a letter to gary paterson regarding paris

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January 8, 2015

Gary Paterson

The United Church of Canada
3250 Bloor St. West
Toronto, ON

Dear Gary,

I write with deep concern for the world’s community as it reels following the religiously motivated attacks in Paris this week and as diverse groups respond with courage and a renewed commitment to ending acts of terrorism.

The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

I urge you to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief. For decades, our denomination has pressed forward the edges of social, sexual, and environmental justice. Freedom from religion is no less urgent an issue. Individuals around the world face execution and imprisonment because of the beliefs they do or do not hold. It is essential that those religious organizations that have recognized and taught the human construction of religion speak the truths they have achieved with a clear and uncompromising voice. Ours is the denomination within the Christian church that can and must do so at this critical time.

Where it may once have seemed justifiable, ours is not a time in which personal religious beliefs can be welcomed into the public sphere; we can no longer claim that the impact of religion on political and social structures is purely beneficial. This truth is obvious in the shadow of Paris, Ottawa, and countless other tragedies. We must boldly stand with those who would clear the public sphere from the prejudices of religious belief even as we defend the rights of individuals to hold whatever beliefs allow them to sleep at night.

Now is the time to speak clearly and bravely. I appeal to your vision of and commitment to a future of peace within the human family and urge you to do everything in your power, even and especially those most difficult, to make it so.

In light,


22 thoughts on “a letter to gary paterson regarding paris

  1. Rev M

    How can you consider yourself a Minister in the Church of God and an Atheist at the same time?
    You are serving the people of our Heavenly Father, He in whose name you are stating that is the root cause of all this evil. Have you ever considered that it is the sin of man which causes this? It is not God’s will to be evil, it is our fallen nature which brings us to do these things. But then again, if you don;t believe in sin, then all of what I have just said does not matter.

    1. experience before belief

      I think you have missed the point,Rev. M. The terrorists are saying that God says they must kill on his behalf. Most of the world disagrees,of course. But the point is,who has the authority to speak on this purported being’s behalf?

    2. kenn

      re: “You are serving the people of our Heavenly Father”

      Your claim of the existence of a “heavenly father” is mere speculation on your part.

      You have no proof whatsoever that can justify this claim, and therein lies the problem with beliefs based on faith: anyone can make up whatever they want to.

      The notion that religion is the only subject for which no proof of assertions is required is preposterous on the face of it!

    3. Craig Hansen

      The sin of man? What an invention. Tell people they are sinners, then tell them you have the cure if they just have faith. Meanwhile, there is ample justification of unethical actions by God and supported by God in these books. You can absolutely derive a warped sense of morality from these books if you follow their rules as written.

      I think it’s commendable that Rev. Vosper takes the positions she does. If those who are with her want to continue in the church, but jettison the dogma, I think she presents an interesting alternative to the traditional church, and one that I hope catches on.

  2. Dave Crawford

    While I’m new to the UCC and open to diversity, it puzzles me that an avowed atheist berating the idea of belief in God is actually minister in the Church.

  3. George


    I very much appreciate the candor. The logic is problematic. While I will agree that religion is implicated in much travesty I cannot agree that religion is the presenting problem. While the perpetrators of murder as political means may appear under religious auspices, the ground of our dilemma lays elsewhere.

    This insight is pertinent: “I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Thomas Hobbes

    Persons in all times and places have employed all available means in pursuit of power. To take those means as causal is to err. Persons seeking power resort to religion as a legitimization of their endeavour.

    It is this persistent and pernicious relationship with power that we do well in addressing; first in ourselves and then in and through all our relations.


    1. kenn

      I agree that some (mentally ill, psychopathic) people seek power over others as a (mistaken) way of bolstering their self-worth, but the fact that religious fanaticism is not the only way of seeking such power does not mean that religion itself is not problematic.

      By eliminating all religions, we at least get rid of one (poor) excuse that unwell people use to gain power over others, claiming that they are only carrying out God’s wishes, when, in fact, they have no idea what God wants, or even if there is a God at all!

    2. Gretta Vosper Post author

      Thank you for these considerations, George. I agree that power is “a”, if not “the” issue that humans have to deal with. However, there is a particular danger present when religion binds itself to power because it gives a divine authority to what it is that power has chosen to do. When a divine authority tells us something is right or wrong, the human community has no response to it but to also identify it as right or wrong in accordance with their god. Homosexuality is one of the most tragic examples of our time; as long as the Bible said it was wrong, who could argue and still call themselves a Christian? Even the work that many progressives did to bring new eyes to bear on damning texts only engaged in reinterpretation when the authority behind the text was what needed to be addressed. It is a question of where you want your authority vested. If we hand it to the gods, we have an eternal war on our hands. If we vest it in human community with all the challenges that, too, will put in place, I believe we have a better chance to find our way to a compassion based justice.
      Thanks again for your comments.

  4. Donald Grayston

    I propose that all baseball bats be confiscated and destroyed, because some people have used them to kill other people. This is essentially what you are saying with your objection to religion. The problem is not religion: the problem is the misuse or distortion of religion. And rather than identifying belief in “a supernatural being” as the problem, I would encourage you to explore and even showcase the newer thinking about the nature and reality of “God.” I put q/marks around that word to signify that anything we say about “God” is of human cultural origin and therefore inadequate. If I don’t use the q/marks, I am meaning God as God is known to God Godself, which is beyond our reach.

    1. kenn

      re: “anything we say about ‘God’ is of human cultural origin and therefore inadequate”

      Actually, it’s worse than inadequate. It’s irrelevant, because we don’t know anything about God, not even if he exists.

    2. Gretta Vosper Post author

      I’m pretty sure a move to confiscate all baseball bats on the earth might provoke even more rancor than trying to confiscate the word “god”! lol!
      I am not sure that we can engage the issue in a productive way because we are building our arguments on completely different foundations: yours posits the existence of a divine being; mine doesn’t. Nevertheless, were there a divine being as you argue, your need for resolution to conflict remains and would ultimately meet mine, I believe. I am very aware of the newer thinking of the nature and reality of “God” but it does not sway my concern and your reflections underscore it. If we can only ever say anything about that “God” that is rooted in “human cultural origin and therefore inadequate”, how do we respond when parties like ISIS and Boko Haram murder and destroy, fundamentalist Christians call for the execution of homosexuals, and Zionist Jews persist in the theft of Palestinian lands, protected in their doing so by political interests? Do we not need exactly what I am saying we need: a place where conflict is resolved apart from divine authority which is entirely fickle, that is, willing to sidle up to any “human cultural” perspective and whisper “You’re my favorite” in its ear?

  5. Patrick Woodbeck

    I read you letter and I must say I am dismayed by what it seems that your letter says. It seems that you are equating what happened in Paris and Ottawa, and, if we follow this thinking to its logical end, many other places with religion. I do not believe that these acts have anything to do with religion, but rather have to do with extremism and fundamentalism. This is not Islam and Muslims around the world are standing up and saying that what happened in Paris is not their Islam. Yet you would have us dismiss any talk of God, yet if we do reject God, is that going to stop extremism or fundamentalism? No! I believe with a belief in God we can at least enter into conversation with others of belief to work to stop extremism and fundamentalism where ever it is found, if we reject God will we even be a part of the conversation? It is sad when we take the actions of a few and paint all believers with that same brush, I had hoped we had grown beyond this.

    1. kenn

      re: “I believe with a belief in God we can at least enter into conversation with others of belief to work to stop extremism and fundamentalism where ever it is found”

      Why is a belief in God required to have this conversation? Let’s just have it! God is not involved!

      1. Patrick Woodbeck

        Easier said then done. How can I hope to even begin to understand another’s set of beliefs, if I don’t have one myself?

        1. kenn

          Well, you certainly don’t have to believe in God yourself to understand that (some) other people do! But none of the people who do believe in God can offer any evidence at all that he actually exists.

          And those who are patiently waiting for God to come and fix the mess that man has created may be waiting for quite a while, because, even if God does exist, he may be leaving it to us to deal with the problems
          that are of our own making.

          So, why wait for help that may never come? Let’s just get on with it ourselves! The main message attributed to Jesus is simply the golden rule. If we all followed that, instead of always trying to outdo the other guy, the world would be totally transformed for the better. It would literally be paradise on earth! And we don’t need any help from God to achieve it!

          1. Patrick Woodbeck

            Well I suppose it really depends on what you believe God is, is God some distance overlord that sits in judgement, or is God that which calls us to bring the kindom of God into the world here and now. Just because my understanding of the world is one in which I believe that I am called to act in a certain way because of what I believe and this belief has been such that it has carried me through times of untold grief. So religion in and of itself is not bad, it is the extremists and fundamentalists who have corrupted the meaning, just as many have corrupted the meaning of capitalism and it has become a vehicle of inequality and control.

    2. Gretta Vosper Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Patrick. I’ve responded below to Donald in much the same way I would respond here. I do not know how you have misconstrued by letter to be brushing all members of a religious group in with these extremists, though. I am brushing the god to which all religious groups appeal to defend their choices with the same brush: impossible to discern (should it even exist). Because of that impossibility, we should rest our moral authority elsewhere so that we do not unwittingly underscore the authority to which others appeal and by which they affirm the atrocities they perpetrate.
      “I do not believe that these acts have anything to do with religion, but rather have to do with extremismm and fundamentalism.” Are you not speaking about religion when you use the word “fundamentalism”? If you are not, I am not sure what you mean. If you are, then my argument continues to stand: we cannot exert pressure on anyone else using the argument that our interpretation of religion, whether progressive Christian or Muslim or Jew, is the right one. Their argument would be exactly the same thing. Since the church began to splinter months after Jesus’ death, it has done nothing with more consistency than that. We know that is also true of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism. Every major religion has devotees to argue that its sacred writings are best understood by their particular group over and against all other interpretations. I am not saying there are Muslims who do not use their faith to bring beauty, compassion, and light into the world. Nor am I saying there are not Jews, Buddhists, and Christians who do the same. (Nor, too, atheists.) What I am saying is that monotheistic religions do the human community a disservice if they continue to argue for the use of words that can be used by others to claim authority for beliefs that bring about extremism, hatred, bigotry, and horror. We must shed what is common to our language so that we can clearly stand against such atrocities. And we must refuse to allow ourselves to fall back on the too, too easily accessible moral high-ground upon which our interpretations stand. There is no god there who will arbitrate our arguments. Only we can do that and it is urgent that we undertake that work using more than religious (and divisive) language.

  6. kenn


    I understand that some people derive comfort from an impression they have of what God (if he exists) may be like, but it’s important to differentiate between imagination and reality. If God exists, he may not be anything like you imagine him to be.

    As for extremists, they don’t know what God is like any more than you do, so they can pretend anything that serves their purpose.

    This is the problem with belief rather than proof. People used to believe that the world is flat, but it is round notwithstanding!

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