Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Do the faithful need atheists?

An article in the Washington Post yesterday discussed the concept of Judaism without God. (Update, article can now be found at HuffPo)
"Atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, so to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn’t an issue or a challenge or a problem,” Shrogin said. “It is par for the course. That is what Judaism is. It is our tradition to question God from top to bottom.” ….
Unlike other religions, Judaism has often embraced its atheist strain. ...And because Judaism is not dogmatic — unlike Christianity and Islam, there is no creed to adhere to — atheists can be open about their lack of belief and still belong to a synagogue….
“An individual who attends synagogue, participates in Jewish communal affairs, and contributes heavily to Jewish charities would undoubtedly be considered a very fine Jew, without asking questions about whether or not that person believed in God.”
Clearly I'm not a Christian.  But am I an Episcopalian?  I go to church regularly with my wife, we give to the church, and I perform service. Yet I don't believe in any of the creed or the  rituals.  This article argues that people like me might actually be a benefit to a congregation.

Recently a number of blogs have engaged in their regular pastime of bashing of atheists, by which they mean, Richard Dawkins, for having the temerity to say he doesn't read theology.

Why should he? He's decided that God is a fictional construct, and to him, telling him he has to read theology to decide that is like telling someone they can't criticize StarTrek without reading the elaborate world of fake background developed in the Star Trek handbook  I saw on the table at Barnes and Nobel recently.  You may not agree with him, but it's consistent with his worldview.

A couple thoughts come from this tiresome Dawkins-bashing.

First, when you go off on "atheists", you are implying that there is no place for the faithless in your churches.  And before you say "why would a faithless person come to church?"  go read my ruminations on the subject.   (We won't even address whether there's room for the  "spiritual but not religious".... ;-)

Second, I don't know why you pay any attention to Dawkins.  After all, whenever people point to Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps or James Dobson, you are more than ready to dismiss them as not representative of "real" Christians. Pay no attention to the man behind the microphone!  But you're all very ready to announce, condescendingly,  "I don't believe in the God Dawkins doesn't believe in either."  Well, bully.

But lots of "Christians" do believe in that God and so far, they are the ones winning the cultural debate on defining Christianity for the rest of us.  As lovely and charming and inclusive as you may feel inside your church, it appears no one is paying attention to you outside.   See, you're not "Christian" -- not the way Fox news and Mike Huckabee get away with defining it.   And in part, it's you letting them do the defining--not as individuals necessarily, but as an institution.

Two recent articles are worth contemplating in this regard.  JCF pointed us to this article by Wayne Besen, calling liberal Christians to task for not fighting back.  And Leonardo Ricardo pointed us to this article from Bilerico that says much the same thing.

I would enourage you to stop worrying about Dawkins and the faithless, and start worrying about your fellow Christians.  That's a much harder conversation to have--but a far more important one.

And meanwhile, consider that WaPo article.  Is there a place for, or even a need for, atheists in church?


Ann said...

Yes- love atheists in church- they keep me honest. They know when we are being fake - all show no substance. Or as we say of wannabee cowboys-- all hat no cattle

June Butler said...

This article argues that people like me might actually be a benefit to a congregation.

IT, I've always thought you were a great benefit to the Episcopal Church. I rejoice at your presence in our midst. My arms are wide open to welcome anyone who wants to be part of our community, whatever their beliefs.

And yes, I'm one of the Dawkins bashers. Dawkins is in a position of power. He gets the attention and applause, not open-minded people like you. He is winning, just as the fundies are winning the cultural battle in the Christian community, which is why I sometimes pay attention to him.

Do you think I like being lumped with the fundies? That's what Dawkins and his ilk do, and I take exception.

IT said...

Mimi thank you...

but i take exception to being lumped with Dawkins.

But really, you give him too much credit. Who has more influence on politics and culture in this country: Dawkins and his ilk, or the right wing Christianists? Just look at the numbers of people who believe in creationism in this country. Or oppose gay rights on religious grounds.

You can't fully equate Dawkins to the fundamentalists because he has nothing like their influence. I mean, outside a narrow group of intellectuals and thinkers, who in popular culture even knows who he is?

And by focusing your attention on Dawkins rather than the fundamentalists, you aren't doing anything to resist their strength in the cultural battle, or challenge their hubris in presuming to speak for you.

you ARE making Dawkins feel important, however.

dr.primrose said...

The link to the Washington Post doesn't work but I found in the article in USA Today, which can be read here.

A couple of comments on the article.

First, Judaism differs from most American Christianity because it involves not only a religion but an ethnic culture. As the article notes, there are people who become involved with synagogues not because of the religious aspect because of the ethnic-culture aspect, largely to make sure their children are exposed to that part of being Jewish.

Because of intermarriage, the melting pot, and many generations removed from the old country, the mesh of religion and ethnic culture doesn't really exist for the vast majority of American Protestantism (with the exception of certain groups on the fringe like the Amish).

For similar reasons, I think that's probably true for the vast bulk of American Roman Catholicism -- we're several generations away from the old Polish, Italian, or Serbian parishes, although that mesh of religion and ethnic culture may still hold in some of the more recent ethnic groups that have immigrated to the U.S.

The point of this is that I suspect it is much less common for atheists to become involved Christian churches than it is for them to become involved Jewish synagogues. In my own experience in the Episcopal Church, the atheist spouses don't accompany their church member spouses to church, though they may show up for the occasional social event. In my experience, IT, you're quite the exception!

Second, the article seems to equate "atheism" with those who doubt God's existence. Technically speaking, I think that's agnosticism, not atheism. In addition, most of the best Christians I've known have had doubts in one form another about God's existence. This issue is much more nuanced than what I suspect the polling question was.

June Butler said...

IT, you have a point about influence, because the fundies have occupied the governments of states and town and have great influence in the federal government.

Some years ago, I tried leaving a comment at the well-known and much-read Eschaton blog to the effect that not all religious folk are like the fundies, and the response in the comments was swift, hostile, and sobering, to say the least. Sometimes I feel caught in the middle between the hostility of the fundies and that of the haters of all religion.

And I do write about the stupidity and folly of the fundies. In truth, I don't take kindly to others telling me what I should and should not write about. Sorry, my friend.

dr.primrose said...

IT, I also wanted to comment on your complaint that "no one is paying attention to you outside ... And in part, it's you letting them do the defining--not as individuals necessarily, but as an institution."

Part of the issue here is getting the mainstream media to pay any attention when the institution actually does something. Crazy religious nuts are newsworthy and interesting for mainstream journalists. Mainstream religious events aren't interesting to them and they just don't cover them.

A couple of examples. First, the Episcopal Diocese in Los Angeles has had an official presence in the L.A Gay Pride parade for at least 20 years. The presence generally includes a bishop (or occasionaly another high level person) and 100+ marchers. The diocese has also had a long-time official presence at both the Long Beach and Orange County pride events. There are other religious groups who officially appear at these events as well. The presence of religious groups never gets mentioned in the press. Instead, it's always a picture of a guy in a dress, a dyke on a bike, or a go-go boy. The press thinks these folks are newsworthy and religious groups are not.

Second, the Episcopal bishop in Los Angeles organized an interfaith service on the eve of 9-11 at the Los Angeles City Hall. About 1500 people attended. The service included a psalm sung by a Jewish cantor and a selection from the Koran chanted by an iman. The dignitaries who were part of the service included, in addition to the Episcopal bishops, the local heads of several Protestant denominations, the Armenian archbishop, the Roman Catholic archbishop, the head of the Southern California Shuria Council (who, in my opinion had incredibily moving things to say about the presence of God in all religions and how much the American dream meant to American Muslims), the president of the City Council (who is likely to be the next mayor), and current mayor.

Here is the entire coverage of this event in the L.A. Times, which was buried in a generic story, Sept. 11 remembered in Los Angeles:

"Events began even before Sunday. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa termed a Saturday-night interfaith gathering outside City Hall 'one of most powerful in my life.'

"'To see people praying to the same God in different languages, to see the breadth of diversity, the people there, the Muslim and Jew, the Christians of every stripe, the Buddhist and many other religions present, to hear all of them saying "peace be with you," was a very cathartic and uniting experience,' Villaraigosa said Sunday."

If there had been protestors or bomb threats by Christian, Jewish, or Muslim fundamentalists, the L.A. Times would have given this event much more coverage. But a gathering of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who encourage all of us to live in peace apparently just isn't worth more than a brief mention.

IT said...

Primrose, of course the media isn't going to pay attention--not unless someone makes them. Squeaky wheels get greased.

The point I'm making is that the polite, low key response, expecting Them to notice, isn't working. THere's going to have to be more directed action to wrest the talking points away from the right wing and fundamentalists.

I don't know what. But then, i'm not a Christian, and it's not MY place to call out the right-wingers who are attacking your "brand".

Spending time on Dawkins is a distraction from the site of the real conflict: that with other Christians.

Erp said...

Hear, hear, IT (or should it be read, read).

It should be interesting to see what happens at the next Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly which is in Phoenix, Arizona in June. They had scheduled it before the anti-immigrant law passed and had considered moving it but have decided instead to stand with those opposing [they checked with the local opposers of the law in Arizona first]. So far that has meant the arrest of the UUA president, Peter Morales, and 80 others [UU and non-UU] protesting. Next year there will likely be several thousand UUs in Phoenix, all concerned about social justice and many willing to put their freedom on the line. Perhaps that will put liberal religions in the news.

it's margaret said...

My brother is asking me to take part in some spiritual exercises offered by "Avatar" --which sports itself as a belief management system, not a belief system. Whatever... anyway --in taking the "Belief Inventory" quiz to begin to sort through my belief systems, one of the questions asks us to discern between knowing and believing. Basically, I was to read the following and state whether I "knew" it or "believed" it:

1) God is real.
2) Man should be free.
3) I am attractive.
4) I can improve.
5) I decide.

Well.... all I could write/think was: Who the hell cares?!!! These are not statements I even care about!

Jesus stood in front of Pontius Pilate and asked "what is truth?" I like that image --try to form my life around it. Usually, when folks show up at church and say "I believe in God" I ask, what/who is God...? When folks show up at church and say "I DON'T believe in God" I ask, what/who is God....? --and usually what either groups describes, I am able to say honestly --well, I don't think of God that way either!

I am uncomfortable with anyone who thinks they "know" it all... or who dismisses others with prejudice. You, IT, do not. You are willing to live in to that place in-between, comfortable with yourself and doing for/with your spouse not for your own benefit, but for hers. In love.

I love that in you. You are truly incredible in this.

However, I doubt either fundies or Dawkins would be able to do what you are doing. They have already decided what "truth" is; they love nothing but their own rules and selves.

And, I do think Christians are conversing among themselves --and with other faith traditions --but it rarely makes the news. I wonder why that may be so?

And, yes, atheists are needed and welcome at church. But what/when/where is it that atheists may convene that a Christian such as myself would be made welcome without prejudice?

IT said...

Margaret, good points all. And thank you for the kind remarks.

To address your last point, I don't think most atheists "convene". Oh, I know that some do a la Madaleine OHehir, but really, those are the ones who are making a sort of faith out of their non-faith. And really, who cares?

Given my profession, I know tons of non-believers, and they don't think enough of non-belief to make an issue around which to "convene".

So where would you be comfortable as a "Christian" amongst people of no faith? Anywhere there is something you share in common, which is the only reason my atheist friends "convene"--feeding the hungry, marching for justice, or even just sharing the pleasure of a beautiful view.

As for Dawkins-ites and the Christianist fundies not listening, well of course they won't. Fundamentalists are not generally good subjects for this kind of conversion. ;-)

Erika Baker said...

IT, I would have thought any church would be delighted and honoured to have an atheist like you among them, it enriches them no end! I certainly feel enriched by all my atheist friends and I have no time for anyone who doesn't make them feel welcome.

About Dawkins, though, I think the real reason for attacking him is that he proclaims loudly that he believes he knows what we're about and that this is dangerous to society, that we should not be allowed to "indoctrinate" children and that he, on the other hand, has all the answers.

I don't care whether he believes in God nor not, but I do have the right to answer back and to say "no, that is NOT how we are, please either inform yourself properly or leave the debate".

That's not saying "become a theologian and study a discipline you don't believe in", but it is saying "if you want to claim that we must be shut up for the greater good of society, you will have to give us a little bit of evidence for your claim".

And, yes, fundamentalists aren't listening. But with all these hot button topics the conversation actually takes part for the sake of the silent listener, not for the sake of the fundi who we all know will never change.

dr.primrose said...

OT. This morning, the Ninth Circuit dismissed the government's appeal of the federal district court's decision finding that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit found that the case was now moot in light of Congress's repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law. The court went out of its way to say that the district court opinion was now essentially void for all purposes and could not be used as precedent in any other lawsuit. In addition, the concurring opinion is essentially a long rant on why the district court's opinion was wrong, even though it is now moot. You can read the whole thing, if you wish, at Log Cabin Republicans v. USA.

IT said...

@Erika, I think the dynamic is very different in the UK. Dawkins etc have very little publicity or influence in the US. The problem isn't religion bashing atheists, it's atheist-bashing religionists--thanks to the disproportionate influence of the hard core Evangelicals. Who are must worse than British evangelicals.

IT said...

@Primrose, I'm glad they dismissed the appeal but it sounds like they did it with quite a bit of prejudice...and in a way that makes Prop8 overturn less of a sure thing. Am I right?

dr.primrose said...

The Ninth Circuit has a very diverse group of judges and in hot-button cases how a case turns out is very dependent on which three judges are picked to decide the case.

The Prop. 8 case will very likely end up in the U.S. Supreme Court so it may not matter very much which three judges decide it. I would vastly prefer the Prop. 8 case to be decided in the same way as the Don't Ask Don't Tell case -- dismissed as moot because the law has been repealed. Personally, I think the Prop. 8 lawsuit is a big mistake -- there's no guarantee by any means that there are five votes in the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it. I think another initiative in 2012 or 2014 is more likely to get rid of it and there's a real danger of a truly horrible opinion if the Prop. 8 lawsuit goes the wrong way.

IT said...

@PRimrose, I agree. Would like to overturn it at the ballot but apparently that's not in the cards for 2012

Paul said...

IT, you would certainly be welcome in my church, and in any church where I have been involved. We do not administer examinations at the door.

When I was an undergraduate, I sang in the choir at a local church. Like many area churches, they employed four paid soloists and the rest of us were volunteers. When my friends found out what we were singing, one of them (who was Jewish) volunteered. The Tenor soloist was also Jewish. Both of them were welcomed into the congregation with open arms, no questions asked.

I don't pay too much attention to Dawkins. He is as intolerant as the fundamentalists he criticizes, and he seems unable to tell one variety of Christian from another.

JCF said...

to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn’t an issue or a challenge or a problem,” Shrogin said. “It is par for the course. That is what Judaism is. It is our tradition to question God from top to bottom.”

Reflecting on this a couple days. Questioning is great...but isn't the (continuing) question more the place of the agnostic? *

It seems to me in my experience, that it is the fundamentalist, theist or atheist, who asserts the "ANSWER" to the agnostics' questions...with strident certitude!

I want TEC to be a place for continuing questions.

[* I ask particularly in light of the Bilerico-linked piece. The author seemed to want to not only claim agnostics for atheism, but (any/all) 12 Step spirituality for atheism, too!]

Counterlight said...

I've known atheists who are ordained (lips are sealed). Atheists always have been part of religion, and smart religions like Judaism (and Hinduism in a former time) make room for them. Belief in God is not an easy thing to ask of people, still less demand. Atheists and agnostics both keep the religious honest.
As far as I'm concerned, you're as much a part of this church as I am whether or not you can say the Creeds.

A friend of mine says that he will never join any church that claims to be "the one true church." There is an inspired episode of South Park set in the future where religion has ended, but now there are religious wars between factions of atheism claiming to be the "true" atheism. Perhaps we really can have religious wars without religion.

If I was a TV executive with lots of commercial air time to sell and shareholders expecting dividend checks, which would I be more interested in showing? Bishop Schori at a bishops' conference talking in very diplomatic terms about the UN Millennium Development goals, or the Phelps circus side show from hell desecrating a military funeral? What's going to better for ratings?

Although I agree that we've done a lousy job of sharing ourselves with the rest of the world, and of trying to seize the initiative from the right wing crazies.

Ann said...

At our son's UU church they had a big fight - they have 3 pastor slots. Needed to fill one. Many wanted to hire their popular intern - African American, lesbian -- none of that was a problem - but she was also a God-believer and the atheists did not want all 3 to be God-believers - they asked that the 3rd pastor be an atheist. And so a long discussion ensued about this issue - not sure how it turned out. My thought was - churches can always find things to fight about - even the most liberal accepting denomination.

IT said...

Ann, Counterlight, alas wrangling like that is human nature. It's one of the reasons I don't think of "atheist" as a great descriptor any more, carries too much baggage.

JCF, I don't continue to question the existence of God. I'm perfectly content with the answer I've found.

JCF said...

IT, I question that. ;-)

dr.primrose said...

Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the schismatics do not get to keep the parish property if they leave the Episcopal Church -- Episcopal Church v. Gauss. Another legal victory for the good guys.

JCF said...


AMAZING essay here: Troy Davis and Jamey Rodemeyer: By A Jury Of Our Peers

Rarely have I ever seen a better expression of the lasting of harm of bullying---and how the deaths of Davis and Rodemeyer reflects that we've become a society of bullies.

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