Posts Tagged ‘church’

Blogfail, Empty Places and Owning Up: YFNA Attempts to Crawl Out of Her Own Rear End.

I gotta be honest. I feel like a bit of a failure. Blogfail. Um, kind of epic blogfail.

I lost the fire, lost my way, lost hold of the questions I was trying to answer. It happens. There have been at least a dozen post ideas that have flitted non-committally through my head like your winsome, New-Agey friend with all the scarves and divination stones who just wants to borrow your flax oil but can’t stick around to help you move your couch. But I’ve just felt like I haven’t been doing my homework, so I don’t deserve to have a voice.

Wow. That’s one for my therapist, eh?

Anyway. I just chickened out with my “following the music” idea, because frankly I did not think I would be welcome in the kind church that has the music I’m talking about. I fully confess to holding cowardly, preconceived and even bigoted notions about a number of things here: 1) That African American churches are the only ones in this town with good gospel music; 2) That African American congregations would not like an atheist white girl wandering into their midst to feed off their music; 3) That African American churches would be more conservative; 4) That conservative churches would fill me with rage and be therefore utterly intolerable for me to sit through. In all truth it would seem from my research that at least Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notion #1 is most likely true; if there are racially diverse churches with old school gospel in this town I have yet to find them. But then again so much in this town is homogeneous, in a way that continues to gives me the squeebs. Despite its good intentions, Portland has a long, long way to go in the diversity department.

As for Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notions #2 and 3, I have no data there. They are truly born of my own unjustifiable, under-examined biases and microaggressive privilege. I own them, I do not seek to defend them and I humbly commit to working on them.

Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notion #4 is a little harder to process. It was much, much, SO much easier to practice unconditional love and radical acceptance for intolerance disguised as religion when I got to have a party about it every Sunday. It was SO much easier to stay in patience and compassion when I could go and drown in the joy that was balm to all the hurt and rage. I think I could wrangle with #4 if I knew I could tap into the strength afforded by one hundred bodies on either side committed to the same effort. I am not as strong without that.

It needs some thought. Instead of avoidance, I mean. Avoidance has been very effective up till now, but that big achey cavern in my gut where my strange, wobbly, translational spirituality used to lie is still there, just kind of patiently thudding away until I’m ready to attend to it. I think it’s time.

Old Time Religion; Life & Death, Too Close Together.

I’ve been to church a few times since the last post.

A friend of mine invited me to come to Unity Church of Portland, and I went twice; once with her and once without. It is a lovely non-denominational church that emphasizes spirit over any concept of “god”. They talk about “wisdom teachers” such as Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed and the “wisdom texts” they gave to the world. People were very nice to me both times, both as a stranger and as someone introduced by a congregant. There was nothing in the sermon that made me feel particularly out of place in my beliefs. I came home and told my husband that it was very nice, and wandered off with a distracted, unsettled look on my face.

Yesterday I went to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland. Also very nice. Even less about deity – although interestingly they used the word “religion” substantially more than either sermon at Unity, despite the fact that there was less “religious” vocabulary used. They lit a chalice, gonged a Buddhist prayer bell, sang the Quaker hymn “’Tis A Gift To Be Simple”. Several parts of the service had to do with social justice and action, which was refreshing. A very, very white quartet got up and sang a Kenyan feast song. They were all classically trained and had some chops, and were clearly very, very white. The audience – entirely white and primarily over 50 – gently bobbed their heads. I noticed several people falling asleep. When I got home I listened to a recent Glide service in which Pastor Karen Oliveto had everyone dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.


I know that comparing is a wasteful activity, a fool’s game. I was very conscious of that as I sat and listened. I told myself to stop comparing, dammit, and just experience what IS instead of what ISN’T. I tried really, really hard… But hang on a sec. Let me take a moment to let you in on where I’m at, because it’s relevant.

Last week I had a miscarriage.

Now that is a god-awful word if I ever heard one. Like I dropped it perhaps, tripped on uneven pavement and it just – whoops! – flew out of where I was carrying it. Or the phrase “miscarriage of justice” comes to mind. A terrible flub, a travesty perpetrated by an inept and corrupt authority. I don’t know which is worse. Although at the very early stage at which I miscarried the other term for it is a “chemical pregnancy”, which is most decidedly worse than “miscarriage”. As though it were just a fluke of chemistry rather than a heartbreaking end to the confirmed fruition of years of hope and dreaming. However you put it, it freaking sucks.

Yesterday morning when I stepped into the sanctuary, I could really have used a little breakdown space.

Here’s the thing that really struck me as I sat listening to the smooth, un-jarring and un-challenging material of the service: There needs to be a little violence. I know that’s a strange word to use, but it was the one that kept coming to me. I remembered the almost combative physical force of the 100+ voices of the Glide Ensemble; the challenging, questioning, all-fired-up preaching that invited shouts of recognition and urging from the congregation; the confrontation of all my own biases and inhumane discomforts that was the result of standing in a room full of such vastly different individuals who all agree to lift each other up every Sunday, free of charge. All of that stuff – that life-changing, shell-shattering stuff that takes hold of your grief and shakes it like a bone rattle in your chest, makes room for the watershed and strips you bare so that the total stranger standing next to you knows you, sees you, recognizes himself in you and gives you the extra hands you need to keep clinging to the side of the cliff – all of that good, good stuff is, let’s face it, a little violent.

It’s old time religion, y’all. When I think about “old time religion” I think of the wrath of God, the smiting of the wicked, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth. There are times in our lives when our grief so outstrips our capacity to compass it that the only thing that truly reflects our insides is violence. And if we’re lucky we can find that essential violence in a threshing drumbeat or a spine-breaking harmony by a hundred voices. There are ever so many ways of finding death and destruction unfettered, ungrounded, unloved, unmended. What we need is a way of earthing the lightening bolts and feeling the thunder without dying in flames.

So I wanted a little old time religion this Sunday. Unfortunately, what I got was unmoored floaty new-wave complacency.

Next week we’re going to follow the music. Maybe the music is the key. The question is this: will I be able to hear the music and feel welcomed knowing that my atheism is looked upon there as a failure, a deficit, a dearth? How alien will I feel, how much will I have to hide? I don’t know the answer. I only know I haven’t found it yet.

Greetings from Your Newly Northern Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

Bless me, WordPress, for I have sinned. It’s been a year since my last blog post.

We live in Portland now. Our little house is big enough for us and our cats and it sits on a tree-crowded corner of a verdant, safe, funky-in-the-best-way neighborhood. Kids run up and down our street playing riotously joyful games and selling lemonade. We are in the process of trying to make one of our own to add to the clamor. We have built vegetable beds in the back yard (a back yard!!! We’d heard of back yards in San Francisco, but no one we knew had ever seen one) and are watching seedlings grow into salads. I have a fabulous and rewarding job for which I am paid, if not handsomely, then at least adequately enough for the things we want. Every weekend we hang out with my sister and her husband and kids, who are happy and healthy and destined for greatness. As I write this, my husband is making us pancakes with blackberries from the produce cart down the street. Life, she is sweet.

And I miss Glide.

As the weeks and months turn into a year, I become more and more acutely aware of it. I pick apart the longing to try to understand the building blocks of what I’m missing. The people, of course. Beloved friends who I hardly get to speak to anymore, whose faces I once got to see shining with joyful noise every Sunday. Pastors Karen Oliveto and Don Guest, inspiring mentors and cheerleaders who continually reminded me that being there was not in the least bit strange, because once we got past the semantics we were all talking about the same thing, really. And the music. Being one voice in a massive sea of voices, lifting up those big soaring open harmonies that lifted everyone else. The bootie-shaking, rock solid celebration of gospel. And the opportunity to serve. Knowing I was part of a machine that fed, clothed, healed and housed thousands of human beings. Climbing down into the steam and laughter of the cafeteria at the grim crack of dawn and shedding all pretension, maddening self-absorption, anxiety-addled need to make it all about me, picking up a tray of food and delivering it to a hungry woman and her children. Chapping my fingers in bleachy water wiping down the table after a man finishes the only meal he will eat that day. And acceptance. The feeling that whatever broke in me and flooded into tears, whatever shame of the past, whatever cringing hidden need I might battle in the wounded heart of night, I would still be embraced and encouraged and loved. Loved. And celebrated.

And still get to be an atheist.

Last night my husband and I were sifting through all these things, trying to distill and define the formula of Glide in the fantasy that we could somehow find or recreate it here in Stumptown. We found ourselves comparing religion and rock & roll, examining the similarities and differences between them. What we came to was this: Religion provides frequent ecstatic experiences that are shared by a large group of people and creates a context for transcendence. So does rock & roll. We humans search for this, seem to need it quite desperately. But where religion gets tricky is that it requires conformity, insists upon an in-group and an out-group, defines who is acceptable and who is most emphatically not. Rock & roll solves that problem by accepting absolutely anyone, anything, any behavior – the more transgressive the better. It turns the ecstatic and transcendent into a frenetic, explosive expression of self-hood, me-ness, an identity supernova in which all our dirty bits are reified, deified, idolized. Where rock & roll falls short is that it is a completely self-feeding vocation; we get to experience and celebrate our selves but there’s no element of plugging all that energy back into a connected humanity. We need that, too. Without it we become lonely and self-destructive. We long for something bigger than ourselves. Service puts us back into the network of life.

Glide does all of these things – ecstatic transcendence, complete acceptance and plugging in to service – and does them beautifully. It is a magical equation that I am desperate to find again.

I’ve been wanting to go back to writing but I haven’t been an atheist in church for nearly a year and so haven’t had anything to say. And although I am peaceful and content in my life right now, the lack of community is a constant low-level ache that I am hardly aware of until I pass a church and remember what it felt like to be a part of that weekly embrace. And at that moment I feel deeply alone, because I am so sure that there will be no place for me there. I do not believe.

I find myself going back to the angry atheist podcasts, the documentaries about creationism and anti-gay religious groups. I know from experience now that this is a way of staunching the loneliness, a way of wrapping myself in safe certainties about in-groups and out-groups. I am more like the angry atheists than I am like the creationists and anti-gay people. Therefore in order to feel less alone I have to re-position myself so that I can judge Them for what they do to Us. And oh, I just get so disappointed with myself. I know where this goes. It goes away from music, community, service and acceptance. But I don’t know where to find those things here.

Around 1am last night as my husband and I chewed on all these weighty issues I started to form an idea. An experiment. An exercise in blogging. I will visit communities and write about them. Churches, atheist and humanist groups, volunteer organizations. If I stage it as an experiment in my head perhaps I will be able to observe more clearly and judge less harshly. And if I’m really honest with myself, an experiment gives me the excuse to look for what I’m missing.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 2

I want to put forward some of the really chewy ideas I heard tonight, and I will do so in subsequent posts. But first I want to think and talk a little about why it’s useful – or important, or relevant, or not totally insane – for an atheist to read the Bible.

First and foremost, it is a collection of narratives on which nearly all of western culture is built. If you want to fully understand anything painted, carved, written or played in Europe or its colonies since about 300AD, you’d better have some basic biblical literacy.

Case in point: My husband and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a week ago and saw this painting, “Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, by Hans Cranach, 1537. If you’re prone to contemplation about these sorts of things, you might find yourself with some questions, the first being who is Judith and what is she doing with this guy’s head? And why would a lush little society dame want to pose as her? What does it say about her, about her family, about her interests? What does it say about the artist? What does it say about the zeitgeist in which she posed and he painted? It’s remarkably postmodernist for a 16th century painting, full of self-referents and mirroring cultural memes. Without an elemental understanding of the central narrative, you can’t even begin the conversation.

Secondly, it is imperative that we understand the language in which the most important social justice issues are being discussed in this country. Marriage equality, reproductive rights, racial and economic justice are all being played out on the stage of religiosity. If we want to stand on the side of human rights, we have to be fluent in the language to which those standing on the side of oppression resort to support their claims. I tell you this now: theirs is not the only interpretation of this book. We must not cede to them its resources, for there is more liberation in it than subjugation.

Thirdly, it is comprised of some of the most moving stories ever recorded. Leave aside for the moment the ontological arguments about its authorship, its veracity and its literal or metaphorical interpretation – this is an intense book. It has stories about working, living, loving, losing, longing, grieving, healing, striving, surviving. Human stories. Stories that have been picked over, assembled, reassembled, reworked, but nevertheless they speak to a common thread of lived experience that stretches back millenia. Look down at your own hand, and then imagine the hands that built the pyramids. There is a narrative that stretches back to those hands and beyond, and the echoes of that narrative are enshrined in the Bible.

I have to tell you that I am so grateful for the opportunity to reread – reclaim – the stories in this book without the crushing, foreclosing oppression with which they were imposed on me as a child. I will be very clear that I read them as myth, not fact. I read them as myth in the way that Pastor Guest defines myth: as “a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.” I do not wish to engage in a debate about the reality or unreality of these stories, because that leads to unproductive suffering. But talking about what they mean to us as people, what they tell us about ourselves and those who we should strive to find love for – that is a conversation that I will geek out on for days.

Pride and Prejudice: A brief belated note on Pride Sunday in San Francisco

Let’s play a little catch-up, shall we?

We had Pride Weekend here in San Francisco last month, which marked a year of my singing with the Ensemble. As I walked to the Sunday service that kicked off the parade (Glide does a magnificent float every year; this year was a gigantic stack of gift boxes celebrating the 40th birthday of Pride Parade) I passed one of the many conservative Christian hate groups that descend on the city for Pride weekend. (I’ve always felt it was a strange kind of back-handed compliment, the fact that they come from all over the country to hate on San Francisco during Pride. It sort of says “You are THE gayest of gay cities, therefore we will concentrate our considerable energies upon you.” I don’t know, somehow that’s oddly flattering.) That morning I wore a blazingly bright magenta shirt and a straw hat with an embarrassingly large pink flower in the brim. In the early morning streets of the Tenderloin, before the crowds lined the parade route, I was rather hard to miss.

A gangly youth on (literally) a soapbox shouted out to me that I was destined to burn in the fires of hell for my perversions, to which a year ago I would have responded (and did) with a raised middle finger and some not-so-nice words of my own. This year I stopped, beamed a big smile at him and hollered “Happy Pride!!! We love you!!!”

After regaining control of his rather impressive adam’s apple, he said “We love you too! That’s why we want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with you.” And with a sense of fullness and gratitude – gratitude for the strength to face this poor misguided fool with the love that has been taught to me by my family at Glide – I replied, “No thanks, I’m good. I’m on my way to church.” To which he said….nothing.

What could he say? That my church wasn’t as good as his? That the gospel I was on my way to hear wasn’t the right gospel, even though it was coming out of the same book?

Well, yes. He could have said all of that and more, because these people aren’t really at home to Mr. Reason, but he didn’t have the chance to. I blew him a big smacking kiss and trotted on up the hill, to sing with folks who know the meaning of the gospel that awkward young man claimed to be selling.

If I’d tried to explain to him that I’m a sacred-text-reading, gospel-singing, comparative-religion-studying atheist, that I’m essentially an Atheist for Jesus, I think he might have had some kind of meltdown. That adam’s apple might have made a desperate upward bid for freedom. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I don’t think it mattered, though. Like water dripping on a stone, the small things we do have a cumulative effect that we might never even see. He may think of me someday, years from now, and a small crack might open up in his concrete worldview. A little light might hit something that’s been kept in the dark, and a green shoot might begin to unfold. Who knows. Maybe in a few years we’ll see him on Pride Sunday, happy and full of love, in 7 inch silver platforms and a Carmen Miranda bra. For that, I might just make an exception and pray.

Regulators, Let’s Saddle Up.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist here, back after long absence. I had almost given up on writing this thing – stuff happens, you lose momentum, life swallows you whole and gives you other things to think about – and then one of the pastors at Glide told me she loved the blog. I realized in that moment that part of why I’d stopped writing was that I’d come face to face with the kind of opposition that can take your voice right out of your throat, and without even realizing it I’d hunched over and slouched off, away from the conversation I’d been trying to start.

Of course, many, many other things have been going down. We lost my husband’s father on June 16th, after two months of a violent, rapacious cancer that felled him like a great oak. Thank you to all of our friends, family and communities for the outpouring of love and support, and, yes, prayers. When it was all over we made the decision to move north to Portland, where my family lives and where the job prospects are better for me and the cost of living isn’t so criminally out of control. In the aftermath of death we are turning our sights to new life, to creating a space where we can start a family. Death and birth, birth and death. The same unending song, and we are searching for our small part in it.

So we’ve been in kind of a scarcity economy around here, alternating between roiling industry and deer-in-the-headlights blankness, staring at the wall and wondering what it’s all about. I haven’t been as present at Glide or in the Ensemble as I’d like to be, so these musings on the conversation between belief and non-belief haven’t been right in the foreground quite as much. But I’m ready to be back in the saddle again.

(Speaking of saddles, I spent a utopian 5 days with my own cowboy daddy earlier this month, and we stayed up late and drank too much homemade wine and dug our fingernails under the surface of all kinds of issues, lofty and mundane. It helped to get the creative mojo flowing again, so thanks for that, Big Daddy.)

So, to reiterate and get back to the meat of this project: I am still an atheist, and I still go to church. It’s still a strange thing to do, but not as strange as it sounds to anyone who’s never been to Glide. And I want to have a conversation that is not about debating the basic nature and fabric of reality, that does not devolve into one-upmanship and a deeply lame contest for Guy With The Truest Truth. I want to have a conversation that begins with what we have in common and builds toward what we can do if we work together.

It’s good to be back.

(PS – I will hold in high regard anyone who can identify the late 80’s teen heart-throb movie the title is taken from. And I will also know roughly how old you are.)

In Memoriam

With deep love and heavy yet joyous hearts, we celebrated Brigardo Groves this afternoon. He was a great and loving spirit – and as an atheist I use the word spirit with relative comfort when it comes to Brigardo, describing a bigness of connection, an enthusiasm of experience, a giddy and contagious relish for life. He was a devout believer in God, and knowing that I am an atheist he was a devout believer in me. He was a devout believer in us all.

I did not cry until his beautiful daughters got up to speak about him. They did so with such praise and respect that I kind of fell apart. My own father will pass someday, and even if it is 20 years from now I will not have had enough of his spirit. He is an atheist too, and yet that word still feels appropriate.

I am going to call my father right now. I am going to tell him how much I love him. Tomorrow I will go to see my father in law, who is looking at his own end. I will ask him what it feels like, what seems important to him, what he thinks I should be paying the most attention to. I think Brigardo’s children might have wished to ask him these things. I hope that the shock of his loss will encourage us all to shake off the torpor of daily homeostasis and ask the questions we ought to be asking.

This is the memory of Brigardo that I sent out to the Glide Ensemble community when I heard of his passing, pasted directly from our email stream. The last paragraph refers to an email from a fellow member now working on his divinity degree who wondered what kind of language the atheists in the congregation might use to describe the feelings we all shared at his loss.

“Wow. I just read my Glide email for the first time in a couple of days and I am truly shocked to hear of Brigardo’s passing. He was one of the most welcoming faces of Glide for me.

About 6 months ago I chose to sit in the congregation for the 9am services instead of singing – sometimes I need to receive what we’re putting out there, for my own heart’s best interest – and I ended up sitting next to his famed spot right in the front. I had of course seen him every Sunday and been affected by his contagious joy, but had never actually met him in person. But he knew me alright, and began talking to me immediately, asking about my tattoos and telling me about his daughter’s tattoos, asking for some advice about how best to let her know that he respected her decision about her own body even if it sort of freaked him out.

Then, completely out of the blue, he bit the tattoo on my shoulder and said he wanted to know what it tasted like. I had a moment of panic – I had never, after all, met him personally before this moment – but then he giggled mischievously like a child that’s gotten away with something and my brief panic disappeared to be replaced by the same giggles that were shaking him. He put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a big squidge and said “I love you like you were my own.” I believed him completely. Though it was the first conversation I’d ever had with him, though I am not entirely sure that he even knew my name, I believed him completely. I think that is how his heart worked.

I did not have the privilege to know him very well or very long, but I give honor and love to those of you who did and are so pained by his loss. And I give thanks to all the Glide community for creating a place where he felt so joyously loved as to be able to nibble a near-total stranger with impunity, confident of being understood and giggled with. 😉

R_, I think I would use similar language to yours – gratitude for knowing him, awe at the intricate patterns of life that allowed me to know him, a hope that the web of love that holds us in community was with him in his last moments. Whether one believes that it comes from inside or outside, that love is real and his love was a vast and wondrous part of the whole that will be sorely missed.”

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist suggests that you go find one of the people who inspire and support you, and tell them about it. Regardless of the language you use, it WILL make a difference.

Love to you all,

-An Atheist In Church

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.

Inter-Belief Coalition at Glide

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist has been collaborating with one of the pastors of Glide Memorial Methodist Church to create an inter-belief working group within the congregation. This is the initial proposal; I’m posting it so that folks can give some suggestions about where to take it. Thanks in advance for your help.

“It is my observation that many issues of social justice are placed in a polarizing religious context by the popular media, and as such we often forfeit the opportunity to collaborate with other activists who are working toward the same goals merely because their belief system differs from our own. Glide’s commitment to radical inclusion presents a unique opportunity to bridge this gap to increase our understanding of one another, our strength as activists and our beloved community of compassionate advocates for change.

As an atheist member of the Glide community I have been moved and inspired by the radical activism of people of faith(s) there, and equally dismayed by the occasional negativity with which my involvement has been received by my fellow non-believers. The widespread representation of right-wing conservative religiosity in opposition to human rights, progressive politics and economic justice has produced a climate in which many feel that in order to oppose oppression one must oppose religious and spiritual belief. This division contributes to the obstacles facing those working tirelessly for justice and liberation and must be bridged.

To this end I propose a coalition between believers and non-believers, theists and non-theists, people of any religious or spiritual faith together with people who identify as non-religious or spiritual. We will seek ways of making visible the alliance between faith and non-faith, in order to encourage others to reach across the faith divide. This may take the form of printed literature, art, acts of protest or support, web presence, media representation, and anything else the group creates. It will be a forum for questions and conversations, collaboration and cooperation. We will develop methods of communication and conflict management that can be used to overcome situations in which differences of belief might lead to rupture of partnership. We will visibly and accountably stand together for change rather than allow our differences to divide us.”

Please feel free to leave suggestions and feedback. This is a work in progress.

Sarah, Honey. Let’s Hug it Out.

Palin. Palin, Palin, Palin.

I wish that I didn’t have to talk about Miss Alaska here on my blog, but it seems I do. And all because she has made a big old kablooey fuss about how the laws of this country should be based on the Bible. Oh Sarah. Why you gotta make it so hard?

Or so easy?

The reasons this makes me so angry are manifold. Let us for the moment leave aside the terrifying implications of theocracy and the cringe-worthy hypocrisy of proposing one theocracy (a Christian one) as perfectly acceptable while at the same time excoriating another theocracy (an Islamic one) as threateningly fundamentalist. Let us leave aside the very clear injunction for the separation of church and state in the founding documents of this nation, regardless of the denominations, affiliations or spiritual philosophies of their authors, and the fact that many of those authors questioned the existence of a Christian god entirely. Let us even leave aside the spectacular wrong-headedness of claiming that any religious affiliation should be enforced upon the people of this country, considering the fact that the entire bloody point was to escape theocracy. Let us not even go there, for logic does not disturb the placid waters of Lake Palin. We would merely wear out our boat.

No. The reason this enrages me so is that it makes Christians look even worse to atheists than they already do.

Sarah, honey. You have no idea what a challenge it’s been to convince most of the liberal atheists in my life to even have a conversation with people of faith. To imagine that they are members of the same sentient species at all, let alone abandon the safe encampments of philosophical divide to join forces with them for the betterment of the human condition. I will offer up a painful transparency here, a truth difficult to admit: Many atheists do, in fact, think that people of your faith are dangerously ignorant. It’s a fact. And here I am, striving to challenge the stereotypes of both belief and non-belief, to form a coalition of people who are willing to jettison their biases and make substantive alliances that might begin to heal the wounds of religiosity in this country. And there you are, grinning like a mad moosehunter in a power suit and f*cking it up for all of us.

While I was up north I had lunch with an old friend who was hard-pressed to understand why I, a through-and-through atheist, would get up early Sunday mornings to go to church. His experience of Christians was one of bigotry, intolerance, oppressive rigidity and a total refusal to parlay on the neutral ground of humanism. In a word, Sarah, you. The response that I hadn’t fully formulated in my head at that time but which your most recent squawking has cemented for me is this: Spending time among theists, deists and spiritualists who constantly push themselves to practice unconditional love and acceptance – the gay man who asked me to act with compassion toward the virulent hatemongers of the Phelps klan when they planned to protest a local high school that was putting on a play about murder victim Matthew Shepard; the African American pastor who helped me turn my anger about the racism directed at our President into a deeper empathy for the psychological brokenness of racism itself; the people of the congregation who have showered me with love, real and unconditional love, in full knowledge of and deep respect for my atheism – challenges me to push myself just as hard in the effort to expand my ability to work with people, rather than contract it. Being there begins to soften this terribly hurt place from which I have defended my own beliefs and failed to hear the potential for connection with those of others. It allows me to deal with fundies like you with humanity and compassion, because I am exposed to people whose faith is grounded in humanity and compassion. It reminds me that that which has angered me past the point of reason about religiosity in this country is also that which I myself am in constant peril of doing in the fight against their oppression: not listening.

So I am practising on you, Sarah. I am so very, very angry at you and those you represent, and I am fighting like hell to master it and stay in a position of unconditional love. The problem is that you are so big, so powerful, so entrenched, so impenetrable, that sometimes the fight to stay on the side of love seems utterly futile. What, after all, does it matter to you? Will you ever meet me? Will you ever know I exist? Will you ever be even microscopically aware of my struggle to afford you your humanity in my head? No. No you will not.

But here is the crux of it, Sarah. We in the secular community like to throw around this little idea – if you only do the right thing when you are afraid of being punished for doing wrong, then how right can you really be? If your charity only extends to those who can acknowledge it, what is its value? We like to claim a little superiority on this count, adhering as we do to a moral code based on compassion and enlightened self-interest rather than a punitive paternity poised above our heads to deliver retribution should we fail. So if I treasure and tend this anger in my breast for you and yours, if I allow it to root and grow simply because you will never hear of it, aren’t I just as dangerous as I’m painting you?

So I’ll keep trying to love you, because that is what has been taught to me by folks who read the same book you do. Although I have to say that it sure don’t sound like the same book when you talk about it. But that’s between you and your god, right? And in the meantime, can you please please please stop making Christians look like such flagrant idiots?

Thanks a mill,

-Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist In Church