Sunday, June 30, 2013

Church for atheists?

My dad likes to relate a story of a discussion that he had with some religious people one time.  They asked him if he believed in God, and he said yes.  They asked him if he believed in Jesus, and he said yes.  They asked him if he believed that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected, and he said yes.

So why, then, they asked him, did he not go to church?

My dad's response?  "I own a boat, but I don't belong to the yacht club."

Basically, the point is that my dad's just not much of a "joiner".  I never knew him to be a member of any kind of organization, and the older he gets, the less communal he gets.  He lives on a ranch out in Oak Run, California, which is famous for the fact that you've never heard of it before and you probably wouldn't have if you weren't reading this blog entry right here.  If you want to get there, you need to drive out to the middle of nowhere where you find a road that goes for a mile to get to a place in the dead center of nowhere.

I don't know if I'll ever do the same thing when I'm older, but I have inherited his basic reluctance to join any sort of a group.  When I was a believer, I didn't go to church regularly.  I didn't belong to any clubs in high school or college, and I had zero desire to join a fraternity.  I'm a homebrewer, but I don't think that I'm going to join the homebrewer's association near me anytime soon.

I've read recently about some atheist groups who are working to create "atheist churches", which would essentially act as a weekly meeting for nonbelievers.  No doubt there are a lot of these going on already, but they don't necessarily feel the need to label it a "church".  This makes me wonder a couple of things:  1.  Would I go to one if it were near me, being the outspoken atheist that I am? and 2.  Are atheist "churches" even necessary?

The first one is easy; no, I probably wouldn't.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Do we have people who are constantly pushing their religious agendas here?  I suppose so.  Still, I haven't heard of any movements to teach creationism at our public schools, so it's obviously not as bad as some places.  Are there "You're gonna burn in hell!" Christians here who make nonbelievers feel marginalized?  I suppose so, but they're pretty easy to avoid.  Most religious people here are pretty cool and aren't interested in intruding on the lives of everybody else.  Most of my friends are nonbelievers, and with my believer friends, there really isn't a problem.

This is what leads me to the second question.  If I lived in The Bible Belt, I might feel a bit different, and I'd want to join some sort of organization in spite of my usual reluctance.  I'm currently reading Hope After Faith by Jerry DeWitt.  He's a former pastor who lost his faith and is now trying to create basically what you'd call an atheist church, and he's doing it right there in Louisiana, where he has had to explain to people the difference between being an atheist and being a Satanist.

DeWitt has an interesting style, and I think that he has the potential to reach a lot of people who might be turned off by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  When you listen to the guy, you can tell that being a pastor is something in his blood.  He's got a real warm and fuzzy approach.  Not so strangely, he reminds me of Jim Shields, a man I jokingly refer to as "my pastor".  I once had the pleasure of having dinner at Jim's house, and I attended his church service at Sanctuary Ministries, which I wrote about some time ago.

While I obviously disagree with his theology, there was something about the man, as he has a disarming, welcoming personality, and I found myself talking about the kinds of things that I might not normally discuss with somebody until I had gotten to know them really well.  I do think that being a pastor is something that definitely requires a certain talent if you want to be a good one.  I imagine that if I was a person of faith, I'd want somebody like that, where I could feel as though I could talk to Jim like I would a family member.

While I obviously haven't met Jerry DeWitt though, the interviews I've seen of him give me the impression that he has that same sort of charisma.  I recently started following him on Facebook, and while it might seem a bit cheesy to some, I really liked the status he wrote this morning:  "You know what I think? I think the world IS enough! Be on the lookout for something to enjoy TODAY..."  I've been sick the last couple of days, feeling sorry for myself, and it gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start thinking about the good things in my life.  I couldn't help but think that DeWitt is basically doing the same thing that he did as a pastor, only appealing to a different audience.  And I think that this is an audience that doesn't have enough people like him to reaffirm what's good about life, at least, not in the way that he's going about it.  I've found some particularly inspiring words from Richard Dawkins, like the one where he talks about how lucky we are all to have even been born in the first place, but it doesn't have that same quick, gut-level reaction that DeWitt's words do.

While church was never really for me, I'm not so arrogant as to think that it serves absolutely no purpose.  I think that for a lot of people, leaving the faith isn't just simply about believing one thing or another.  For some people, it's as extreme as being completely torn away from their friends and family.  For others, it's about losing a sense of community that is important to them.  If you watch the video below, you'll see a woman who was moved to tears by DeWitt - not just his message, but his style, as she came from a similar Pentecostal background.  Somehow I doubt Christopher Hitchens could have pulled off the same trick.

So, while an "atheist church" might not be for every atheist, I'm starting to think that maybe they are necessary for some of them.


Tony from Pandora said...

All the coziness, warmth and community of church without all the baggage of guilt and sin, huh...

Will they have potlucks? Because atheists or not... I'm a sucker for a good shredded chicken sandwich...

Lance Johnson said...

The food will probably be spicier. And we'll have beer.

Tony from Pandora said...

"Mmmm, beer... I'd kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer..."
- Homer Simpson