Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Do we welcome atheists?

Posts by a couple of my colleagues have got me thinking. Here Andy posts about the slogan of his church in London: "A church for atheists... and everyone else." And here Danny says "There is no such thing as atheism."

How interesting. So do Unitarian churches welcome atheists? To me this is not the significant question. I don't know of any church that would say it wouldn't welcome atheists. If I asked my Anglican neighbours "do you welcome atheists?" they would say, "Of course we do, but we welcome them to enter into a relationship with God."

So the question is not "who do you welcome?" but rather "what do you welcome people into?" The invitation goes out to all, but what is it an invitation to? This is the pressing question to Unitarianism. In many Unitarian circles there's a lot of talk about welcoming all people: people of different beliefs, different sexual orientations, different races, but what are we welcoming them into? What are we welcoming them to do?

Unitarianism is creedless. So the invitation is not to a particular set of stated beliefs. Then what? The response sometimes is something like "a loving, justice-seeking community." Which sounds great, but I don't think it is enough.

Speaking personally it's not enough for me. If I weren't a person of faith I would say to you. "I have enough friends, I have family and people in my life who love me. I already belong to communities that make the world a better place. I give to Amnesty International, I belong to a political party that reflects my values, I have no need for love, community or justice from church. It's great that you guys are into that stuff, but it's not going to make me get up on Sunday morning."

We cannot simply put ethics at the centre of a church and think that is enough. Or rather you can, but that is called Ethical Culture. By all means start an Ethical Culture Society, good luck to you, but it's not going to be an organisation I'll be investing myself in. And it's not Unitarianism. Unitarianism is a creedless religion. But it is a religion. And religion is more than ethics.

Religion invites people to go deeper. And here words begin to fail us, because all religions agree that there is something ultimately indescribable that we're wrestling with here. But we can say that religion invites us to encounter a deeper Reality. This Reality, some religions claim, is actually more real than what we encounter in everyday life, even though in many ways it seems considerably less real. It cannot be described in scientific ways. But it can be directly apprehended by people. But it can only be apprehended using parts of the self that are very undeveloped in most of us; Anthony de Mello calls those parts of the self "the mystical heart."

Beliefs are "scaffolding" that help many people reach this Reality. But oftentimes people mistake the scaffolding for the Reality itself. Many religious people worship the scaffolding, forgetting that it is only ever a means to an end. This is called idolatry.

Unitarians are often people who have found a particular set of beliefs/scaffolding unhelpful in reaching the Reality. In fact in climbing the scaffolding it has collapsed in on them, bruising them badly in the process.

Unitarianism says, "Use whatever scaffolding you want, make your own, or buy someone else's in. Or maybe you are a rare soul who needs no scaffolding at all and you can fly like a bird directly into the Reality. But whatever you do, never mistake the scaffolding for the Reality."

Unitarianism must remain true to it's prophetic role in challenging idolatries. We often idolise scaffolding, we even build scaffolding that goes in the entirely wrong direction. This is what Danny means when he talks about worshipping finite things that actually do more harm than good. Some "gods" are scaffolding that take us towards the Reality and some "gods" take us in the wrong direction entirely.

But we must always affirm that our purpose in Unitarian churches is to point towards this Reality. That is the invitation. We invite all people, but it is a religious invitation to apprehend a greater Reality, set aside any idolatries, and recognise that beliefs are only a means to an end.

Because this Reality is life-transforming. It transforms lives, brings peace, joy, love, inspires people to bold acts of service and justice. It is worth getting up for on a Sunday morning, it is "the pearl of great price."

It is the beating heart of every true religion. And it needs to be the beating heart of Unitarianism. If it is not then we are an empty shell, and deserve to be swept away as an irrelevance in the twenty-first century.


Blogger Bill Baar said...

My Church's covenant written 1843 ends with ...but as seekers after truth and goodness.

We clearly welcome all as seekers and the direction is certainly reality, i.e. truth which we've joined to goodness.

UU's don't talk much about truth anymore (I don't think you mentioned it once!)

It is IMO what so many seek, and what we offer is the community to help you seek it, joined with goodness and cheer so when you find it, your disciplined and charitable enough not to ram it down everyone else's gullet.

12:20 pm  
Blogger Rich said...

Thank you for putting into words something I always have a hard time explaining... Why I can be atheist and at the same time have total respect for many of those who believe in a deity.

12:35 pm  
Blogger DairyStateDad said...

I completely agree.

As for whether Anglicans would welcome an atheist, I once heard the story of one who was told, "Oh, that doesn't matter!"

6:46 pm  
Blogger RevDan said...

Great stuff Stephen thank you

9:43 pm  
Blogger Kenneth Robertson said...

You state that 'Unitarianism is creedless' ; I think the term 'creedless' is unhelpful- it can suggest that our faith is an empty shell in to which we can pour whatever beliefs we choose. U-ism is non-dogmatic in that it does not prescribe a set of beliefs for members to assent to but churches frequently include affirmations during their services and often ask everyone to join together in saying them.I've always thought that the Seven principles of the UUA form a much better summary of the U-ian standpoint than does the much debated GA Object.

2:03 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I think that many Unitarians' concept of God is so apophatic as to be indistinguishable from spiritual atheism (this to me is a good thing).

I agree, I was at pains to emphasise that we welcome atheists and don't expect them to change into theists - but we would want them to respect the views of the theists among us (just as we'd want the theists to respect the atheists).

I also agree that the Reality we are engaging with is more than just community - whether it's Spinoza's God, some variation on the Christian view of God, or the Ground of All being, or whatever.

2:29 pm  
Blogger Urban Unitarians post words of inspiration said...

Perhaps it is helpful to differentiate between "atheism" and "humanism" here? We might add that the history of rational dissent has at times made us allies of the politics of secularism (see support for the accord coalition etc).

12:41 pm  

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