An Atheistic “Christian” Writes About Community in a Church June 7, 2009

An Atheistic “Christian” Writes About Community in a Church

There’s a segment of Humanists that has tried (with varying degrees of success) to create local communities around the country — promoting “Sunday schools” for atheists and whatnot. The idea behind it is that “organized atheism” might not be an oxymoron and could actually be useful in helping advance our ideas.

Robert Jensen couldn’t find a community like that around him, so he had to find it elsewhere:

His convictions revolved around anti-war, feminist, anti-capitalist movements, but to him, the left seemed dead without a community that could lend deeper meaning to those convictions. And he found himself in a pew on Sunday mornings.

His account of being a non-religious man who attended a (admittedly liberal) church and who (confusingly) calls himself a “Christian” can be found in the new book All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press. June, 2009).

As you may have guessed, there are problems with that approach:

Political and religious conservatives likely will dismiss Jensen outright. Moderates might write him off because they don’t identify with his radical politics. Secularists might roll their eyes at his church talk.

While his motives are good, I find myself in the “rolling their eyes” camp, just as I did when I first read the article that put Jensen on my radar a few years ago.

He gives the church too much credit for what they do. We don’t need churches as much as we just need strong communities. From what I can gather, Jensen has little or nothing to say about the supernatural teachings of the church — which is where the real problems lie.

When he does say something about it, it’s virtually meaningless. In one case, he explains God as simply “mystery.” He defines it so broadly that it lacks any sort of real meaning:

The command to love God can be understood as simply another way of saying that we must strive to love the mystery around us and in us rather than to be afraid of all that we cannot understand.

To love God with all our heart, I believe, means to recognize the collective nature of emotions, the way in which so much of what we feel — even though we experience it personally — is in fact shared.

While that definition may be pleasant, it’s not what Christians are referring to when they talk about an all-knowing, all-powerful, prayer-listening god.

By trying to appeal to both sides of the theological spectrum, it doesn’t sound like Jensen’s getting much reception from either.

A review like this one definitely doesn’t make me want to run out and buy the book, that’s for sure — and that’s unfortunate because Jensen’s goal is very admirable.

(Thanks to Yohan for the link!)

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  • littlejohn

    I think something a little less, structured, like social gathering among like-thinking skeptics might be enjoyable. But once it becomes a type of “church,” a heirarchy develops, certain books become special (would The God Delusion become our “Bible?”), attendance would become mandatory, etc.
    Besides, what would we talk about? What we atheists have in common is our failure to believe.

  • Churches need followers more than followers need churches.

  • Physicalist

    There’s a segment of Humanists that has tried (with varying degrees of success) to create local communities around the country — promoting “Sunday schools” for atheists and whatnot.

    I thought they were called “Unitarian Univeralists.”

  • Yes, I thought that if you want a church without god, you go to the Unitarians. I had a Unitarian marry us – was great – she knew she wouldn’t get paid if she mentioned god. Worked out super.

  • Same here. I’ve thought frequently that if I lived in a town with a UU church I’d probably go because I appreciate the community aspect of things. Of course if I lived near a Skeptics in the Pub that might do just as well.

  • Hmmm… This writeup doesn’t particularly make me want to go out and buy the book. I’m afraid I roll my eyes at both his church talk and his politics.

    Oh… and don’t let a UU person hear you say “UU church” — they get offended. It’s a “UU fellowship.” 🙂

  • Miko

    What we need to do is counter the idea that mixing religion and politics is a good idea. His beliefs are much more in line with libertarian socialism or mutualism (depending on whether he defines “capitalism” as “free market” or as “corporatism”) than they are with Christianity, or even liberal Christianity.

    Makes about as much sense as joining a church to discover the deeper meaning of tennis.

  • Grimalkin

    I did the same thing once upon a time. It was after I became an Atheist, but before I started calling myself one (in that awfully fuzzy transition period so many of us go through). The sermon part was something that I just had to “get through” to access the good stuff.

    The good stuff was tea and cookies, people to socialize with, projects to work on (such as charity bazaars or nativity theatre), something to direct my energies towards. While I do think that many people – and pardon if I generalize, but I think this mostly applies to men – see little to no value in this, I do find a NEED in myself for this kind of community and for this kind of project into which I can devote my energies.

    The fact that he feels forced to join a Christian church and to start talking about “mystery” (*gag*) is a tragedy as far as I am concerned. We need to see the value in what churches provide and fill that void if we hope to grow. Otherwise, the world could be full of Jensens, of people who nod and play along, who “get through” the sermons so that they can have access to something that they need in their lives.

  • I probably won’t read the book, either, although I understand the idea behind what he’s saying. The idea of “fellowship” as groups that come together for communal support and in charitable service is one of the few things about religion/church that I have very little issue with. The idea of any such community group forming without at least paying lip service to religion in some fashion is more than most people can wrap their heads around, unfortunately.

    Excellent point, Miko, that we need to press the issue of church-state separation. The conflation of religious beliefs with political agendas must be stopped. The vocal minority of fundagelicals has held sway for too long already, and we’ve got our work cut out for us just undoing 50+ years of propaganda.

  • Erp

    So reasons for atheistic individuals to go to church (or churchlike group).

    1. Social gathering
    2. Joining together to do social justice work (e.g., gather and provide food/clothing for the poor).
    3. Like singing church music so join the choir
    4. Play the organ (aren’t many positions for organ players outside of churches)
    5. Rest of the family goes and want to be with the family
    6. Like talking to Christians.

    Note that Jensen is not unique. There are other Christians whose concepts of God are so different that they can’t even really be put in the same category as the concept that is generally taught to children or held by many adult Christians. Try understanding Bishop John Shelby Spong’s (a retired New Jersey Episcopal bishop who the conservatives consider a heretic) concept.

  • Anonymous

    We don’t need churches as much as we just need strong communities.

    This is a double-edged sword as far as organized atheism goes. Church attendance has been exaggerated and on the decline for years. While a certain segment goes for megachurches, the overall trends are clear: less church attendance. And of those who attend church now, at least half of them go because they feel obligated to go, not because they want to be there, or because their parents force them to attend. So whatever churches are selling, most people aren’t buying.

    Atheists usually see this as positive, but it does not bode well for atheists who want to organize. The same social forces lowering church attendance will minimize attendance at atheist meetups, too.

    As for communities, I see two problems. First, not everyone is as into community as some think they should be. High school spirit comes to mind here. Some people think that their high school is the bomb, while other people think that if they lived 10 miles east, they’d be at some other school, or 10 miles west, a different school again, and so the school they attend is just a historical accident and no more special than any other school. Same deal for community–if I didn’t live in this town, I’d live in some other one, so this town isn’t special, but I have to have some place to live. Any one community is no more important than any other. If I don’t participate in all those other communities, will it make any difference if I don’t participate in my local one? One might well think that if Alaska Atheists can get by without me, so can Neighborhood Atheists.

    I’m talking geographically here, but this leads to my second point. Unlike in my first point, pretend that I am into community. Even locally, there are more local communities I could potentially join than I could actually join. So why join an atheist meetup? Maybe I care more about soccer than atheism, and would enjoy coaching soccer much more than joining a local atheist meetup. Why should I bother with the atheist meetup, when I can coach soccer, send kids off to school, go to work, and do other things? Maybe I’d rather go jetskiing or kayaking or mountain climbing than sitting around a table talking religion and politics while sipping a cafe latte.

  • Brooks

    I can see the value of finding a community to meet like minded individuals for support, especially if you were raised religious and you enjoyed church in itself while you were a Christian (after all, who could say no to a free potluck lunch?) and if you’re living in a place where’s not many atheists. But I don’t know how you could pull off an atheist church anymore than you could have a club for people who don’t collect stamps. And isn’t this void already filled by the Unitarians? So, I don’t think it’s so much we need to fill a void as much as we need more UU churches. But if this guy sees God as a symbolic metaphor, wouldn’t he more accurately described as a pantheist rather than an atheist?

  • Anonymous

    So, I don’t think it’s so much we need to fill a void as much as we need more UU churches.

    I beg to differ. The reason there aren’t more UU churches is because there aren’t more congregants who want to attend them.

    I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Lisa, I think, had city hall build an opera house in Springfield. No one attended and they had to shut it down. I think the Opera house ended up a XXX theater.

    That just goes to show you: You have to offer people what they actually want, not what you think they should want. That’s how McDonalds and Walmart do so well. They actually track what people are buying and adjust their inventory to match the latest trends. Some people complain about the McDonaldization of the world, but Christ any businessman that offers his customers what they actually want is a good businessman. If people aren’t buying gold-plated toilet seats, don’t sell em. And if people aren’t attending UU churches, don’t build any more of em. The extras will just wind up as XXX theaters 😉

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