This past Sunday was Easter Sunday. It can be a tough one for atheists and agnostics. We can feel particularly vulnerable to the insistent beliefs of others, and they can feel particularly prickly with regard to ours. Normally when our church seems to cater a bit more the theists and deists and Christians in our congregation I can just tune it out. Ordinarily I would not be in any church on Easter morning, ever, except for the fact that the choir (of which I absolutely LOVE being a part!) contributes some pretty spectacular music, as a rule. This past Sunday was no exception, with a lovely piece by John Rutter being the centerpiece, but in this writer's opinion, the rest of the service crossed a line into the unacceptable.
My troubles started during a message to the children. After a lovely presentation by a member of the congregation as to why he has started wearing a cross -- all in "I" language, no judgements, no "should's" -- the minister took over with a story about a little boy who came into church and after sitting quietly asked, "Is God coming?" It is, in my opinion, a very schmaltzy, sappy, chicken-soup-for-the-soul story, and I don't believe for a second that it has an element of truth to it. You can read it here if you want to, but have some insulin ready:
If you were unable to get through the schlock, the briefest summary is that while in the sanctuary of a church a little boy named "Ryan" asked the minister, "Is God coming?" As the story develops, it turns out that the little boy's father has passed away and the minister says, and I quote:
"Well, my guess would be that God and your Daddy are together there [in Heaven] and that God sent me and your teachers and these friends to be here with you today. So that we could love you for God. I think that God loves you more than you can even imagine. And I love you too, Ryan. I can't believe how lucky I am to know you. I think God sent you here for me."
One of the children in the circle was a nine-year-old girl whose mother had committed suicide just last week.
Now, if you know anything about Unitarian-Universalism, you know that you are unlikely to hear that kind of specific "God language" in our churches, even on Easter. And a story like Ryan's would be delivered to other adults for its metaphorical message, and NOT to children. All children take away from this tale is that there is a God, He is in Heaven, and our beloved dead are there with him. When another minister posted this same tale on Facebook, I commented that I was upset it had been used with our children, and that I would never want my UU child to hear from her minister that her dead Daddy was sitting with God in His Heaven. This other minister just could not hear me, or understand why I was upset. The usual dialogue started in the Comments section of the Facebook post, with various others chiming in, and one point I was told that my atheism is "just another form of fundamentalism" and nobody wants to deal with fundamentalism.
I have to say that I somewhat resent being called a fundamentalist. I do not proselytize, nor do I ever force my beliefs on anyone, from a pulpit or a lay group or in social situations. When I delivered a reflection on what it is like to be an atheist at Easter (http://www.oancitizen.blogspot.com/2014/04/happy-easter.html) it was because I had been invited to do so by the minister. I am told that it was respectful and thoughtful and contributed a great deal to the Easter service. As to my personal atheism, I simply live my life without an Invisible Friend (or as Douglas Adams said, I simply believe in one less God than other people do) and I try to do good because good is the ethical thing for me to do. I try at all times to live the Golden Rule. And I freely concede the point that some atheists can be real jerks about it. I hope never to become one of them.
I do agree with "Faitheist" blogger Chris Stedman that the charge of atheist fundamentalism is very often used as a weapon to marginalize critique of religion and the religious. It is used to maintain a status quo in which religious viewpoints, practices and communities are privileged over nonreligious ones. Which they are. And I do remember a time when a UU church could have a happy conglomeration of Christians and humanists and Jews and Buddhists and agnostics and Pagans and Wiccans and Hindus and Muslims and Ba'Hai and any other faith you can think to list, and we all agreed to disagree according to our Principles. Unitarians live by their Seven Principles. Number Three states that we should have "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations." The idea is that there are many paths to truth, and we need to accept that another person's path may be very different from our own, but their path is still worthy of respect. I remember a time when I could feel that going to church was going home, and I could learn from others and occasionally have the opportunity to impart some idea in which others found value. But I have not felt this way about my own church for quite some time. As to my atheism, I don't want to convert anybody, or convince anybody, or argue with anybody. I just want to be accepted with respect for my beliefs. I would like to feel accepted and respected for who I am and for what I do, and I find that this is no longer the case. And I am uncomfortable with what I see as the current policy of attempting to better fit in with our downtown neighborhood location by seeming to be more Christian. I find it disingenuous, not to say dishonest, and I believe we are not letting our message and our principles succeed or fail there on their own merits.
And while all this is buzzing around in my head, the minister wraps up her Easter sermon by asking the congregation to recite the Lord's Prayer along with her. If you are not a UU, you have no idea how unutterably shocked I was. As a Unitarian and an atheist, I have so many problems with just the first six words of that prayer (i.e, not my Father, there is no Father, there is no Heaven, and let's skip the rest while we're at it) that I had to look around and make sure I was in the right building. If the friend sitting next to me had not also remained silent, I would have walked out right then and there.
This minister was hired by the temporary minister who is filling in for us while we find a permanent one. I am hoping to be able to hang on until this new permanent person arrives. I am hoping they will prove to be more Unitarian than what we currently have in our pulpit. And, well, if they're not, it's not that far to drive to Philadelphia for the new chapter of atheist, humanist, do-good-because-it's-the-right-thing-to-do Sunday Assembly there.
You can read more about Sunday Assembly here, and if you're near one, you should go and check it out: https://sundayassembly.com