Anger and Atheism

Much to my surprise, I recently found myself questioning the validity of atheism.

Since college days I have seen both atheism and some forms of theism as legitimate options, useful and potentially correct ways of understanding the universe. We cannot yet prove the truth of any lifestance, but we can rule out some alternatives and decide which of the remaining world-views seem most accurate to us.

So I was startled to notice myself doubting that atheism is a legitimate, reasonable option. What I noticed was subtle, only a half-conscious thought, and I immediately realized that this thought was ill-founded. It was, in essence: “I’ve been reading some angry statements by atheists. Anger prevents people from thinking straight. Maybe atheism is irrational, based on emotion rather than reason.”

That half-conscious thought makes no sense because atheism (and some forms of theism) can be well-supported by clear-minded reason. Besides, as a Unitarian Universalist minister I’ve served congregations that include many atheists, as well as agnostics and liberal theists. These atheists, as a group, are not filled with rage. And even those who are intensely angry at religion have good reasons for feeling resentful. Atheists are one of the most widely-despised groups in the United States, and it’s only natural that they would resent this sort of marginalization.

But of course when people are extremely angry they are especially motivated to express themselves, so in any persecuted minority some of the loudest voices are the voices of rage.

When I found myself wondering if atheism was irrational, I had just read a series of email exchanges on a secular humanist chat list. I won’t quote individuals, but let’s just say people were speaking freely. Even when I didn’t agree with them, I could understand where they were coming from. But the strong emotional content of some statements engendered a doubt (irrational, I realize) about the validity of their world-view.

So should angry atheists tone down their rhetoric? Not always. To everything there’s a season. But people have a hard time hearing hostile communications. If you’re just “venting,” and don’t care whether people agree with you, you may choose to let it all hang out. But if you’d like to make this world a friendlier place for non-theism, the raw edge of rage may be best expressed in private.

Roger Christan Schriner

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More Thoughts about Unitarian Universalist Humanism

I’ve been following an on-line discussion about the way Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations. Some want to form local UU congregations that are explicitly humanistic, while others like the diversity of groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values.

After I posted about this topic recently, one person commented that a theologically homogeneous group “too easily falls into nasty habits, sneering at those not there to hear it, making ‘jokes’ that are little short of hate speech, not quite realizing how far down that path they’ve gone in the absence of anyone present to call them on it.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times – even among good people. We humans find it so difficult to respect those who disagree with us about religion (or politics, or morality).

I also have another concern about setting up explicitly humanistic Unitarian Universalist congregations. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion. In the past few decades few if any of our churches have taken a formal stand in favor of some theological position. If we start setting up humanistic congregations, we’ll soon see congregations that formally privilege liberal theism, neo-Paganism, etc. That sort of theological fragmentation sounds very destructive.

On the other hand, forming more humanistic groups within UU churches could be quite positive. Within Unitarian Universalism, theism is now more commonly affirmed than it was 30 years ago. As a result, some atheists and agnostics have felt marginalized. They need to feel the supportive community of their fellow humanists. And having different theological groups doesn’t need to be divisive. If one congregation contains local chapters of groups such as HUUmanists, the UU Christian Fellowship, and the Covenant of UU Pagans, that could actually encourage respectful conversations across theological boundary-lines.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Unitarian Universalist Humanism

Recently I’ve been following a discussion thread about how Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations, and to the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole. Unitarian Universalism is a denomination that accepts people of all faiths and philosophies. It seeks unity by supporting common values rather than a common theological or philosophical creed.

Some of our churches contain sub-groups that focus specifically on one sort of lifestance, such as liberal Christianity, neo-Paganism, or non-theistic humanism. The Humanist Roots group that I sometimes attend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is an example. But there are those who favor the formation of local UU congregations that are explicitly non-theistic.

Some discussants have been enthusiastic about this possibility, while others have been disappointed at the suggestion that our local congregations should be philosophically homogenous.

What do you think? Is there value in groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values? Or is it better for theists and atheists to attend different congregations?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Faitheist: An Important New Book by Chris Stedman

On November 6 Beacon Press published Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Just from reading the reviews and browsing through the text on line I know this book will be helpful in promoting theist-atheist dialogue. I ordered it today.

When I wrote Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, there were virtually no other works available that focused on what theists and atheists have in common. Stedman addresses this subject personally, by recounting his own experiences with atheists, Christians, and interfaith work.

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association Bookstore, “Chris Stedman makes a passionate argument that atheists should learn to respect religious identity while remaining secular. Drawing on his personal transformation from born-again Christian and closeted homosexual through full-throated atheist with a disdain for religion, and finally to a modern, more tolerant atheist, Stedman is uniquely positioned to present a way for atheists and the religious to find common ground. Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University…. His work appears in Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and Religion Dispatches.”

Thanks, Chris, for telling the story of an unusual and courageous personal journey.

Roger Christan Schriner

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