Sunday, July 15, 2012

Listening to the Atheists

A tabula rasa
Normally, I don't think about what people believe about the metaphysical - that which is beyond the reach of science.  The American Zen I practice has nothing to say about gods or a god, nor does my church, Unitarian Universalism.  But my church goes to lay-led services for much of the summer, though the ministers are usually around.  And up came one to be led by the Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic group.

You're familiar with the idea of a knee-jerk reaction - actually a very picturesque cliche, if you've ever had your reflexes tested with a little rubber hammer.  When I saw this service on the schedule, I had one of those, a mind jerk.  It went, "I don't want to go to that."

I am committed to attending church every Sunday, both for my own sake and for the sake of the church itself.  Every body forms that larger congregation.  So I had to think about this.  It took me no time to relate it to my former husband.  I sigh even as I write that.  It is so hard to retrain yourself

Pete (who is beyond caring now) identified himself as An Atheist, bold and loud.  It was one of the first things anyone would learn about him, accompanied with a scorching indictment of the Catholic church in which he was raised, and that was before the sexual abuse scandals.  Interestingly, UU seems to attract quite a few ex-Catholics; it is a place that welcomes people who want and need a church, but don't want to be told what to think, and especially don't want to be called sinners.  That word sets teeth on edge, believe me.  It had scarred Pete, too, to the point where he wanted an anarchic world with no such thing as ethics.  I know, scary.

He firmly believed that atheism was the only intellectually respectable position, and talked me into that on our second or third date.  Why did I say I was an agnostic? he asked. How could you possibly think there might be a god of any kind?  There was no evidence for it.  And so on.  He was older than me and a professor, and quite at ease with this argument, which he also made in the English classroom every chance he got.  He and his friends agreed on this to a man, and somehow social conversations often came around to how stupid Christianity was, how venile the Pope, there was no sin, people should be able to do anything they wanted to, and so on.

Hey, I was raised to be a girl.  In the fifties.  I was silenced by this for quite a long time.  Interestingly, while I was still married to him, when I felt a need stirring in me for a church, the only place I dared go was the local Unitarian fellowship.  There you are.  Even he couldn't argue with its firm lack of creed, its openness to humanism and scientific thought.  And it turned out to be the right place for me.  I suppose it's ironic that that's how I met Tom. Alright, disclosure over. 

I saw right away that my residual resentment of Pete - it was so long ago, but those were hard years - was influencing my attitude toward the coming service.  So I simmered down and decided to go. By Sunday morning I wasn't even worried that I might get really upset and have to walk out.  And you know the rest.  It's like every story - once the conflict is resolved, the story is over.

It was a fine service.  I sat next to a dear friend, Terry.  People testified in the pulpit to their own spiritual histories, and what the church has meant to them.  It concluded with a marvelous video about the stars which illumined for me a certain Zen koan.

After the service I talked to a number of people and we got to planning a meeting to discuss the church's plan for the next disaster - how it can help members who don't have power, things like that.  That disaster is looming at our western edge even tonight:  another hot hot spell, scattered thunderstorms, which bring scattered lightening strikes, which bring down big old trees in neighborhoods like Clintonville, and blow out transformers.  And suddenly we're one community of sufferers, united in helping one another, all divisions of religion or creed quite forgotten.

It is hard for me to sit idle.  Below, notes I made on the cover of the order of service.


  1. This might not be the question you expected, but:

    What is the title of the marvelous video about the stars which illumined WHICH certain Zen koan.


  2. Hi Darlene - I can't believe I never replied to this question of almost two years ago. But I did try to look that video up then and later, and can't find it on YouTube. Maybe someone who did that service had it on a DVD they owned. But I'm not sure now who did that service.

    And what Zen koan? Maybe "What was your original face before your parents were born?" The video had me seeing for a short while that I was made of the stuff of a star that exploded. And everything is. I may not have that right; I was an English major.

    Thank you for writing.