On Sunday, I shared the following with my congregation. You’ll get the point as you read it. It has to do with the pastoral care of the congregation, as you’ll see, but it may also be a helpful piece for you to share with others as you have the conversation about beliefs, perspectives, and the conclusions we come to.
For some months, West Hill has been looking forward to welcoming Kile Jones, the founder of Interview an Atheist at Church Day. Two years ago, Kile and I connected when I learned about his project and we’ve been fast friends ever since even meeting on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution a couple of years ago when he was leading an interfaith dialogue there. Delighted that conversations were taking place in churches between clergy and atheists, I quickly explored the possibility of hosting such an interview at West Hill. In fact, as we explored that option, it became clear that it would provide the opportunity for me to own the label “atheist.” Here’s the video of that conversation*. You’ll see in the piece I shared with my congregation why we felt that was an important thing to do at that time.
Sunday’s Interview an Atheist at Church Day was fantastic! Although Kile refrained from showing us the tattoo of sola scriptura that he has across his chest, we did get into the nitty gritty of communication between believers and atheists. And he proved me a novice when it comes to engaging fundamentalists! He was a fabulous interview and we had a lot of fun. As soon as it is posted to YouTube, I’ll put a link here and let you know it is up.
As I am with the people of West Hill, I hope to be able to engage with you in conversations about my choices as well. An email I received today from a gentleman noted that, as a Christian, he did not believe I should be leading a church if I don’t believe in God. But he commended me for my honesty; I hope that my response invites him into conversation, too. I was honoured that he took the time to write.
Here’s what I shared with West Hill today, altered to put them in the third person but otherwise the same.
One of the characteristics of my congregation, West Hill, that many value is its openness to exploration, to examination, and to reflecting seriously on what it says, does, and projects. That openness has led it to many changes over its history because it has considered nothing to be off limits. If understandings change, we feel it is important to change what we say we believe, the choices we make, or the way we express ourselves.
We’ve done that work together for almost two decades. During that time, we have been challenged to integrity on a number of different issues with respect to exactly those things: our beliefs, our choices, and the way we express ourselves. For some of in the church, it has felt like an exhilarating journey. For others, it may have been more like a series of unexpected surprises; sometimes good, sometimes bad, but never quite what was expected.
In 2013, as we prepared for our first INTERVIEW AN ATHEIST AT CHURCH DAY, the denial of human rights and the perpetration of violent acts against those who identified as not having religious beliefs were on the rise. Four Bangladeshi bloggers had been arrested and were being threatened with execution. Internationally renowned Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, had been sentenced to ten months imprisonment for declaring his atheism.
In solidarity with these persecuted atheists, and in the tradition of the Christian witness to stand with those whose rights are denied or abused, on that day, I publicly named myself an atheist. Sadly, events around the world continue to underscore how dangerous it is in many countries to identify as someone who does not believe; they continue to affirm my decision, the recent violent and public murder of atheist blogger, Amanta Das, but one horrific example.
Although I had been open about not believing in a theistic, interventionist God since 2001, the word, with all its complications, has added to the challenges we have faced as a community. It has had a significant impact on the way I and West Hill have been portrayed in the media, with assumptions often being made about the church that are incorrect. It has affected how I am received by my colleagues and in the wider church world.
More importantly, however, I expect it has affected the way participation in the church is perceived by those who are not familiar with West Hill but are exposed to media comments about us. While some West Hill people may be delighted and share the news with anyone who will listen, others may have had difficulty with family or friends who are astonished to hear that they go to a church where an atheist is the minister. My identifying as an atheist may negatively affect how people feel about being part of West Hill or about having me as their minister.
Today we are having our second INTERVIEW AN ATHEIST AT CHURCH DAY. This time, Kile Jones, the founder of the project, will be speaking with me. I’m looking forward to the conversation. But I am also taking advantage of the moment to acknowledge with my congregation how difficult this particular part of the journey has been for them. In the version of this blog that is being printed and handed out this morning, and that will remain available at the church for any who wish to pick it up, I apologize for any of the ways my being known as an atheist has been challenging or even difficult. And I invited conversation. I do that here, too.
My friend and colleague, Jerry DeWitt’s very public journey has taken him from evangelical ministry to atheism. In the midst of more losses as a result of that journey than I will ever experience, he crafted this incredibly astute clarification for those of us who struggle to express what it is we believe and why we believe it. I share it in the hope that you and I, whatever the differences in our beliefs, might have an ongoing conversation sparked by his wisdom.
Skepticism is my nature.
Freethought is my methodology
Agnosticism is my conclusion.
Atheism is my opinion.
Humanitarianism is my motivation.
As I often write inside one of my books as I’m signing it, “Let’s keep the conversation vibrant!” Thanks for helping me do just that.
* Please note that in the first interview in 2013, I refer to myself as a positive atheist. NOT TRUE! I’m actually a weak, negative atheist and simply used the wrong word. Being a weak, negative atheist means that I see no evidence for a god. Positive, strong atheists argue that there is no god and I can’t actually argue that. How could I possibly know?