My day at atheist church

So unlike others at Freethought Blogs, I am not a writer of fiction. I used to be, once upon a time, but gradually migrated toward polemic. The nature of what I want to talk about today lends itself well to fiction though, so I am going to give it a go. This is my offering for what an “atheist church service” could look like.

My day at atheist church

I’ll confess to you that I was a bit nervous going to the new atheist church in Phoenix. Circumstances had forced me to uproot my job and relocate to Arizona – not exactly my idea of ideal living conditions. Luckily, my freemam from back in Vancouver called ahead to Leslie, the freemam of the parish closest to my new apartment to let her know I was coming. While I hadn’t gone to church much in Vancouver, Jacob (my old freemam) suggested to me that it would be a good chance for me to get my foot in the door, maybe make some friends. Shortly after I arrived, Leslie had stopped by after work to welcome me to the area.

So, it was with mixed feelings that I showed up at the library that morning, and headed into the back room where the service was happening. Unlike how we ran things in Vancouver, there was a greeter at the door offering me a nametag – I thought it was a nice touch. “You don’t have to take one,” he said “but it helps people know who’s new. If you’re not a fan of being hugged, I’d suggest writing your name in red pen – yeah it seems like a weird rule but we’ve had problems in the past. Curtis has boundary issues and some people were uncomfortable so we figured this system was easiest.”

I chuckled. My old parish had a “Curtis” too – an overbearing French woman named Amelie who reeked of cigarettes and decided that everyone was her best friend. I opted for the blue pen anyway – what are the odds, right?

Leslie saw me come into the room and choose a seat at the back. She briefly turned away from the conversation she was having to smile and wink at me. I smiled back and fiddled with my phone, waiting for the meeting to start. I caught eyes with a kid who was staring at me over the back of his seat. I pulled a funny face and he grinned before popping his head down behind the seat again. While children weren’t usually present at church until they were 8 or 9, they weren’t forbidden either.

After a few minutes passed, Leslie stood up behind the podium and asked for our attention. I put my phone away and turned my eyes toward the front. “This is different,” I thought “she’s got a Powerpoint slide.” It made sense though, given the number of Spanish speakers in Phoenix, that there would need to be a translation for some of the stuff going on.

The meeting began, as it usually did, with a reading from some piece of literature. This week’s was a stirring passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

Superstitions, bigotries, hypocrisies, prejudices, these phantoms, phantoms though they be, cling to life; they have teeth and nails in their shadowy substance, and we must grapple with them individually and make war on them without truce; for it is one of humanity’s inevitabilities to be condemned to eternal struggle with phantoms.

Leslie encouraged us to think about whether or not the passage was relevant to anything in our lives. What were the phantoms we struggled with? What tools could we use to ‘grapple’ with them? Had we ever heard a similar sentiment expressed in other literature we’d read? I saw a few heads incline toward each other and exchange some soft murmurs – I sat quietly and thought.

Next, Leslie launched into her reflective homily. She told us a personal story about a falling out she’d had with a classmate in graduate school. While completing her Master’s degree in philosophy, she and another classmate had fought over the implications of an obscure Hegel treatise. The answer, to Leslie, had seemed perfectly obvious, but the classmate insisted on running to an absurd conclusion. Leslie eventually had lost her temper and said something unkind about her colleague to someone else. The gossip, of course, came full circle and ended up causing a bigger problem. Failing to understand her classmate’s perspective had been Leslie’s “phantom”, she said, and by failing to grapple with it, she had driven a wedge between herself and someone who could have been a friend.

As we sat quietly and thought about the story, a member of the congregation stepped up to the podium and began reading the traditional news item from the newspaper – an op-ed about legalizing prostitution in Arizona (I was happy to see that the little kid was happily playing with toys in the corner). We were then invited to split into groups and discuss it. I ended up in a group of 5 people, one of whom I quickly determined to be the aforementioned Curtis. A big, showy blowhard, Curtis tried to derail the conversation into a fight about “John’s rights”. Leslie, seeing my discomfiture, stepped in and quietly steered the conversation back to the topic at hand.

After a 15-minute discussion, we returned to the pew seating and Leslie invited anyone who wanted to to come up and share what was on their mind. She didn’t look at me, but I could tell she was hoping I would come up and introduce myself. A man around my age stood up and talked about problems he was having with his boss, a very religious Catholic, constantly making disparaging comments about atheists around the office. He said that knowing there were friends who had his back made it a lot easier to deal with. Someone jokingly offered to pretend to be a customer and go on an anti-Catholic rant in the store, but the guy at the front laughed it off, saying that he didn’t want to start anything at his job. He thanked us, and we offered the reflexive “we’re here for you.”

A middle-aged woman stood up next and told us that she was struggling with her father’s progressive colon cancer, and was hoping to find some social and financial support from the community. While I was unaccustomed to this kind of confession so openly, the sympathetic looks and understanding nods from the rest of the assembled heads led me to believe that this wasn’t an unusual request. The woman concluded her short address by telling us that her e-mail address was in the weekly bulletin, and she would be on hand afterward if anyone wanted to get more information. Once again, we offered the “we’re here for you” response – this time it seemed more heartfelt (although that might have just been confirmation bias on my part).

After a few more people went up (including me – I’m not shy), Leslie gave us the bulletin update on some of the charitable activities the parish had been involved in. There was a children’s literacy clinic that really appealed to me, and I made a mental note to ask her about it later.

Leslie looked at her watch, “okay folks,” she said “there’s about 10 minutes left in the meeting. I suggest we use it as fellowship time – meet someone new, or reconnect with someone you haven’t talked to in a while. We’ll be having lunch at Keegan’s Grill start at 12:30. Thanks for coming today, and be good to each other.” “Be good to each other,” we murmured back to each other, almost reflexively.

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This is just one idea of a model that I think could work without getting overly, for lack of a better word, religious about it. Freemams could act as organizers and facilitators, helping reach out to community members and encouraging rather than discouraging independent thought. The reliance on ritual could be minimal, without losing some of the aspects that are helpful in participation and community building.

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