The Complexities of Language: Atheist

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.

Interview an Atheist at Church DayFor 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.

Kile B. Jones. The B stands for Brainiac.

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.

FB20150530 Jerry DeWill

Skepticism is my nature.
Freethought is my methodology
Agnosticism is my conclusion.
Atheism is my opinion.
Humanitarianism is my motivation.

Jerry DeWitt

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?

8 thoughts on “The Complexities of Language: Atheist

  1. Linda Whitehead

    Dear Gretta, I don’t consider myself an atheist, just someone who does not want her understanding of our Source to be distorted by archaic and limited ideas from the past. I am well aware that “God” has been used to control people over the centuries. Our old hymns and prayers still reflect that deep fear of God, which is so sad. I’ve recently been watching Wolf Hall, and been reminded of all the bloodshed that accompanied the reformation.
    I spent some years with a Unitarian congregation in Niagara…St. Catharines, and I am still not sure why you want to remain in the United Church when you so clearly would fit with the Unitarians. I found them very open to a wide variety of spiritualities and very non judgmental. It was a welcome relief from years of being trapped with Presbyterians.
    When I first visited the Unitarian church I felt such delight in finally finding like minded people. We had a great discussion group going. I still miss them, but have been living in a different area.
    Here (Midland Ont.) I was in a group with some people who were fed up with their United church minister’s narrow minded fundamentalism. I hear the new minister there (St. Paul’s) is a real gem.
    The united church I grew up in (Bellefair, in the east end of Toronto) has become a condominium. I can’t say I’m all that surprised as even in the fifties I had the feeling a lot of the church activity was pretty superficial.
    Anyhow…the world is changing and who knows what will happen next. I can’t imagine all this beauty and complexity having gotten here by chance. If I believe nothing else, I am sure that the basis of the Universe is consciousness and love.
    All the best, Linda.

    1. Anne Ehret

      I love your last paragraph/thoughts…so beautifully said. I would agree!
      Anne Ehret
      just another seeker

  2. Anne Ehret

    I love the fact that you say that within your congregation “nothing is off limits”, because when you feel that there are certain things that you should not say, and there is no chance to throw them out there for conversation, everything becomes false. This conversation is so important because the more we listen, learn, fumble with our words and thoughts, the clearer things become. Learning to express yourself and yet still respect someone else’s beliefs, is the hard part. You have a very gentle, diplomatic way of expressing yourself which goes a long way to people listening to you. You are so good at clarifying your thoughts. Yes “atheist” is a hard word for the “church” to allow in to any conversation and I admit that I still stumble over this word and it’s implications but the more I read, talk and discuss it, the closer I get to what it could mean for all of us. I believe that after the emotions over the word settle, the conversation will be a good one. I Love Jerry Dewitt’s clarification for his beliefs!
    Anne e

  3. John

    Can’t wait for the interview with Kile. Just listened to Neil Carter’s interview on you tube and he comes over as just an ordinary guy…………what’s not to like! It is so appropriate that it doesn’t focus on dogma but rather on getting to know people with one word writ large RESPECT.


  4. Brett Matthews

    I find your Jerry DeWitt mystifying! I’d love to share the faith statement I wrote last year with you, and I’d love your reaction. In many ways the similarities are tantalizing, and the differences may simply be semantics. But the semantics seem to be a big problem, not just in my understanding you, but in all of us understanding each other! If you would like to read it, please send me your e-mail address and I’ll send it to you.

  5. Margot Van Sluytman

    Dear Gretta,
    My word for the rich, rich engagements you are inviting is: Sawbonna. What you share here is pure joy, “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. ” I celebrate your courage, passion, and vision.
    Margot Van Sluytman/RavenSpeaks

  6. Nelly

    For those who are looking for a place to live based on their lack of faith. I know a place where you would feel very welcome. It’s called NORTH KOREA. It’s an atheistic regime where I am sure you would all be happy. Bon Voyage.

  7. David

    It is your decision if you want to be an Aithiest , but I think that you should leave the church and stop doing Satans work by leading people astray. I think that you are a disgrace and i will pray that you will find Jesus before it is too late.

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