The reason I’m an atheist …

… in case you missed it.

The birthday girl’s party place!

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 HItchenset 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.

 

12 thoughts on “The reason I’m an atheist …

  1. Randal Rauser

    While I appreciate your honesty in sharing your atheistic convictions, and I recognize that this must be a difficult time, the fact remains that you’re not being persecuted.

    Imagine if a representative of the Canadian Secular Alliance became persuaded of the need to apply Sharia law in society and then decided to become vocal in his new convictions. Would you think he was being persecuted if the Canadian Secular Alliance responded by removing him from being a representative of their organization? Of course not. By endorsing Sharia law this individual would have abandoned the very raison d’etre for the Canadian Secular Alliance.

    Since you’ve rejected theism have you not abandoned the very raison d’etre for Christianity? (To be sure, Christianity is far more than theism, but it at least includes theism.)

    I recognize that you disagree. For you theism is clearly an option. But others within your own church (to say nothing of the rest of Christendom) disagree with you, and one would think they’ve got a right to see that their church retains its historic commitment to theism, just as the Canadian Secular Alliance has the right to retain its historic commitment to secularism.

    1. Ian Bushfield

      “Imagine if a representative of the Canadian Secular Alliance became persuaded of the need to apply Sharia law in society and then decided to become vocal in his new convictions.”
      Your argument is fatally flawed from its premise. Each group has a specific and clearly defined set of purposes and values. While Sharia Law is antithetical to the purposes of the CSA, atheism (at least in Gretta Vosper’s view, so far as I understand it) is not antithetical to the purposes of the United Church of Canada in the 21st century. Theologies evolve, often through people like Vosper challenging them, and it’s entirely feasible that the broad church that is the UCC should encompass those who have rejected the belief in an interventionist deity.

      1. Randal Rauser

        Of course organizations can evolve and discard tenets that were once considered essential for their core mission and identity (the YMCA being an obvious example).

        And clearly the Canadian Secular Alliance has not evolved to the extent where it can be reconciled with Sharia law.

        But your claim that my analogy is “fatally flawed” based on assumption that the UCC is already post-theistic is belied by the fact that Ms. Vosper is currently facing this inquiry. So clearly many do not agree with you that the UCC is post-theistic.

        I’m not a member of the UCC but when I read their most recent faith statement, “The Song of Faith” (2006) it appears to require rather creative rereading to reconcile that thoroughly theistic and trinitarian statement with atheism.

        Be that as it may, this inquiry may lead to the conclusion that the UCC is, for all practical purposes, a secular-humanist fellowship rather than a Christian church. Once that conclusion is made, my analogy will no longer be apposite. But until that judgment is made my argument carries: a Christian minister who embraces atheism betrays her communal identity as surely as a secularist who adopts Sharia law.

  2. John Markvart

    Reading the questions you were asked by the Toronto Conference Interview Committee reminded me of my interview in Quinte Conference in 1981. I was asked however if I was in essential agreement with the Basis of Union. I said yes, but I did not believe all of it particularly article seven which starts,” We believe and confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and Man..” I shared my view that all religions offered ways to understand God. There was a long discussion which included reference to the gospel of John. I confessed that I did not accept the view of Jesus in John’s gospel. I was approved for ordination, which showed the committee accepted a diverse view. Thirty five years later, I consider myself a non theist. Today, if I was asked by an interview committee “Are you in in essential agreement with the Basis of Union?”, I would say no. That would make me unsuitable for ministry in Toronto Conference. I wonder how many other ministers would still be in essential agreement. Nora Saunders has put the United Church on a dangerous road by her recommendation that suitability for ministry is based on theological views. The United Church has been a part of my life for over sixty years. But the way you have been treated for using the word atheist has convinced me that United Church has regressed. I no longer wish to be part of a church that conducts what I consider a heresy trial. I admire your courageous stand for your views and your desire to “irritate the church into the 21st century”. A progressive church would embrace you and your views and certainly not discipline you.

  3. Shane

    For me, Christian Atheism is about the values that we as humans have developed and associated with the Christian story, not about “believing” certain truth claims that are demonstrably false or massively implausible, like the resurrection, virgin birth or even the existence of a “God”. If Christianity can’t incorporate such views, that’s pretty sad, and declares the triumph of mere belief over values. It’s confusing the wrapping with the present.

      1. Helena

        Randal, I think you raise an interesting point and it struck me initially as quite logical; however, upon thought, I don’t think it’s quite got it here. Veganism and carnivory are necessarily opposites; Christianity and atheism are not, necessarily. It depends on what you determine to be the definitive factor of Christianity, which it seems to be is exactly the conversation Gretta is trying to provoke.

        To put a slightly different slant on your veganism analogy, some vegans may share their reasons for veganism, may research veganism, may call themselves vegan. Some might enjoy connecting with other vegans. Some may believe veganism is the correct life choice. But some people may just stop eating animal products! They may never use a correct term or identify themselves in any special way. Are they less vegan?

        As in Christianity – some find the words, the stories, the beliefs to be a key part of their faith – but others just live out the ethos (to borrow the term Gretta often uses) and that is how they practice their faith. The two needn’t oppose one another; they are just different. In fact, they can be very complementary, in a context where respectful dialogue can happen, each keeping the other sharp and honest in their reasons for choosing as they choose.

        Just another perspective. Peace!

  4. Robert Tulip

    Hi Gretta

    Your situation reminds me of the line from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and celebrate, because great is your reward in heaven; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.” The irony is that when heresy-hunters persecute non-conformist Christians like you for not believing in literal heaven, they are falsely saying evil against you because of Jesus. The blessing of Jesus is for those with integrity.

    Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 23 that religious leaders are hypocrites. Like whitewashed tombs they are outwardly beautiful, but inside they are decayed and impure. The idea of a supernatural interventionist God is obsolete, a decayed hypocritical belief that is incompatible with scientific knowledge. Church efforts to hold onto this primitive myth are doomed to fail because it is untrue. This throwback prevents Christianity from having any credibility among a wider modern audience, and actively supports unethical and unchristian behaviour, such as the persecution of you for the sake of the name of Christ.

    1. Randal Rauser

      Robert, your comment nicely illustrates the utter contempt that folks like yourself have for orthodox Christianity. Gretta Vosper has actively been promoting atheism within the UCC for years, and now that the church has undertaken an inquiry you label them “heresy-hunters” and “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs”. It’s clear that you just want orthodox Christians with their “primitive myth” to shut up.

      Your modernistic condescension calls to mind Bultmann’s infamous words: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.” It is true that Bultmann’s attitude was trendy back when electric lights and the wireless were a big deal. But it is now thoroughly outdated. Orthodox Christians are well represented in fields like academic analytic philosophy (where I am active) and natural science. To note an example of the latter, a colleague at my church, Aksel Hallin, is a physics professor at the U of A specializing in dark matter and as of last year, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize. And yes, he’s also an evangelical Christian. And a couple years ago I had the privilege of meeting Francis Collins, one of the most influential scientists in the world and yes, another evangelical.

      While your appeal to a secular force majeure may have impressed the Vienna Circle, today it merely illustrates your own dated irrelevance.

      1. Robert Tulip

        Randal Rauser
        RR: “Robert, your comment nicely illustrates the utter contempt that folks like yourself have for orthodox Christianity.”
        Hi Randal, thank you very much for your response, which I find very interesting. We can all easily jump to conclusions in discussing such complex topics. For example, I do not hold orthodox Christianity in ‘utter contempt’, but rather see it as requiring reform, in order to reconcile faith and reason.
        RR: “Gretta Vosper has actively been promoting atheism within the UCC for years, and now that the church has undertaken an inquiry you label them “heresy-hunters” and “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs”.”
        To ‘undertake an enquiry’ would be fine by me, but the situation here is that Vosper has been deemed “unsuitable” as a Minister of the Word, because her theology is considered heretical. I think it is perfectly fair to label Vosper’s critics as persecuting hypocrites. The sort of cheap grace that is indulged by the traditional supernatural churches completely fails any robust test of logic or evidence, and so is rightly viewed with disdain by modern thought. Jesus’ line about white wash is directly targeted at institutional religion in general, because the corruption of the world inevitably infects such bodies over time. Truth comes from the periphery, from among those whom the church despises and rejects, as Isaiah put it in Chapter 53.
        RR: “It’s clear that you just want orthodox Christians with their “primitive myth” to shut up.”
        Far from it. I would like nothing more than genuine dialogue about faith. But instead of dialogue we get preaching, with people of opposite views ignoring, demonising and talking past each other. I am sorry if that is the impression you have of my comments, but can I point out, no less an authority than Saint Augustine derided the literal belief in seven days of creation as fit for idiots. I would like orthodox Christianity to reform and become a bit less arrogant. Instead of holding to literal idiotic beliefs, Christians should show some humility and recognize – as Vosper does – that the original meaning is symbolic. That applies to talk about God as well as about alleged miracles.

        RR: “Your modernistic condescension calls to mind Bultmann’s infamous words: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.””
        “Infamous” is a rather loaded description for a comment that most people would see as a sensible and rational observation about scientific evidence as the primary framework of meaning. Many ancient beliefs in demons and spirits are false and obsolete. The germ theory of disease has ended much suffering caused by belief in demons. My Masters Thesis on Heidegger’s Ethical Ontology involved some detailed study of Bultmann, who I greatly admire while disagreeing on his specific demythologization project. What we need is to find the allegorical meaning in myth, not to remove myth from our world.

        RR: “It is true that Bultmann’s attitude was trendy back when electric lights and the wireless were a big deal. But it is now thoroughly outdated.”
        Honestly Randal, comments like that are grossly exaggerated, I am sorry to say. The idea that science has created a new paradigm in which demons have no place is not “thoroughly outdated.” Carl Sagan’s work on the demon haunted world presents a very clear rebuttal of your implication that a “world of demons” makes sense for the modern mind.

        RR: “Orthodox Christians are well represented in fields like academic analytic philosophy (where I am active) and natural science. To note an example of the latter, a colleague at my church, Aksel Hallin, is a physics professor at the U of A specializing in dark matter and as of last year, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize. And yes, he’s also an evangelical Christian. And a couple years ago I had the privilege of meeting Francis Collins, one of the most influential scientists in the world and yes, another evangelical.”
        There is a well-known psychological syndrome of mental compartmentalization which enables such strange views. Many scientists find emotional and social comfort in religious practice, but do not seek to reconcile these personal habits with their intellectual work in a coherent and explicit way. The great value of Gretta Vosper’s work is the effort to confront irrationality with a robust and authentic and integrated ethical perspective. My personal view is that Christian evangelism can be good, but only when the unscientific elements of it are recognized as symbolic rather than literal.

        RR: “While your appeal to a secular force majeure may have impressed the Vienna Circle, today it merely illustrates your own dated irrelevance.”
        For readers who are not familiar with the Vienna Circle, it was a mid-twentieth century group of atheist scientific philosophers, whose core and periphery included giants such as Karl Popper, Rudolf Carnap, AJ Ayer and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I think Carnap’s view that there is no meaning outside science expresses the essence of logical positivism. But that sort of scientistic evangelism is not relevant to the discussion of Gretta Vosper’s atheism, which as I understand her views presents an attitude of respect for spirituality and worship and tradition while seeking to reconcile faith with reason.

  5. Helena

    I love this post, especially your comment that: “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 find so much of what is talked about in liberal and progressive religion is about finding “palatable” ways to say that we don’t really believe this stuff anymore! Non-theist is basically a polite way of saying atheist. What is the practical difference? Terms like panentheist are so complex and philosophical and conceptual as to not really mean anything at a practical level – at least to me. I can do the mental gymnastics required to make them work as a metaphor, but honestly, it all gets a little tiring, doesn’t it?

    Anyone for whom these terms and definitions have meaning, by all means – continue to use them! But for those of us for whom they do not hold meaning anymore, it would be so nice to just drop the politesse and get on with what matters – loving our neighbours as ourselves. Didn’t some guy once say that was the essence of religion anyway? (Matt 7:12). Just sayin’.

  6. Mike

    At the end of the day, this is about opinions vs experience. God is real, and He gives us opportunities to experience Him. One is by experiencing His glory and power.

    I put two websites below where you can see miracles, signs, and wonders happen. But it’s one thing to see it online, but how about actually seeing it in person or even experiencing it? If you’re really committed to disproving God, I say contact those guys and make a trip to see them. The supernatural is real.

    And I know, when people mention “supernatural”, the conversation gets credited as nonsense. BUT, take the challenge: Go and meet these guys. It would change everything you think you know. I don’t want to insult you in any way. I just want you to see that God is real. I know everyone wants to have a intellectual debate about God’s existence, but who can prove God with words. It’s only in power! So, check it out and go meet up with these guys if you can. I met most of them, so I know from first hand experience.

    But, check it out the video first and then go meet them.

    repentandpreparetheway.org

    Royalfamilyinternational.com

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