further than atheism - moving beyond rejection to find solid ground of our own

Welcome to Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast landscape of ideas that lies beyond mere disbelief. Further Than Atheism is intended to serve as a challenge to non-believers of all stripes to go beyond mere rejection of gods to an articulation of what ideas are worthy of consideration. Although each column presents one particular version of atheist thought, the validity of other possibilities is recognized. It is not the job of any atheist to decide for others what to think. Rather, it is the responsibility of every atheist to come up with an individual system of thought arrived at through rigorous consideration.

For atheists, congregation is a matter of personal style

This Spring, my wife and I became expectant parents. Since that time, she and I have had a series of discussions and negotiations about how we will raise our son and work together as a family. One of the subjects of our talks has been his moral upbringing.

For my wife, the answer is straightforward: to provide our educate our son about religion. In her way of thinking, a child cannot learn to live in an ethical way unless he is raised within a particular religious structure. Although she eventually came to look at the bigger picture, her initial presumption was that ethics could only come with religion, that raising a child without religion is raising a child to believe in nothing. The man who signed our marriage certificate, a Presbyterian preacher named Peter, supported her in this belief. "It's good to think for yourself," he advised, "but you can take that too far. A child needs to learn to have faith in something, to accept some things just on the basis of authority." I could see that my wife and I would have some difficult talks ahead of us.

To church we go...

Now, it would be wrong of me to depict my wife as some kind of religious nut. In fact, she's about as liberal as a religious person can get: she's a non-Christian Unitarian. I knew that the Unitarians claimed to accept atheists and other kinds of non-believers, so I figured that I should check her out congregation. After all, I figured, if I was going to claim to be open-minded, I should at least see what her church had to say for itself.

As we walked hand in hand into the Unitarian Church of the River, I saw many others that I knew from different parts of my life. These were people that I enjoyed spending time with, who were reasonable, tolerant and fair. I felt a bit more comfortable just seeing them there.

Then, the ceremony began. In unison, we stood. In unison, we spoke. In unison, we sang. The sound of the congregation's multiple voices all saying the same words at once reminded me of the voice of The Borg, a cybernetic organization from Star Trek that represses the individuality of its members and seeks to assimilate new individuals into its collective. Everyone in the congregation spoke one idea with once voice. To be honest, it was kind of creepy.

Next came the talk, or what in any other church would have been called the sermon. The man in the pulpit spoke for about 20 or 30 minutes, and the congregation sat listening quietly. A few times he mentioned the belief of Unitarians of the importance of independent critical thinking. Everyone in the audience nodded in agreement.

After the service ended, my wife and I just stood up and left. On our way to the car I explained that, with some regret, I had decided that I wouldn't be able to attend church with her in the future. Although I came to her Unitarian service hoping to find something that we could share in common, I could not overlook the communal aspects of the service. If the Unitarians were truly interested in the individual search for truth, why were we given a script of what to say and when to say it? Why were we spending the morning listening to one man speak instead of speaking with each other or just finding a quiet spot to speak with ourselves?

An atheist church?

My experience with the Unitarian church reminded me of my own attempt a couple years ago to start an independent atheist group I called an "anti-church". I put up fliers all around town and on the internet that looked like this:

Are you a heretic?

For two thousand years, religious conservatives have been telling us that everything would be better if we just let them control our lives. We gave them that control - they had the Roman Empire, they had the Catholic Church, and here Down South they've had the Southern Baptists.

What has their self-righteous rule brought us? Persecution, torture, genocide, and slavery have all been practiced under the approving watch of religious governments. Fundamentalists have stifled freedom wherever they have come to power, insisting that their way of life is the only one that should be allowed. The undemocratic crusade against the personal behavior of President Clinton is only the latest example of the excesses of the religious right.

The time has come for the timid flock of humanity to face down the religious fundamentalist wolf! We have the right to think for ourselves, to make our own decisions about what we believe. If you are ready to think and act in freedom, come together with us:

The First Missionary Anti-Church of the Unrepentant

Don't sacrifice your mind to your faith.

When I started this organization, I hoped that I would be able to come together witha group of other non-believers to share in the social support that believers gain through church. I worried that if atheists remained separate from one another that they would be vulnerable to attacks from religious groups.

The idea was that the anti-church was that it would be everything a church was not. It would allow independent thinking. It would not dictate any particular belief, or even any particular non-belief. It would not push membership upon anyone. There would be no leaders, no one to make decisions for anyone else.

For all of the idealism that went into creating the First Missionary Anti-Church of the Unrepentant, the organization soon fell into churchisms. Members began to look to others for leadership, and some volunteered to take it. Rules began to be drawn up. People began to preach at each other. Worst of all, members seemed only to talk about how bad religious people were. There was nothing positive at all that could bring members past mere rejection of religion.

Even in an anti-church, religious ideas were shaping our behavior. After a few meetings, I withdrew my participation and let the group fizzle.

Something about coming together...

As a result of my experiences with the First Missionary Anti-Church and the Unitarian Church, I've come to believe that it isn't just religion that keeps people from thinking independently. I've come to suspect that there's something about organizations that form around ideas in general that creates a force for conformity.

Just as the religious lose sight of their spiritual quest when they relinquish authority to leader or group of leaders, so non-believers can lose perspective when they come together as well. Living solo makes us vulnerable to the power of bigoted organizations, but coming together makes us more like those bigoted organizations than we'd like to admit.

The lesson I take from my experiences with well-intentioned religious and non-religious organizations is this: when those without faith feel the need to assemble for their common good, the life-span such assemblies should be limited from the start. Non-believers should be like the slime-mold, made up of freely acting individuals who come together in time of need, changing the shape of their community as times dictate and disassembling when the good of the whole begins to restrict the good of its members.

So long as non-believers restrict their membership to such organizations, they will never gain the power held by religious organizations. On the other hand, such ephemeral groups may preserve our individual freedoms most effectively -- keeping our own need for security from shaping us into the thing we fear most: unrelentingly dogmatic followers.



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