Intimations of Anti-Theism

Intimations of Anti-Theism July 10, 2015
Ted Wilson
Ted Wilson, President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

I’m ambivalent about anti-theism. In general, I think believing in and appealing to invisible, supernatural agents is detrimental to human moral and intellectual development. My feelings about religion also vary, depending on the day, but one of the ways I would describe myself is anti-absolutist. Some things are absolutely detrimental, like drinking poison or stepping into moving traffic. These things are definitely not recommended under any circumstances.

Religion is not that clear cut. For example, I appreciate the title of Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great. It’s true, none of them are great. But the subtitle goes too far: How Religion Poisons Everything. Maybe it’s my academic training or my postmodern disposition, but I can’t go there. It’s simply not true. How do I know? Because I have experienced many religions—some from the inside, some from the outside—and they don’t all poison everything. I also know thousands of religious people who do not “poison everything.”*

Does all religion poison some things? Absolutely!

Does some religion poison everything. Sure!

I’m fine with both of these expressions but I realize they don’t accomplish the purpose of a slogan. They don’t roll off your tongue or make you want to buy the book. These milquetoast platitudes are not what we want from our pundits, but then again, punditry is at least part of what is wrong with our society.

All that being said, I’ve been playing the part of anti-theist—or at least an anti-religionist—this week. I got surprisingly angry about my former church’s decision to refuse to credential female pastors in the same way they credential male pastors. This issue has come before the worldwide church body some four or five times in the past four decades. Some regional bodies of the church in the United States have rebelled over the years and ordained some women anyway, but the top echelons of the church do not accept or acknowledge this.

As I followed live tweets from the Alamodome in San Antonio this week, I had a feeling which way this was going to go. The actual request before the delegates wasn’t even to allow women to be ordained throughout the church. It was simply a request to allow the various world divisions to decide this issue within their context. A yes vote would have meant that the North American Division (United States and Canada, primarily) would have had their way cleared to officially ordain women. The church could not even do that. The motion failed, 977 to 1381.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. The role of the church in North America is declining rapidly. The truthfulness of the church’s teaching is not effected one iota by having women preach as opposed to men. However, there is a basic injustice to the entire thing and a corrupt misogyny at the root of the church that made me angry.

What makes me even more angry is seeing my friends and former colleagues, who I would consider progressive Christians, acquiescing to this injustice and passively accepting the church’s ingrained patriarchy. I spent the past two days laboring with a few of them to stand up, make their voices heard, dissent and even publicly disobey for the sake of justice.

Perhaps some of that will happen. I’ve heard some people suggest that men should turn in their ordination credentials in protest. That would be a good start, though I seriously doubt it will happen.

More importantly, I wonder if progressives in the Adventist Church are considering breaking off from the worldwide body of the church known as the General Conference? I’m not on the inside of these conversations anymore so I don’t know. Historically the church has invested a great deal of effort in convincing rank and file members that the structural unity of the worldwide church is vitally important to the mission of the church. To break with the world church would be such a drastic move that I doubt very much whether anything like it will happen. If I had to guess, I’d say the North American Division expresses their outrage, mostly in print, and then succumbs to manipulative appeals by the re-elected General Conference President, Ted Wilson, for unity and harmony in the Holy Spirit and recommitment to the church’s mission, as interpreted by him.

Some have suggested that this week is a watershed for the Adventist Church; that historians will look back and say that this was the decisive moment when the Adventist Church finally moved toward complete irrelevance. (I know what you’re thinking: it’s already irrelevant).

Maybe that’s true, because a number of people wrote to me saying that they were giving up on the church. Several people in the last two days have said they’re formally dropping their membership in the Adventist Church. Obviously this is only anecdotal and insignificant in the face of a 1.1-million member church in the United States and Canada, but it’s a start.

What surprised me most was how happy I was about the whole thing. Not schadenfreude at the further decline of the church (okay, maybe a little), but joy at witnessing people set free.

One young women wrote,

I’m no longer Adventist after today, Ryan. After what happened today it’s been made clear to me. Existence of God? Still figuring that one out but Adventism after today is [an] easy one. I cried and cried. My heart is def broken. Broken for many reasons. Mostly that I spent 30 years believing in something so impure, so dirty, so dysfunctional and so unjust. I look forward to moving on. What a journey it’s been. Thank you for being a friend.

Another wrote,

That’s pretty much it. Am very glad to be out.

Another person wrote me today,

I resigned!!!! I’ve got a new job….

I feel so happy! One month to go… I will be free from this sexist, backwards denomination.

I think once I leave I won’t be following what goes on anymore. I think it is just too much work to process all the stupidity and primitivism of Adventist thought. I can’t even process the language they use anymore…so much spiritual manipulation and guilt inducing prayers and sermons.

I know that religion is powerful to organize people’s best motivations and mobilize them to improve themselves and the world. I’ve been a part of that in the past and I know many people who embody their religious life in this way. This is a best case scenario. When I encounter people like this I express my gratitude and ask them to consider the collateral damage their religion may be causing them and others. Even good expressions of religion often come at the cost of deep shame, self-reproach and hostility toward those outside the group.

Whether religion serves some good purpose in the world, which it apparently does, it brings me so much happiness to see people set free from any pattern of thinking or acting which convinces them that they’re worthless, disempowers their freedom and agency, or in any other way brings them down.

So here’s to those who are breaking free from mental and emotional bondage. Your courage is inspiring to me and others!


*It’s worth pointing out that the title of Christopher Hitchens’ book, and my comments, to a degree, conflate theism and religion. Clearly theism has historically given birth to religions and religion is primarily an expression of theistic beliefs, but the two bear enough distinctions that they should be considered distinct. There are, for example, post-theistic religions and non-religious theists.

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