Sunday Sacrilege: Expanding Minds & Inspiring Service


I haven’t done one of these in a while — it’s a dispiriting time to be an atheist — but I was inspired by a sign near my house. This is a truly excellent motto.

Expanding Minds & Inspiring Service

That would be a great theme for an atheist community, but of course, that sign was posted outside the Campus Lutheran Ministry Christus House, which is cause for some reservation. Religion does not expand minds, but instead narrows them. You would not go into the Campus Lutheran Ministry and find the pastor explaining how you should question everything, explore the wide world of ideas, and be reluctant to accept dogma, because their mission is to get you to accept their peculiar, limited, tightly circumscribed interpretation of Jesus Christ. The place where you’ll get your mind expanded is a few blocks north, on the campus of the University of Minnesota Morris, a secular institution.

I’m not going to accept the literal truth of that part of the sign. It’s a nice ideal, though. Too bad they don’t implement it.

The second part of the sign, though, “Inspiring Service”, is more legit. I remember from my church-going days that that was a serious and important message. Some of it was self-serving: service meant volunteering for the church or donating money to the church. Some of it was well-intentioned but horribly harmful: we were regularly exhorted to support missionary efforts in Africa. There was also, however, real good that was done. There were food drives to help the poor, visits to shut-ins, call for donations to help those who had fallen sick, requests to assist the elderly. I mowed the lawn of one little old lady who would invite me in afterwards to say a little prayer and praise the Lord. I went along with it, to be nice, and because she definitely didn’t need an argument.

A while later, she died, and she left me a gift in her will: a giant print of “Christ knocking at the door” in a fancy gilt frame. I was told it was because she’d noticed me looking at it in her house, which was true — I had found it remarkably unattractive. I think I would have preferred a decorative lamp as a Major Award, but OK, I accepted it in the spirit with which it was given. It was a nice thought.

My point, though, is that there is an honest and sincere spirit of service in many church-goers, and I think that is a good thing. An important part of a successful movement has to be an ideal of community, and that requires effort to maintain. It requires service.

That got me thinking about atheism. Unfortunately, I think atheism exhibits the inverse of the traits of religion with respect to that motto.

There are close-minded people within atheism, I can assure you of that, but at its best, atheism practices that ideal of expanding minds. I have been involved in programs specifically geared to discuss science, and there are others who’ve worked hard to communicate principles of philosophy ad logic. We can probably all list a hundred individuals who are more interested in taking advantage of the profit potential of atheism — we have our Joel Osteen types — but there are far more atheists who are honestly interested in learning and teaching. We know their interest is sincere, because the ones who do it for pure motives are also the ones who don’t make bank off lecture tours.

But “inspiring service”? Oh god. Ask that of an atheist group and the vast majority will look elsewhere and wander off. The libertarians will clamor for a hanging. YouTube videos will appear condemning everyone of trying to build a petty empire off the membership, or simply shrieking, “HELL NO” at the very idea, and screaming about SJWs taking over. If we wanted to do “service”, we’d join a church. That’s telling, actually. You can’t build a community out of a mob of arrogant individualists who consider contributing to the greater good to be a crime against their independence.

Imagine, though, what a powerhouse atheism could be if it actually implemented the ideals in that sign. Imagine a movement built on teaching and learning, and also on sharing and working together in a community where every member was respected.

We could also imagine if a church actually worked towards both ideals…they’d stop being part of a religion and turn into a secular community. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome, either.

I’m afraid neither are going to happen, though.

Comments

  1. Scott Simmons says

    It seems weird to call for an “Amen” here, but I can’t think of anything else to say.
    Amen!

  2. PaulBC says

    Great post! (Since I can’t just react as on facebook I’ll babble a little).

    I wonder if a Unitarian-Universalist church could live up to the banner. I keep meaning to drop in some day and find out, but I suspect I’d be disappointed.

    Perhaps “inspiring service” would be better accomplished by de-emphasizing atheism and emphasizing humanism. An atheist may not care about disappointing or enraging an absent God, but this leaves a lot of room for caring about the positive value of helping other humans. That may be what is lacking in the forms of atheism that bother you. I am a lot less concerned with what people think about the divine or lack thereof than how they comport themselves within the mundane.

  3. says

    There were food drives to help the poor, visits to shut-ins, call for donations to help those who had fallen sick, requests to assist the elderly.

    If Christians just hand over food or money to the hungry and sick people, then that’s great. Unfortunately, usually that’s not how it happens. The hungry person is forced to waste lots of time listening to a sermon and only when the sermon is over they are given a meal. That’s disgusting. It’s abusive—the fact that some person is hungry gets exploited in order to force them to listen to a sermon against their will.

  4. gijoel says

    @4 Some do and some don’t. I think you’ve also missed the point that we don’t see atheist organisation doing the same thing.

  5. PaulBC says

    “The hungry person is forced to waste lots of time listening to a sermon and only when the sermon is over they are given a meal”

    That’s not true. What are you basing this on? Soup kitchens, run both by religious and secular charities, just serve meals. Nobody is required to go to a church service as a precondition. Most religions are savvy enough to realize they can get good PR this way. It is also considered part of the overall “ministry” to help the poor. It’s less about getting converts than making a service demand on the church members (which has a different kind of social value).

    I am sure there are cases more like what you describe, and certainly missionaries have operated that way. It does not describe a present-day soup kitchen. This article is very old (1992) and behind a firewall but it provides detailed descriptions of many of these charities. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/03/26/soup-kitchens-feed-a-growing-need/a6c78c50-9a74-4cd3-b375-49f0c6324704/?utm_term=.7b33319b0948

    Soup kitchen food can be good or dreadful. If local homeless people were voting, breakfast at the Third Street Church of God just north of New York Avenue would probably win a “best soup kitchen award.” It always includes meat — usually sausage, sometimes bacon.

    On a recent rainy Tuesday, with electronic gospel music playing in the background, the kitchen also offered scrambled eggs, stewed prunes, grits, Danish or doughnuts, and warm slices of bread. Hundreds of people filled the church pews by 8:30 a.m. and waited nearly 50 minutes before David Hines, who preaches and sings in this family-run kitchen, called them over a loudspeaker to go through the line.

    The menu at the nearby “9:30 Club” — the street name for Zacchaeus Kitchen at 10th and G streets NW — is another matter. During a recent visit, breakfast at the large kitchen, which serves 13,000 breakfasts a month on a food budget of less than $100, was a bowl of brown broth with carrot peelings, bits of tomato, lentils and limp spaghetti. It was served with dry mashed sandwiches of peanut butter or turkey bologna, a couple of stale rolls and syrupy, sticky gingerbread — and no napkins.

    Client Daryll Hollowell called Zacchaeus’s food “the bottom of the barrel,” but he and others flock there for another reason. Unlike some operations, which turn the homeless out as soon as the meal is served, Zacchaeus allows them to stay inside for several hours playing cards or socializing.

  6. illdoittomorrow says

    A while later, she died, and she left me a gift in her will: a giant print of “Christ knocking at the door” in a fancy gilt frame. I was told it was because she’d noticed me looking at it in her house, which was true — I had found it remarkably unattractive.

    There’s a Russian short story in there somewhere…

  7. Kip Williams says

    Andres Avester: I used to work at an answering service, and one client was the Salvation Army. We got regular calls from transients passing through who knew the drill: call the SA, get a chit for a meal and a dry room for the night in exchange for a talk from the Lieutenant. After working there a while, I’m pretty sure I heard from several of the same people over and over as they traveled some sort of circuit. It was a bargain they were willing to make, apparently.

    chigau: It’s a MAJOR AWARD!

  8. cartomancer says

    It seems to me that the ideal of serving a community will exist, and necessarily so, in proportion to the extent that community actually IS a community. That is, the extent to which its members feel valued and included and committed to the communal identity and the communal institutions. And it’s a feedback relationship, because the more service the members of a community put into their community, the more value is, in general, added to it.

    I would say that a lot of the online atheist crowd aren’t really a community at all. They put precious little in and get precious little out – the chance to while away time online, find validation in their lack of belief, and annoy pompous religious people is about the limit of it. Or, in a few rare cases, the chance to monetise youtube clicks. It’s not a particularly rich and deeply woven fabric to begin with.

    But it goes deeper than that. 40 odd years of the individualistic, capitalistic, Thatcher and Reagan malaise has done great damage to many communities, and the sense of belonging in general that community provides. The workplace is less a community and more a rigid hierarchy, an engine of alienation and exploitation that inspires little love and less desire to contribute oneself to its success. Pride has been corporatised, such that it’s as much a party and a festival of consumption as a show of solidarity and strength. Hollow jingoism and hatred of the Other has replaced fondness for one’s traditions and love of one’s fellow countrymen and those who aspire to be one’s fellow countrymen. We get our news from faceless mega-corporations rather than our neighbours and friends. The tapestry is looking very threadbare indeed, and the more threadbare it gets the less it inspires people to weave in more.

    Something fundamental is going to have to change before this whole depressing slide into anomie reverses itself.

  9. PaulBC says

    I should probably concede that the part I quoted actually describes one case exactly like what Andreas Avester said. Church service required before meal. But there’s a lot of variability. I don’t have any data on which approach is more common.

  10. DanDare says

    You described the Kenmore Atheist Community, which I now run after tje founder went off to put all her energy into Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools.
    We are conciously IRL community building. Right now I’m running an errand to fill perscriptions for a neighbour who is shut in due to a hip operation.
    I’m working with some others to form a new community in Ipswitch and hope to take the model to Other places from here to Noosa.
    We built a value map. We listed all the things big and small we can do to engage as a real community. We are now embarking on expanding membership person to person. We use online stuff but really only as an integrating tool.

  11. says

    Minnesota Atheists is also good on the community thing. I’m not saying atheists are no good, I’m saying there’s a reluctance to put service front and center, out of fear that it will drive a significant number of followers.

  12. chrislawson says

    Can I take a respectful but opposing opinion?

    I have no interest in joining an atheist “church” or “outreach” program. It’s not that atheists shouldn’t be involved in community service, but to me the obvious channel for that is through secular charitable organisations of which there are many (e.g. Medicins San Frontieres, Red Cross [despite the iconography], Oxfam, Care Australia, etc.), or non-religious community services like Meals on Wheels. Almost everyone will be able to find fulfilling opportunities with an online search for “volunteer work [insert your region]”.

    There are even religious groups worth working with such as Anglicare which, as the name suggests, evolved from the merging the Anglican Church’s community care programs but it runs a very secular ship and provides a huge number of essential services in Australia like community nursing. They don’t care if volunteers or employed nurses are Anglican or not…and even if they did care, they are bound by the same anti-discrimination laws as any other provider.

    I’m not opposed to groups like the Kenmore Atheist Community mentioned by DanDare, but to me the atheism is not what makes it attractive. I’d rather it was simply secular (which includes religious people despite the lies spread by conservatives — most of the original secularists in Europe and America were personally very religious but they didn’t want governments screwing with them; see the story of Jefferson and the “Mammoth Cheese”).

    The evidence is that non-believers volunteer for community service at pretty much the same rate (see https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-some-surveys-and-statistics/). Atheists just tend not to identify religion as a reason for volunteering (dur!) and don’t use it as political leverage for their atheism the way some religions use their charitable wings to further their political goals.

    As the western world has become more secular, volunteering has stayed pretty much the same, it’s just that volunteers are less likely to identify a religious justification. And I’m OK with that.

  13. PaulBC says

    @chrislawson “Can I take a respectful but opposing opinion?”

    I suspect a lot of people would agree with you. Anyway, I do. The main difference is just that a church will hang out a banner that says “Inspiring Service” and generally speaking, atheist organizations do not. Why is that? Interesting question.

    I don’t do much volunteering and I wish I did more. I recently went with my teenaged son to help out at local food bank sorting and boxing donated food items (mostly just past shelf life). He wanted to do it to accrue volunteer hours (for what exactly, I’m not sure, but it appears to be a thing for high school students). There was also a group on the same day from a Catholic prep school to help with the same task. I don’t think anyone was really “inspired” though my son and I both found it kind of rewarding and a bit of an eye opener. A big thing is to rule out items that are obviously moldy or contaminated. The people who run it are friendly and sincere and it’s a completely secular operation, whatever their personal beliefs might be.

    So maybe the point is that churches present themselves as a positive ethical influence. Should there be more of this on the atheist side? It’s actually very clear how atheist organizations could do so by emphasizing the point that if life here on earth is what counts, you should be kind to each other. It’s a common enough idea expressed, e.g. by John Lennon (Imagine), Bob Marley (Get Up Stand Up), or much earlier by Joe Hill (The Preacher and the Slave). Many of 19th century orator Robert Ingersoll’s speeches conveyed this point.

    This does not seem to be the focus of 21st century pop atheism, though, which strikes me as more of a oneupmanship deal: nyah, nyah, believers are idiots. So it would be interesting thing if “Inspiring Service” could be the motto of an organization dedicated to the fundamental point that the life we see around us may very well be all we have.

  14. F.O. says

    I think I’m finding in anarchism what the atheist (lack-of) community never delivered: strong focus on building and serving the community, a solid record of being on the right side of social justice issues, willing to challenge the status quo (since we’re talking about food,http://foodnotbombs.net/ comes to mind).

    As it’s common in the radical left, some anarchists do have a tendency to idealism and anti-scientism, which is understandable, since science has been used to prove the moral superiority of “western civilization” to all the cultures it destroyed, I think they could use an injection of angry radical skeptics.

  15. chrislawson says

    FO — it makes sense to me to engage with groups that are based on a (mostly!) common political philosophy. But atheism is in itself an existential/epistemological position rather than a political one. Naturally there are political ramifications (e.g. church-state separation), but plenty of religious people agree with that too.

  16. chrislawson says

    PaulBC @20–

    One of the problems with the modern atheist movement (as I see it) is that its rituals and behaviours evolved from the skeptic movement which I love but have to acknowledge that there was always a nasty smug subculture to it. Unfortunately the most prominent wing of the atheist movement seems to have descended from the nastysmugapod clade.

  17. F.O. says

    But atheism is in itself an existential/epistemological position rather than a political one.

    Which is why I don’t care much any more about atheism.
    Religious groups rarely embrace anarchism, and add a layer of beliefs incompatible with mine.

  18. PaulBC says

    @F.O. “Religious groups rarely embrace anarchism, and add a layer of beliefs incompatible with mine.”

    I think you might be onto something here. For many people, the appeal of religion is not the need for spirituality as much as it is providing the philosophical underpinnings of hierarchy and defined order of human relationships. But it is not hard to find atheists who want the same thing. They just look for it somewhere else, e.g. whatever shaky claims they can pull from evolutionary psychology (which kind of misses the point that even when nature can explain something about human behavior, it cannot provide an ethical justification).

    What interests me most about the movement away from religion is not any specific theological beliefs. I believe people will continue to believe many things without an empirical basis and that’s fine with me. What interests me is greater fluidity and freedom from oppressive traditions whether they stem from religion, culture, nationalism or anything else. I don’t think that atheism, particularly in its most trendy form today, addresses that issue at all. What I want to see is non-conformism, tolerance of differences, and compassion.

  19. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    @infact is correct that Foundation Beyond Belief is a shining example of a secular service organization, currently looking for volunteers to help repair hurricane damage in Florida.

    So also is Sunday Assembly with its motto of “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”.

    See, PZ, they exist.

  20. consciousness razor says

    But “inspiring service”? Oh god. Ask that of an atheist group and the vast majority will look elsewhere and wander off. The libertarians will clamor for a hanging. YouTube videos will appear condemning everyone of trying to build a petty empire off the membership, or simply shrieking, “HELL NO” at the very idea, and screaming about SJWs taking over. If we wanted to do “service”, we’d join a church. That’s telling, actually. You can’t build a community out of a mob of arrogant individualists who consider contributing to the greater good to be a crime against their independence.

    But as is typical of libertarian ideas, this is incoherent. When churches are engaged in some form of “service” or charitable giving, that literally is individualistic and voluntary: private individuals who may decide of their own accord to help the poor or what have you. With this kind of system, it is entirely optional whether or not we help a poor person. (And if they really need help, some religious people might tell you, then God will finally step up and perform a minor miracle for them … if He feels like it.)
    I think this is morally unacceptable, because we have a responsibility to help that person: it’s an obligation. It also shouldn’t be treated as an opportunity to gain something else for yourself, like building a sense of “community” among your friends, making your favorite ideology look good, etc. We need to help that poor person get out of poverty, even if none of those kinds of interests (our interests) were satisfied by doing so.
    Of course, this amounts to “communism” to some, including most people in the religious organizations you’re praising. (Not saying they aren’t doing anything admirable, but there is another side to the story.) And glibertarians obviously hate their cartoon versions of communism. They don’t want the state (AKA, our society as a whole) to address things like poverty via social welfare programs and progressive taxation, because that is not “voluntary.” Some people I’ve talked to over the years (friends and others) really seem to believe that the moral value comes from their choosing to do the right thing or from having good intentions, that it is not about whether some person is actually helped (or harmed). Doing it involuntarily would deprive them of that — although you can try to make the case to them that this is a democracy so their choices in the ballot box are part of this system. (People somehow seem to forget that voters are the ones who hire people to work in the government, and we tell them what work to do in it.) Sometimes I think the issue may just be a verbal one anyway. But there is definitely a ton of resistance to the idea this sort of stuff should not be a choice at all. When there are people starving, dying of easily treatable illnesses, unable to read due to a poor education, etc., then what you should do is not only feed that one person but fix the society that made it happen.
    So I guess the question I’m raising is whether we should really aim for an atheist-flavored version of a religious charity. In our current political environment, those do some good but are still just a small step in the right direction, quite a few steps from an ideal solution to the problems they’re meant to address. Why not aim for the ideal rather than anything else?
    There is plenty of evidence (from surveys, polls, etc.) that atheists as a group are more progressive. Perhaps then what we’re doing is largely consistent with that viewpoint. While you may find few charitable organizations which are explicitly branded as atheistic, it’s not as if atheists themselves are less charitable. But we could move away from that kind of system anyway, toward one where this shit isn’t treated like it’s fucking optional. Maybe that’s a long way off in the future, but things could eventually go our way. For now, atheists are a minority, so our level of influence is (I suppose roughly) proportionate to that. Fortunately, there are also theists who are fairly progressive in most respects, so at least we’re not alone; maybe we can depend on them and work together somehow. (Working together in a charity? Well, sure, if you want to do that sort of thing, but that’s really not the idea.)

  21. pilgham says

    Well, the group in question seems to be ECLA type Lutheran, pretty similar to Episcopal, and we don’t disapprove of anything pretty much. Pro-science, pro-gay marriage. Pro golf courses, anti private clubs. We believe in God but don’t make a thing of it. Stay away from the LCMS Lutherans, those folk are scary.

  22. PaulBC says

    @consciousness razor

    I think you bring up an excellent point that somehow slipped through the cracks. I don’t mind paying taxes, since I obviously benefit from shared public goods. I would rather see my tax money used to fund coherent social programs that address homelessness, malnutrition, and mental illness among other things that could in principle solve a lot of problems and make life better for everybody without providing all of the “service” opportunities. I don’t think government is a panacea, but it can sure as hell do a better job than it does right now in the US (because it already does a better job in other industrial nations). And needless to say, I pay taxes that go to “advanced weapon systems” with little reason to exist other than the military industrial complex. I pay to keep people in hellish prison conditions for minor offenses. I’m paying for all kinds of things I don’t want. I generally don’t complain about it either. Ideally, I should get to pay for programs I actually support.

    The Christian tradition puts the emphasis on charity as a spiritual act, tying into the very fatalistic “the poor will be with you always” (well, maybe, but there don’t have to be as many people living in utter destitution, and it does vary according to policy). Saying that you’re just going to fix it with money is a kind of “Tower of Babel” project to the most fundamentalist-minded Christians. God said there are supposed to be poor people, and you’re supposed to throw them crumbs from time to time. Suggesting it’s a fixable problem is the height of human arrogance. Beyond that, a lot of people want to divide the “deserving” from the “undeserving” so the most charitable among them may step in to keep a poor person from starving, but that person had better never feel like they’re entitled to it.

    I still have a lot of respect for those who just get out there and help people. But I’d rather live in a society where their help was not needed.

  23. waynesd says

    I wanted to second “Just an Organic Regular Expression”‘s suggestion of Sunday Assembly with its motto of “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”. The one here in San Diego is very good, and they/we often help people who are homeless with food, blankets, and/or clothing. We also are “radically inclusive”. https://www.meetup.com/Sunday-Assembly-San-Diego/

    Another good one here in San Diego is the “Secular Humanist Outreach” (/”Ask An Atheist”) booth in Balboa Park. It’s not a lot of service, but we are “out” atheists, try to show people we do exist (and aren’t so bad), let fellow seculars know they are not alone and direct them to other community events, and have (mostly friendly) debates/discussions with religious folks. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a bit like “Atheist Experience” but live and participatory. We’re in Balboa Park on the El Prado promenade most Saturdays; feel free to stop by if you’re in town.
    https://www.meetup.com/humanistfellowship/events/kvsjlqyzkbjb/
    https://atheistsoapbox.com/ask-an-atheist-booth-in-balboa-park-san-diego

    The UUs are a good choice for some people too. They do a lot of community service and about a third of the UUs are Atheist. But they do call themselves a faith and church and many UUs are religious. They also don’t like to debate views, just accept everyone’s beliefs, as long as they are “life affirming”.

  24. jrkrideau says

    I know of at least 3 places that provide meals where I live. One is Anglican, one Catholic and one Presbyterian.
    None seem to proselytize. They seem to want to make sure people are well fed and taken care of with dignity.

    There are probably more that I am not aware of, the three I do know of work well though in an area I wish we never had to go.

  25. pilgham says

    Just to add, one thing my mother did with our church advise people on local government programs. They could never actually replace the government services, but they could match people with programs, help with applications, etc. No church affiliation was required.

  26. John Morales says

    jrkrideau, about this:

    I know of at least 3 places that provide meals where I live. One is Anglican, one Catholic and one Presbyterian.
    None seem to proselytize.

    Hm. I’ve read a bunch of the New Testament, and I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be a thing they should do. The more credit they get for not proselytising, the more they contravene their professed ‘Wholey Text”, and therefore the more hypocritical. Way to damn them.

    More to the point, how many are doing it because it’s a nice thing to do and how many do it to avoid social condemnation? I mean, in such a community I would, too, depending.

  27. John Morales says

    waynesd @31, right, all the trappings of churchiness without the supernatural woo.

    (A bit like Methadone, I suppose)

    They also don’t like to debate views, just accept everyone’s beliefs, as long as they are “life affirming”.

    Death-worshippers not wanted. Got it. Christians allowed. Got it.

    (Bah)

  28. WayneSD says

    I agree, UUs are not ideal, and I found them much too churchy for me. There actually is some supernatural woo for some. UUS include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Spritualists, and other New Age beliefs, etc, and people who left each of those and are now Atheists and Agnostics or were life long Atheists. Some are couples in mixed marriages, like a Christian and an Agnostic.

    But many Atheists find UU congregations worthwhile. My wife and I found it to be a good place to take our kids, our two sons, when they were growing up; they provided us and them with additional community, taught them about various religions without pushing any of those, and let them know what religions are like; sort of like an inoculation. Both of our grown sons continue to be Atheists. None of my family attend UU services any more, altho my wife is still a contributing member.

    The “life affirming” part seems to be taken mean a positive, helpful approach. In practice, they are very progressive.

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