A doubter’s Christmas story

December 24, 2010 | By | 10 Replies More

I am a doubter and a religious skeptic. A few days ago I shot video of a Presbyterian Christmas service.

As I entered the church with my equipment I was greeted warmly by many in the congregation. I returned their greeting in kind. Truth be told, I was happy to be there because the officiant was a friend of mine and this video was going to help her get ordained.

It was a very moving service, different from the Catholic Mass I grew up experiencing. There was a time for people in the congregation to ask for prayers or give thanks for good fortune. There was beautiful music and many moments of good humor and laughter. Topping it all off was a Christmas pageant in which the children of the community dressed as the familiar biblical characters and recited lines from the Nativity story. Much of it brought a tear to my eye, I am not ashamed to admit.

As a well-known doubter you might think that I would have found all of this distasteful. Not at all. The warmth and love in the room was something to be celebrated and I was glad to be a part of it.

But, also being the filmmaker that I am, I couldn’t help but notice that the moments in which the people in that room glowed most brightly were the moments of interaction between them. As I have noticed in my own Catholic upbringing, the reading and analysis of scripture is often met with polite attention, if not actual boredom. And this seemed to be the case here as well.

The moments that were most moving to everyone, and the moments which brought little gasps of joy from the people there, were not the reminders of Jesus’ birth and suffering but the little things that people did for each other.

An elderly women had brought in an illuminated version of the Christmas Story that she had created as an art student in the 1930s and everyone gathered around to see it and compliment her.

There was an announcement that a youth group had collected pairs of shoes for the poor far beyond anyone’s expectations. A wave of appreciation swept across the room.

There were several challenged children in the pageant being gently prodded along by the other children.

There was a “Joyful Noise” collection in which the kids collected coins in cans for a local homeless shelter and then began shaking them noisily to demonstrate how much had been raised.

ALL of these things were intensely moving for me, and believers might say that these acts were inspired by the Gospels, but I didn’t see that. No, in fact it seemed to me as if people were biding their time through the Gospel to get to the “good stuff” of human interaction, kindness and caring for each other.

Am I saying that this proves that the bible stories are not true? Not at all. That’s a conversation for another time.

What I am saying is that throughout my life I have seen it demonstrated again and again that the story is largely unnecessary. I know many people claim to get inspiration from the bible but I don’t think that’s where it’s coming from at all.

The good feeling, the inspiration and love is coming from the people around you. If you are religious the bible is just a “hub”; a convenient totem around which all of this activity circulates but which, in the bigger picture, is really not needed.

So God IS all around us, as the bible says. Look to your left and right. There He is. There She is. So why then the fetishization of ancient notions of atonement by torture? Is religion really necessary for us to feel good about each other and help each other, when that same religion can be used to oppress, deny rights and justify hatred, mutilation and murder?

This doubter says no.

Maybe it’s time for a Doubter’s “church” in which the same sense of community is achieved but without the reliance on dangerous and outdated mythology.

What do you all think? What would that look like? What songs would we sing? What readings recite?

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About the Author ()

Mike Pulcinella is a documentary filmmaker.

Comments (10)

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  1. Xtech says:

    Great story.

    What would that Doubter's church look like? Perhaps like a Unitarian, or alternative Christian such as Unity.

    By the way, I suspect EVERY church is a doubter's church. It is only rarely a Christian admits doubts and rarer still to do it aloud.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Sounds like you are looking for a few doubters congregations, like the Unitarians or the Ethical Society (that I featured when Dale McGowan Came to Town last year).

  3. Dan, I had forgotten about that blog you wrote! Yes, that looks right up my alley! I also had begun reading Dale's blog at that time but lost touch with it. I have to check it out again. Thanks for the reminders!

  4. Xtech wrote: "By the way, I suspect EVERY church is a doubter’s church."

    Good point! You are certainly correct. Again, that reinforces my thesis that for many the dogma is secondary to just gathering together.

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    We tried Unitarians many years ago. A little fringe for us. And not doubters – these were Californian way into spiritual, non-Christian studies (Gibran and Earth Mother type stuff.) I was in my very skeptical stage and had a hard time believing that people believed that stuff. Now I'm a skeptic that doesn't have a hard time believing people believe, nor am I surprised at what people believe, but more than when I was younger, I cannot understand the need for spirituality even among non-believers. Especially among non-believers.

    When we moved to Texas, we checked into the North Texas Church of Freethought. Turns out I like to sleep in on the weekends, so it was too far to drive (1.25 hours) so early in the morning.

    The "gathering" is one of those things that I don't think about, and don't really care about, but if I'm in a situation where a gathering results, I usually enjoy it.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Unitarians are largely woo finders, not skeptics. But they do doubt the mainstream religious core.

    I have all sorts of faiths in my extended family, from Biblical literalists to professional crystal healers.

    But I went to Ethical Society Sunday School.

  7. Ebonmuse says:

    My wife and I attend a Unitarian Universalist church as well. I think the atmosphere in any given UU service depends a lot on the congregation (which is as you'd expect, really, for a religion with no dogma and no creed). Some are probably woo-woo and New Agey; some are more like liberal Christianity. Ours strikes a balance I can live with: the sermons are about morality and community, and the word "God" is hardly ever mentioned at all. From what I've gathered, atheists and agnostics make up at least a plurality of the membership, and I, as well as my wife, a liberal ex-Catholic, both feel comfortable there. It's very much a doubters' church. 🙂

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    A story in last week's Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) newspaper said that many of the traditions we associate with Christmas (evergreen trees, Santa, elves, eggnog, etc.) are actually relatively recent creations from the 19th century. The article also said that many Protestant leaders of the time initially objected to these (pagan-inspired) festivities because they feared parishioners would be distracted from the 'real' meaning of Christmas (i.e., the birth of the Son of God). Perhaps not surprisingly, parishioners preferred to party, probably for many of the same reasons Mike mentions in his post.

    I provide this brief history to point out that Christmas traditions evoke good feelings among participants (even non-believers, like Mike) apparently because they were originally selected for that ability. We see similar intentionality in many other elements of Christianity (and in many other organized religions). Something proves popular among the congregants (e.g., Santa Claus, belief in eternal life, charity given to the poor, ceremonial marriages, public baptism, public burning of heretics, etc.) and it becomes encouraged by the religion. Tastes change, but the coopting process remains the same.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    I know people who attend a church that still in 2010 objects to Santa and such encrustations of their "original" Christmas. Possibly because of the feared comparison:

    <img src="http://www.drediknight.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/santa-jesus.jpg&quot; alt="Santa vs. Jesus">

  10. Karl says:

    The word for "church" originally meant those "called out" from among the doubters to believe in the incarnation of God as a human.

    How appropriate for "non-believers" to come together as collective congregants that doubt if anything non-scientific could ever be believed.

    The instant one starts to discuss compassion, the entire role of science might as well be thrown to the wind. Compassion is not a cognitive construct, it is a matter of the emotions and explicitly takes a person out of their experiences and considers the experiences of others.

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