Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On – Part I

July 11, 2010 | By | 18 Replies More

I do not believe in any sort of sentient “God.” I do not believe in any sort of personified “Creator” of the universe. I never had any such beliefs. Nor do I think that science has all of the “answers” (as though we know how to ask the right questions).

Looking back over my past few years of writings, however, I can see that I have come a long way regarding my approach to religion.  Prior to 2001, I was mostly in the live-and-let-live camp. Then came 9/11 when the destructive power of many religions (including American religions) came front and center. Out of mouths allegedly professing the words of God Himself, we heard plenty of bigotry (often aimed at gays, non-believers, people of Middle Eastern ancestry and, of course, members of other religions), war-mongering, anti-science, pro-ignorance, and biblical literalism.

I pushed back forcefully–one of my prime motivations for starting Dangerous Intersection was my strong reaction to the rise of conservative religions in the United States. Eventually, though, I came to realize that my reaction was overbroad. My concern should not so much have been against religion, but against those specific religious communities that encourage their members to engage in destructive behavior.   I think that I understand why I made this error; following 9/11, almost all American religions chose to be silent in the face of the destructive behavior by competitor religions.  I viewed that widespread silence as general approval. I assumed, based somewhat on the increasingly conservative views of several close acquaintances who had been religious moderates, that even moderate religious beliefs too often served as slippery slopes to fundamentalism.

I eventually developed a more nuanced view. I have come to believe that religions serve as grouping techniques that help good-hearted people do group-oriented good-hearted things and, yes, that religions invoked by mean-spirited and violent people amplify their destructive ways.

Even though I have my intellectual differences with virtually all people who profess religious claims, it turns out that many such people have more in common with me, politically and religiously, than many non-believers. There are many issues that we need to grapple with as communities and individuals, many of them having very little to do with religions claims.  Further, after the 9/11 smoke cleared, I could see better that many good-hearted religious believers were of the live-and-let-live persuasion. These were important realizations.  I eventually came to appreciate that many religious folks are truly my allies in what should be a joint quest to make the world a better place.

Over the past year, I spent many hours writing a long article on my own “spiritual” journey.  Writing this chapter was an intense exercise in self-discovery that drew from many of the posts I’ve made at this blog. I originally planned to publish my article as a book chapter that was to be called “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.”  My chapter eventually grew to an unwieldy length that branched off into several distinct (but related) topics.  What follows is list of each of the Parts of “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.”

I. The day I discussed atheism at a church service
II. My atheism
III. It’s time to call a truce.
IV. What about the science?
V. The many things we have in common
VI. Where do we go from here?
VII. Conclusion

I do believe that the full finished product works well on its own and I’ve decided to break it into several parts here at Dangerous Intersection. Parts I and II of my article are included as part of this post. I’ll post the other sections over the next few days. I hope this collection is as engaging for you to read as it was for me to write.

I. The day I discussed atheism at a church service

What can happen when atheists take the time to compassionately engage with those who believe in God? Sometimes, extraordinary things happen. Things like an atheist being invited to tell a packed church why he doesn’t believe in God.

Although I am an atheist, I occasionally tune into religious talk radio to better understand fundamentalists.Two  years ago, I heard a radio preacher ranting that many new “false” Christian churches were springing up, and that they were stealing lots of young adult Christians from “true and established” fundamentalist Christian churches. I was intrigued that this Christian preacher would disrupt his otherwise nonstop condemnation of atheists, abortionists and gays in order to get so angry about other Christian churches.

It turned out that one of those “dangerous” new Christian churches was located on a busy street less than a mile from my house—I must confess that I originally noticed the church because so many young attractive and energized looking women (and men) could be seen in and out of that church when I happened to pass by on Sunday mornings. I had wondered what was attracting such a young and energized flock. The church is called “The Journey” and a large sign in front of the church prominently included the church’s website. I decided to attend a Sunday service in order to blog on what appeared to be a new spin on worshipping Jesus.

Throughout his sermon, Pastor Darrin Patrick showed himself to be an affable and self-deprecating fellow. His sermon included a detailed exegesis of bible passages, but it lacked the high degree of fear-mongering, condemnation and xenophobia that I’d noticed at some other churches. After the service, I introduced myself to Darrin as a “skeptic” who was blogging about his church. After I published a post about The Journey at Dangerous Intersection, Darrin posted an upbeat comment in response and he suggested lunch.

Darrin and I ended up having lunch a few times, but we didn’t limit our discussion to our religious differences. Instead, we found ourselves rolling up our sleeves and focusing our conversations on our common concerns for improving our community, especially our concerns with the sad state of our local public schools. We also took some time to better understand each other’s views regarding faith and doubt.

After a few of these conversations, Darrin asked me if he could shoot a video interview of me discussing my ideas about faith and skepticism. I agreed. He then played excerpts of my video interview (and his interviews of other skeptics) for his 2,000 church members as part of a series of church services exploring religious skepticism. Darrin’s unusual approach to preaching was featured on a front page article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Article, “Church Takes On ‘New Atheism’ By Embracing the Doubt,” ran on Oct 19, 2008.

A few months later, Darrin invited me to present my views in person at a Saturday evening religious service. After introductory music by the church choir, Darrin and I walked to the front of the church, where we sat side-by-side on stools, microphones in hand, in front of a live audience of four hundred people. As part of that church service, I was given free rein to discuss why I didn’t believe in a sentient supernatural being called “God.”  Here’s the story of how I discussed my atheism before a live congregation. In an atmosphere that was nothing less than cordial and welcoming, I spoke to the congregation for fifteen minutes. After the service, I mingled with a large group of church-goers who thanked me for coming to their church and sharing my views. This experience energized me and convinced me more than ever that believers and atheists can and should engage in productive conversation.

My “sermon” convinced me that atheists would be much better off in the long run if we toned down the harsh rhetoric we often aim at religious moderates. Cultivating trust, patience and self-criticism can bring down the temperature between believers and atheists. It allows us to collaborate with each other regarding the numerous important social and political issues on which we clearly agree.

My Atheism

Who am I? Although I like to spend time writing and meditating in big empty churches, I am an atheist. For me, the notion of a sentient disembodied being is an oxymoron because there is no evidence that sentience can occur in the absence of a physical neural network. Rocks and air can’t think; neither can anything else that lacks a physical substrate. I don’t believe in the sentience of ghosts or Holy Ghosts. I have no faith in any of the supernatural claims touted by any religion. I never believed in God, angels or heaven, even as a young child.

My frustration with religion started in 1960, when I was four years old. My dad took me to a neighborhood Catholic church for a “visit.” It was early evening and no one else was in the big church. My dad kneeled and prayed silently. I wondered what to make of the solemn expressions of the statues. After a few minutes, my dad finished praying and sat down in the pew next to me. He had a strange expression on his face as he whispered to me that Jesus lived in a little gold box at the front of the church. I was puzzled. He told me that Jesus was a piece of bread and that people ate Jesus. This statement hit me like a shotgun blast. Even though I was only four, I knew that there was something terribly wrong with my dad.

My parents required me to attend Catholic schools through high school. While attending mandatory religion classes, even in grade school, I relentlessly asked questions, and this frustrated everyone in the classroom, including me. I asked where the waters receded if the entire Earth had been flooded. I was perplexed that the most sacred part of the Mass involved cannibalism. I expressed my doubt that a woman who didn’t have sex could get pregnant and that her baby boy was his own father. I asked these questions for years, but I never heard any answer that made any sense. I felt isolated and excluded, especially when I was told that I needed to pray more. I wondered whether there was something wrong with me.

In my last two years of high school, I stopped going to church because I had lost all patience with religion. None of the other students at school seemed to care—they just marched off to church when told to do so. Though I didn’t call myself an atheist back then, I had become an atheist. My lack of faith made other students uncomfortable. My iconoclastic views got all the more intense on the day I wandered into a public library and picked up a copy of Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” I was about 17 years old at the time, and this was the day I discovered that I was not alone and that I was not crazy.

All through my life, my lack of belief in supernatural beings has led many people to judge me as morally defective even though they didn’t know me in the least. For instance, while in law school, my woman I was then dating invited me to travel to meet her family in Illinois. On Sunday morning, her father (a philosophy teacher at a local college) was shocked that I did not accept the family’s invitation to attend Catholic Mass. That night, he told my girlfriend that she shouldn’t ever bring that “God-damned atheist” into the family house again.  I could easily tell many additional stories where I disappointed acquaintances, friends and family because I didn’t proclaim that I believed in God.

In short, my story is typical of the experiences of American atheists who were raised in religious homes.

[To be continued]


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Category: American Culture, Culture, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (18)

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  1. Mike Duncan says:

    Hey Erich, I was at that service at The Journey and still remember it well. Thanks again for being so bold to share your story & views. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this article.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Dude, we have known each other since 1970, wrote bad high school newspaper columns, shared music and part of college, reconnected after law school and raised a little hell since then here and elsewhere. We never talked about religion or faith but, shared interests, concerns and a penchant for getting the bad guys.

    I didn't know you were an atheist, wouldn't have cared and still don't. It is silly of us to make our differences which make life so diverse and interesting be where we concentrate our attention.

    Life is short, we get a walker and we die. So, you say that's it, I don't.


    You keep me honest, from going too overboard and you listen and share your passions and life with me. You've never taken advantage, if we have any complaint we take it to one another and don't whine about it in public.

    It works so far.

    Are we still OK even if you are an immoral nihilist (a term I had never heard of before I began contributing here!) and I'm delusional and believe in mythical friends?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tim: We attended Catholic high school where you were in the majority. To say you wouldn't have cared about my beliefs misses the point. I had a worldview that, for all I could tell, made me a club with only one ostracized member. Not that I was the only "different" person at our school. You were a liberal at a school that was politically apathetic at best. You thus know what it's like to be seen as strange as a result of being honest about what you believe. Years and years of it wore me down and frustrated me to no end.

      Thanks for your response, but I'm just getting started here. It might not have seemed like a big deal to you that I held beliefs that virtually everyone in my life considered inappropriate and immoral, but I was keenly aware of it every time someone alluded to God and everyone but me nodded understanding. It was beyond bizarre, especially since I was the ONLY person I knew who admitted that he/she believed what I believed. Truly, no one I knew thought it was OK to believe what I did. Only my mother articulated empathy and tolerance of my unusual beliefs. Then one amazing day I stumbled across Bertrand Russell's "Why I am not a Christian." It was a great relief to be given hope that I was not crazy. I know that this is not how believers might see it (they might think that both Russell and I were hopelessly wrongheaded), but that's how it looked through my eyes back then.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, you were and are my hair facially challenged friend. I'm sorry I was too thick to see what you were going through.

    I took my own religious sojourn at about the same time and met Rabbi Ascher, several Protestant ministers, several Buddhists and Muslims, all who impressed me with their openness to speak about what they believed to a naive young man. I wound up back where I started but, because I chose that place.

    You might remember, the "Search for Christian Maturity" program was started in St. Louis and I volunteered. Our group went around the country introducing ourselves and our views on our faith to other Catholic High Schoolers. I liked doing that but, felt I needed to be active on social justice issues and got very into Democratic politics. But, I saw the Church as too limited in its views of issues and fell away, again.

    I went back to Colorado, and then went back to college at SLU where I got back into social justice issues with other students at MoPIRG, and later with Ralph Nader. MoPIRG was non-partisan, so I left to go back to Democratic politics where I have stayed, and blame Nader for Bush (Yes, Godddamit you egotistical prick, eight years of Bush were your personal f-ing fault, crap weasel!).

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Ebonmuse, who is a good friend, is the creator of Daylight Atheism. He is always cranking out well-written and thoughtful posts. In a recent one called "On the Uses of Ridicule," he explores the extent to which non-believers should be conciliatory toward the religious claims of believers (his answer–not very much). Because Ebonmuse and I appear to differ somewhat on this issue, I thought his post would be an excellent counterweight to my "Mending Fences" series.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    This passage from Wikipedia notes the blatant discrimination inflicted on non-believers by numerous state constitutions:

    The no religious test clause of the U.S. constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Although it has become tradition for US presidents to end their Presidential Oath with “so help me God”, this is not required by the Constitution. However, the Vice President, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the members of the Cabinet, and all other civil and military officers and federal employees other than the President are required to take an oath ending with “so help me God.”[20]
    See also: Oath of office of the President of the United States, United States Uniformed Services Oath of Office, and Oath of enlistment
    Some state constitutions in the US require belief in God or a Supreme Being as a prerequisite for holding public office or being a witness in court. This applies to Arkansas,[21] Maryland,[22] Mississippi,[23] North Carolina,[24] where the requirement was challenged and overturned in Voswinkel v. Hunt (1979),[citation needed] South Carolina,[25] Tennessee,[26] Pennsylvania, [27] and Texas,[28] debatably.[29] A unanimous 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Torcaso v. Watkins held that the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution override these state requirements,[30] so they are not enforced.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    “Atheist Ireland is asking voters to consider the position of candidates on secular issues before voting for President on Thursday. Four of the seven Presidential candidates have committed to recognising equally the rights of atheist and agnostic citizens if elected President, in replies to questions from Atheist Ireland. Currently an atheist or agnostic cannot become President as there is a constitutional requirement for the President to swear a religious oath asking God to direct and sustain them.”

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Americans hate the thought of an atheist holding public office. They hate atheists worse than gays. That’s why I found this graphic interesting.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Consider one of the experiments. One hundred and five students read a brief vignette about a man who fails to take responsibility when he hits a parked van with his car, and then pockets money from a wallet he finds on a sidewalk.
    Participants were asked whether they thought it was more probable that this clearly amoral man was either (a) a teacher, or (b) a teacher and a second identifying factor. That factor varied for individual participants; for some it was “a Christian,” while for others it was “a Muslim,” “a rapist” or “an atheist.”
    “A teacher and an atheist” was the equation most likely to chosen over the simple “a teacher.” Astonishingly, it was slightly more likely to be chosen than “a teacher and a rapist.”

  9. Karl says:

    It is a forgone conclusion to many people that when someone says they are an atheist that they associate this with anti-social behavior on some level or another.

    This is probably because people fear what they would be like if they somehow found that they didn’t need to be accountable to anyone but themselves and perhaps those of their friends that they could get to approve of both their ideas and actions.

    For this very reason many people believe atheists do harm to the spirits of people much like the rapist does harm to the physical body and psyche of those they assault.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.”

    Eric Hoffer (1902 – 1983)

  11. Karl says:

    Another quote of Eric Hoffer

    “The mindlessness of nature frightens us, particularly when we see the minute dovetailing and mathematical precision of its structure . . . That chance should accomplish over immensely long periods what only the subtlest intellect could devise frightens us. And it is this fright which drives us to see the hand of an all-knowing God in the workings of nature. We cannot stomach chance, and at bottom we really do not believe in it. We more readily believe in God.”

    Not to say that Hoffer was a religious fanatic, but he viewed himself with more purpose than that which chance alone provides.

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