… in case you missed it.
Last night, I celebrated with a family the first birthday of their beautiful, strong, one year old daughter. She was born here in Canada, far from her parents’ families and friends, the first Canadian in a refugee family. Her early birth, a year ago, brought them joy in a time of loss and sorrow when, because of anti-secular extremists, they had been forced to flee to Canada. Here, she will grow up in a secular society that respects her right to freedom from religion just as it respects the rights of others to freedom of religion.
This week, I was privileged to correspond with a supporter and clarify my movement beyond the use of the word “god” in the leadership of my congregation, West Hill United.
My understanding of god, one I began to develop many, many years ago under the tutelage of the United Church, simply could no longer bear the weight of theism, and certainly not of an interventionist supernatural realism. And I realized, about fifteen years ago, that it was the latter two things – the supernatural and interventionist aspects of god – that most of these last two (three?) generations have rejected. So I stopped using the word. My concept of god held neither and did not need the word god to be shared with others.
Twelve years after deciding that I could no longer compromise the reach of West Hill’s ministry by insisting on using a word in a manner whole generations do not understand, I identified as an atheist.
In 2013, I learned of a whole new layer of disdain being placed on the word “atheist” in areas of the world where religious extremism was on the rise. As the birthday girl’s daddy said last evening, the new atheism has been very effective – it has promoted a backlash of intolerance that is violent and deadly. (Thank you, Christopher HItchens, et al.) Four secular Bangladeshi authors had been arrested and were being threatened with execution because they were “atheists”, labelled so in order to incite hatred against them. And in Turkey, Fazil Say, a world-renowned pianist, had been sentenced to ten months in prison for actually identifying as an atheist on social media.
What??!!?? In 2013??!!?? In a secular country??!!??
I’d labelled myself before. In With or Without God, I identified as a non-theist. In Amen, I’d gone further in order to clarify my lack of belief in a supernatural realm or any such power active in this one; I’d identified as a “theological non-realist.” These labels have proven to be palatable within church circles. But they meant the same thing as the beliefs for which five men were being persecuted and for which secular blogger Rajib Haider had already died. I took the label.
In the last seventeen months, I have learned what the cost of the label atheist is, even here in Canada. My suitability as a minister was not questioned as long as the work I did fell into the realm of “sharing the good news” or preaching something most in liberal churches would call “the way of Jesus” – a work that focuses a community on the values of love, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. As a non-theist, I was no threat. As a theological non-realist, I was probably misunderstood. But as an atheist? How could that be tolerated?
I am aware that there are many who are angry because of what they suppose my purposes have been as I have attempted to make a conversation public. It wasn’t supposed to be a conversation about the fact that I’m an atheist (as well as a theological non-realist and a non-theist). It was supposed to be a conversation about prejudice, religious extremism, the need to struggle for the right to freedom from religion wherever religion was used to oppress, deny rights, incite hatred. It was supposed to invite The United Church of Canada, a tolerant, diverse, and inclusive denomination to join the struggle for the protection of individuals who were, as it turned out, soon to be targeted for assassination. In that, I’ve clearly failed.
But we had birthday cake last night and one little girl can grow up in a freedom that has fast deteriorated in her parents’ native Bangladesh. For her, I’d do it all over again. It is my hope that as she grows, churches here in Canada and nations around the world will slough off their fear and prejudice against the word “atheist” and recognize that it really isn’t doctrinal belief that matters at all; it’s the way we choose to live our lives.