their image of a Humanist congregation and were infuriated when they discovered such wasn’t going to happen. Such people eventually self-select out, and that’s better for everyone.
Unitarian Universalism is not a Humanists-only club. There are wistful tales told of the glory days of Humanism in the UUA, but they aren’t all to be believed. Humanism itself was never the sole prevailing viewpoint, and if it were, the denomination would be smaller than it already is because there simply haven’t been that many self-declared Humanists.

UU Humanists embraces ritual and community, joining with others in shared goals to promote human flourishing. In this we are similar to Ethical Humanists, the folks that make up the Ethical Societies. Speaking of which, while we have some congregations that are Humanist in identity, we have one that actually maintains dual affiliation with the American Ethical Union and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Washington (DC) Ethical Society recently produced the following video to introduce their community to the wider world.

Unitarian Universalism is a great option for Humanists who are patient enough to share space with other progressive viewpoints. It can be ideal for mixed marriages where one spouse is a non-theist and the other a theist, and both desire a community. If, on the other hand, you are looking for debate about the existence of gods, this certainly isn’t the group for you. There are more interesting questions and bigger issues to deal with, so far and most Unitarian Universalists are concerned.
The following video will give you an overview of what Unitarian Universalism is all about, and if you are interested, you could see if there’s a congregation in your area. Please keep in mind that UU congregations vary, so you might encounter some that are overtly Christian or generally theistic. Quite a few try to walk a middle path of agnosticism, so you might find a good fit.

Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (Book Review)

In October 2015 I attended the Common Ground conference at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. This was a gathering of Humanists and religious liberals that aimed to find common ground upon which the two groups could agree and shared goals to which they could work toward together. This was also the day that I finally met Chris Stedman in person, and contrary to my usual practice, I asked him if I could have a picture with him. I asked the gentleman with whom he had been speaking if he could take the picture for us, and he kindly did so. At this point you can probably guess the identity of that man: Dr. Anthony Pinn. In my defense, I had only been a Humanist for less than two years at that point. What bothers me more than that incident was that it has taken me nearly another two years to finally read one of his books. While I intend to pick up one of his heftier tomes next, I thought it best to start with his life story.

In “Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist,” Dr. Pinn takes us from his childhood growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York, through his training to be a minister that began when he was still a child, and on to his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies leading into his career as a professor. His early experience in the church was both fascinating to me and somewhat familiar. Though I was raised Roman Catholic, from the ages of 17 to 38 I was heavily involved in evangelicalism. Some of what he described overlaps with things I saw and experienced over the course of my life. One part in particular:

This revival experience and the theology around it encouraged me to look through this world, behind its material arrangements, to the real happenings and the forces of power that orchestrated them. This physical world became the playground for spiritual forces battling about ancient frictions and competing claims. Each action in the world deemed unacceptable by those in my church could be associated with particular demonic forces. So it was easy for me to assume that misdeeds or bad conversations were the result of demonic influence. It was the demon of alcoholism affecting people, or the demon of greed, or the demon of sexual perversion, and the list went on. p. 98

While studying at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri I attended a United Methodist Church from time to time because I had friends there. This congregation in particular was said to be about half traditional UMC, and half ‘charismatic.’ My friends were mostly on the ‘Spirit-filled’ side of things, although I didn’t see myself as such. For most this entailed speaking in tongues and ecstatic experiences in worship. One woman, however, seemed bent on chasing every hair-brained notion that came along. She would often talk about people being afflicted by ‘the spirit of pornography’ or ‘the spirit of tobacco.’ She meant literal demonic spirits.

Then, while still studying in Moberly, I went on a two-month mission internship in Brazil. There I spent my days with a team of interns learning about ministry in that country, and the churches we worked with were of the Stone-Campbell tradition but – unlike their US counterparts – very Pentecostal. I watched as ‘demons’ were expelled from people attending services, and heard a tale from one missionary about an incident involving an English-speaking demon…possessing a man who knows no English.

Returning from that mission trip I was more convinced than ever that there was a spiritual war going on around me at all times, and that outlook remained with me to some extent through the duration of my time as a Christian. Even as a fairly progressive evangelical, I was certain that the church was at war against invisible demonic powers.This is, to be clear, not the case with all or even most Christians, evangelical or otherwise. It is quite common, though.

As the theistic clouds began to clear in Dr. Pinn’s mind while he was in college, he began to see life and humanity in more naturalistic terms. This took him from conservative evangelicalism (Pentecostal, really, as I read it) into a liberal Christian mindset, eventually continuing on out into atheism. He switched fantastic beliefs to a sense of awe about the universe.

We are screwed-up animals, self-aware, communicative, and evolving. Our existence is explained – to the extent it can be – through science, not through a bizarre story of creation with some dirt, a rib, and some magic words. I was becoming increasingly comfortable with much of what had been attributed to God and other forces really being the result of biology. When compared to the wizardry of the Bible, this might not seem such a fantastic accounting of humanity, but this understanding instilled in me a sense of awe, a sense of wonder based on how unlikely our existence really is in light of everything that had to line up in order to make it happen. Our presence on earth isn’t the same as a God speaking something into existence out of a void, but it is pretty spectacular – in a scientific kind of way. This take on life is harder to preach and does not allow the same opportunity to whoop, “In the beginning…Amen! Was the Big Bang! Hallelujah! The energy expanded out! Can I get an Amen?” p. 161

His evaluation is basically correct, in that I have a hard time imagining Pentecostal enthusiasm because of scientific discoveries. At the same time, I do think that Humanist groups, such as Ethical Culture, as well as the Unitarian Universalist Association, need to get much better about telling the true story of our universe, world, and species (as best we know it). This not just for the knowledge, but also for inspiration.

Also, Humanist groups and the UUA need to get their name out more in the public eye.

I had a sense of how humanism and atheism developed in African American communities, and I could trace them from slavery to the contemporary moment. I understood myself as part of a long-standing community of Africa American Humanists, atheists, and freethinkers stretching from the early presence of enslaved Africans to that point in the twentieth century. But in terms of a practical community in my particular location, I wasn’t certain where to go. What little I knew of humanist associations – and that wasn’t much at all – tended to revolve around white Americans.

This perspective was new to me, and so I wasn’t aware of a humanist or atheist community with which I could replace my church family. I’d heard about the Unitarian Universalist Association through students on the Harvard campus, but it seemed rather thin to me and somewhat weak on issues of race. The sense of ritual, at least as I gathered from students, wasn’t going to be compelling for me either. And I knew nothing of the Ethical Culture Society. p. 169

Groups like The Black Humanists Alliance and The Secular Latino Alliance are growing at the same time that I’m hearing many in UU circles lamenting the lack of people of color in their congregations. Many are convinced that the only way to bring black and Latinx folks in is through adopting some level of theism and religious language. Dr. Pinn describes encountering this idea as he began to be invited to speak to secular groups.

At some of these meetings, I had to field what I would call ignorant questions and assumptions regarding African Americans, one of the most offensive being the ridiculous argument that humanism and atheism were highly intellectual positions and African Americans were too emotional to appreciate and embrace either one. African Americans, some attendees said with confidence to a well-educated African American, crave the energy and rituals of the church. This came too close to the ‘Sing a spiritual for us, Uncle Jim,’ attitude toward African Americans as objects of entertainment – childlike and highly emotional. I had expected better, but the confidence with which these statements were made, the speakers looking directly in the face of an African American, was staggering. These were for the most part well-read, informed, and educated people, but they were still saddled with backward notions concerning racial differences. I felt sad and embarrassed for those making these claims because they were so delusional and uninformed. Yet there was no good excuse for their willful ignorance, so I was also angry with them – these people who, despite considering themselves highly educated and dedicated to information gathering, were content with eighteenth-century ideas on race, intelligence, and civilization. p. 195

Reading his words, I’m even more ashamed of the things I’m hearing UUs say these days, even as we are going through soul searching about white supremacy in our fellowship. It’s so wrong. Early on as a humanist, Dr. Pinn advocated for humanism as a replacement for religion among African Americans.

Some groups argued [humanism’s] a secular perspective akin to atheism, and for others humanism didn’t by definition rule out some elements of theism – like belief in some type of supreme power. I jumped into the debate arguing that humanism, for African Americans, replaced traditional forms of religion. In this argument was my suggestion that humanism could serve as an alternate form of religion, providing African Americans with everything religion provided but without any of its major difficulties and shortcomings. Humanism provided everything necessary for a productive life. It had an ethical center, moral codes, ritual structures, a history, and traditions. p. 190

One of many things I didn’t know about Dr. Pinn is that he’s a Unitarian Universalist. He joined a UU congregation at one point, and from this book I gather that he maintains this affiliation. He did come to find the services lacking, being merely an imitation of what Christian churches already do. 

I’d left the Christian Church but by going to UU services, it wasn’t clear that I’d actually gone very far away. These services were lighter versions of what I’d experienced. The basic structures were the same; they were simply named differently. This humanistic church didn’t take me far enough away from the Sunday mornings I’d experienced as a theist. There wasn’t enough that spoke to the naturalist aspect of ritual and thought; there wasn’t enough for me that pointed to a rugged humanism. For others, I’m sure, the nature of Sunday morning in this particular church fit the bill, but didn’t give me the experience I wanted. When this was combined with what I saw as an awkward approach to issues of diversity marking the UUA, I was left wanting.

I wanted my humanism, my atheism, to mean a different way of forging community, and a different way of relating to the world. With a radically different theology and a sense of ethics above static doctrine, why didn’t the UUA have a more distinct approach to ritual gatherings and community? p. 203

Frankly, I’ve often wondered the same thing about the UUA. While I like the traditional Protestant format, that’s certainly not going to speak to everyone or be appropriate for every situation. If at some point I manage to be involved in starting a new congregation, I hope we can think outside the box rather than simply keep copying models that are less and less relevant in our times.

My journey isn’t unlike that of others, and this convinces me that life for humanists and atheists requires opportunities for reflecting on our relationships, the signs and symbols that map out our godless worldview. This doesn’t mean we are turning to supernatural mumbo jumbo or falling back into superstition. Ritual can be as simple as gathering on a given day of the week to talk about shared interests and concerns or regularly getting together to do community service. Something about human life – the realization that we labor in this world without cosmic oversight – requires regular reflection and thoughtful acknowledgment. p. 205

Overall, I highly recommend “Writing God’s Obituary.” This is an engaging and thought-provoking look through someone else’s eyes and experiences, and from here I plan to read Dr. Pinn’s other books.

Speaking of books, here’s the reading list Dr. Pinn included at the end of his autobiography. He says that although many of these differ from his way of seeing things, they have influenced his thought along the way. 

Finally, I’ll close here with a video of me reading a portion of what Dr. Pinn wrote about his deconversion.

The Bible Answer Man’s Conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy

Long before there was Twitter for anonymous people to get into arguments about religion and politics, there were email discussion lists. From around 1998 to about 2004 I participated in several, and even ran a few myself. It was on one of those lists, while I was still doing mission work in Brazil, that someone told me with the most arrogant conviction told me that within 10 years I’d be Eastern Orthodox. Well, it’s been about 15 years now, and I’ve sort of gone the other direction on that one. Someone who has followed the Byzantine trail, though, is none other than ‘The Bible Answer Man’ himself, Hank Hanegraaff.

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The photo above, taken at 

St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in April 2017, shows Hanegraaff being chrismated into Orthodoxy. To many this came as a complete shock, but to me it made a great deal of sense.

U.S. evangelicalism holds up theologically only if you compare it strictly to the Old and New Testaments without any historical or cultural context. Once you dig into it, and in particular into the writings of the early church fathers, you find that either the church fell into apostasy while some of the apostles were still alive, or else your understanding of Christianity is somewhat lacking. That the ‘smells and bells’ of Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or the Coptic faith could have anything to do with ‘New Testament Christianity’ seems laughable to your average Baptist or Church of Christ member, but the story checks out.

Why am I not Orthodox, then? Two reasons:

First, I don’t believe in the supernatural. 

Second, there was no one, standard ‘Christianity’ in the first century. There were a variety of sects, some of which were similar enough to each other to overlap, and others that remained separate. Even the doctrines we now consider ‘orthodox’ about Jesus as the Christ did not really become standard for centuries, during which time views that in prior generations were considered normal became defined as heretical. Although Orthodoxy in particular bears the strongest resemblance to what must have been early faith and practice (plus a lot of silver, gold, pomp, and circumstance inherited from the Byzantine Empire), that does not mean that its teachings are true in any objective sense. 

At the Church of Christ university from which I graduated, the older ministry professors took great pride in describing their sect as ‘the same one Jesus founded.’ In reality, it is an austere shadow of what was most likely the rich, diverse, and expressive faith of the catacombs. 

Here’s what Hanegraaff has to say about his conversion to Orthodoxy, something quite in line with what I’ve heard some converts to Roman Catholicism say:

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As for me, I’ll happily continue on with what is observably and evidentially real, leaving for others the cognitive dissonance that accompanies belief in a benevolent, omnipresent, and omniscient deity who can’t be bothered to stop a Holocaust.