Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sermon: "Atheists v. The God Squad" (Delivered 2-22-09)

The reading this morning comes from a piece published in the UU World magazine written by UUA President Bill Sinkford on “Learning from the Interfaith World.” Sinkford writes,
Two years ago the Evangelical community published a statement on environmentalism that is, from their theological perspective, every bit as good as anything Unitarian Universalism has contributed. And if you want to work on poverty, or immigration, the Roman Catholic Church has been leading far more effectively, for far more years, than have we. Effectiveness, not ideological purity, should determine who you work with. […]

We need to get over our Christian-phobia. Unitarian Universalists will joyfully chant the Buddhist sutras, delight in midrash of traditional Jewish texts, recite Native American prayers, and sing Gospel hymns. But ask many Unitarian Universalists to join in reciting the Lord’s Prayer and you are in big trouble.

This country’s dominant faith is Christianity. If you are going to work in the interfaith world, you have to be able to be in the presence of people for whom the Christian message is life-saving Good News. If a[n Evangelical Christian] and a Catholic can stand with us to argue for [environmentalism and immigration reform], we must be able to respect the Lord’s Prayer.
The following issue of the UU World contained a letter to the editor responding to this piece by Sinkford. The letter was written by Chad Inman, a member of our church, who wrote,
UUA President William G. Sinkford cites resistance to reciting the Lord’s Prayer as an example of UUs’ Christian-phobia. While I agree that UUs need to be as receptive to the wisdom in the Christian tradition as they are to that found in other faith traditions, none should be criticized for not joining in a prayer with which they may have significant theological differences. It is not respectful to recite devotional words unless they can be spoken with sincerity. For me and for many other non-theistic or non-Christian UUs, respecting the Lord’s Prayer may simply take the form of silently respecting others as they recite it, even if we do not join in.

Two snapshots from the past few weeks: A couple of weeks ago I headed over to Shawnee Mission East high school where Fred Phelps was scheduled to picket. Some parents here at SMUUCh informed me that the East students had planned a massive counter-demonstration. I was being asked to go as a cool head in case things got out of control. It was a peaceful protest. On one side of the street stood twelve members of the Phelps clan, half of them minors, holding signs pronouncing God’s hatred. On the other side of the street I stood with hundreds and hundreds of youth. The student counter-demonstrators held bright signs, many of them proclaiming God’s love. One of the images I remember from the day was that of a young woman, maybe 15 years old, picking up a sign that said, “God loves everyone, no exceptions” and then becoming self-conscious and wondering out loud, “Why am I holding this sign? I am an atheist. Somebody else hold this sign.”

On Presidents Day I attended what had been billed as an interfaith prayer service for immigrant justice. We gathered in the late morning on that frigid cold day near the Crown Center, across the street from the Lathrop Gage building which houses the Department of Justice offices that deal with immigration and where, on some days, as many as fifty deportation cases are processed. I was joined by Anne Griffiths, our Intern Minister, the intern minister from All Souls UU Church on the Plaza, and by a handful of members from that congregation. Of the hundred who gathered that day in an act of prayerful witness, Unitarian Universalists made up ten percent. The prayer service itself was anything but interfaith; the prayers, the songs, and the testimonies were all decidedly Christian. That didn’t bother me particularly although I did look around when we were singing the English version of “Siyahamba” with lyrics that claim, “We are marching in the light of God / We are praying in the light of God / We are singing in the light of God” and so on. When I did look around during this song I noticed that some of the Unitarian Universalists were not singing along. But they were standing there respectfully.

In one month, on the last Sunday in March, we will have a special guest in the pulpit. Rev. Dr. William Murry will speak as our Fourth Annual Unitarian Universalist Distinguished Guest Minister. Murry is the author of a book entitled Reason and Reverence and is one of the great voices of religious humanism in our movement today. I figured I would take this opportunity to talk about issues of atheism and theism as they play out in our larger culture as well as how differences in belief play out in our own religious community.

Let’s go back to that column by Bill Sinkford and to Chad Inman’s reply. As I read Sinkford’s comments I hear him saying that in the contemporary religious landscape there are all kinds of opportunities for collaboration on important issues. I hear him saying that it is an act of self-marginalization for us not to work with those with whom our theology differs. And I hear Sinkford saying that at times we might be in the presence of others who do things like say the Lord’s Prayer and that we ought to join in because it is worthwhile to sacrifice ideological purity for effectiveness.

To which Chad replies, (and I think I know Chad well enough to paraphrase him), “Look Bill, I’ve got no issue with interfaith work that brings me into contact with people who pray in the tradition of their own faith. When I’m in these situations my own UU faith teaches me to be respectful. If someone says the Lord’s Prayer I don’t snicker; I don’t turn my back; I don’t let out a Bronx cheer. But I don’t join in either because to say the words of the prayer without sincerity would cheapen the prayer. I feel that it would be disrespectful, even dishonest, to mouth a prayer with a lack of conviction. I don’t buy that there is this polarization between effectiveness and ideological purity. For me it is about respectful difference and following my own rights of conscience.”

Speaking for myself, I’d have no problem saying the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, as long as my participation was welcomed, I’d have no problem taking communion, chanting in Sanskrit, calling the four directions, walking a labyrinth, participating in the ritual hand cleansing before the Shabbat meal, singing a praise song, or howling at the moon. And you know what? I am right. But do you know what else? Chad is also right. It is not disrespectful to follow the dictates of your own conscience. If Chad and I attended a Christian worship service at which communion was being offered, and the religious leader presiding over the service declared that the table was open, I’d probably take communion. And Chad might decide not to. And both of us would be right and neither of us would be wrong. We’d each be participating according to the dictates of our own conscience.

This topic is good for me to address. For those of you more acquainted with my theology, you may be aware that I tend more towards theism. At the same time I am the minister to not only the theists in this congregation, of which there are many, but to the atheists, agnostics, humanists, and free-thinkers as well. So, I do want to offer a few thoughts and observations and reflections, first about atheists in our wider culture as well as right here at SMUUCh.

Recent years have seen the rise in atheist pride. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have ascended to become well known in our wider culture. I teasingly call them “The Four Horsemen of the Non-apocalypse.” Their books – The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great – all make the case against religion and for atheism. A little more than two years ago I stood in this pulpit and trashed Dawkins and Harris.

Please note: my criticisms of these men had absolutely nothing to do with their atheism. It had to do entirely with what I perceived as their mean attacks on not only the radical right wing of Christianity and Islam, but on all faiths, even moderate and liberal religions.

I retract nothing I said a few years ago but I do want to temper those remarks with a few other observations. Allow me to begin with the paradoxical observation that as our political representation has grown more diverse, atheists are widely marginalized from our politics.

Consider this: We just elected a person of color as President of the United States. Two years earlier Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Our last four Secretaries of State, Democrat and Republican, have all been from groups (people of color and women) who are underrepresented in our politics. While there are few out gays and lesbians elected to public office, Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts is nearing thirty years of continuous service and has been out of the closet for twenty years. At the Oscars, Milk, the biopic film of the first openly gay man to hold a significant public office in the United States was nominated for 8 Academy Awards.

No doubt there have many atheists who have held significant public office, just not openly. There is a widespread belief that is supported by polling data that says that it would be next to impossible for an atheist to be elected President or ascend to other high offices. The only open atheist to serve in congress is Pete Stark, also a Unitarian Universalist, who in 2007 publicly declared, “I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.” (Stark’s congressional district is in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

I imagine that this truth, that being honest about your atheism precludes you from many positions of political power, is frustrating for many atheists. Equally frustrating is the term “fundamentalist atheist” that has been slapped on many writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. There has even been anti-atheist backlash from fellow liberals like Christopher Hedges. Hedges published a book called American Fascists in 2007 in which he took on fundamentalist Christianity. Hedges came back 14 months later and published I Don’t Believe in Atheists in which he took on atheists with nearly equal force.

The whole idea of “fundamentalist atheists” is unfortunate. Atheists don’t conspire to pass ballot measures to limit the rights of other human beings. They don’t call in bomb threats against abortion clinics. They don’t picket Shawnee Mission East high school. They don’t fly airplanes into skyscrapers. When a church or a synagogue or a mosque gets fire-bombed or vandalized or covered with graffiti, you can be sure that atheists didn’t do it but that the members of another religious community down the street were responsible. I fully admit that I find Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris to be acerbic and belligerent, but not violent or dangerous or criminal. On a scale, religious extremism does not balance out with anti-religious extremism. Religious extremism is dangerous. Secular extremism is relatively benign.

I want to move this discussion to our own church. In our faith community you will find people who are avowedly theistic and people who self-define as spiritual and who take part in prayer, meditation, and spiritual practice. And you will also find those who reject the concept of God entirely, those for whom religious language does not do much, and who are most in tune with reason and the scientific method.

So, I ask the question: how do we do as a community at being a place that is welcoming for both those who maintain a strong faith in God and for those for whom God is a concept that does nothing for them? How do we do? Are we able to love alike even when we do not think alike?

Anecdotally, we are able to do things in this church community that we are not able to do in the wider culture. Right now the nominating committee is in the process of selecting candidates for next year’s board. Being an atheist or being a theist will not preclude you from congregational leadership. More importantly, we do manifest a diversity of beliefs and ideologies.

At the same time, we could do better. From time to time I do hear from people who are timid about bringing the fullness of their theology out into the open out of fearing that their own beliefs might be denigrated. To the extent that these stories are true, they represent a profound failure within this church. This can go both ways. Those who identify as spiritual can label humanists as stodgy or cranky whereas theists might be characterized as credulous or intellectually vapid.

The important lesson to hold onto is a lesson of humility. The failures of members of extremist religions and the failings of people like Dawkins and Hitchens are failures of humility and respect. When Chad Inman wrote about his choice not to join in saying the Lord’s Prayer he combined the best of following his own conscience with the best of maintaining a respectful posture towards others with a different theology.

If we cannot practice this respect here at this church, what hope is there for the larger world? May our engagement with one another be marked by genuine respect and magnanimity. Our church is large enough to hold multitudes. May we embody that nearly 500 year old Unitarian ideal that proclaims, “We need not think alike to love alike.”