Explications, Amends, Remembrances

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist feels she needs to clarify a couple of things.

I’ve been reeling for the last week after receiving some pretty intense criticism on this here blog. I was really hurt. I mean, I know I’m doing something fairly weird. I know I’m getting my chocolate all up in your peanut butter, whatever epistemological flavor your personal peanut butter happens to be. I fully expected to take flak on this. I just didn’t expect it to come from the inside.

Some folks from my own beloved community misunderstood my intentions and seemed to feel that I was threatening or deriding their beliefs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My life’s project for the last year has been to build a bridge between belief systems in an attempt to address the terrible wounds this country has sustained in the false and unnecessary war between belief and non-belief.

So for my own peace of mind, just so that I know that I’ve presented all the information to the best of my ability, here are some user-friendly bullet points about what I’ve been trying to do.

  • I have no desire to “convert people to atheism”. If anything, I am trying to convert people – atheists and believers alike – to Glide-ism. The principles taught at Glide (unconditional love and acceptance, radical inclusion, liberation through community) are ones I think are seriously lacking in the public discourse on all sides.
  • To this end, I hope to put together a working alliance of folks of different belief systems within Glide to bring the message of radical inclusion in the service of social justice to the world outside the church. It is not an “atheist vs. non-atheist” group. It is an “atheist WITH non-atheist” group.
  • Many atheists do in fact have very strong biases against and scorn for people of faith. Not being of this stripe, I do not want to be judged by their actions.
  • Many people of faith do in fact have very strong biases against and scorn for social justice. Not being of this stripe, most folks at Glide do not want to be judged by their actions.
  • So let’s not.

When I sing the songs we sing at Glide I do some translations in my head so that they make sense to me. When we sing about God, I hear “love”. I hear unconditional support, a paean to someone who will pick you up and embrace you after your worst, most shameful collapses, someone who gently urges you to be as kind, as strong, as weak, as humble, as steadfast as you can be. I have found such remarkable love in my human community and strive to provide the same quality of love to others, no matter how mind-bogglingly hard that can be. Singing about it every Sunday strengthens my resolve to do better in the days that follow, just as it does for folks who translate the words differently. The miracle of Glide is that I have been welcomed to make these translations in whatever way fits me best, and that I will never have to worry about being judged for my beliefs or the way I choose to live my life.

That is kind of the point of Glide.

Because I have received this acceptance and love I have devoted my life to paying it forward, to respecting and honoring the beliefs of others and trying to find common ground instead of trying to argue them down or convince them otherwise. Everything I have written thus far in this blog has been an attempt to describe and elucidate that mission. It is a work in progress. I’ve come a long way, I’ve come a long way…I’ve still got a long way to go.

I would humbly, respectfully, lovingly, earnestly remind those who took offense at my proposal of the doctrine of unconditional love and acceptance that is at the heart of what we do at Glide. Your love – your Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Animist, undefined, agnostic, atheist, “otherwise categorized” love – has shown me how to stand in the ambiguities. The uncomfortable both/ands, the places where I am tempted to gird my loins with my ego-bound certainties and go at it bloody-knuckle style but am learning how to tolerate in all their wondrous awkwardness – this is what the Glide community has taught me. We must all sometimes remind each other how to do it, I guess.

Much love goes out to the friends and family of our beloved brother in song, Brigardo Groves. A shining light of joy and gospel groove left us this week, and we are all mourning and celebrating him. His love has given us yet another opportunity to share our common feelings in diverse languages. We miss you already, Brigardo.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ReflectiveAgent on May 24, 2010 at 8:47 am

    “When we sing about God, I hear “love”. I hear unconditional support, a paean to someone who will pick you up and embrace you after your worst, most shameful collapses, someone who gently urges you to be as kind, as strong, as weak, as humble, as steadfast as you can be. ”

    Here’s the problem, my dear — and perhaps an insight into why people are having trouble understanding you: you just aren’t an atheist. If you are putting your faith in an unmeasurable, unverifiable power — even if you’re calling it “love,” then you are a person of faith. Maybe — if you need a label — you can call yourself agnostic, but even that is tough because you certainly seem to believe in a nearly mystical, transforming force greater than yourself. More accurately, I would say you are irreligious. But it’s not nearly as interesting as saying you’re an atheist who goes to church, I suppose. So, for marketing purposes, your blog name makes sense.

    With regard to your search for unconditional support from those willing to pick you up after your most “shameful collapses” (and, you didn’t mention this, but I’ll add, feel empathy for you and not feel ashamed of you) — well, I wish you greater power to perceive its presence, especially when it comes in a package that is painful to look at. Me personally? I am searching for the power not to care about not being seen. (Apparently, I’m not winning the battle. Otherwise I wouldn’t have said anything. I’m a fallible creature, still.)

    Anyhow, I do wish you luck with your efforts here to build bridges. I’m truly glad you have found things that give you joy and bring peace to your heart.


    • Interesting thoughts. But I would still call myself an atheist. As a psychotherapist I see the way that the experience of unconditional love and acceptance affects the human psyche, which affects the human body. Or, one could posit, the other way around. I see it empirically tested and proven in every case I work with. The importance of unconditional love and acceptance on the healthy development of self-regard and self-understanding is well documented by the science of psychology.

      As for putting my faith in it, I think that for many people who grew up with problematic parenting it is nearly impossible to put faith in the love of anyone. That’s what I’m striving for when I’m singing about love. Frankly, and I’ve hesitated to name this because I’ve worried that it would really offend people who do believe in a God, when I’m singing or thinking about that feeling of someone who will feel empathy for you (yes, very good addition, I like that one a lot) I’m thinking about my husband. I’m hoping that I can learn how to trust that his love will be there, so that I can continue letting down all these stupid terrified walls I’ve built around things that I don’t like about myself. He’s learning how to do it too.

      Most importantly I believe that the kind of powerful love and communication we sing about in church comes from the inside, from our own human selves, rather than from an outside force. We create or destroy it. It originates internally. That is what I believe, and what makes me an atheist. If I believed that there was some kind of cosmic universal external power, whether embodied or disembodied, then I would agree with your suggestion.

      So I don’t believe that there is a nearly mystical force, but a transforming one for sure. It is indeed measurable – a rather sterile and unfriendly way of looking at it, but true – in that the sense of love we feel in our lives is directly related to our sense of wellbeing and psychological health. If I look around hard enough I’m sure I can find a well used psychometric test that measures love in one’s life.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write and be seen. If it makes you feel any better I don’t know who you are, so it’s sort of like not being seen, right? 😉


  2. Keep up the good work Gillian, you have not chosen an easy mission, you have much more patience and compassion for believers then I do, I am sorry you have been misunderstood by some of them. They must be frightened by the very thought of you, an intelligent caring person that is also an atheist, they don’t know how to react to that so they lash out.
    Best of luck on getting them to see the goodness that lies within many non-believers, I am sure if anyone can do it, you can, just keep writing and reaching out, they will come around.


    • Thanks for the encouragement. I think it goes both ways, though – many atheists I’ve talked to have been fairly horrified by what I’m doing. I’m as much trying to encourage non-believers to be a part of this movement as I am believers. The beauty of talking to people who have different views from us is that we increase the idea pool!


  3. Posted by Aquilina on May 26, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Hi. I read your posts to Andrew Pessin’s Huffpo column, “A Room Without Rants…” Then I read your blog, and then I became your first fan on Huffpo. Regarding any negative reaction to your blog, I just want to say that I think you’re doing a great job, and I hope you don’t get discouraged.


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