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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Moments in bad publicity for atheists.

I'm sorry, but today's Boston Globe feature story about the travails of being an atheist here in the very heart of the United States of Canada made me laugh out loud — and I was more than willing to give the story some degree of sympathy, being part of a skeptical religious minority myself. First there was this apparently unironic sentence about the monthly atheist Meetups near M.I.T. in Cambridge:

For atheists, the monthly meetings are an island of skepticism in a sea of religious conformity.

Yes, my friends: Cambridge, "sea of religious conformity." If you can't find secular friends in eastern Massachusetts, wow. But then there was this gem of self-awareness in a passage about 29-year-old Scott Gray:

Gray says he thinks the woman he's dating is Catholic, and that it deadens her appeal.

Hmm. He's charming, too! I bet that relationship ends in a hurry. ("God, No!" Jack Thomas, Boston Globe 1.20.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 20 January 2005 at 10:44 PM

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36 comments:

Paul Sawyer:

January 21, 2005 06:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

What struck me most acutely as I read this article was the veracity of Forrest Church's quip which goes something like: "Tell me about the God you don't believe in; it's likely I don't believe in that God either."

The vision of God the group rejected was clearly a vision I would have to reject as well. They kept saying "great man in the sky" and stuff like that.

I am thinking, however, about a conversation I had with a member of my current church, an older avowed "athiest" (though an active and driven church leader) who told me sincerely that she was feeling that there was no longer room for her perspective in, in her words, "the whole world." We need to continue to find ways for people like her to feel welcomed and heard in our religious community.

The difference between my understanding of this woman's faith, though, and what I read from these folks in the Globe, is that she is much more clear in her expression of what she does believe and how she makes sense in the world, and less on her stalwart defiance of what others believe. I appreciate her point of view a great deal.

Peacebang:

January 21, 2005 12:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

I haven't read the article but I'm sure it would make me want to go back to bed. Who are these people who still think that it's special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity? Are they the same guys who sit with me at weddings and let drop the bomb that they respect what I do but, rilly, they're "spiritual but not religious??" "That's fascinating and special, dear," I tell them. "But I'd love it so much if we could conclude this conversation right this minute and you'd go fetch me another cocktail."

It hasn't happened yet but I swear...!

Peacebang:

January 21, 2005 12:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

And oh! I forgot to say: shall we all light candles of JOY in church this Sunday that this article never once mentions the Unitarian Universalists? Thank the LORD or (insert name of favorite patron saint) for small favors.

Rieux:

January 21, 2005 10:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm sorry, but this post and the above comments are all-too-cogent evidence that the anti-atheist bigotry that the Globe article's subjects complain of is alive and flourishing in Unitarian Universalism as well. I am flabbergasted at the extent to which it is deemed acceptable to mock nonbelievers the way this thread has.

Philocrites, the "sea of religious conformity" that you laugh at is not Cambridge; it's obviously the places where the group members live and work. The person profiled all around that comment is one Zachary Bos, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, not Cambridge. More to the point, he grew up in a strongly (and apparently not terribly Fourth Principle-y) Catholic family that has reacted poorly to his atheism.

I strongly suspect that it is that type of experience that is behind the "sea of religious conformity" remark. (I also note that there is a very large, and very Catholic, city right next door to Cambridge. I wish your "sympathy" for skepticism would extend to imagining that perhaps religious authoritarianism can exist even in--gasp--New England.)

I don't know why it hasn't occured to you that this group might meet in Cambridge because they deem it one of the few areas in the nation where outspoken religious doubt is tolerated. And your jump from "sea of religious conformity" to a failure to "find secular friends in eastern Massachusetts"--huh? I think it's fairly obvious from the article that the group believes that "conformity" is a problem in need of redress--and one that all too many "secular" people contribute to by standing silent. These folks don't just want "secular friends," they want activism against the overweening power they see traditional religion exercising in their communities. How hard are you trying to understand what these people's concerns are?

If a group of GLBT Northern Californians gathered in a bar in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco to commiserate about the "sea of heterosexist conformity" they lived in, would you mock them, too?

As for Mr. Scott Gray and the "charming" comment about his girlfriend, I note that there are no quotation marks in that sentence. I wonder if Mr. Gray would agree with the way the reporter (the same lovely guy who saw fit to go to the Institute for Creation Research for a contrasting perspective) paraphrased his comments. I wish you had given a thought to the idea that his remarks were misconstrued. (I can think of one or two comments by prominent UUs that the Globe has allegedly==and hopefully==misquoted...)


A substantial number of UU atheists have been getting the message for several years that our perspectives and (non-) beliefs are becoming less and less respected and tolerated in the UUA. Our concerns are all too often pooh-poohed, but it seems like every time we turn around, another atheist is being insulted or made the butt of a cruel joke by a UU. The Fourth Principle seems to apply to nonbelief only intermittently.


I just don't understand why atheists, among all of the religious perspectives you have met, deserve to be treated so unkindly, Philocrites. If you disagree with the perspectives of the Atheist Meetup Group, go ahead and say so--but how exactly does "laughing" at us constitute affirming and promoting our free and responsible searches for truth and meaning?

Please stop. Posts like this one make UUism a more hostile place for nonbelievers to call home.

Rieux:

January 21, 2005 10:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mr. Sawyer, I appreciate your closing comments about the need to make atheists feel welcomed in UUism. I don't think you realize, however, how your earlier statements (like almost everything Philocrites and Peacebang have written on this thread) cut against that positive idea.

First, you need to know that the "it's likely I don't believe in that God either" "quip" you express affinity for is considered by many atheists to be a snide and offensive put-down. (And while Rev. Church has spent a disturbingly large proportion of his career composing similarly unkind things to say about nonbelievers, this one is actually a shot that he and other UU ministers have borrowed from fundamentalist proselytizers. We nonbelievers know more about the provenance of that comment than you appreciate--and it ain't good.)

What that "quip" tells an atheist is that, so far as you're concerned, the difference between you and her is that she's ignorant--ignorant of your vastly superior idea of what "God" means. If she'd just get off her stupid fixation with narrow "God" ideas, there would be no disagreement. The whole point of that line is to communicate that the problem is with the atheist's (mis)understanding of God.

Please don't do that. Tell the atheist you've met about what you understand "God" to mean and why you find it meaningful. Don't feed her a line that informs her that you think yourself far superior and more knowledgable than she is.

The vision of God the group rejected was clearly a vision I would have to reject as well. They kept saying "great man in the sky" and stuff like that.
Fine--but we nonbelievers have a right to our own understanding of "God," no less than you do. That the Atheist Meetup Group sees "God" more narrowly than you is not a strike against them. It is a difference in perspective, and I submit that it deserves much more respect than it has been shown on this thread--more, indeed, than it very frequently is shown in today's UUA.

When it comes to UU atheists, we are very well aware that UU theists tend to understand "God" in broader ways than the American religious mainstream does. We're not ignorant; we just see things differently from theists, even liberal ones.

Finally, I don't understand why you put quotation marks around "'atheist'" in your description of your fellow parishioner. Are you doubting somehow that this woman is an atheist? If so, what basis (and right) do you have to do that?


Again, I appreciate, and laud, the interest you displayed in wanting nonbelievers to feel welcome within UUism. I hope you can understand how, from our perspective, some things that have been written on this thread frustrate that goal rather seriously.

Rieux:

January 21, 2005 10:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

Peacebang wrote:

Who are these people who still think that it's special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity?
I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that that is one of the most bigoted remarks I have ever read from a UU. I don't understand why you think it is acceptable to say such a cruel thing about innocent people who merely see the world differently than you do. I worry severely about the condition of a UU community where (you clearly assume) this kind of hatred will go unchallenged.

I was under the impression that "free and responsible searches for truth and meaning" are always "special and unique," and that they deserve to be protected from the kind of snide derision that is positively dripping off of your comments.

Exactly what is it that justifies your ridiculous insults against such a broad swath of people--atheists, "spiritual but not religious" people, and so on? What makes you want to throw this garbage at people?

And oh! I forgot to say: shall we all light candles of JOY in church this Sunday that this article never once mentions the Unitarian Universalists?
Yes, that's right--that's the message that atheists draw from hateful attacks like yours. We hear from people like you, loud and clear, that UUs writ large don't want us around--that the First and Fourth Principles are silly jokes that really only protect people and ideals that pass your piety tests.


I submit that your bigotry has no place in UUism. Either that, or there's no room for respectful religious dissent. Which will it be?

smcisaac:

January 22, 2005 08:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux, I don't see where either Philocrites or the the Globe were bashing atheists. The Globe was actually trying to do a sympathetic piece, I think, notwithstanding their typically lazy journalistic practices. If Philocrites was mocking anything, it was the careless, unprofessional reporting standards that characterize nearly all of the Globe's coverage, not just its religion coverage.

As for 29-year-old Scott Gray, it wasn't his atheism that Philocrites was mocking. He could have been a Jew or a Baptist or a Buddhist or an Orthodox or a Quaker or a UU, rather than an atheist, but if he were any of those and also willing to say in print that "he thinks the woman he's dating is Catholic, and that it deadens her appeal", he'd be just as much of a boor.

Especially if she reads the Globe.

Chalicechick:

January 22, 2005 09:02 AM | Permalink for this comment

I have to say that if any guy I'd been seeing had said anything that could have been reasonably paraphrased as UUism deadening my appeal, it would have deadened his.

I think the primary problem here was that the Globe did not picck a particularly sophisticated bunch of atheists.

CC

Peacebang:

January 22, 2005 12:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oh Rieux, please. For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a-theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygenist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it.
I have no objection to atheists searching for meaning -- and I have no objection to UU atheists. I used to be one myself, a neutral fact which I'm sure will put your pre-offended panties in a bunch. But when atheists whine and moan that churches don't bend over backwards to accomodate their perspective on Sunday mornings,and otherwise, I will continue to hope that **those** atheists do stay away. They do not respect the inherent "vertical dimension" of church life, they are linguistically and spiritually controlling, they are damaging. I suspect you might be one of them. Meanwhile I will continue to treasure the insights and the commitments of the *mature* atheists in my own religious community, whose wisdom and understanding of their cherished place in UU heritage puts your puerile ranting to shame.

Oh and guess what -- you're making assumptions. I never said the "spiritual but not religious" comments that so terrifically bore me were coming within the UU congregational context.
I said AT WEDDINGS. And my point, if you were paying attention, was not to mock the theological perspective of that person but to express a bone-weariness that they harbor a sense of themselves as special or unique in their outlook, which they most certainly are NOT. Atheists and the "spiritual but not religious" crowd would have so much more integrity if they would all just acknowledge that they're not an oppressed minority, but a cultural majority whose views and convictions are just not shared or represented by those currently in political power. It is, of course, no different for liberal religionists of every kind in this country right now. Only atheists of your stripe insist on maintaining a sense of terminal uniqueness within this broader predicament. What a true shame, and what a waste of energy and potential coalition-building.
Finally, that you construe my snotty little barbs as "hateful" is another expression of self-important identity drama that paralyzes Unitarian Universalism. Hateful? You've got to be kidding me. Well, I guess we're back to mockery again, and there, my dear, I fear I will remain.

James Field:

January 22, 2005 02:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux: As on of the more atheist oriented folks on this site, just for a second consider that you over reacted. (Look in the archives here, you will see a time when I did)

In both UU and atheist groups, there are a lot of people who will say "I'm an atheist, but not like that."

I suppose that is the atheist version of "spiritual but not religious."

As someone more exposed to West Coast post Fellowship Movement Unitarian culture I am more sympathetic to the "New Englander's" point of view. I don't consider myself a theist, but I can take you to several congregations where spiritual language gets a raised eyebrow and there is basically zero-tolerance for "God talk."

I've seen other UU's react with shock to find out that the word God is actually in "Go Now In Peace" when we sing the kids out.
(Long time UUs never look in the hymnal for this, but when you tell folks we are going to sing #413 for the sake of visitors you get an interesting reaction.)

Most atheists I know are not obsterporous dickheads. Sadly a few are.

But most UU Christians I know do a better job of including us than we do of them.

Rieux:

January 22, 2005 02:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

SMC and CC--hi, you two! Long time, no see. Maybe I'll be back in your beliefnet neighborhood sometime...

SMC:

The Globe was actually trying to do a sympathetic piece, I think, notwithstanding their typically lazy journalistic practices.
Oh, I agree. Though said laziness skewed things a little.
If Philocrites was mocking anything, it was the careless, unprofessional reporting standards that characterize nearly all of the Globe's coverage.
Huh? What leads you to that conclusion? Where did Philocrites say a single discouraging word about the Globe's reporting? To the contrary, he just took it on face value.

No, he wrote that the Atheist Meetup Group's outlook made him "laugh out loud." He evidently decided that their worries and concerns are ridiculous, and that's precisely what his post conveys--in unnecessarily unkind terms, yet. That's mocking atheists, SMC.

[If Scott Gray were] willing to say in print that "he thinks the woman he's dating is Catholic, and that it deadens her appeal"....
Um, er, he didn't say that in print. There isn't a single set of quotation marks in the sentence--it's the reporter who said it. Gray didn't say "deadened," and he didn't say "appeal." Who the heck knows how the (stipulatedly lazy) Globe twisted his statement?


CC:

if any guy I'd been seeing had said anything that could have been reasonably paraphrased as UUism deadening my appeal....
Well, whether the paraphrase here was "reasonable" is precisely what's at issue. Let's say he told the reporter a heart-rending story about how his girlfriend's Catholicism has him worried about the future of their relationship, because she and her family are convinced, and have begun to urge him regularly, that he's going to Hell if he doesn't convert. Would that story put him in the wrong? (And couldn't a lazy reporter mangle it into "deadened appeal"?)
I think the primary problem here was that the Globe did not picck a particularly sophisticated bunch of atheists.
Or maybe it's easier--for a reporter or a blogger--to feed a bigoted stereotype than to challenge it.

Rieux:

January 22, 2005 02:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

Peacebang wrote:

For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a-theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygenist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it.
I'd like a roll call of the posters on this thread as to whether you-plural agree with that statement. I contend that it is bigoted garbage that, if reflected in the association at large, can only result in the death of our "free faith."

Am I really the only one here who is offended by the idea that an atheist going to a UU "CHURCH" has no right to expect her viewpoint to be respected? That a church is as pointless an institution for an "a-theisic search for truth and meaning" as an armless dental hygenist is for teeth cleaning?

That's bigotry, folks. Who here cares?

But when atheists whine and moan that churches don't bend over backwards to accomodate their perspective on Sunday mornings,and otherwise....
Precisely how does that justify your "snotty little barbs"? You attacked us as "people who still think that it's special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity"--dehumanizing garbage, of course, but not particularly clearly connected to "whining and moaning that churches don't bend over backwards." Do your complaints toward my kind justify any cruel attack you can dream up?
Oh and guess what -- you're making assumptions.
Not there I'm not!
I never said the "spiritual but not religious" comments that so terrifically bore me were coming within the UU congregational context. I said AT WEDDINGS.
And I never represented that you'd said anything different. D'oh!

But golly gee, I have this wild notion that we're supposed to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning of everyone--even outside of "the UU congregational context." Even "AT WEDDINGS"!

What a crazy thing it is to respect people even outside of UU churches! What in the world was I thinking?

And my point, if you were paying attention, was not to mock the theological perspective of that person....
That's a joke. The derision is perfectly obvious to anyone who cares to read it.
....but to express a bone-weariness that they harbor a sense of themselves as special or unique in their outlook....
And I repeat my assertion that every free and responsible search for truth and meaning is "special" and "unique," and that your attack on these is disgusting.
What a true shame, and what a waste of energy and potential coalition-building.
Oh, right--there's great hope of building coalitions between nonbelievers and people who treat us like scum. You admit to "snotty little barbs" and then complain that I'm wrecking the coalition?
Well, I guess we're back to mockery again, and there, my dear, I fear I will remain.
And I dearly hope that UU theists who actually respect the freedom of conscience outnumber you. Otherwise, the UU "free faith" is not long for this world.

Rieux:

January 22, 2005 03:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

James wrote:

just for a second consider that you over reacted.
I'm happy to concede that Philocrites' post (like Mr. Sawyer's) is much less troubling than Peacebang's. But the latter is UU atheophobia in the raw, I'm afraid.
I don't consider myself a theist, but I can take you to several congregations where spiritual language gets a raised eyebrow and there is basically zero-tolerance for "God talk."
I believe you--but what does that have to do with anything? Does it justify Philocrites "laughing" at the heartfelt concerns of a group of atheists in the Boston area? Does it make Peacebang's unbelievable bigotry acceptable?

Yes, there are atheists both within UUism and without it who treat theists poorly. But I don't see what that has to do with this thread. It isn't acceptable to fight cruelty with cruelty, is it?

[M]ost UU Christians I know do a better job of including us than we do of them.
I know lots of very nice and respectful UU Christians (and other UU theists) as well. And also a whole lot of non-"dickhead" UU athetists.

But a disturbing number of other people in our association get away with a whole lot of virulent attacks on nonbelievers. I'm troubled that that so rarely gets challenged.

Jeff Wilson:

January 22, 2005 11:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can't say that I'm eager to step into the middle of a flamewar since all I'm likely to do is get burned. Oh well, it's just the internet, stick and stones, blah blah blah.

First, I'll address Philocrites's original post. Personally, I don't find anything inappropriate about it. It is funny in a way to think that atheists in Cambridge feel beleaguered--I invite them to visit my state of North Carolina and see how they feel in comparison. However, this doesn't imply a total lack of sympathy, just an amusement at the juxtaposition of feelings of persecution and one of the most religiously liberal areas on earth. One can chuckle without taking the further step of thinking the atheists are wrong to seek solidarity or to feel marginalized in general, especially during a time period when theists of a particularly obnoxious type have momentarily captured the government. Furthermore, the Gray passage is truly boorish. Whether or not it accurately reflects Gray's true opinions, the line as written is ugly enough to react to with understandable disgust.

Moving on, I have to take issue with Rieux. Your tone makes it very difficult for people you disagree with to react positively. Accusations of bigotry (a strong label, especially for liberals) inevitably harden positions and shut down dialogue, particularly if you open your entry into the debate on such vociferous terms. Can you imagine someone going, "Darnit, you're right, I'm a bigot. Thank you for pointing that out. I'm sorry." I haven't seen it happen yet. Similarly, negative reactions occur when you use terms like "cruel," "mocking," "hatred," "ridiculous," "snide derison," "dehumanizing garbage," "disgusting," etc. It's hypocritical to complain about snottiness and derision if you're going to use the same sort of tactics ("gasp," "gee golly"). James is right to suggest that you've over-reacted. That does not, however, invalidate your concerns. Nor does it invalidate the hurt feelings that clearly lie behind your posts.

Part of the problem is that Philocrites and Rieux appear to have read the article differently, and one subjective reader is attacking another's subjective reading. For Rieux, it is "obvious" that Cambridge was NOT meant as the sea of conformity, but that does appear to be how Philocrites read the same lines. To my own subjective observation, both are reasonable readings of the text as written, and it is fair to expect some people to read it one way and others to read it another. And for Rieux Gray has perhaps been misquoted, but Philocrites didn't read it that way, which is his right. I didn't read it that way either when Philocrites posted it, and probably wouldn't have read it that way had I read it in the context of the whole article. However, now that Rieux has raised the possibility, I do think it is entirely possible that an injustice has been done to Gray.

Suggesting that other readings would be less mirth-producing and more accurate could've given Philocrites space to consider the alternate reading, but demanding that a single subjective reading was the only appropriate one doesn't extend much tolerance to alternate viewpoints.

As for the Forrest Church quote, I have to confess that everything Church says or does has the uncanny ability to rub me the wrong way. This is not a new phenomenon, but it's all the more disturbing to me because I've never met the man and I hate to sit in judgment from afar. However, this quote continues the trend: echoing Rieux's reaction to the quote, it comes off to me as smug and condescending (come to think of it, so much of what Church says comes off to ME as smug and condescending). I agree with Rieux's analysis of why atheists don't find this a charitable statement. However, I don't think that the hostile reaction is the only reasonable one. Perhaps we are reading more into the statement than Church himself intends, and he sees it as a possible opening for dialogue (a process that contains the possibility that he may come to view things differently). Atheists can be prickly, and that prickly-ness can be understandable in our culture, but that doesn't mean that a hostile attitude toward imperfect attempts at dialogue is always warranted. Better to explain to Church that you disagree with his belief of God as well as others, and let him try to respect the difference of opinion.

Often, arguments online seem to take on the aspect of people shouting past each other to harrangue folks who aren't even involved. Atheists blow up at relatively minor offenses in a post because they've been been forced to eat so much shit offline. Theists and others mock atheists online because they've encountered so many hostile, self-righteous atheists offline. I'm guilty of these sorts of reactions all the time. Witness the somewhat pointless nature of the "discussion" on the Con-Con thread, where I argued with all the idiot anti-racists I've encountered, not with the actual posters, while others frothed about anti-youth oppressors, something I think you'd be hard pressed to paint me as in real life. Peacebang's comments, which weren't very constructive, seem to be of this ilk. She's venting her anger at unthinking people she's met offline--the Globe article is just an excuse to get the expression going.

The heat has been slowly, steadily building up for about two decades in UUism over issues of diversity. For a time, Humanists (many of them atheists) were ascendant in UUism, and this made theists (especially Christians) unhappy. They felt like their own church was being usurped and taken away from them, and they had a point, since U and Uism had always been theocentric in orientation (if not always in practice, since we helped give birth to Humanism in the first place). Then as non-atheists such a Neo-pagans and Christian UUs began to recapture the hearts and minds of many UUs, Humanists began to feel threatened. This too was an understandable reaction, since the UU Humanists have helped grow the denomination in many ways and had ample reason to believe their views were mainstream in our religion. We've reached a point where many people in these various parties have developed a noticable animosity toward each other, with each group feeling pushed out of a rightful place of power in the denomination and that it is a persecuted minority. Skins have become very thin. There's some bittersweet irony to the idea of a denomination wherein every faction is a persecuted minority.

One of the big problems in all the wrangling has been a certain lack of graciousness. Sometimes, theist and non-theist UUs come at each other with great rhetorical force, blowing minor incidents into firestorms of anger. Often, from the sidelines, I feel like UU atheists are projecting a Pat Robertson veneer onto UU theists and attacking that, while UU theists are imagining the generally harmless and harrassed UU atheists as de facto Romans preparing to throw them to the lions. Each seems to represent something the other is deeply suspicious of and maybe even hates. Yet from the sidelines, it looks like a bloodbath between brothers, since UU atheists and UU theists are radically more similar to each other in most ways that they are similar to militant non-UU atheists or to theologically conservative theists.

The result is dramas where one party accuses another of wishing UUism to "pander" and "bend over backwards" to people who are pre-offended, while the other proclaims the possible "death of our free faith." None of which is helpful or likely to provoke thought, charitableness, or any other possible positive reaction.

For what it's worth, I've spent my whole life as a UU, and during that time I've never once believed in God, nor even been asked to. The concept is just not very compelling to me, no matter how God is defined. No one ever made me feel like it was necessary to believe in God to be a UU. I'm not threatened by the fact that some UUs believe in God and want to talk about it in church, or that they invite me to share in something they find value in. Nor did the many times I've participated in services with overt theistic/Christian elements seem like an imposition to me. I don't go to chuch expecting to find services tailored completely to my specific (non-)theological beliefs. I go to church expecting to find people who are using a variety of paths and metaphors to explore the possibilities of life and love together, who respect one another's approaches and believe in freedom, community, tolerance, and love before they believe in God or no-God or whatever. When the Lord's Prayer is recited at my home church in Connecticut, I participate. When I visit a decidedly non-theistic UU fellowship in Houston, I do my best to enjoy their different approach. I don't feel threatened by theism or by atheism, neither of which particularly suits me since I'm a Buddhist. The lack of Buddhist-oriented UU churches doesn't bug me. What does unsettle me sometimes is when UUs bash each other at the drop of a hat, and when they respond to intemperate or inconsiderate remarks with furious self-righteousness (or dripping sarcasm). I'd like to think we can try to put our best selves forward rather than our most defensive, even though I know that's just human. I'd like to believe that being a UU means trying to maintain a genuine respect for people who disagree or even insult you, and that our commitment to reason mitigates against over-reaction and persecution complexes. But since I myself over-react (especially online), feel persecuted sometimes, get defensive, and act self-righteously, I ought to know better.

But it does make me sad that some UU theists and some UU atheists can't respect one another. Here I'm not talking about this thread, I'm thinking of offline situations. We're a small group but we can't help attacking our own, and we can't turn the other cheek very easily when we're under (verbal) attack. At the end of the day, virtually the entire theist/atheist, pagan/humanist thing has been about hurt feelings, frustrations, and fears. It hasn't involved actual violence, direct persecution, or large-scale disenfranchisement on either side. We let our community be torn up by words and thoughts. I wish we could do better.

Rieux:

January 23, 2005 03:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Jeff.

I can't say that I'm eager to step into the middle of a flamewar since all I'm likely to do is get burned.
Well, not from me. I take issue/plead not guilty on a few points, but I thank you for going at this even-handedly.

I can accept that moderating my language in a few spots could have been tactically more effective, but I'm not sure that there is an accurate term for Peacebang's offerings here that's any nicer than "bigotry." What she wrote is deeply dehumanizing, and I just don't think that can be sugar-coated. The more that we nonbelievers hear that kind of message from our leaders and fellow congregants, the less place there can possibly be for us in UUism. It has to stop. I don't see why that stuff deserves any more respect than "faggot" slurs carved on an R.E. desk.

Paul Sawyer's comment is miles away from that--he clearly does care about preserving a place for nonbelieving UUs, and the material in his comment that rubbed you and me the wrong way was very likely inadvertent. (All of which I think my response to him reflected.)

That leaves us with the original post.

One can chuckle without taking the further step of thinking the atheists are wrong to seek solidarity or to feel marginalized in general, especially during a time period when theists of a particularly obnoxious type have momentarily captured the government.
But Philocrites never said a kind word about these atheists' attempt to "seek solidarity," the fact that they "feel marginalized" or anything else. Just as I "opened" with the bigotry line, he opened with "laugh out loud." And didn't really close any better.

I read the article and found stories of several people who feel that they have been treated very inappropriately by religious institutions and people. They related their experience with the disrespect their heretical perspectives have received from family and society alike.

These are really big, really deep, really real problems--ones that a lot of nonbelievers face, and indeed ones that we sometimes turn to UUism in order to help address. We come in search of sympathy and understanding.

So how does Philocrites react to the article and the stories it contains? He "laughs out loud." Atheists feeling persecuted in Cambridge, ho ho ho. Can't find secular friends, ha ha ha. "Deadens her appeal," hee hee hee.

Call me intemperate if you must, Jeff, but that's mocking--and it's really unkind. It takes some very charged issues (ones that are, as you notice, more urgent than usual at this point in political history) that matter to some very good and real people and treats them as a giant joke. The issue raised in the post isn't the difficulty of being a dissenter in a fundamentalist country. It isn't even your level-headed comparison point about North Carolina vs. Massachusetts (though I know I'd feel a heck of a lot more at home in Chapel Hill than Southie). The post just stands these poor people up as targets for a mean joke--without any indication that Philocrites tried to understand where the subjects were coming from. (Again, "find[ing] secular friends in eastern Massachusetts" just totally misses the Meetup attendees' point.) I really don't think that treatment is appropriate.

The post does nothing to promote understanding of the article's subjects--people who happen to have plenty of philosophical kin in our association. Instead, it plays entirely into the unkind stereotype of the pigheaded, ignorant atheist, a stereotype that is (alas) far too commonly invoked in UUism. I just think that's wrong.

I'm not threatened by the fact that some UUs believe in God and want to talk about it in church, or that they invite me to share in something they find value in.
I'd like to note that I'm not threatened by that either. I go to a church where "God-talk" is fairly common, and it doesn't bother me a bit. Theism--even the proudly expressed variety thereof--doesn't bother me, but inhumanity to atheists does. And I think there is a lot more of the latter within UUism, without any need for the "Pat Robertson" projection you describe, than you realize.

I know that I have never been treated as poorly for my nonbelief by any mainstream-religious person that I've ever met (including seventeen years of growing up in a Lutheran church) as I have by a small, but loud and institutionally powerful, subset of UUs. The amount of disrespect--if not fangs-out malice--for nonbelievers that has shown up, uncriticized, in UU World and in the works of prominent UU figures like our friend Forrest is shocking to me. That kind of treatment scares me much more than do my minister's invocations of "God." I know that Rev. Frank respects me, whereas it's pretty obvious that Rev. Forrest doesn't.


Other than segregating my responses a bit, I'm not sure how I can improve how this discussion worked out for the next time. I surfed in here and saw a famous UU blogger reacting to serious issues of living as an atheist in America by "laughing out loud." I saw one commenter who cares about nonbelievers inadvertently describing a few ways of stating his reactions that will alienate his secular neighbors. And I saw Peacebang, whose comments I just can't imagine any nicer words for than "hateful" and "bigoted."

I can't react to that by standing silent. I'm happy to affirm all the theism in a UU church that the parishioners are interested in, but this is something very different. I submit that it's not acceptable for UUs to treat people the way Zachary Bos has been treated by at least two posters here. And I don't think that that can go without criticism if our Fourth Principle is to mean anything.

Jeff Wilson:

January 23, 2005 11:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

OK, just woke up (you can tell I ain't gonna make it to church this morning, can't you. . .), glad to find a response. Rieux, I don't want to keep pounding on this point because I'm afraid it'll sound patronizing, and I'm not here to condescend to you in any way. But your most recent post is phrased in such a way that I was much more able to hear your argument and evaluate it on its merits, and therefore it was a lot more convincing. I think I pretty much agree with you, in fact.

By the way, I'm not sure what "Southie" is. I think that's South Boston, right? I grew up in Hartford, I'm not always 100% clear on the Boston-area lingo. I'm certainly grateful to be in Chapel Hill and not elsewhere in NC, but even my county went red in GWB's landslide 52% tremendous mandate last November (note sarcasm here). Makes me grateful that we've got several decent-sized UU churches around these parts, even if I can't seem to drag myself over there all that often. I did go hear Bill Sinkford preach at Eno River UU Fellowship last week, though.

I'm actually going to try to move past whether or not anyone in particular is guilty of belittling anyone else on this thread (seems pretty clear that this has happened, but it's all subjective). What I think is a bigger issue is something I think Rieux is trying to point to, something I've noticed myself and wonder about: a basic lack of civility that characterizes some UU discussions. I see a particularly large amount online, where relative anonymity and the de-contextualization of written remarks allows for a lot of projection and a lot of darker feelings to come tumbling out. I see a little less of it in print UU sources, but it's there too--Rieux called out "UU World" as one place. That's not to indict the magazine as whole, but rather to say that certain writers at times have shown a much harsher side toward other UUs than I would've expected. I think this is where Forrest Church often rubs me the wrong way; I ought to say that I often had a similar reaction to John Buehrens, and since I've never met him either, I'm left to wonder whether I'm accurately perceiving him or not. I also sometimes encounter the harshness in sermons and face-to-face interactions (such as at coffee hour), and in many ways I find it most disturbing in such venues, though it's usually less directly offensive than the unrestrained remarks one sees online.

What I'm talking about here isn't really civility, per se. I'm not Charles Chauncey decrying 18th century revival enthusiasm because I equate religion with decorum and emotion freaks me out. Rather, what I'm getting at is I think the heart of what Rieux is seeing too: the disappointing ways in which we often treat our fellow UUs who don't see things our way. Rieux's reactions here come from being treated poorly as an atheist by some UUs. I know they're valid feelings because I've seen this behavior myself, and it really is hurtful. There have been many times I've bristled at remarks that weren't just thoughtless (plenty of those out there too), but seemed to clearly carry the message: what I say is real UUism, and if you don't agree, you are outside of UUism. I've heard them said by theists, atheists, pagans, and others, so I'm not going to blame any one group.

There's something wrong with our denomination if we have a persistent tendency to portray different (often theological) viewpoints as beyond the pale and people who disagree as being fake UUs. This applies equally to the a/theocrats who claim that differing concepts of God etc have no place (or an inherently marginal place) in UUism, and to the many people who routinely attempt to de-UUize their opponents by announcing them in violation of the sacred P&P. There's virtually nothing I can think of as ruder than insinuating that one is not a UU because they don't act right or think right, it cuts directly at the heart of a person's cherished religious/social identity. I say this as someone who has made just such accusations myself. Now I look back and feel ashamed.

At times, I've knowingly made theists, humanists, and pagans feel marginalized. I've done the same to convert UUs (i.e. virtually everyone), polygamous UUs, anti-racist UUs, and others. The irony of course is that I'm a UU Buddhist so I really AM marginal, yet I've had the gall to try to rhetorically claim some sort of centrist position.

I wonder: does all this outrage and disenfranchising of different UUs indicate a certain basic insecurity or identity crisis for UUs as a whole? Certainly our obsession with lists of famous UUs is a manifestation of that. Maybe too our rude behavior. The truth is, there is no center to UUism anymore. Theists, humanists, and others are all just part of a sloppy mix; maybe I wasn't so far off when I envisioned a denomination composed solely of minorities. That lack of a center means that many people feel unbalanced and wish to fight to obtain a place of stabilty and authority for their own faction. Or, even if they're not so power-hungry, they still feel discomforted by the "you're not a UU" insinuations the powermongers make, and then they in turn display such attitudes toward other people in the pews.

For many years, I've assumed that such poor behavior was the result of UU converts who entered our denomination damaged by harsher religions, and proceeded to lash out with unprocessed anger when they perceived other UUs as acting in patterns similar to the denominations they'd fled. I do think this is true in some cases. But I've grown up UU and I can see how I've acted in a similar way, which tells me that maybe this is a more widespread element of UU behavior than simply convert vs. birthright (always a self-aggrandizing position to take, I might add).

I don't have enough experience with other religions to know if what we're doing is merely disappointingly human, or more unique. The Buddhists I hang out with don't display these sorts of attitudes or behaviors (they have their own set of disfunctions and unexamined prejudices), but Buddhism is an unusual case for a number of reasons and I don't take it as representative. I'm not sure if I'd be encouraged or disheartened to find out that we're just replicating normal patterns, since that would mean we're not unusually intolerant toward each other, yet it would also imply that we ain't doing any better than anyone else.

One thing that those of us who have been discomforted can try to do, is to break the cycle. When we see someone acting uncivilly/intolerantly, we can try to call them out on it without getting uncivil or intolerant ourselves. In my personal experience, I've found that this always produced a better discussion than matching heat with fire. Sometimes, I've discovered that remarks that seemed blatantly rude to me were my own misperceptions of what was said/intended. Sometimes I've taken flippant remarks way too seriously. Other times I was dead-on, but the person has been able to wake up to the uncharitable nature of their remarks and even apologize. Yet other times, real bigots haven't had the slightest inclination to moderate their behavior, and I've just had to accept that I can't make anyone behave the way I would like other than myself, and that at least I've tried to maintain my own dignity. But I've never had any positive interactions come out of speaking in righteous anger; when I've backed people into a corner they've only ever been defensive, and when I haven't given them space to grow they've never found a way to advance toward me in fellowship. I've also never found that dripping sarcasm or mockery adds a single good thing to a discussion. I don't think that we'll ever see a day when there aren't intolerant theists and humanists in our denomination. But if we all work at raising the level of discouse, we can try to work toward a day when far fewer feelings are hurt and we don't allow a rude minority of UUs to push all of our buttons all of the time. Rieux knows that there are lots of good-hearted UU theists, and Peacebang knows plenty of excellent and mature UU atheists. I'd like to see a time when we can keep these folks always in mind as representative of our denomination.

I don't know if there's anything useful in this post, but there it is. I just want to close my registering my amusement that Philocrites has now been crowned "a famous blogger." I think I can hear his head swelling from here.

Philocrites:

January 23, 2005 12:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux is also moderating a conversation about atheism and the "language of reverence" debate over at the LiveJournal Unitarian Universalist Community, too.

Three points: I would certainly echo smcisaac and Chalicechick's observations that the target of my post was the Globe's weirdly unaware (or perhaps deeply ironic) reporting of this piece. Its subject was Boston-area atheists. Maybe the writer is so religiously clueless as to have characterized Boston as "a sea of religious conformity," or maybe he was sloppy enough to let an atheist's characterization of Boston pass without comment. (As evidence for this, I'd also point to the writer's peculiar use of a creation scientist as the skeptical voice about the atheists' contentions.) At any rate, that's what I was laughing at.

Second, I'm not going to try to moderate Peacebang and Rieux's anger. Jeff and Rieux both note the incivility that too often characterizes UU speech — and each points to instances when they believe UU World has been the vehicle of that incivility. I am reluctant to get into a discussion about the strengths or weaknesses of the magazine since that's a conversation to take up with the magazine staff and not with one staff member's personal Web site: Write to the editors if you really have something to say to the magazine. It would be inappropriate for me to moderate a discussion focused on the magazine in this space. I'd like to be clear about something, however: The magazine can't obscure every trace of UUs behaving badly. Personally, I see the value of the magazine as holding up a sort of mirror to the Association so that we can see ourselves more clearly. In my view, the magazine is among the most civil communications channels in the denomination. I've been around UU e-mail lists, Web sites, periodicals, General Assemblies, parties, and so on for more than a decade, and have noted with alarm that virtually every aspect of our associational life is infected with a high degree of mutual suspicion and anxiety, often marked by anger. This can't possibly be news to anyone who has been paying attention. I take this problem seriously in my professional work, I try to be simultaneously candid and respectful in what I say here at Philocrites, and I see combatting incivility as important work for religious liberals. But I will not wear rose-colored glasses and respond to every charge of bad manners by pandering to the aggrieved. I'd also point out that I wasn't commenting on UU atheists in my post at all — just as I frequently comment on religion and politics stories that have very little to do with Unitarian Universalism.

I will say, however, that I believe there are deeply committed UUs in our Association who hold mutually incompatible and irreconcilable perspectives about the purpose of congregations, the range of spiritualities and philosophical perspectives that can be cultivated in any one congregation, and the purpose of the Association as a whole. I believe there are a number of legitimate and diverse forms of religious liberalism, liberal theology, and Unitarian Universalism — and that not all of these legitimate approaches can be nurtured and cultivated in the same place at the same time. It strikes me as naive anytime a UU says that somehow every religious path or philosophical perspective can inhabit the same community. They can't. Peacebang and Rieux may each be deeply committed UUs, but I doubt that they could inhabit the same church. I also doubt that it's necessary for us to imagine a single "Unitarian Universalism" that can somehow accommodate both perspectives. We're diverse, which I think is interesting and can be a good thing, but I won't pretend that it's not difficult.

Final point, for Rieux's benefit especially: I grew up in what certainly qualifies as a sea of religious conformity: Orem, Utah, heart of Mormonism, "Family City USA" — and if it suited my purposes, I could tell a nice dramatic story about losing my Mormon faith at Brigham Young University and having to give up my full-ride scholarship (named after the president of the Mormon Church) and scuttling off to the safer, secular confines of the University of Utah to study literature and philosophy. A chapter of that story could chronicle the estrangement of my family and friends. I'd talk about the Christmas when I wandered around my parents' house carrying a giant biography of Darwin, partly out of personal fascination with the subject, and hugely with a sense of wearing a sort of scientific armor. (I would laugh at myself while telling this story, too.) If I wanted to, I could cast my story as the heroic smarty-pants discovering that the Emperor has no Clothes, but frankly, it just rings false to me to describe such a painful transition in heroic terms. That was a horrible time in my life, and while I do see myself reflected in the stories in the Globe, I find that arrogance is always laughable, and the writer let these guys get away with presenting themselves as snobs of a high order. (If the story had been better written, I might have suspected that the writer was doing a number on them, but I couldn't quite tell how much irony was woven into the story.)

I'm sorry that people are funny.

Chalicechick:

January 23, 2005 02:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Great post, Philocrites.

If it helps, this site is quite non-reflective of the magazine. I didn't know you were senior editor of UU world until like a month ago. When someone (I think it was SMcIsaac) mentioned it in passing, I was sort of impressed to be your blog reviewer. Then I remembered I was the only one who applied for the job. But still, it was a good moment.

But anyway, points being, "Philocrites" is quite separate from the magazine and you do a great job of that, but its also possible because of this that your connection to UU World isn't universally known.

CC

Jeff Wilson:

January 23, 2005 02:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

I didn't think an attack on UU World itself was implied. Rather, I thought that what was being objected to were the views of some people printed in UU World (which has a responsibility to include representative views, even possibly ugly ones). Did I miss something?

Philocrites:

January 23, 2005 04:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff and CC, I didn't think an attack on the magazine was implied, but I thought it would make sense for me to acknowledge — up front and before the conversation turned too much into a discussion of things that have appeared in the magazine — that I recognize the issue both professionally and personally.

And yes, Jeff, I am also laughing at my "fame" as a UU blogger. (My goal is, of course, to encourage even more blogs and conversation forums. We shall all be famous together.) Rieux is the most famous atheist UU at LiveJournal, so that's got to count for something. CC is famous at Beliefnet, and you are without a doubt the best-known UU blogger at the American Buddhist Study Center — as well as a nominee in the UU Blog Awards, which I promise to have ready for voting tonight. Mmm, fame...

Jeff Wilson:

January 23, 2005 05:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

And ya know, my goal always has been to become the best-known UU blogger at the American Buddhist Study Center. Booyah! Mission accomplished! Now I can move on to my second priority, world peace.

Philocrites:

January 23, 2005 06:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

An update: The Globe article was wonderful publicity for the Boston-area atheist Meetup: 28 people have joined since the article was published.

Intriguingly, there are a mere 411 people who have registered for the Unitarian Meetup groups, with the largest single group in Chicago at 17. Of course, Unitarians can find each other by going to a church, which makes a Meetup redundant. We discussed Unitarian Universalist uses for Meetup groups last year here.

Steve Caldwell:

January 24, 2005 02:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

On 22 Jan 2005, Peacebang wrote the following words:
-snip-
"Oh Rieux, please. For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a-theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygenist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it."

Peacebang,

Speaking as a Unitarian Universalist Agnostic (and a recovering "dogmatic agnostic" ... something you can ask me about later), these words don't sound very welcoming to me. I wonder if they sound welcoming to other UU Atheists and Agnostics.

For most of my adult life (1988 to present), I have been a UU Humanist. Your words sound like a "toleration" of my religious views ... which implies there is something there to "tolerate" or "put up with." This doesn't sound like an embracing of spiritual diversity because diversity just might enrich the wider community.

Everyone who is finding spiritual comfort in UU congregations today owes a debt to the Humanists in UUism. Bill Sinkford (in reply to Rebecca Parker) said the following about the debt that modern-day Unitarian Universalists owe to Humanists (which includes the Atheists and Agnostics in our congregations and other UU communities):

((I’ve learned that the response to Unitarian Universalist “Humanists” needs to begin with gratitude. These persons supported our congregations and institutions for decades. Without their faithful support there almost literally would not be a Unitarian Universalism today, or at least not one that we would recognize. It is also critical to affirm that there will always be a place in our faith for persons who name themselves “Humanist.” The great virtue and value of our faith is its ability to live as a religiously pluralistic faith, where our religious differences are seen as blessings rather than as curses. We live that reality imperfectly to be sure, but wehold fast to that vision. This is one of the great gifts we offer to our wounded world. ))

-snip-
"I have no objection to atheists searching for meaning -- and I have no objection to UU atheists. I used to be one myself, a neutral fact which I'm sure will put your pre-offended panties in a bunch. But when atheists whine and moan that churches don't bend over backwards to accomodate their perspective on Sunday mornings,and otherwise, I will continue to hope that **those** atheists do stay away. They do not respect the inherent "vertical dimension" of church life, they are linguistically and spiritually controlling, they are damaging. I suspect you might be one of them. Meanwhile I will continue to treasure the insights and the commitments of the *mature* atheists in my own religious community, whose wisdom and understanding of their cherished place in UU heritage puts your puerile ranting to shame."

Well ... the question about whether theistic talk can be compared to a series of analogies:

1. Can we view theistic language in our worship as the religious equivalent of food preferences in operation at a church potluck?

When one has a church potluck, there's a need to ensure that everyone is nourished. That means the meat-eater, the vegan, the vegetarian, and even the small kid who only wants hot-dogs and mac and cheese are all taken care of. As long as those with differing diet preferences can respect each other and share the space, this works. People can share community while feeding themselves according to their own wishes and needs.

Moving this food preference analogy to worship language, do we offer enough choices during a worship service like we would at a potluck. Do our worship services provide enough variety to the Theist, Humanist, Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, etc members in our congregations? Do people know that they are free to pick and choose among the words they hear from a UU pulpit in the same way they can pick and choose among the dishes brought to a potluck.

2. Or do we have to view theistic language in our worship services as the equivalent of people wearing over-powering fragrances and perfumes in our worship services?

According the resources provided by the UUA for accessibility awareness, fragrances and perfumes in many products can harm those who exceptionally sensistive. There's a recommendation to create frangrance-free spaces in worship to welcome folks with these sensitivities.

Are some folks so "sensitive" to god-langugage that we need to avoid it in worship much in the same way we try to avoid hurting those with chemical sensitivities? Or should we tell the more sensitive Atheists and Agnostics to just "suck it up" and quit whining?

For what it's worth, there is still a great deal of prejudice against Atheism in our culture. The Gallup polling folks asked what characteristics would be acceptable in a person being the President of the United States (the results are summarized on the religioustolerance.org web site.

In 1978, the most discriminated-against characteristic was homosexuality; only about one in four Americans would vote for a well-qualified homosexual. Gays and lesbians have made impressive gains in acceptance. Now, about three in five Americans would consider voting for one.

In 1978, the second most-discriminated against group were Atheists. Only four Americans in ten would vote for a well-qualified Atheist. In 1999, Atheists had made a slight gain; five in ten would vote for one.

So ... it may hard to be a Christian in some UU congregations for 1 hour each week if your congregation isn't Christian-friendly (and this is something we need to work on in our congregations). But it's also hard to be an Atheist for the other 167 hours each week when one is not in a UU church.

Philocrites:

January 24, 2005 08:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ooh, read Chris Lehmann's review of Sam Harris's book "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" in the libertarian magazine Reason: "Among the Unbelievers: The Tedium of Dogmatic Atheism" (1.05). It's advice from one secularist to his more hyperbolic friends.

Rieux:

January 25, 2005 02:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites wrote:

Rieux is also moderating a conversation about atheism and the "language of reverence" debate over at the LiveJournal Unitarian Universalist Community, too.
Ho, boy, did that one go poorly. X-P
I would certainly echo smcisaac and Chalicechick's observations that the target of my post was the Globe's weirdly unaware (or perhaps deeply ironic) reporting of this piece.
Really? I just don't see how the reader is supposed to know that. I don't see anything in the post that is a clear criticism of the reporting; to the contrary, lines like "If you can't find secular friends" and "He's charming, too!" are pretty obviously references to the Meetup group members, not the reporter. And does "being part of a skeptical religious minority [your]self" give you a greater degree of "sympathy" toward weirdly unaware reporting?

All that sure seems to be commentary on the Atheist Meetup Group, not the messenger.

(As evidence for this, I'd also point to the writer's peculiar use of a creation scientist as the skeptical voice about the atheists' contentions.)
Yeah, I noticed--and I mentioned it above. But making that point in your original post might have helped identify that it was the odd reporting that was at issue rather than the odd ducks in the Meetup group.
...each points to instances when they believe UU World has been the vehicle of that incivility.
Well, I haven't pointed to actual instances in this discussion; try here instead. That LJ thread went considerably better than the more recent one did. (For whatever it's worth, I think Jeff and I are on pretty close to the same page regarding the material we find troubling: the two ministers he mentioned, John Buehrens and Forrest Church, are the most frequent prominent offenders in my experience as well. But I've read enough from each to have a hard time believing that they don't mean to be every bit as negative about nonbelief as they appear to be.)
But I will not wear rose-colored glasses and respond to every charge of bad manners by pandering to the aggrieved.
I'm not asking you to change glasses or agree with the Boston atheist group. I'm just asking you to deal with their concerns in some way other than by "laughing out loud" at them. There are plenty of fair but critical points to be made about the atheist statements in that article--and be my guest--but "Ha ha"? Eh.
Peacebang and Rieux may each be deeply committed UUs, but I doubt that they could inhabit the same church.
If so, it'd only be on behavioral grounds--not theological ones. There's no way that Peacebang can out-theist some of the parishioners of my church, with whom I get along happily. Meanwhile, she claims that there are terrific atheists in her congregation, too. (Something tells me that she doesn't pull out the "Who are these people who still think that it's special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity?" line around them. Or, if she does, perhaps they don't think as highly of her as vice versa.)

Your point is taken, though: there unquestionably are seriously divergent perspectives on fundamental issues within UUism. No argument here.

I grew up in what certainly qualifies as a sea of religious conformity: Orem, Utah....
I dunno--maybe I should find an Iranian religious dissenter who can "laugh out loud" at you for your lack of perspective in thinking Utah was "a sea of religious conformity." Sure, things can always be worse.

I come back to Zachary Bos, who is alienated from his family for the heinous crime of failing to believe in God--I think it's hard to miss the pain that experience has caused him. I can certainly understand why the Meetup group (vastly more than "secular friend"-ships with peers who practice the same apatheism as their parents) appeals to the guy, and I still think it's awfully harsh to laugh at him. I know I would rather grow up in a UU family (unlike yours) in Orem than a forcibly indoctrinated one--Christian, Muslim, atheist, whatever--in Cambridge. The "sea" starts at home. (For the record, my upbringing was liberal Lutheran.)

Finally, I want to repeat my point that, from many atheists' point of view, plenty of people living secular lives are no less a part of the "sea of religious conformity" than fundamentalists are. The idea is really no different than one side of the radical/pragmatist split in nearly every movement; should nonbelievers "come out of the closet" and challenge orthodoxy, or should we grin and bear the piddling insults to us that aren't really any big deal? Anyway, it certainly isn't just believers whom that group accuses of "conformity"--and while that point is heavily debatable (I'm certainly not convinced), I hope it isn't laughable.

Rieux:

January 25, 2005 02:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

Steve Caldwell quoted Bill Sinkford:

I've learned that the response to Unitarian Universalist “Humanists” needs to begin with gratitude. These persons supported our congregations and institutions for decades.
Bill Sinkford has definitely not (or at least not in anything I've read or heard from him) written the kind of hateful things about nonbelievers that other prominent UUs have. That matters.

But, boy howdy, has the man ever been careless. Just in the passage quoted above--why, why did he have to write "supported" in the past tense? (Have we all kicked the bucket?) And why does "Humanists" need quotation marks?

I'm sure none of that was with malice aforethought. But still--ugh.

Rieux:

January 25, 2005 03:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites wrote:

It's advice from one secularist to his more hyperbolic friends.
Uh, yeah.

To reiterate:

[I]t plays entirely into the unkind stereotype of the pigheaded, ignorant atheist, a stereotype that is (alas) far too commonly invoked in UUism.
The book reviewed sounds insane. (A nuclear first strike on the Muslim world? What the hell?)

But I just wish it were as easy to find a UU sermon or a UU World article or a UU blog post depicting atheists as thoughtful people with worthwhile concerns and serious and laudable ideals as it is to find a stack of same depicting us as weirdo freaks. The latter are thick on the ground, but the former take a whole lot of work to find.

What can we do? The jackass-atheist stereotype won't die; people, UU or not, won't stop flogging it--at the (sometimes total) expense of positive comment.

It's a tough trend, Philocrites.

Philocrites:

January 25, 2005 09:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux, start a blog. Look for good news, hype the sermons and ideas and people that shed favorable light on your cause, persuade other UUs to see it your way, write and encourage your friends to write their personal stories and submit them to UU World. The magazine can't print even a fraction of the unsolicited material it receives, but I know the magazine is always looking for stories that show how UUs' worldviews or faith have informed their lives. Don't complain; persuade!

My blog expresses my point of view; it's not an Up With People paeon to all forms of Unitarian Universalism. (And, again, I wasn't highlighting a story about UUs. I have some harsh things to say about some Christians, too, despite the fact — or perhaps because of the fact — that I'm a Christian.) If you do launch a UU atheism blog, I'll gladly add you to the UU Blog directory and include your RSS stream in the Kinja UU Blog Digest, and then maybe you'll be getting somewhere!

Rieux:

January 25, 2005 12:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux, start a blog.
You know, that's exactly the thought that occurred to me last night after posting here.

You're right: I should. If I get time in the near future, I think I will.


Thanks for providing this forum.

James Field:

January 25, 2005 01:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hey Chris: I took your advice:

http://leftcoastunitarian.blogspot.com/

Once school starts up again I may not be able to keep it current.

Jay L.:

January 29, 2005 05:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

Man, I wish I hadn't been away from a computer for the past week, because I was waiting for this thread to start the moment I read the Globe article, while on the train to work. I knew the conversation would be great, but hadn't imagined how interesting!

I personally began to read the article with high hopes. After I read the article, I came away thinking that this particular group of atheists was a sad representation of theological skepticism and non-belief, since they seemed to be motivated more by being anti-religious (as opposed to truly skeptical or non-believing)and to define themselves primarily as atheists because they rejected a conception of God that sounded like something out of a Sunday School lesson. I wondered, "Was this all there was to the dialogue within the group?"

However, as I pondered it some more, I came to the conclusion (as did some of you) that the Globe writer probably had no real appreciation of what atheism is, no real desire to find out and very little understanding of basic theological leanings. (How else are we to explain the incongruous insertion of the term "deism" in the article?).

As for the debate about anti-atheism in UUism, I'll leave that to another post when I have more time. If there is such anti-atheism, I do feel however that there is equal intolerance within UUism for theistic, but perhaps not deistic, beliefs.

Oversoul:

February 3, 2005 12:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I’m late to the party, but here nonetheless.

Rieux said “I'd like a roll call of the posters on this thread as to whether you-plural agree with that statement.”

Ultimately I think the underlying issue that is not being addressed is, what is UUism? Without a real answer to that, you end up with everyone certain that their brand of UUism is the real one, and why can’t those other folks just understand that? This is a result in part, I think, of the generally tolerant and liberal attitudes of the Unitarians and Universalists being morphed into an attempt to provide equal religious shelter for all religious positions.

But an attempt to build a religion without common beliefs (however broad) regarding religious fundamentals is doomed to stagnate as a bland quasi-religion, fragment into warring factions, or die. I see variations of these three options play out on UU-related boards all the time.

Steve Caldwell said:

“Or do we have to view theistic language in our worship services as the equivalent of people wearing over-powering fragrances and perfumes in our worship services?”

You see, and CC is well familiar with my views on this, I find the need to accommodate every viewpoint in a worship service to be rather silly. A good host (to continue your food analogy) will try his best to accommodate special needs in a given situation, but a restaurant that caters to vegetarianism shouldn’t have to throw a little chicken into the mix every now and again.

We live in a society with freedom of association and religion. It’s OK for people to be different, to believe differently, and to want to sometimes spend time with others like them. It’s OK for humanists to want to gather together for a non-theistic meeting. It’s OK for theists to want prayer and worship in their church service. Ultimately I think it’s best for them to seek out their needs separately. We can still learn from each other and work together without merging and thus sacrificing our identity.

Rieux:

February 5, 2005 04:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

I wrote:

I'd like a roll call of the posters on this thread as to whether you-plural agree with that statement.
And Oversoul responded:
Ultimately I think the underlying issue that is not being addressed is, what is UUism?
I confess I don't see how that is relevant to my request. You can define UUism however you'd like; what I'm interested in is whether you agree with the statement in question ("For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a-theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygenist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it.")? Do you envy the atheists who attend the church where Peacebang preaches?

I'm not claiming to possess some kind of universal idea of what UUism is and is not. But I do think that, the boundaries of UUism quite aside, "snotty barbs" like that one are shockingly inappropriate--all the more so when they come from prominent UU ministers.

My roll call doesn't seem to have drawn very many respondents. Oh, well. On to other approaches...

Steve Caldwell:

February 9, 2005 01:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

On 3 February 2005, Oversoul replied to my potluck eating preference analogy:

We live in a society with freedom of association and religion. It’s OK for people to be different, to believe differently, and to want to sometimes spend time with others like them. It’s OK for humanists to want to gather together for a non-theistic meeting. It’s OK for theists to want prayer and worship in their church service. Ultimately I think it’s best for them to seek out their needs separately. We can still learn from each other and work together without merging and thus sacrificing our identity.

Oversoul,

I live in a smallish southern town in Northwest Louisiana. The next nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation is 70 miles fromm my town (assuming that one doesn't join the Church of the Larger Fellowship).

The suggestion that Humanists, Wiccans, Buddhists, Christians, etc in UU congregations can all self-segregate into like-minded congregations is based on the assumption that a community offers choices with more than one UU congregation easily accessible.

The choices in my community are:

1. Join the Church of the Larger Fellowship and sleep in on Sundays.

2. Continue attending a conservative and theist-friendly UU congregation in my community and find a niche within this congregation that is tolerable for me.

3. Drive 70-plus miles each Sunday to attend a more liberal congregation smaller fellowship in East Texas that is more supportive of my Humanism and also more supportive of denominational social justice work like the Welcoming Congregation program.

If choice #1 were my only choice, I would accept it. My family depended on CLF from 1988 until 1992 when we lived in a small town with a population around 3000 in the northern Lower Penisula of Michigan. But I would prefer to attend a "flesh-and-blood" church instead of church by mail if I have the option.

Choice #3 would work for me personally if I were living by myself and had to only think about my needs.

Choice #2 ("attend a conservative and theist-friendly UU congregation") is the choice I've ended up with here. My kids (ages 17 and 12) would rather stay with the larger congregation because they have friends their own age there. The East Texas fellowship doesn't provide that yet. Also, my partner is the DRE of the congregation and I'm also staying to help her as well.

In other words, I'm staying with the less-satisfying congregation because of my family.

One final question for everyone here who posts under a pseudonym ... why do you feel the need for hiding your identity? Are you afraid or ashamed to post under your real name? Would you be a bit more gentle in tone towards those you disagree with if harsh comments were linked to your non-blog identity?

A hidden identity may be essential for some reasons ... whistleblowers speaking out against those in power.

But does one really need to hide his or her identity on this blog?

Zachary Bos:

February 17, 2005 10:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

To Peacebang:

I neither said that it is special and unique to reject traditional images of your deity, nor do I believe that. When you were able to get to reading the article, did you see something that lent you that impression?

To Rieux:

Don't confuse "the message expressed in single article comprising several limited interviews" with "the diversity of viewpoints on the nature of conjectured deities as expressed by the many dozens of members of the Boston Athiests organization." If I used the term "sky god" with the reported, it was only toward the purpose of promoting a message I believe is worth promoting, rather than the goal of representing the group I organize as if the members minds' marched in ideological lockstep.

Chalicechick:
I rather resent your characterization of the Boston Atheists as being an unsophisticated bunch. If I may ask, what in your estimation is a good way to evaluate another person's degree of sophistication?

And to no one in particular, a comment: I've read on this thread some interesting comments on the value of diversity. I personally do not subscribe to the principle that diversity is an absolute good; rather, I think most productive moral ends are going to come from a community that freely gives diverse opinion access to the marketplace of ideas. However, if the product doesn't live up to the hype (to use unfortunately commercial imagery), I am perfectly content to permit a homogeneity of belief (or disbelief). I think there are far greater ways to be different and interesting than placing so much emphasis on religious observance.

Kudos to the humanizing and thoughtful discussion going on here...

Best,

Zachary
Organizer, Boston Atheists

Emma:

February 18, 2005 12:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Peacebang said, But I'd love it so much if we could conclude this conversation right this minute and you'd go fetch me another cocktail.

Funny, that's what I say to religious people who try to talk to *me* at weddings!

Also, apologies for not adding anything substantial to the conversation. I like to think of myself as a non-proselytizing atheist. You don't try to recruit me and I won't try to recruit you.



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