Wednesday, May 1, 2013

First Church of...

This article has made the rounds lately:

Fair-to-middling Salon clickbait, what else is new, but to the, this doesn't sound at all like my vibe, though the question is worth asking. It's true that unchurched people like me don't get the social benefits that churches provide: fellowship, moral support, community engagement. I don't know that the folks in the article are doing anything novel, though - there have long been ethical humanist societies and charities and other endeavors that afford nonbelievers a suitable happy place. If I and many of my fellows are habitual non-joiners despite this, that's on us...the Unitarian Universalists, I've wondered about. They say they're hospitable to atheists, though that hospitality seems to vary depending on the leadership of any given UU church. I'm not looking to join such a group - I don't identify as "spiritual but not religious" either - but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. I grew up in church, and though as an adult I've never seen any need or reason to believe, that doesn't mean there aren't noble and edifying aspects to life in the congregation. (If I had kids, would I take them to church? No, but again, I can point to good things from my own time there as a child, and I would look for other ways to give my children those things.)

The notion of self-described atheist churches makes me queasy, though. It does no service to atheism or anything else if these atheist churches end up with the same problems that keep me away from regular churches. I understand the human psychological attraction to ritual, and it's not by any means all bad. But if that becomes a need for spectacle, or a need to be told what to think, or a need to feel more like "us" by excluding "them", or a focus on attaining the money, power and charisma needed to broadcast the message far and wide...then to me that more than negates the benefits of fellowship. And it's not atheism. Atheism isn't a religion and has no proper business behaving like one; atheism isn't anything in itself, merely the absence of a thing. To make atheism into a brand of any sort is to betray it. I don't need anyone to agree with me - I sleep well at night. I just need people to respect me as a good-hearted, rational person, which I usually am and you probably are as well, and to not look down on or attempt to marginalize me merely for coming to a different view. I think most atheists feel the same way.

But like you, I do need friends, and fellow travelers, and encouragement toward a life of virtue and love and fulfillment. I want the world to be better and the people I encounter to be happier for my presence, and when I do fall short, when I show my ass, which is more often than I'd prefer, I need a path to forgiveness and atonement, a return to right living. Doesn't everyone want those things? Surely most of us do. We are interdependent, no matter what we believe or whether we believe at all; we're a community whether we feel like it or not. Wherever I can find that community and grow with it is a good thing. That community doesn't have to be explicitly religious, though. I can take a walk on a sunny day, play a game of Scrabble, eat a breakfast taco, pick up my 4-year-old nephew from Montessori school each Tuesday and take him to a car wash and see the happiness and wonder spread across his face, grieve for the horrible things in the news and exult over the brave and wonderful things, watch a ballgame with my dad, fill the dog's water bowl, read Wikipedia for an hour, get sick, get well, compete in a spelling bee wearing devil horns, read a good book, crack a bad joke, email back and forth with a dear old friend, attempt to play along with Rush's "Territories" with my little brother, agonize over nonsense large and small. Embrace the uncertainty, embrace the struggle, live and work alongside our fellows. Who are we to demand more?

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