In 1997 I made a fateful mission trip to Brazil. Though it was only two months, it changed the course of my life. Since my late teens I knew I was going into ministry, but in the year prior to that first mission trip I had begun to drift. What I felt lacking was a personal vision of how my career should unfold. The inequality, crime, corruption, and social injustice I saw in Brazil contributed to what I believed was a calling on my life to help usher in a transformation of that country. I had no grandiose notions of single-handedly ‘saving’ the entire nation, but I did come to see myself as one small part of that greater initiative. Little could I have imagined that the evangelical revolution in Brazil would make matters worse for many people.
Despite its image as a sexually liberated country, Brazil is actually profoundly traditional on the topic. Men are expected to be ‘manly’ and women to be feminine, and anyone who falls outside that norm are subject to discrimination. Gay men in particular have suffered violence simply for being who they are, even just walking down the street or waiting for a bus. Rather than combatting violence against the lgbtq community, evangelicalism in Brazil actually demonizes them. They are treated at best as having an illness, and at worst as being literally demon-possessed. As a result, gay conversion therapy has apparently been given the green light to continue in Brazil, while elsewhere in the world it is being banned as abuse. More on that here: http://bit.ly/2kbOK7j
As a starry-eyed young evangelical I believed that violence and crime would abate as ‘the gospel’ spread through a population. What I didn’t realize was that evangelicalism is still a religion, one subject to the preferences of those who adopt it. It would have shocked me then to learn that now, in 2017, there are entire gangs in Brazil that identify as evangelical and/or Pentecostal, and who continue to commit crimes and perpetuate the drug trade. Worse still, evangelical gangs have carried out campaigns of harassment against practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions who live in neighborhoods they control. Read about that here http://bit.ly/2yqTOLy and here http://bit.ly/2BmkNVB .
Religions are all malleable, existing in the minds of believers and having no objective reality. That is why they change so much, including among groups that claim to have an unchanging faith. A Southern Baptist from 2017, for example, wouldn’t do very well pretty much anywhere in 1617, all else being equal. It doesn’t surprise me as much now as it would have even just a decade ago that evangelicalism in Brazil is taking the shape of the pre-existing prejudices and predilections of the Brazilian people. That’s precisely what it’s done in the United States and elsewhere.
The only real path forward for any nation is through education and a firm commitment to human rights. Ignorance cannot be eliminated with myths any more than adding wood to a fire can be expected to put it out.
It’s last week’s news that a group of conservative evangelical leaders recently published what they entitled ‘The Nashville Statement.’ It is nothing other than a reaffirmation of their sub-culture’s obsession with sexuality and gender, one in which they make it very clear that they have no intention of budging one bit. Hundreds of Christian leaders and organizations have already responded, and one of my favorites is Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ‘The Denver Statement.’
The best response, in my opinion, is that of Ethical Culture clergy leader James Croft. In ‘Queers: Our Worth is Independent of Theology’ he argues that any valuation of human life based on texts and traditions is subject to interpretation, and therefore not a worthy basis. I agree wholeheartedly.
I keep hearing, including in Unitarian Universalist circles, talk about having a theology of this and that. What is meant is that issues of significance are analysed based on a conception of what a god is like and would want. That seems terribly hokey to me. Even members of the same religious tradition envision their god somewhat differently. Within Christianity alone there are thousands of extant denominations and movements representing a range of understandings of the supernatural and a variety of political inclinations. Even within the same congregation there can be strong differences of opinion. Leaving the treatment of human beings to something as unstable as religious beliefs is a very bad idea.
Based on empathy and compassion, let’s take human dignity and worth as a starting point, rather than as a destination. If we make that concept central and build out from there, we can begin to build a better world.
Early in my first attempt to make Brazil my home, in 2001, I discovered that they have laws preventing any speech that would offend religious sensibilities. There’s an infamous case of a Brazilian pastor kicking a statue of a saint on live national television in 1995, something that caused outrage throughout the country. Catholics were furious and even non-Catholic Brazilians felt it was wrong to insult the religious beliefs of others in such a public manner. As someone raised with the First Amendment of the US Constitution and with a firm belief in the necessity of such freedom to test old ideas and explore new ones, the thought of silencing someone’s criticism of any religion has always rubbed me the wrong way. It isn’t just Brazilians that would like to limit speech in the name of religious tolerance, of course. Every derogatory depiction of Islam’s prophet Muhammad results in riots and death threats, and Hindus have no patience for even humorous jabs at their beliefs. This latter is illustrated in the outcry in response to an ad for lamb by an Australian company.
Indignant Hindus are calling for this ad to be banned and for the company to be penalized. They say it is an offense against their culture and beliefs, something that cannot be tolerated. Never mind that numerous religions are the butt of the joke in this 2+ minute ad, or that it’s clearly all in good fun.
Here’s what I say: If your preferred deity, demigod, or other similar spirit has been offended, let them defend themselves. If they don’t do anything about it, it’s either because they don’t care or they don’t exist. My money’s on the latter, but whatever gets people to calm down and focus on living in the real world is good with me.
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).
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.
Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed “offensive” to the surrounding culture: Jesus literally died for our sins and rose from the dead, the view of the authority of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and more.
Some of mainline Protestants leaders rejected or minimized these beliefs — beliefs that made the “protest” in Protestantism 500 years ago — as an invitation for more people to join a more culturally relevant and socially acceptable church. But if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers.
Is Rev. Stetzer right? In my opinion, yes and no (good, postmodern answer, right?).
The mainline denominations truly abandoned the central beliefs and values that Western Christianity has affirmed for centuries. Biblical criticism and collusion with the status quo led to wishy-washy preaching and a general lack of conviction. When it became no longer necessary in many places to maintain church membership for the sake of respectability, those who cared about that found their way out. The Protestants who were put off by the liberal slant left to form or join evangelical churches instead, leading to the rapid growth of that movement from mid-20th century to its close in the 1990s. Still others, as Stetzer indicated in the quote above, decided that the mainline was no different from the rest of mainstream culture, and so they left church behind altogether.
On the other hand, the culture has changed. More people have undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States than ever before, and regular contact with people from other cultures calls into question the ‘absolute’ truths that Christianity long preached. Science provides a more reliable method for getting at the truth, and provides answers that can (and should) be questioned and examined. In the light of this progress, Christianity in any form is likely to suffer. Such we see to be the case, as now even the evangelical churches are in decline.
In a recent interview, historian Diana Butler Bass points to the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention has lost around a million members in the past decade. For a denomination that once was growing dramatically and seemed unshakable, that’s big news. Her analysis about the root cause of that steep drop in membership has to do with complicity with power.
Bass said conservative religious denominations like Southern Baptists are now going through what liberal churches went through about 30 or 40 years ago. In the mid-20th century, she said, mainline Protestants had grown so cozy with cultural power and the status quo that it “undermined their ability to have any kind of prophetic vision and really undermined their ability to be anything other than just sort of the church of just getting along.”
That fell apart in the 1960s, Bass said, when things like Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation began to stir in culture, and the mainline struggled with how to respond.
Conservative churches filled the void, she said, and likewise cozied up to the state and became closely identified with conservative politics. Now they are being confronted by gay and lesbian communities, issues of race and other “new voices of justice.”
“Evangelicals have been completely unable to address them in any meaningful way,” she said. “The leaders of evangelical churches have continued their alliance with the powers that be, and the children of evangelicals are saying, ‘We don’t buy it.’”
While I see her point and respect her knowledge on the topic, I’m not convinced this is the whole story. Although mainline churches did fail to take up the cause of justice in many ways in the 20th century, they were certainly doing more than the evangelicals were in terms of advocacy. The conservatives criticized them for embracing a ‘social gospel’ rather than the gospel of individual salvation by faith in Jesus, and pointed to practices like lgbtq inclusion as evidence of their godlessness. During this period many mainliners found their way into evangelical churches. Now, the grandchildren of those people are walking away from evangelicalism, and I’m not convinced it’s entirely about activism and social justice.
The core message of Christianity, including an omnipresent, omniscient, and benevolent deity who for whatever reason doesn’t directly intercede in the terrible suffering that exists in our world, shifting the blame and responsibility instead on fallible, practically impotent human beings, doesn’t ring true to many young people. The purity culture and political hypocrisy of evangelicalism are most certainly major factors in their departure, but Christian mythos needs to be considered part of this as well.
People are finding satisfying social lives among friends and in other ways that don’t involve church, and they’re finding meaning in life without the pre-packaged offerings of organized religion. Some still identify with Christianity and yearn for fellowship, and so they find their way either to progressive congregations or evangelical churches. Those for whom Christianity is not particularly attractive have other options, like Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture, and the Oasis Network.
I suspect that in the coming years we will see the continued contraction and possibly the consolidation of mainline Protestant churches, and that this process will also pick up speed in evangelicalism. There will no doubt be vibrant, healthy communities of all types of Christians…just far fewer of them.
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.
In my teens I learned about religious syncretism through direct personal experience. Raised Roman Catholic, I began to look for satisfying answers about the meaning and purpose of life. In those pre-Internet days I depended on the library and books I was given for birthdays and Christmas to research religion and – to a lesser extent – philosophy. My exploration took me through various forms of Christianity as well as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, and New Age beliefs. From time to time I toyed with the idea of formulating my own beliefs and practices as a composite of some of those other systems, but awareness that this would merely be something I made up kept me from taking that very far. After all, I was looking for objective truth in religion, and I figured my own subjective experience wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go. Now, as an adult and a Unitarian Universalist Humanist, my mind hasn’t changed on that subject.
Unitarian Universalism is sometimes described as ‘that religion where you can believe anything.’ As Rev. Robin Tanner said a month or so ago in a sermon at Beacon UU in Summit, NJ, that simply isn’t true. Someone who believes that the Bible or some other text contains the literal words of a god or gods would not be very happy in a UU congregation. Similarly, overt racists and homophobes would likely not even set foot in the building. What Unitarian Universalism does, when at its best, is look past specific theoretical beliefs, focusing instead on shared values, principles, and practices.
Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes seven Principles, grounded in the humanistic teachings of the world’s religions. Our spirituality is unbounded, drawing from scripture and science, nature and philosophy, personal experience and ancient tradition as described in our six Sources.
What that means is we share core principles and consider all human reflection and knowledge a potential source of inspiration. What it does not mean is that we believe everything. Ours is a Living Tradition that evolves over time as we think through our worldviews and live out our ‘faith’ together.
In Futurama, set 1000 years in the future, a variety of religions coexist. One of these is the Amalgamated Church, which appears to be a mix of several major religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. Accentuating the absurdity of this mix is Father Changstein-El-Gamal. Aside from the mashed-up name, his vestments represent a handful of different traditions. In ceremonies such as weddings he’s very non-committal, saying such things as, “We are gathered here today before one or more gods, or fewer…” This has long seemed to me like a caricature of Unitarian Universalism and its clergy. While there are certainly members, clergy, and congregations that likely give off this sort of bewildering vibe, I tend to think that it’s not very common.
For all the talk of ‘multifaith’ being ‘the future,’ what concerns me more than a senseless syncretism is the misguided adoption of mainline Protestantism. In recent years there has been talk of adopting ‘the language of reverence’ in order to be more welcoming of theists. At a workshop just last year I heard a semi-retired UU minister make a comment during Q&A about how we should imitate the Christian churches in order to attract people. That seemed downright laughable, given that the mainline denominations have been dying for decades, and now evangelical churches are in decline as well. Why copy a failing model?
Even worse are the racist arguments that people of color prefer a strongly theistic worship style. This is the myth of black religiosity, and it’s both ugly and prevalent in current UU circles. It’s practically the same thing I heard from missionaries when I first started going to Brazil 20 years ago. I was told that Brazilian churches had to be Pentecostal, because otherwise they couldn’t grow. In fact, although Pentecostalism is big business in that country, there are a number of healthy, vibrant churches there that don’t promote speaking in tongues or being slain in the spirit. Saying that it’s a necessity is, at best, belittling to the Brazilian people. Going back to UUs and people of color, what’s being overlooked is that the fastest growing demographic of Humanists in the United States right now is that of black and Latinx people.
While Unitarian Universalism has toyed with religious syncretism to various degrees over the course of its existence, a melding of the varied world religions has never become the dominant practice anywhere. Instead, there have been repeated returns to the stagnant well of mainline Protestantism. This movement will likely never become the Amalgamated Church, but it runs a serious risk of being part of the shrinking ecumenical church, and that’s a cause of far greater concern to me.