When Bible Belt atheists go to church

A church service for atheists?

Really!?

Here in my home own state of Oklahoma, that’s the basis for a religion story in today’s Tulsa World. The headline grabs readers’ attention this way:

All souls welcome at church’s morning service for atheists

OK, I’m curious.

The top of the story:

Why would atheists go to church?

Wouldn’t that be like someone going to a movie theater, staring at a blank screen for an hour, and then going home?

Not at all, says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, who this fall started a special service for non-theists at All Souls Unitarian Church.

“These are people who are not inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by Scripture but who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death,” he said.

Lavanhar said the church started the humanist service in September, partly in response to the rapid growth of atheism in society.

“The fastest growing religious segment of our society are those who call themselves non-religious,” he said.

“If I can’t make my case for loving your neighbor without reference to God and Scripture, then I am truly going to miss a huge segment of the population who may find themselves permanently outside the walls of organized religion,” he said.

Keep reading, and the World provides insight into the pastor’s theology and beliefs:

He said he prays regularly and experiences God’s help in his ministry, especially when he is counseling people facing illness or the loss of loved ones.

He does not like to be labeled, which is not helpful, he said, but when pushed, he says he is a theistic naturalist. He believes in God but does not believe in miracles.

He said he does not believe in the Christian orthodoxy that Jesus Christ was truly God in the flesh, but said he has no dispute with people who say they have found a life-changing relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

He said developing a relationship with God is at the heart of what All Souls is about, but he believes Jesus is only one of many paths to that relationship.

Many people who come to All Souls as atheists have not rejected God but their fourth-grade concept of God, he said.

“I say to them, ‘Tell me what God you don’t believe in, and I’ll probably tell you I don’t believe in that God either.’”

That’s all interesting and relevant. But what about the atheists themselves? According to the pastor, the non-theist service has drawn as many as 280 people. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear from some of them?

This is basic Journalism 101 stuff: In a story about atheists going to church, the reporter needs to interview some atheists who go to church, right? Maybe ask them why they wake up extra early on Sunday if they don’t believe in God?

Otherwise, you end up not with an intriguing news story but with a blasé one-source sermon that fails to answer the key question raised.

Image via Shutterstock

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jay

    Seems much more like a service for agnostics than atheists.

  • Laura

    I feel totally left hanging at the end of this article, too. What would members of the congregation have to say? I actually think this is a wonderful possibility for those souls who have issues with religion, but are searching or considering their own concept of God. 12 step programs come to mind. Forming the concept of something more powerful, yet loving, that could provide some comfort. I think society desires to celebrate milestones or formally grieve as a community. But they balk at embracing the political baggage, despair at the perceived hypocrisy, don’t care to read or understand Scripture, don’t want to be perceived as judgmental, etc.
    The media really doesn’t “Get Religion” . The clergy is not the whole story. Not even close. It’s the community where the most intriguing stories are.

  • Chris

    Key word in the story, ” Unitarian”

    • Dave

      You betcha. I’m a UU, and that “blase one-source sermon” is, in addition, old news among Unitarians.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    in Bible Belt Oklahoma, I often recommended my patients attend church to get to know their neighbors. Why? Because there is no other “social life”, except maybe the bars. And yes, often that meant suggesting a Universalist type church for “non believers”.

    And I agree with the pastor: Often they have been hurt by “christians” and reject a 4th grade god, not God.

    However, as a Catholic, could I note that unlike Evangelicals, we follow natural law arguments as the basis for charity and justice. So it looks like he is inventing the wheel here.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Folks, just a reminder that GetReligion is a journalism website. Comments must be focused on journalism and media coverage issues. This is not the place to voice your opinion about the church involved.

  • Mike Bratton

    As a former print and broadcast journalist, it is shallow reporting to dance around the objective fact that Unitarianism isn’t Christianity in any way. Particularly when the writer is identified as a “religion writer.” That’s not opinion, it’s fact–and it’s censorship to remove commentary that reiterates that fact.

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