(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Listen to the message by clicking here or read the message below.
Some of you may know of the famous progressive evangelical speaker, writer and minister Tony Campolo. He’s written over thirty books, has appeared on many TV shows, he was the personal minister to President Bill Clinton, and he is widely acclaimed for his impassioned speaking abilities.
Others of you, particularly former Gathering members, know of Tony’s son Bart. Bart Campolo ran a street ministry in Walnut Hills. He was also a progressive evangelical Christian. As an accomplished speaker, he guest spoke at the Gathering twice. He was recently on the cover of the New York Times magazine and a story about him was featured inside.
In 2013, after being seriously injured in a biking accident, Bart had a born again experience. He realized that thoughts about God, Jesus, prayer or Heaven rarely crossed his mind and were never a part of his ministry to help marginalized people.
After he explained to his wife Marty that God and Christ were not the center of his life, she asked why he still claimed to be a Christian. “You don’t believe in God, Heaven, or the resurrection of Jesus. And neither do I. Why are we pretending to be something we are not?”
Bart Campolo was stunned by her question. He was not a Christian, he admitted to himself. He was an Atheist. That admission led him to reorient his life. A year later he and Marty moved their family to Los Angeles where he became the first ever Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California – and one of the first in the country. He’s also become a regular speaker at the Sunday Assembly of LA – otherwise known as an Atheist Church.
The Sunday Assembly is a new movement established in 2011 by two British comedians. The first Sunday Assembly was held in London and it now has assemblies in over 45 cities around the world. Members of assemblies meet regularly on Sundays, they sing pop songs, listen to TED talks or messages from other speakers, and work to help local charities. They are churches without God.
Bart Campolo’s reverse conversion has been controversial. So too is the rise of Atheist churches. They are both attacked by religions on one hand, and by fundamentalist Atheists on the other. Christians ask just what Atheist churches worship. “What’s the point?” they say. They also pray for Bart while accusing his mom and dad of failing as parents – since they did not raise a son who kept his faith.
Fundamentalist Atheists, on the opposite side, decry Bart’s efforts to make Atheism function like a religion. They oppose Atheist churches and their seeming religiosity. Anything, they say, that invites even modest superstition like Buddhism, yoga, or pantheism and paganism, are myth oriented and based on emotion. These critics contend that Atheist churches are copies of what religions wrongly do – like wasting people’s time and money.
Christopher Hitchins, one of the so-called fundamentalist Atheists, self-defines himself as not just Atheist but Anti – theist. He is vehemently against all gods and all forms of spirituality. He believes the primary purpose of an Atheist is to actively fight against any spirituality and the religious indoctrination of children.
My odd spiritual journey includes my own reverse born-again experience – similar to Campolo’s. I was raised in an unchurched home. After marrying and becoming a father, I began to have strong doubts about myself. I had gay attractions and those felt inconsistent to what I wanted to be – a so-called normal, heterosexual man.
I began attending a Methodist church after my youngest daughter was invited to be a part of its children’s choir. I would attend to listen to her and therefore had to listen to the sermons. They told me that I was sinful and headed to hell because of my thoughts. I could cleanse myself and be right with God, however, if I believed in Christ and his death on the Cross. The power of that message for me was very strong. I had been depressed for many years and felt tremendous guilt about my gay thoughts.
I immersed myself in religion by studying the Bible and Christian doctrines. I enjoyed relating to people and caring for them in times of need. I attended seminary and was encouraged to become a minister. A large evangelical church on the eastside hired me as an associate minister for Pastoral Care – to visit the sick, perform weddings and funerals, and provide pastoral advice.
One particular belief I learned as a Christian is that the Holy Spirit, or God, inhabits the mind and soul of every believer. Through prayer and study of Scripture, the Holy Spirit removes a believer’s temptations and sinful thoughts. And so I honestly believed, prayed, studied and even hired a Christian therapist to guide me as I tried to change.
To my profound disappointment, that never happened. As hard as I tried to think differently, to stay occupied in church work, to pray and believe with sincerity, my inner gay attractions remained.
That dissonance between who I wanted to be, and how I actually thought, reached a crisis point. I was miserable and felt I was the worst of people – a hypocrite and fallen Christian. But soon I began to question God instead of myself. Why have you forsaken me God, I asked. After changing my life for you, after devoting my livelihood and my family to you, after truly believing in your power to create a better me, why have you not cured my thinking?
I concluded that if God loved me as the Bible says, God would either change me – or accept me as I am. Since my attractions were not changed and since I was told many times that God does not accept homosexuals, I concluded God and religions are therefore hateful frauds. Soon thereafter, I came out, left my ministry job, and embarked on a journey to understand myself and the truth about religion.
I began a two year process to reverse study the Bible from a scholarly perspective – to learn about its inconsistencies, its many false assertions, and its frequent lack of connection to proven history. Much of the Bible, I learned, was written by ancient men to encourage beliefs they wanted to promote – much like fables were written. I also explored what it means not to believe in God or Christ.
For many people, Atheism is a dirty word with connotations of immorality. But that is clearly not so. Atheism simply means to not believe in a theistic, supernatural being, or beings, who created and now controls the universe. During the years after I became an Atheist, I investigated the philosophical reasons why supernatural gods are unproven and false. I also studied how Atheism is guided by reason and provable fact. For my message this morning, that is my intent – to offer my belief that Atheism, secular Humanism or simple non-belief are positive and moral alternatives to religion.
When I became a Christian, emotion ruled my brain and reason did not. That’s a primary issue I have with religion. They are rooted in emotionally motivated beliefs which are far removed from dispassionate and rational knowledge. Fear of death, hell and eternal judgement are strong feelings – ones that can overwhelm an otherwise rational mind. Facts are difficult things when they contradict what a person emotionally wants to believe.
Once I began to examine religion, however, I realized my earlier belief in God was motivated by dislike of myself and my fear of being judged. Despite all the claims by religious people that there is proof of God in their changed lives, that is subjective – as it had been for me. I had no verifiable evidence God exists other than my desire that there be one.
Religious folks also rely on supposedly common sense arguments for God’s existence – like the watchmaker proposition. The universe is so complex, like a watch they say, that common sense proves there must be a watchmaker god who designed everything.
Laws of physics and science, however, are more impersonal, random and complex than believing in a watchmaker god. Reason, experiment and mathematical truths indicate that there is a grand designer of the universe – but it is one rooted in observable fact and governed by provable physical laws. That truth reminds me of a favorite bumper sticker: “Gravity. It isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.”
Almost all physicists agree – the universe is governed and defined by math. It’s equations are exceedingly complex and are still being discovered, but everything from you, the I-Pad from which I’m speaking, to planets orbiting stars millions of light years away – all are defined and governed not by God but by math.
Central to most religious critiques of Atheism is the accusation that without God, Atheists must be either amoral or immoral. They echo the author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s claim that if God is dead, everything is permitted.
Since God is the all powerful creator of the universe and the source of truth, as theists and religious people believe, everything she or he commands must be good and moral. Since Atheists do not believe in God, how do they decide what is moral? They can’t, and thus lack any sense of good or bad.
From an Atheist perspective, however, just because the universe is governed by natural laws, and not the commands of some god, does NOT mean there are no universal moral truths. Objects and ideas in the universe have value independent of whether or not any god created them. Truth is a concept that has value. Humans and their well-being have value as do animals and plants. Things that sustain life also have value. Such value does not come from god but rather from the inherent goodness of something – simply because it exists. Such is a natural law that Atheists and many others believe.
In other words, Atheists think and act morally, and Atheist churches promote morality, by emphasizing the value of people, as well as the earth and all life upon it. This form of Atheism, what some call Humanism, focuses on the well being of people and whether or not their value is respected and honored. Such morality sees injustice, poverty, and oppression as great sins.
But critics of Atheism do not stop there. They say that since Atheists believe the universe is operated by mathematical laws, there is no meaning or purpose in life. And some militant Atheists like Christopher Hitchins help make that argument. Since the universe is governed by laws of evolution and natural selection – or survival of the fittest – theses Atheists claim people SHOULD be self-interested, self-focused and selfish. That’s simply how the universe operates – or so they say.
Once again, these arguments against classic Atheism miss a crucial fact. Human existence may have been determined by evolution, but that does not mean human lives are not valuable. As a I pointed out, the moral law of the universe is that all things and all life have inherent worth – simply by existing. That’s underscored by the seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism – all things exist inter-dependently and deserve respect. That precisely states our life purpose – to honor and serve the value of all things.
That morality rejects a survival of the fittest philosophy. Our survival is not a “win – lose” proposition – the strong live, and the weak must die. That’s a type of individualism and me-first attitude based on selfishness and greed. Instead, life is a “win – win” proposition. We live because we value each other, strong or weak, and we strive to cooperate instead of compete.
Such is a life purpose for everyone – not just Atheists. It’s a lesson taught and promoted by Atheist churches. This universal morality has proven through millennia of time that when people or other species cooperate and care for one another, instead of compete, everyone does better. And because of that truth, we are called to morally promote cooperation, peace and well-being. When we practice that, we have no need for selfishness. As part of a compassionate and caring whole, individual well-being is insured.
Many people assume Unitarian Universalists are Atheists. I reject that definition. UU’s instead emphasize an open minded approach to spiritual matters. World religions are not completely wrong. They offer many helpful insights for how to live. Indeed, most of history’s great prophets, like Jesus, were religious and their teachings help direct us in how to be compassionate people. What is important for me and for this church is to see the good in Atheism and see in its philosophy the ideals that guide us – that the universe and all life within it uhas value. That’s something we intuitively believe, but it must inform how we live. Black lives, like all lives, have value. The poor, hungry and homeless have value. Empathy, humility and gentle kindness are moral things to practice because they are directed at people – all of whom are valuable. Atheists, therefore, serve a morality and life purpose founded on the implicit worth of what the universe has created. God is not a puppet master floating on some metaphysical cloud. God is all of us