An Atheist in Church

This past Sunday, I went to church and had a wonderful time.

No, I haven’t converted, nor am I thinking of doing so. I was there to accompany my girlfriend, who’s a lapsed Catholic and is seeking a new church to attend. We went to a Unitarian Universalist church on Long Island. That Sunday there was a relatively small congregation, I’d guess between thirty and fifty people. The church itself was a pleasant modern building with a high, sloping ceiling and tall picture windows in the back. There were bookshelves along the back walls and tall, potted plants everywhere. One wall held two long lines of plaques commemorating the people through history who were persecuted or martyred for their belief in Unitarian Universalism – a startlingly large number. Evidently, the idea that all human beings will be saved has often been a dangerously heretical proposition.

I’ve been to UU services before, in college, and this one had many of the same elements. The service opened with a ceremonial ringing of chimes and then lighting the chalice, a traditional Unitarian Universalist symbol, as well as a peace candle. One member then led the group in a recitation of UU’s seven principles, followed by a hymn.

The next part of the service was also at the UU service I attended in college. It was called “Joys and Sorrows,” in which each member of the congregation who had either joyous or sorrowful news was invited to come forward, share their story with everyone present, and light a candle to signify the emotional resonance of the event. A lot of people had stories to share, perhaps a dozen, and everyone who participated seemed genuinely eager to step forward.

Most of the service after this was broken up into several brief speeches and sermonettes, each given by a member of the congregation. A young lady who couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 spoke on the topic of “What Would a Unitarian Universalist Do?” For her age, she was one of the best speakers there that day. I think there are great things in her future if she stays on this path.

Continuing this theme, the day’s sermon was titled “Living Our Principles.” The minister (who hadn’t spoken until now, and who didn’t do all that much talking compared to the length of the entire service) spoke about working at an interfaith clothing drive, and how she reminded herself to show patience and compassion while dealing with the people who made use of it.

Afterward, there was coffee and food. There seemed to be a real sense of community and friendship among all the people there, most of whom stayed after the service to chat. I had wondered if anyone would recognize my girlfriend and I as newcomers, and at least two people did: the director of the church’s youth program, as well as the minister herself, came over to meet us and asked us if we were new. This church must have a very good community indeed if its employees can tell by sight whether someone is a regular visitor.

All in all, I’m happy that I went. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Unitarian Universalists, and if I were religious, that’s almost certainly what I would be. The closing hymn at the service I went to was John Lennon’s “Imagine” – how could an atheist not love that? I don’t plan on making attendance a weekly habit – I just don’t feel the need – but I wouldn’t be opposed to going back.

I like the idea of a religion built on community rather than on shared dogma, which lines up nicely with the humanist churches I imagined in “What Will Replace Religion?” UU is itself a thoroughly humanist belief system, with nothing in its principles I could disagree with. I think the UUs largely lack the dangerous exaltation of blind faith and dogmatism that characterizes so many other religions, and if UU gained more ground, I wouldn’t be at all upset.

However, I think a person coming from a traditionally religious background might have some difficulty understanding the appeal of UU. After all, it’s nearly unique among established religions in not having any established dogma or official creed. A churchgoer who’s used to being told what to think each week from the pulpit might find the doctrinal looseness disorienting. And people for whom belief in God is an integral part of their lives are unlikely to feel satisfied here. The only time God was mentioned during the service, in my recollection, was to point out that it doesn’t matter whether he exists, because that wouldn’t change the moral obligations we have toward each other.

I’m intrigued by the phenomenon of people retaining the trappings of their faith for cultural and historical reasons, while casting off the supernatural beliefs and dogmas that long accompanied them. This has long been noted among secular Jewish people, and I see it starting to happen more and more among Catholics as well. Unitarian Universalism is a more explicit step in this process, recognizing the importance of community without requiring the hoary superstitions that have long accompanied it. From origins in liberal Christianity, UU has evolved to a point where it can – and does – embrace atheists and humanists without qualm. (As many as 46% of UUs may be atheists, according to a 1997 poll.) This could well be an effective rebuttal to propagandists who claim that atheists don’t do charity work – we do, as part of the UU church and many other organizations – or that religious charity would cease if atheists became predominant. UU is an effective testimony that supernatural beliefs need not accompany the desire to do good.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jeremy

    This is intensely interesting to me as a man who was raised in a rather militant Pentecostal environment and who is now an agnostic atheist. The fundamentalist indoctrination I received views the doctrines and lifestyle of UU’s as a special kind of evil, “a demon masquerading as an angel of light”.

    While I can’t see myself feeling the need to become a UU, I am very interested in the mindsets of those who have left the traditional church to be a Unitarian Universalist–or even more intriguing to me–an atheist who has become a member.

    If nothing else, I think this shows the human need for community regardless of creed and highlights the importance of showing traditional religious people that notions of “family” are not confined to the traditional church community.

    Thank you for sharing, Ebon…*lights a candle*

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    I will definitely have to investigate the UUs more closely – one of my regrets (okay, my only regret) about leaving my church was the loss of a place to commune with people. It seems that this is one sect who have their heads screwed on right.

    Given the (very!) cursory reading I’ve done in the last ten minutes, though, it strikes me that they just need top take one small step over the line to become fully-fledged humanists. Since the principles of Unitarian Universalism seem to (for the most part) remove the need for God, why have the Judeao-Christian sky-fairy in the mix at all? Why not declare for humanism altogether?

  • http://charredatheist.blogspot.com Charred Atheist

    How well did your girlfriend respond to the service, did she find the fellowship comforting or was it still too foreign for her?
    I’m asking because I am in a similar boat to you, my live-in girlfriend is a Catholic who isn’t going to service because of our relationship and our not being married. She doesn’t think it’s right to go to service and repent to her god when she knows she is going to keep committing the same sin tomorrow. It’s admirable that she wants to be honest with her god like that, but the guilt is tearing her up just a little bit inside.
    I’ve mentioned to her before about visiting a UU church in the StL area, but she seemed a little unsure about it.

  • hb531

    Interesting. I have a circle of friends that came about through our children’s ‘play groups’. There are some couples in the group that are members of the local UU (incidentally, one couple is gay). I was always intrigued by the liberal nature of the church, and was wondering just how they justify being ‘Christian’. From my perspective, it seems like a vehicle to facilitate a social group whose members have, as my wife once articulated, a ‘common direction’ in their lives, rather than dogmatic reinforcement. Recently, another couple in the group joined the ranks of this congregation. I wonder how they ‘shopped’ around and finally made their decision? By choosing the one that least impacted their lifestyle? I suppose I could ask them…

    On another track, I wonder if a member of this church could be elected President of the US, given the de facto requirement of being Christian?

  • Samuel Skinner

    My only objection the the UU is their fuzzy wuzzy acceptance of faith. It doesn’t feel like they would have backbone to confront fundamentalists. On the other hand, I doubt they’d accept “God says…” as an explanation for anything.

    They do make a rather nice community. The irony is of course the UU was origionally a Christian sect who pointed out the doctrine of the trinity made no sense what so ever. Some how the mutated into this- a group that is religious only in the sense they have a church and tax exempt status.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    Ebon, where was that Unitarian church? I know I have driven past a few near where I live on Long Island.

  • D

    Touching story. It’s always nice to see theists and atheists coexisting in harmony for a change, rather than getting all up in each other’s faces. Thanks for sharing!

    I hadn’t set foot in a church since graduating high school (I’m now 24), telling my parents whenever they asked me that there was nothing for me there. When they offered family togetherness, I’d say I love family togetherness, but I don’t want it bogged down by a bunch of hokum I don’t believe; when they offered community, I said friends who predicated their interaction with me on whether I went to church or not weren’t friends I was interested in having. This past Christmas, though, my nine-year-old brother and six-year-old sister were singing in the choir. After asking me whether I wanted to go (not to go, just whether I wanted to), I told them I’d think about it, and ended up deciding that supporting them was more important than my dislike for organized religion, so I went. I have a hard time compartmentalizing things like this, so it would be a lie to say I had a good time, but I confined my comments to how well Ethan and Claire sang. On the whole, it seemed to work out OK.

  • MissCherryPi

    While I can’t see myself feeling the need to become a UU, I am very interested in the mindsets of those who have left the traditional church to be a Unitarian Universalist.

    I’d be happy to explain my point of view.

    I was raised Catholic, and there are many spiritual and cultural meanings for me in that aside from the many valid criticisms of the church that exist. My family was religious, but always told me about the questions and objections they had to certain aspects of Catholic dogma. So it’s not surprising that I have always had a few qualms of my own.

    When I was 14, I thought long and hard about my confirmation – publicly declaring to be a Catholic for life. But so much of the material in the classes and retreats that the young people in my class were given was about service and helping others. The social teachings of the Catholic church, the Beatitudes, works of mercy, sermon on the mount – that’s what it meant to me to be a Catholic.

    But as I got older, I realized that many people in the church didn’t see things they way I understood them as a teenager. When I was in college, a Bishop in South America declared that condoms don’t prevent AIDS. This was very troubling for me. What’s next? I thought, 2 + 2 = 5?

    In 2004, several bishops denied John Kerry and other pro-choice politicians holy communion. Nothing was said or done to reprimand these bishops. And the cardinal that wrote this policy was elected pope. I could no longer be a member of a group that would use something considered holy as a weapon. So I stopped going to church. If I were a politician, I would not be welcome there, as I am pro choice. So why should I continue going just because my views are not as widely known as Nancy Pelosi’s or Ted Kennedy’s?

    Why did I start going to UU church? Because despite a long term relationship with a well known atheist blogger, I am not an atheist. I want a way to acknowledge what is holy in my life and to commit myself to my values. It probably comes with my Catholic upbringing that focused on service, but the meaning of my faith is that there is a moral imperative to not only refrain from doing evil, but an equal if not greater moral imperative to do good works. I could have joined an organization like Catholics for a free Choice, or some liberal protestant church (and I still might). But my decision to stop attending Mass was not one I took lightly. And I don’t want to commit to another church that I could see myself having such a difficult departure from again. I know that if I become a member of a UU congregation, no one will judge me for the Catholic beliefs I still have. No one will tell me I can’t worship there because of my commitment to being pro-choice or any other strongly held belief I have. The seven principles are meaningful to me.

    I never went to church to learn “what to think.” It was about humility, thanksgiving, community, and spiritual peace.

  • Jeff T.

    I actually proposed to my wife in the garden of the UU church here in our neighborhood. There are two gardens on the church property, one which has a huge oak tree for the ‘earth based worshippers’ and another which has a bench overlooking a creek surrounded by forest.

    My wife went several times to this particular church and told me that there were many freethinkers in the congregation. She also told me that different faiths were allowed to alternate leading the service each week. My immediate thought was, “well, when will they ask for a 10% cut of our gross earnings”.

    Having gone through three seperate funerals for my immediate family within a two year period, I knew first hand how helpful a church congregation could be with dealing with tragedy. During that time frame, I had even spoke politely with the pentacostal minister, and he was obviously very sincere in his concern with our loss and grief. During one of the funeral services, I thought of what will happen to me when I pass. As I sat there, I asked myself if it would be easier just to join a church so that all of life’s major events could be shared with others? I want social acceptance just as most people do and being an atheist certainly doesn’t help much in that regard.

    When Ebon wrote his firebrand blog a few days ago, I had a moment of relapse and visited The Church of God home page. I remembered the summer seminars, the door to door witnessing/conversion, and the comraderie of soldiers-in-arms. As christians we believed we were at war with the spirit world and only we Church of God members could clearly see this. I was outspoken then and knowing that I had a group of peers that felt the same way that I did was very comforting. We fed off of this synergy. I could easily come to this website as that previous person and preach to you guys with a vengeance and with a righteous indignation. I would use logical fallacies but I would not care because you were blinded by the devil whereas I was able to see clearly.

    In my opinion, all religion (including local churches) reflect the society and demographic of its time. The need to be part of society is human and religion provides a means and place to fulfill this need. The fact that freethinkers are a part of UU and participate openly in a church is just one more proof of this.

    In the end, I decided not to go to the UU church. I feel that while a church may serve a social function, that I really don’t want to go anymore, ever. I have been to more church services during my youth than most people would believe, and the need to go to church vanished somewhere long ago. I find much more energy, positive outlook, and optimism at a football game.

  • Alex, FCD

    My only objection the the UU is their fuzzy wuzzy acceptance of faith. It doesn’t feel like they would have backbone to confront fundamentalists.

    I don’t know about the States, but they’ve taken potshots at them before up here in Canada. They ran a TV ad campaign up here a few years back that featured a fire-and-brimstone pastor using air-force-style ejector seats to remove the undesirables from his congregation (a gay couple, a pregnant teenager, &c.). I’ll see if I can youtube it.

  • Penguin_Factory

    Ooh, that’s pretty cool. I didn’t really know a lot about UU before this. I’d certainly like to see it become popular over most other religions (is it even appropriate to describe it as that?)

  • Jeremy

    To “D”:

    Quoting: “I have a hard time compartmentalizing things like this…”

    I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know that I’m not the only one who finds this difficult. I don’t mean to say that you and I are the only ones who wish to integrate our entire worldview in a meaningful way, of course. It’s just nice to see someone putting it into words.

  • Christopher

    Personally, I find the UU to be just another form of the herd mentallity: now that “god” is no longer an effective means of propagating the concepts of absolute “morality” and social conformity, they dress up these values in new clothes – simnply asserting that we *should* follow the principles established by religion out of some sense of “duty” (i.e. Kant’s Catagorical Imperative).

    I take the road less travelled here: I don’t tie myself to any group and keep my social circle disjointed – the result is that the community of people I associate with is small, but at least we aren’t under pressure to conform to ideas that don’t belong to us.

  • Adam

    Ebon,

    I think you’re really lucky to have such a great girl friend, nice post MissCherryPi…is that her Ebon? I hope that you guys are happy together.

  • John

    I’ve been an atheist for about 20 years and joined a UU church about 4 years ago. It was where I first (that stuck and wasn’t meant as an insult) heard and began to learn about humanism. I don’t tend to get too caught up in details, but the way it seems to me is living the UU principles is completely compatible with humanism. The main difference is a humanist is more likely to say invocation of supernaturalism is to be avoided whereas a UU would say it is important to be supportive of each other as we work towards spiritual growth or finding meaning. It’s not really conflicting on an individual level as my spirituality does not extend into supernaturalism.

    Our services might be more traditional than the service Ebon describes, but the music is generally better than I think many churches have. Sermons are generally a good mix of history, philosophy, psychology, with some good story telling thrown in. There was only one service which I’ve objected to in the whole 4 years and I go most Sundays, except in the summer. It was a discussion of the new atheist authors. But especially with respect to Harris and Hitchens, I find I’m mostly in agreement with what was said, it was just in the generalizing of their opinions to atheism, that I found objectionable. As a counter to that, the book club at the church earlier in the year discussed “The end of faith” by Harris and the reception was overwhelmingly positive.

    The Bible is rarely used within a sermon, though some of the major stories are taught within “Sunday school” for children. I’ve taught for 3 years and have been lucky that these topics were not part of the curriculum during those times. I say lucky as I would find it boring. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have a conflict as they are just taught as stories which might offer a lesson to learn.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m with Chris on this matter, except my thinking is not startlingly original. :D

  • Roscomac

    “Personally, I find the UU to be just another form of the herd mentallity: now that “god” is no longer an effective means of propagating the concepts of absolute “morality” and social conformity, they dress up these values in new clothes – simnply asserting that we *should* follow the principles established by religion out of some sense of “duty” (i.e. Kant’s Catagorical Imperative).”

    As a UU, I personally believe in those principles because they mesh with my values. I’m not sure where you’re getting the “should” from. I’m there to live my own life my own way among others who share my values. I don’t think that you or anyone else “should” follow or “should” conform. I do think that you “should” not make those assumptions just becuase you’re having a knee-jerk reaction. :)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    MissCherryPi is my girlfriend, in case it wasn’t obvious. Be nice to her. :)

    Charred Atheist: I’ll let her speak for herself if she wants, but I think she found it disconcerting at first but is now feeling more comfortable with it. After coming from a traditional church, the UUs’ way of doing things can be a significant adjustment. But there was a good sense of community there, and we already share most of the ideals promoted by the church, which makes it easier to fit in.

    Tommy: It was the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau.

  • Zerotarian

    Glad to see you mention UUism. I’ve been attending a UU church for a little over two years now, starting shortly after I realized I was an atheist (I was formerly mainline Presbyterian). According to a congregational poll from this year, the majority of my congregation identifies as two different categories of “humanist” (I think maybe it was plain “humanist” and “naturalistic humanist”, these being the two largest groups even when split into separate categories like that), followed by liberal Christians (often literally Unitarian and/or Universalist, which are still pretty heretical positions within Christianity, especially Unitarianism since it denies the divinity of Jesus). But it disappoints me a little that I haven’t encountered a more outspoken, unapologetically atheist minority within UUism.

    I’ve been meaning to post on my (still struggling to get started) blog about my thoughts on being simultaneously a UU and a scarlet-A, Dawkins-reading, squid-worshipping “New Atheist.” I’ll get around to it eventually; in fact, some of my excess draftage for this comment may wind up there. :-) In the meantime, I highly recommend Rieux’s Journal, which is along much the same lines.

  • MissCherryPi

    How well did your girlfriend respond to the service, did she find the fellowship comforting or was it still too foreign for her?

    There are Jewish people in my family, so I’ve been to a lot of Seders, bar mitzvahs, etc. I have Episcopal and Lutheran friends and have visited their churches several times. I even went to summer day camp at a Church of the Nazarene (an evangelical, born again Christian group) for a few years between the ages of 8 and 12. So I have had some exposure to other religions.

    I did some reading about UU before I went, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. After the first service, the people were very friendly and all I knew was that I was going to go again. The second time was when Ebonmuse came with me. I had a very nice time. I feel like my time away from Catholicism has led me to seek spirituality in a new way. I’m just going to take it one week at a time.

    I would tell your girlfriend that she has to do what is best for her. Many Catholics I know disagree with the church in all the ways I do (and some even more strenuously) , but continue to attend Mass because they can separate their belief in Catholic dogma from the Pope and other’s power plays. Or they feel that whatever sins they have are more like breaking the church’s rules rather than God’s rules. I’ve known priests who say it is healthy for a Catholic to separate their relationship with the Church from their relationship with God. In the short term, this keeps skeptical people in the pews. But eventually they realize they can find faith and fulfillment in other ways without continually being offended or made to feel guilty.

    If she is at all interested in attending the UU church, I don’t see what your girlfriend would stand to lose from attending two or three times to see what she thinks. Unless she is very devout and would strongly object to someone mentioning atheism, wicca or something else she doesn’t believe in from the pulpit. I suppose that’s why I’m taking to UU so well. I’m used to not agreeing with what is being said. Only at Mass it made me feel conspicuous. At a UU congregation it doesn’t matter if I disagree. That’s kind of the whole point – to explore on your own and sort out for yourself what you believe.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I have a general suspicion of UU but nothing I can really put my finger on. I’m not an intellectual relativist, so I really can’t get along with the liberal Christian ideal of anything goes, no matter how intellectually bankrupt.

    I also don’t like the sales pitch. I’ve been told so many times that I should go to UU services because they will accept me. I won’t go somewhere just because it will fulfill a desire to be accepted. That is not a convincing argument at all. When I hear such a sales pitch, I imagine being imposed upon to tolerate insufferable fools who are invariably attracted by such messages.

    You know what I’d rather have? A private club for atheists with some pool tables, a couple bookshelves worth of books, an espresso machine, and a mini bar. Find me one of those and I’ll get a paid membership.

  • nfpendleton

    You bring up some great points. If there was a more secular humanist version of this–no spiritual pretenses and heavy on the social (local, national, and global) responsibility, then I’d not only become a member, but most likely a part of the organization. UU is still at its foundation too “churchy” for me. I’ve found it disheartening as an atheist, humanist, and skeptic that there’s really no place for likeminded people to converge and take up the mantels traditionally dominated by churches, Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. Maybe a natural evolution of this sort is taking place right now. Probably something I should personally look into.

  • brock

    Unitarian presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William howard Taft.

  • Christopher

    Roscomac,

    “As a UU, I personally believe in those principles because they mesh with my values.”

    And where do those values come from? I’m willing to bet $100 that you didn’t make them yourself, but rather accepted them from some collective.

    “I’m not sure where you’re getting the “should” from.”

    From the fact that they promote their values as being an imperative duty to follow – even Ebonmuse mentioned it as “the ‘moral’ obligations we hold towards each other.” As a Nihilist, I don’t hold such “obligations” as anything more than illusions: constructs created by society for the purpose of making the individuals within serve its will.

    “I’m there to live my own life my own way among others who share my values. I don’t think that you or anyone else “should” follow or “should” conform.”

    And yet, by adopting a common “moral” code you are doing just that…

    “I do think that you “should” not make those assumptions just becuase you’re having a knee-jerk reaction. :)”

    I make no assumptions here, nor have any “knee-jerk” reactions – I merely call the UU organization out on what it’s really all about: supporting a hollow system of values that can no longer support itself due to the death of “god.”

  • http://www.cognitivedissident.org/ cognitive dissident

    Alex: The ejector ad to which you refer was actually from the United Church of Christ. (As a former UU, I can say that the ad is representative of the Unitarian mindset, but I wanted to give credit where it’s due…)

    nfpendleton: The “churchiness” of Unitarians varies greatly by congregation. I found a great home among other freethinkers in an otherwise conservative area, but YMMV…

  • Jeremy

    Christopher,

    Is it your purpose to shame Roscomac for being a UU? You seem to want something more than to share your view about the topic.

    Would it make you feel better if Roscomac broke down and sat at your feet for guidance?

  • Steve Bowen

    There is obviously something very special about the place of church attendance in American society that makes atheists seek out something like UU. In the U.K the community does not seem to revolve around the church in the same way (this may be less true of small villages)and community may well revolve around the pub or the town hall or some other secular venue. Whether this is just due to the decline in church attendance generally here or the fact that there is less peer pressure to be a regular church goer I don’t know. What I do know is that as an atheist I do not feel any desire to join any kind of church, no matter how accepting or humanist its philosophy.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    My friend in high school was a UU. It was the one religion that I was always intrigued by. If I had to pick a religion, that would be it. Other than Star Trek, of course.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    I make no assumptions here, nor have any “knee-jerk” reactions – I merely call the UU organization out on what it’s really all about: supporting a hollow system of values that can no longer support itself due to the death of “god.”

    When god “died”, Christopher in a way took it’s place. Christopher defines morality, in the sense that what he does is “good”, simply because he does it. Like a god. So for example, if Christopher gets it into his head that he needs to kill your child to advance his position – that’s ok for him.

    As Christopher has previously indicated, he will do whatever he deems necessary to advance his position, regardless if it results in harm to other people. This is what causes the religious to claim that atheists are not moral – that without a god, the atheist has no basis for morality, and in that sense becomes a god defining morality. Atheists are sometimes quick to dismiss this – but really I think it should be taken a bit more seriously.

    As an atheist, I do have a concern when people use atheism as an excuse to harm others. I find myself sometimes thinking about what kinds of people are drawn to atheism, and to what extent I can work with them. It’s possible atheism could have some down sides, similar to how religion has some down sides in the people it attracts and how it motivates. It’s not beyond possibility that someone who may want to act immorally, could be enticed by atheism, if they felt it allowed them free rein to act on their immoral impulses. (I don’t think it does – but apparently some do.) What better situation could there be for someone of this mentality, to claim whatever they choose to do is “good” – simply because they choose to do it.

  • Christopher

    Jeremy,

    “Is it your purpose to shame Roscomac for being a UU? You seem to want something more than to share your view about the topic.”

    My goal wasn’t to shame anyone, just to express my thoughts on UU (as well as the idea of value in general) – he accused my of just having a knee-jerk reaction so I further clarified why I posted what I did. There’s nothing more to it than what you are predisposed toward reading into it.

    “Would it make you feel better if Roscomac broke down and sat at your feet for guidance?”

    As it so happens, some people in the past have actually sought guidence from me – I told them what *I* thought about life, then told them to go forth and make their own values. It’s not my place to tell people what to think…

  • Christopher

    Riddleofsteel,

    “When god “died”, Christopher in a way took it’s place. Christopher defines morality, in the sense that what he does is “good”, simply because he does it. Like a god.”

    Incorrect – I don’t define “morality” at all.

    “So for example, if Christopher gets it into his head that he needs to kill your child to advance his position – that’s ok for him.”

    And I’m pretty sure that, if the stakes were high enough, any one else would do the same – in my old philosophy class, my professor presented us with a “hostage dillema:” in this hypothetical, a bunch of armed gunmen take a number of prisoners including yourself and then – perhaps just for amusement – ask you who they should kill; one person who is very close to you (best friend, significant other, etc…) or ten random strangers.

    I’m pretty sure that anyone will happily kill the ten strangers to save the one that they care about. So, in such a situation I *would* “kill your child to advance my position (assuming the child to be one of the ten unlucky strangers)” – as no doubt would you if the roles were reversed…

    “As Christopher has previously indicated, he will do whatever he deems necessary to advance his position, regardless if it results in harm to other people. This is what causes the religious to claim that atheists are not moral – that without a god, the atheist has no basis for morality, and in that sense becomes a god defining morality.”

    As if the religious person is any different: they just have a security blanket to clutch onto as they do the same thing – all the while pontificating their “moral” superiority…

    “Atheists are sometimes quick to dismiss this – but really I think it should be taken a bit more seriously.”

    I think people in general (theist and Atheist alike) should give more thought as to why they value what they value instead of just insisting that their values are *the* values all need to possess.

    “As an atheist, I do have a concern when people use atheism as an excuse to harm others.”

    I need no “excuse” for what I do – I just do it.

    “I find myself sometimes thinking about what kinds of people are drawn to atheism, and to what extent I can work with them. It’s possible atheism could have some down sides, similar to how religion has some down sides in the people it attracts and how it motivates.”

    “Upside” vs. “downside” is just a matter of perspective – to one like myself, it’s philosophies like Utilitarianism that are a “downside” to the Atheist movement; just as you probably see the Nihilist philosophy as a “downside” to the same movement. It’s all in how you look at it…

    “It’s not beyond possibility that someone who may want to act immorally, could be enticed by atheism, if they felt it allowed them free rein to act on their immoral impulses. (I don’t think it does – but apparently some do.)”

    I have no “immoral” impulses – or “moral” impulses for that matter. I just have a desire which I act upon and then is judged as “moral” or “immoral” after the fact that the action occured. There are no “moral” events, only “moral” interpretaions of events…

  • Jeremy

    Christopher,

    Of course, it is not my place to tell you what your motivations are–nor is it my desire. For what it’s worth, however, your thoughts on UU’s “morality” did seem to contain a condescending tone. But then again, I could very well be filtering your words in a way that you did not intend.

    Would you at least agree that using words like “herd mentality” (regardless of its potential accuracy) to generalize about the members of a group is not normally conducive to productive dialogue?

  • Christopher

    Jeremy,

    No condescention was implied – I was simply letting him know that “morality” (note: this refers to all of its forms, not just the one practiced by a certain people group) IS by its very nature a form of herd mentallity. After all, it can’t exist apoart from a collective as it is the collective that decides what this thing is.

    I wasn’t refering to individuals members of the group, but rather to the ideals that the group forms around.

  • Roscomac

    In response to your questions:

    “And where do those values come from? I’m willing to bet $100 that you didn’t make them yourself, but rather accepted them from some collective.”

    My values were firmly in place. I visited a UU fellowship, and found that the organization held principles that matched my own. So, I chose to join. Where can I pick up my $100?

    “From the fact that they promote their values as being an imperative duty to follow – even Ebonmuse mentioned it as “the ‘moral’ obligations we hold towards each other.” As a Nihilist, I don’t hold such “obligations” as anything more than illusions: constructs created by society for the purpose of making the individuals within serve its will.”

    I do feel moral obligations to others. I do not feel them because any organization told me that I should. I simply feel them. If I fail to act on my beliefs, I am uncomfortable

    “And yet, by adopting a common “moral” code you are doing just that…”

    I didn’t adopt a moral code. I found an organization whose moral code I share.

    “I make no assumptions here, nor have any “knee-jerk” reactions – I merely call the UU organization out on what it’s really all about: supporting a hollow system of values that can no longer support itself due to the death of “god.” :

    What makes a system of values hollow?

  • Ubi Dubium

    I have lately sampled my local Ethical Society a couple of times. I am finding it more to my liking than even the UU church (which my mother now attends). It has fewer of the trappings of religion – to the point where it does not even call itself a church. But it seems to have kept the good parts of a church – the sense of community, mutual support, music, education, good speakers, and like-minded people. But there, nobody is telling anybody else what they should believe, they are all trying to work it out for themselves. I found it pretty refreshing. Is anyone else here part of an Ethical Society?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    BBK –

    Is there Newcastle Brown on tap?

  • Jeremy

    To Christopher:

    Thank you for explaining yourself in a clear and patient manner. Good point and well made.

    To Thumpalumpacus:

    If there isn’t Newcastle Brown on tap, I’d gladly foot part of the expense to install it. Any fan of Newcastle is alright in my book. Even though I don’t have a book.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Friends, Christopher is just a troll looking for attention. I recommend you not give it to him.

  • OMGF

    Friends, Christopher is just a troll looking for attention. I recommend you not give it to him.

    Seconded. He seems to want to only give his opinion, stir up trouble, disregard the myriad problems that people have pointed out to him with his position, then declare victory in the form of something like this, “I’m here to see how my views stack up and debate, and so far they’re holding up very well,” or something to that effect. He routinely ignores difficult criticisms of his views, choosing instead to simply parrot out some catch phrases.

  • Steve Bowen

    You know! I don’t have a problem with Christoper in the same way I didn’t mind Dutch (remember him?). Sure you get the same old crap on every thread, but just occasionally it’s actually relevent (I think Christopher is actually vaguely on topic on this one). As long as we don’t all get de-railed in head to head arguments with these people who cares?.
    Getting back to the original post, I was privilaged a few years ago to be invited to my friend’s sons’s Bar Mitzvah, not just the party (wicked though it was!) but the synagogue. My ex-wife and I were probably the least likely people to be found there, she a Wiccan and me an Atheist (best bit was when some-one in the pew behind us asked “excuse me but I’m thinking you’re not jewish right?”)however I felt strangely comfortable with the experience and was impressed by the sense of community and support that I found there. It is a fact that the significant moments in our lives demand some sort of recognised venue to take place in, and sometimes we take the easy route and follow the religious convention. My Jewish friends are not particularly observant on a day to day basis but their culture demanded a bar mitzvah and where else do you hold it?. On a personal note my ex and I found a nice castle to marry in and had a civil ceremony.However it is difficult to find a secular way to mourn a death. This has been on my mind a lot lately as my father is very ill and very old and the inevitable is not far away. Given that, to my mind anyway, funerals are for the living left behind, rather than the deceased where does an atheist go to arrange these things without being a total hypocrite? maybe I’ll look up the UU after all.

  • Jim Baerg

    However it is difficult to find a secular way to mourn a death.

    When my nephew died my sister arranged a secular sort of memorial in which the main part was people going up to the front of the room to talk about their memories of him.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Is there Newcastle Brown on tap?

    They’d have to. That’s one of my favorite beers.

  • Christopher

    Roscomac,

    “My values were firmly in place. I visited a UU fellowship, and found that the organization held principles that matched my own. So, I chose to join.”

    But were they *your* values or some one else’s? Just because a set of values is in place in a certain individual doesn’t mean that it’s their own – hell, I’ve walked around with other people’s values entrenched in my mind for years before realizing what they were!

    Just for the record, I’m not blaming you for it: most people just walk around with the value systems imparted to them from their surroundings (family, religion, political and cultural groups, etc…) without realizing that they are foreign values. Few actually set about creating their own values. My primary objection to organizations like UU is that they provide an outlet for these old, prepackaged values to maintain their presence in people’s minds: now that “god” is no longer an effective distribution system for them, they find a new delivery system in such groups – preventing people from ever learning to create their own values as they already have a system made up and ready to go.

    “I do feel moral obligations to others. I do not feel them because any organization told me that I should. I simply feel them.”

    But have you ever asked yourself “why” you feel them? Trace that sense of obligation back far enough and you’ll find out what caused you to sense them in the first place. Only then can you do anything about them (in my case, I unmade them).

    “What makes a system of values hollow?”

    In my judgement, any value system that posits a set of absolutes based on nothing but a priori assumptions about the nature of “right” or “wrong” is hollow – as they do nothing but limit your ability to act when a situation demands it by weighing you down with ethical dillemas. This is why I stay away from “morality” when making values and focus soley on how effective they are at accomplishing set goals – if it serves its intended purpose I use it, if not I discard it.

    It’s really as simple as that…

  • Christopher

    OMFG,

    “Seconded. He seems to want to only give his opinion, stir up trouble, disregard the myriad problems that people have pointed out to him with his position, then declare victory in the form of something like this, “I’m here to see how my views stack up and debate, and so far they’re holding up very well,” or something to that effect. He routinely ignores difficult criticisms of his views, choosing instead to simply parrot out some catch phrases.”

    1. If you consider being the resident gadfly “stirring up trouble,” I’ll take that as a compliment – just as Socrates filled that role in Athens, I’ll happily fill that role here.

    2. The “problems” that have been pointed out to me so far are only problematic if one assumes absolute “truth” to begin with – so the “problems” in question are moot.

    3. I haven’t declared victory – in fact, the debate never really got started! Hard to declare oneself winner without a fight first, yes?

    Now, have you any responses to my posts? Or just more unwarrented criticism?

  • Donald

    After all, it can’t exist apoart from a collective as it is the collective that decides what this thing is.

    Nonsense. Individuals frequently have moral values that are radically different from the collective’s, whether that collective is society or religion or their family or all three. “The collective” does not decide anything. Individuals decide, “collectives” do not have cerebral cortices and therefore do not decide anything.

    But were they *your* values or some one else’s? Just because a set of values is in place in a certain individual doesn’t mean that it’s their own – hell, I’ve walked around with other people’s values entrenched in my mind for years before realizing what they were!

    Which makes them your values. Sorry. There is no pure version of you that existed before society got its clutches into you. You were a zygote, then an embryo, then a fetus, then you were born and immediately were assailed with social messages that determined the content of your brain to a large extent. You are who you are because of the society you live in. You can reject your society’s values, of course, but that rejection is also inevitably influenced by society and your environment at large. If you live with a system of values for a long enough time they become yours, even if you didn’t create them. You can change them, but they were once yours.

  • Donald

    1. If you consider being the resident gadfly “stirring up trouble,” I’ll take that as a compliment – just as Socrates filled that role in Athens, I’ll happily fill that role here.

    Aaanndd we have a winner! A troll compares himself to an intellectual heavyweight! That has to be high up on the list of internet cliches.

    2. The “problems” that have been pointed out to me so far are only problematic if one assumes absolute “truth” to begin with – so the “problems” in question are moot.

    Ah, but is it true that they’re moot? You can’t say that it is, which means that they’re not moot.

    It’s a mildly amusing troll, ladies and gents. Give it its due.

  • Christopher

    Donald

  • Christopher

    Donald

  • Christopher

    Donald,

    “Nonsense. Individuals frequently have moral values that are radically different from the collective’s, whether that collective is society or religion or their family or all three.”

    A person can have values apart from a collective, but those values only become “moral” or “immoral” once some other body passes judgement on them. Until then, they have no “moral” value at all.

    “Which makes them your values. Sorry. There is no pure version of you that existed before society got its clutches into you.”

    I know that people are greatly influenced by their surroundings, but that doesn’t mean that the ideas fed to them belong to them: the ideas fed into them belong to the entity who spoon-feeds them into the other person, making the receiving individual merely a vessal to carry those ideas.

    Now, an idea *can* become the property of the individual in question if he examines it and decides that it serves his purposes well enough to leave be: at this point the value in question becomes a tool to serve the individual. Alternatively, he can break down the value, take the portions he wants and trash the rest – effectively creating a new value out of the raw materials of the older values.

    On the other hand, a value can become a parasite – leeching the individual it was imparted to by making him a servant to the ideal, owning him. More often than not, this is what happens when values are given from one party to another. Often they become institutionalized and no one questions them, allowing them to spread like viruses into new minds indefinitely.

    “Aaanndd we have a winner! A troll compares himself to an intellectual heavyweight! That has to be high up on the list of internet cliches.”

    1. I’m no troll – just an unpopular commentator.

    2. Many people who we now think of as intellectual heavyweights were once publically ridiculed and dismissed as madmen – and then their ideas began to show some merit, the authorities tried to silence them, their ideas spread to other thinkers and the rest is history.

    Remember: the madman of one generation may very well be the model thinker of the next…

    “Ah, but is it true that they’re moot?”

    As far as people like myself are concerned? Yes. Could they be consided valid to some one else with a different view on “truth?” Possibly, but I don’t speak for them – only myself.

  • Donald

    A person can have values apart from a collective, but those values only become “moral” or “immoral” once some other body passes judgement on them. Until then, they have no “moral” value at all.

    False. Plenty of individuals have *moral* values that are different from society–unless you’re pre-defining “morality” as “society’s rules,” which is tautological and contrary to the general usage of morality (which refers to something beyond society, whether you believe it exists or not).

    2. Many people who we now think of as intellectual heavyweights were once publically ridiculed and dismissed as madmen – and then their ideas began to show some merit, the authorities tried to silence them, their ideas spread to other thinkers and the rest is history.

    Remember: the madman of one generation may very well be the model thinker of the next…

    More often then not, he’s still the madman. Sorry. They laughed at Einstein, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

    And you’re not mad. You’re just a troll.

  • Christopher

    Donald,

    “False. Plenty of individuals have *moral* values that are different from society–unless you’re pre-defining “morality” as “society’s rules,” which is tautological and contrary to the general usage of morality (which refers to something beyond society, whether you believe it exists or not).”

    But there is nothing beyond the will of society: there are only concepts that are accepted and those that aren’t. I know that people have tried to posit something else beyond the social order, but all attempts to do this have failed – as these things must first become popular in a society to be considered a “moral” standard; thus society has the last laugh in defining “morality.”

    That said, I embrace my own values over that of any society: whether they label them as “moral” or “immoral” is of no consequense to me.

    “More often then not, he’s still the madman. Sorry. They laughed at Einstein, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

    Sorry to disappoint, but I’m no clown.

  • Donald

    as these things must first become popular in a society to be considered a “moral” standard

    Again, wrong. Plenty of individuals will tell you that they have beliefs they consider to be moral, and that are different from society’s. So, no, “these things” are not required to become popular before being considered moral.

    Also, somehow I missed this gem:

    As far as people like myself are concerned? Yes. Could they be consided valid to some one else with a different view on “truth?” Possibly, but I don’t speak for them – only myself.

    …ah. You don’t think there is “truth,” but you think your views are true. So, basically, nothing you’ve said has any intellectual content at all. Gotcha. I knew that before, but it’s nice to see it spelled out so clearly.

    Sorry to disappoint, but I’m no clown.

    Now, see, that’s just the sort of thing a clown would say.

  • DKrap

    My parents, myself and siblings briefly attended a Universal Unitarian organization near our home in Sacramento. I was very young and I remember the social hours after the “service.” I do not remember the services that much. The other thing I remember is helping to build the various buildings, some of which are still in use, after more than 45 years. After only one or two years, my parents stopped taking us to the services. I guess they decided that, as third and fourth generation atheists, they didn’t need this type of service. We spent most weekends skiing, camping, hiking and fishing. That is where we found peace and solace, not from a building or service. Now, in looking back, I realize that the reason my parents became involved is that they were looking for the tax deduction! They owned a small construction business and by contributing materials to the “church” they gained the tax write off and got more word-of-mouth business. All in all, it was not a bad experience, but memorable nonetheless.

  • MisterDomino

    Ebon, I’m thinking that, just like in a zoo or a national park, you should put up a sign somewhere on this website that says, “Don’t Feed the Trolls.”

  • DamienSansBlog

    This could well be an effective rebuttal to propagandists who claim that atheists don’t do charity work – we do, as part of the UU church and many other organizations – or that religious charity would cease if atheists became predominant. UU is an effective testimony that supernatural beliefs need not accompany the desire to do good.

    I’m glad there’s yet another non-dogmatic example for atheist communities to follow. And I’m all for organizations that acknowledge our common humanity, without splitting theological or political hairs. But Universal Unitarianism, however laudable, is not a specifically atheist organization. Those “propagandists” you mention could conceivably dismiss it as an example of what atheists can do for the cause of good in the world.

  • Christopher

    Donald,

    “Again, wrong. Plenty of individuals will tell you that they have beliefs they consider to be moral, and that are different from society’s. So, no, “these things” are not required to become popular before being considered moral.”

    Just because one person thinks something is “moral” doesn’t make it so – if that was the standard for “morality” then anything one thinks is “moral” is “moral” by default (ex. I think running over squirrels in the parking lot is “moral” therefore it is!). A thing only becomes “moral” or “immoral” when some external entity judges the thing in question.

    “Also, somehow I missed this gem:

    As far as people like myself are concerned? Yes. Could they be consided valid to some one else with a different view on “truth?” Possibly, but I don’t speak for them – only myself.”

    This is a concept difficult to express in the abstract, so let me provide a concrete example: take two individuals with two different lifestyles and worldviews (let’s say… a health nut and a metal musician, for example). Now, let’s say that both of these people adopt a habit that could potentially affect their health (say… eating foods high in sugar) – and both people are criticized by their peers for doing so.

    In the case of the health nut, the criticism is valid as the habit conflicts with the ideas he supposedly espouses (a long, fit life) – thus he can’t reconcile this habit with his lifestyle. The metal musician, on the other hand, probably won’t have a hard time reconciling this habit with his existing lifestyle (which likely includes lots of unhealthy habits like excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, smoking addiction, etc… basically a live-fast-die-young way of life) – thus making the criticism of his new habit (sugar) rather moot.

    The same criticism is given to both people, but it has different repercussions on them: it’s detrimental to one, but doesn’t even phase the other. I hope this helps shed some light on my statement.

  • aab

    thanks for the article. my family was at some point catholic, methodist, and baptist, and we NEVER attended regularly. i myself fell in with wiccan/pagan ideology and practice for a while as a teenager. anyhoo, after being married for a year and feeling a spiritual emptiness, i decided to join the original church, yep you guessed it, the catholics. i was even confirmed. then after a year, i still felt out of place with all the tradition and ritual.

    so i’ve decided to keep the good (charity work, reverence for mary, praying the rosary) and discard the rigidity of weekly attendance and certain social views (the pill). and as an outdoor enthusiast, i still feel a draw to paganism, especially the idea of a pair of forces being responsible for creation, since that’s the way most of life begins.

    i will attend my first service at uu in san jose this week. i think they will provide me the freedom to believe what feels right to me, even if it’s just abstract ideas like god the mother, the wiccan rede or “salvation” through just being a good human.