Editor’s Note: This provocative piece reminds me that the pandemic is bringing out the best and worst of religion. The worst being the pastors who defy quarantine orders, supposedly honoring Jesus instead by holding Sunday services, and end up sickening themselves and many in their congregations. An example of the best would be the Memphis pastors, featured in the vimeo below, who temporarily closed their churches in the interest of public health. The pandemic also provides an opportunity for freethinkers to reexamine some of their attitudes about religion. See what you think. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Chris Highland
I was asked by a local church pastor to offer a reading that would lead into the “prayers of the people” for their weekly (currently online) service. Oddly enough, I agreed. This pastor and I have shared a beer at a craft brewery. He moderated an evening in his church sanctuary where I read from my book, A Freethinker’s Gospel.
We’re not close friends but we have a mutual respect, a good sense of where each of us is coming from in matters of faith. He knows I’m a freethinking humanist and I know he is an associate pastor alongside two women clergy serving a large, mainline Protestant church here in the American South.
No longer a person who prays, what could I say into the camera for the several hundred congregants zooming in? I went to my bookshelf and took down “The World’s Wisdom,” by Philip Novak, and found a Navajo chant: “Its Life am I.”
Earth; sky; mountains; Sun—its life am I.
It repeats the tribal word hozhoni meaning beauty, peace, harmony. People seemed to appreciate this honoring of our place in nature. I didn’t pray with the “prayers of the people,” but I listened, and what I heard was hope for each other, hope for the world, an intent to live better and do good. Allowing the god-language to drift by, understanding why that feels necessary for others, I had no hesitation adding my Amen at the conclusion.
To state the obvious: There is Christianity, and then, there is Christianity. Many brands, flavors, colors, expressions. A vast variety of trees and forests, rivers, mountains—whatever natural images come to mind. In secular circles there is an array of experience with Christianity and Christians. That may be obvious, but not always acknowledged. Some of us have had disastrous experience with religious faith, and others of us have been deeply discouraged and disappointed. There are degrees of disenchantment. In my own journey in and out of faith, I passed through landscapes including Protestant, Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Liberal Progressive and Interfaith, before journeying on down the spiritual stream to the “secular sea.”
My sense is, from what I hear in the atheist world, a lot of nones have a very narrow experience with only the most narrow and immature parts of Christianity (and maybe religion in general). So, it may be timely to ask:
When immature religion butts up against immature atheism, what can we do; what can we say?
Is there a grown-up response? (I sometimes wonder when I’ll grow up too. This is a personal process for me as well).
I encounter Christians with a very naive view of atheism and atheists. Education is in order. The same for the naïveté of some atheists. The other day I received a note from an agitated atheist complaining that I called myself a “non-believer” in a blog post. She didn’t like that self-identity, and proceeded to tell me “we believe in many things.” My response affirmed that “we” (seculars, I guess she meant) can call ourselves whatever we choose, that I prefer “freethinker” and personally I don’t “believe” in anything.
I found this person’s response naive, reflecting an immaturity. That’s not a put down or a judgment. It’s simply an observation. I’ve been an educator for a long time, so I find this to be another educational opportunity, an invitation to assist someone (apparently with restricted vision) to see beyond their bubble or box of belief, or unbelief.
Those with wider experience, who value friendships and family relationships with people of faith, can still be hard-thinking, but there’s no need to be hardheaded.
We expose our ignorance and intolerance when we scoff and sneer and throw cheap sarcasm at all Christians or all people of faith. I have as little respect for cheap atheism as I do for cheap religion.
Would we take cheap shots at abolitionists like Frederick Douglass or Lucretia Mott, Civil Rights heroes like Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, or the Poor People’s Campaign of William Barber, to name just a few? When non-theists denigrate or dismiss Christian faith, they ignore the essential motivation behind and beneath a long history of good works—progressive goodness on behalf of all, with a god or without.
Let’s get to the main point here. There are Christians and there are Christians. There are those who are more concerned with dialogue than doctrine or dogma, compassion more than creed, justice more than judgment. There are those whose mission is social change, and those whose mission is conversion. Many try to be faithful to the “Sermon on the Mount,” while many focus on the sermonic scriptures of Paul. There are “Jesus-followers” as well as “Bible-worshippers”—which of course means we question what the Bible “really says” and what Jesus “really taught.” Good, let’s always question that. Many Christians do as well.In response to preachers across the country proclaiming their “right” to gather for services during the pandemic, pastors of the same church where I read the chant joined a group of reasonable and responsible clergy to publish a letter calling on Christians to keep churches closed during the pandemic (my wife, a freethinking Christian minister, suggested the clergy make this strong public statement). That’s right. Christians calling for Christian churches to stay closed. (Read the letter here.)
They essentially argue that God doesn’t live in a building, the Church is not a building, and their faith is about loving neighbors and keeping others safe and healthy. It’s not about “rights” given by a Constitution, it’s about “doing what’s right” and thinking of others first. Admirable. Mature Christianity, as I see it. (There’s a similar message from interfaith leaders in Memphis in this short video).
“Oh, those are just ‘Liberal Christians,’ some might say. Ok, right. Your point? Yes, there are millions of evangelicals, but there are also millions of progressives. Join the progressives, or at least “hear their prayers,” and perhaps we can work together for the humanistic values we all agree on.
Those with a broad, liberal education (especially those where this includes liberal theological studies) know these things. We know there are varieties of faith experience and an extreme diversity of people who hold religious beliefs. We grasp the facts of the “world” of religion. We don’t think simplistically. For us, a religion is not merely one stream to toss stones into. We understand that each religion is a long, wide and deep river—with stretches of shallows along the way, and certainly some polluted areas—yet carrying along many nutrients for the land and the people. Critique, call out and challenge we must. But a river should not be dammed (or damned) just for its messy and muddy parts.
Ironic, isn’t it? A secular freethinker speaking out, standing up, in defense of the living branches of the Christian faith. Not so strange, really. As a secular person, I think this present world needs to be faced with a grown-up worldview that has the courage, the honesty, to admit we have much more to learn about each other and the “one-room schoolhouse” we live in. As an unabashed freethinker, I value reason and truth above all, applying a wise and mature approach to the diverse ways we all “cope and hope” in our challenging world.
And what of those “living branches”? I ask: Why chop down the whole tree when only some roots and fruits are rotten, when only some branches are broken? Why spend valuable time hacking away at dead wood, when there is life that remains?
That Navajo chant continues to ring: hozhoni—beauty, peace, and harmony. Is this about faith? Is it about atheism? Maybe it’s fundamentally about being human, faith or no faith, presenting the fundamentals: discovering the good, recognizing the beauty, fostering peace and harmony.
Grow up, Christians! Grow up, Atheists!
Our maturity might just raise a new river, one that could quench our thirst for a happier, healthier kind of humankind.
**Editor’s Question: What do you think? What kind of growth and understanding could be possible between Christians and Atheists?
Bio: Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area. Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press. Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see www.chighland.com.
>>>>>>Photo Credits: https://www.amazon.com/Freethinkers-Gospel-Essays-Sacred-Secular/dp/1942016395 ; https://vimeo.com/417386522 (Memphis Faith Leaders Stand Together