sanctuaryLast weekend, I went to church. Twice.

It had been a while since I’d stepped foot in a church. The first service was a wedding for two of my best friends from college; one is a Rhodes scholar and chemist and the other is studying at a seminary to become a Lutheran minister. The sermon focused on this distinction (that many might see as a contradiction) – the scientist and the theologian. It was a beautiful service and I was thrilled to be there for it, and since the sermon was primarily a celebration of their relationship, I was able to appreciate it.

The next morning, after a late night out celebrating their wedding, I joined my family for the baptism of my first nephew. The sermon was an amalgamation of cheesy images and Bible verses guided by PowerPoint. Listening to the preacher wax on about Jesus, I felt like I was at a megachurch listening to Ted Haggard. Needless to say, I sat there with a bit of a self-satisfied (and very sleepy) smirk on my face. Is he serious? I asked myself, happily thinking about how much “more enlightened” I was. Of course, I kept such thoughts to myself.

In both instances, I could’ve been an asshole. “No,” I might’ve said, “I refuse to go to church. Sorry guys, but I just can’t be there for these important landmarks in your lives because I don’t agree with your religion.” But because I am an engaged individual who has religious people in my life, I could not. Still, just because I was there didn’t mean I had to listen, right?

A couple days later my mom called to talk. At one point in our conversation, she brought up the sermon. She admitted that it wasn’t exactly compelling for her – she thought the presentation of bolded Bible verses and stock images of praying hands was somewhat over-the-top. That said, she also said that she had continued to ruminate on his message of giving back to the community and being a caring citizen in the days following. Though she didn’t buy a substantial amount of what he had preached, she still found a lot in what he said that was worth considering. I’ll never find a church that affirms exactly what I believe, she said, but the community and the practice of taking a few hours every Sunday morning to listen and reflect is important to me.

When she said that, I realized I could hardly remember what the sermon had been about. I was there, but I wasn’t present. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t listening. The moment I saw the first PowerPoint slide and heard the praise and worship music, I tuned out.

I feel bad now for being so arrogant while listening to the Sunday morning sermon, because it is entirely possible that I missed out on the nuggets of insight that my mom, because of her open mind, had been able to absorb. As someone who believes that one can still learn a lot from the teachings of religion without following religious dogma, I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preach.

After my mom finished talking about the sermon our conversation shifted, as it often does, to my work as a secular activist. I don’t know how you do it, she continued. I don’t think I could be a Secular Humanist because I just don’t ever hear Atheists having anything positive to say. Every time I hear Atheists in the news, they just seem so negative. I’m not so sure about Christianity, but at least it’s uplifting.

She’s right: we have a lot of work to do. So often, we engage in mean-spirited criticism when we encounter those with different opinions. In many ways, we’ve earned our bad reputation.

On the other hand, we’re a young movement and we are already doing amazing things. There are secular folks doing important work all over the place, and it needs to be heard about. This is why we need more public, positive secular stories.

Still it is true that many people, like my mom, continue to go to church even when they don’t agree with a lot of the church’s fundamental beliefs. Let’s face it: my church attendance last weekend wasn’t a fluke. Atheists sit quietly in church pews every day throughout the world. Many do so because they feel they have no choice, and that is a true shame. It’s a major problem and I hope that the more public some of us become about our secular identity, the more comfortable others will feel doing the same.

But many others do it for less obvious reasons. As far as I can tell, there are three big reasons some Atheists go to church (aside from those who continue to go because they fear “coming out”). These are:

1. In solidarity with the religious (as I did twice last weekend),

2. To learn from the insights of various religions (as I have done for much of my life), and

3. Because organized Atheism lacks a robust community and is too negative (as my mom suggested).

I’d like to see our community find ways to not only be open to the religiosity of our friends and loved ones – so that we do not miss opportunities to learn by not listening, as I did last weekend – but I also hope that we will focus less on what sets up apart and more on articulating our positive values. Maybe if we do that, fewer Atheists will feel the need to go to church to find community and positive ethics. Where Atheism is lacking, religion will continue to thrive.

I have a friend coming to visit this weekend. I’m sure we’ll have a late night out Saturday. But who knows – maybe we’ll drop by a church Sunday morning in hopes of learning a thing or two. If we do, I’ll try to be a better listener this time.

Atheists in the pews may not buy the “Good News,” but maybe, with an open mind, we can make good on shifting some of our hostile views.

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Church FiresWondering what’s going on in the world of religion and secularism? Wonder no more — it’s time for your weekly religion and secular roundup! This week:

Church Burning and Atheist Learning: Reports this week on the ongoing investigation into a series of church fires in Texas prominently featured the fact that raids on one suspect’s home uncovered “books on demons and atheism.” What does it say that news reports are so strongly linking a suspect’s books on atheism to his alleged participation in church arson? Whether there is an actual correlation between the material he read and the crimes he is accused of committing, it is an unfortunate narrative on secular folks that we need work to change. Additionally, if these men are in fact guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, I’d be inclined to raise questions about what role narratives of fundamentalist anti-theism may have played in informing these actions and if anti-theistic motivations were involved. I strongly believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, but I also cannot help but fear that, if these men were in fact driven by totalitarian anti-theism to burn down religious houses of worship, their actions could have easily been prevented if only they had been exposed to a different, more pluralistic understanding of how atheists and religious folks can engage in the world.

Tiger Woods and the Need for Religious Literacy: The USA Today ran an intelligent reflection on Tiger Woods’ public apology, highlighting Woods’ appeal to his Buddhist commitments as a means for considering the controversy. The piece thoughtfully situates Woods’ apology within the larger context of American religious diversity. As Brit Hume’s controversial comments suggesting that Woods seek forgiveness in Christ exemplified, American society generally expects fallen public figures to offer Christian apologies and seek Christian redemption. Woods’ Buddhist narrative suggests that our country is in need of greater religious literacy. To quote the article: “Part of living in a multireligious society… is learning multiple religious languages. In a country where most citizens cannot name the first book of the Bible, we obviously need more Christian literacy. But to make sense of the furiously religious world in which we live, we need Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist literacy too.” This should be a keen reminder to secular folks of the importance of knowing about the religious beliefs of others. If we don’t know about the beliefs of others, how can we expect to try to understand them?

The Secularists Are Coming! The Secularists Are Coming!: This last week, representatives of the Obama administration hosted members of the secular community for the first time in American Presidential history. The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group representing secular interests, was briefed by the members of Obama administration in a White House meeting. As you might expect, this was met with shock and horror from some on the political right — Sean Hannity, for example, featured an inflammatory and outright false segment on his show about the meeting. But reports from the secular community indicate that it was a positive experience; check out Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist blog for an inside scoop. If nothing else, the meeting is an important symbolic step toward the recognition of a salient, cohesive, and growing secular community.

More Reflections on Religion and Millenials: Earlier this week I posted on the new Pew report on Millenials and its implications for Millenial secularists living in a religiously pluralistic world. I wasn’t the only one ruminating on this data — Politics Daily ran a piece called “Young Adults Doing Religion on Their Own? Blame Politics” that suggests that less Millenials are affiliated with traditional religious institutions while still retaining religious beliefs because many tend to be more politically liberal and see traditional religiosity as being aligned with political conservatism — which explains some of why religious affiliation is down among Millenials even though belief in god and that one’s own belief system is “the one true path to eternal life” are on the rise. Separately, the New York Times ran a piece by Charles M. Blow that posits that Millenials are more “spiritually thirsty than older generations.” He bases this claim in the Pew report’s finding that Millennials articulate a desire for “closeness to God” as a long term goal significantly more than previous generations have. Blow asserts that though less Millenials are religiously affiliated than members of generations that have come before, we value religious and spiritual commitments — perhaps even more so than other generations. Both pieces are well worth reading and I suggest you check them out.

Are There Secular Reasons?: The New York Times has a heady, thought-provoking opinion piece by Stanley Fish. In it, he challenges the notion that there is a distinction between “secular” motivations and “religious” motivations in public policy. He postulates: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” He makes an interesting point, and he makes it well. What do you think, fellow secularists?

Religion’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force, featuring Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, just released a new report called “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad.” You can view the full report here; the Washington Post has a good summary of it here.

Finally, if you missed them, I did my first “The Non Prophet” column for The New Gay, titled “All My Friends,” and gave a statement to Just Out Portland on the French anti-smoking ad controversy. Stay tuned to The New Gay every Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) for a new column, and thanks for reading!

greg-epsteinABC has a new story on Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard and an acquaintance of mine. Greg’s doing some really great stuff, including releasing an excellent book (“Good Without God“) and speaking at the Interfaith Youth Core conference this fall, and in the story he discusses the idea of establishing Secular Humanist congregations nationwide.

Personally, I’m all for it. In my WaPo op-ed, I discussed my desire to find a community of like-minded “nonbelievers” gathered around shared values and shared identity — something akin to what I experienced in my younger years as a Christian — and I think, with the right organizing, it is a legitimate possibility. What do you think? Let me know!

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