I had a unique opportunity to speak with David Silverman a few years ago. He's the president of the American Atheists. We were at a religious writers convention, and I stopped by his table to discuss the State of the Union according to today's Atheist organizations.
It may surprise some of my evangelical friends, but overall we had a compelling conversation about the issues the atheists have with the current religious tide of American Christians, and I had to agree with about 85 percent of his assessment. Even though we declare religious freedom in American, many of our atheists friends find it hard to fit into a Judeo/Christian culture where it seems like a non-traditional stance for the existence of God is met with a hint of prejudice.
All that to say, I'm interested in how the American Atheists organizations go forward with their own version of propaganda without claiming to be an organized religion.
I pulled up an article from a friend yesterday detailing the emergence of Atheist congregations across America. It seems the old argument, "I hate organized religion" doesn't really hold water tight when it comes to those who are organizing for the sake of non-faith.
One of the founders of this Modern Mega Atheist Church movement, Sanderson Jones, was quoted in the AP article saying, ""If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people -- and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"
I found it compelling to think about Jones' view of what church may be like, and as a life long church member; I had the same sense of embarrassment come over me as I did when I met Mr. Silverman.
Is Church just about singing awesome songs?
The primary observation Jones has of the western church was "awesome songs." I find it interesting, "awesome songs" was the first part of Jones' comment on what he liked about the church. Sure, for the last decade the music found in most mega church congregations has evolved to something that may rival a rock show of the 80s or 90s, but if that's the quintessential first thought of what an atheist thinks of church, there's no wonder why these atheist mega churches would pop up.
If the church is known for being a place to express personal musical talent, or if the church is a place where someone can go to 'take in' the latest trendy music, I'm convinced my tradition may have missed the heart of the church. I walk with people from all over the world interested in exploring different faiths, and if the western church movement has moved so far as to become a dynamic musical expression as the core of its contribution to society, then Jones has a point. What's the difference?
Maybe Christian musicians throw in a God here or there to claim it's uniquely Christian, but is there really a difference?
Is the Church just about interesting talks?
Again, I think if the sole purpose people attend a Christian Congregation is wrapped around a charismatic leader able to "move" someone's soul, albeit impressive, it doesn't really speak to the heart of the Jesus message, the main reason they're supposed to be there.
In fact, when you examine the Bible, Jesus was more interested in the heart of the people who claimed to understand the Kingdom of God instead of propping up the latest gifted speaker. Now don't get me wrong, I've sat in those large sanctuaries with exciting orators, but I don't know if I want to sign on with a tribe simply because they have good messages.
It seems the large Atheist movement is interested in mirroring those monologues. If we're honest, we're all interested in conversations that move us to examine our lives, and adhere to something bigger than what we are in the moment.
But my heart sank once again. The first two things mentioned in Jones' statement was music and oration. Maybe the third would prove to be closer to the heart of the church.
Improving Yourself and Helping Other People
And now we're getting somewhere. Growing up in church, I often asked myself, "Self, why are you here?" Was it because my parents took me? Was it because I grew up in the South and that's just what you do? Or was there something more?
I think Jones might have come close to what the church is truly supposed to be about. You see, in my tradition, we have no right to boast or claim in anything good happening outside the boundaries of a Loving God who gives Good gifts. The central message of the gospel isn't about what someone might have been doing in tradition thousands of years ago. No, the message of the Gospel is mainly to LOVE GOD and LOVE OTHERS. (Matthew 22:37-40)
It's crazy to think, my whole life I was taught in a narrative of "Us Vs. Them." Christians Vs. Everyone else was the story of my DNA. But actually, people like Mr. Silverman and Mr. Jones have articulated a very intrinsic purpose for my tradition AND theirs.
The Human experience winds up being pretty meaningless if all we're focused on is Entertainment. If we are always looking for the next flashy concert, or the next great monologue in a great hall, if you're anything like me, there's something we long for that's more valuable than that.
I wonder if the church would have a more appealing reputation if we re-arranged the things we're known for. Instead of always being seen as "those" people who are interested in being known for what we're against, and we took intentional steps to be known for "helping others" (what we're supposed to be for), then we may see the human need for self-examination and community involvement being fulfilled. Unfortunately, every public hearing on the state of the Christian union has something to do with antiquated battles. I find myself often whispering under my breath, "when will we learn?"
I'm not ashamed of my tradition. I'm actually pretty proud of the people I've been able to have deep conversations about this matter. I just hope the pendulum will continue to swing for the good that can be found in the heart of my tribe.
And to my Atheist friends, Be careful. Anytime humans come together to try to figure this "religion" thing out, history shows us how it turns quickly into a mess. For the mess we've made, I apologize for my tribe. But maybe you can learn from us. Music and Talks only go so far, but the meaning in life is figuring out how to give to others.
Our mantra is, LOVE GOD and LOVE OTHERS, and to be honest, it's a more satisfying way to live. So for my new friends building congregations without God at the center, good luck. I hope you manage to find that mysterious yearning in the heart of every human who has the privilege to walk on this great planet.