by Patrick Appel
A reader writes:
Your reader's comment about "atheist Sunday school" is phenomenal, and gets right at one of the most important reasons I call myself a believer. I started going to church after struggling with a lot of the questions about dogma and doctrine and what not, but what it eventually came down to was, in one convenient package I get thoughtful discussions on what faith in the modern world is like, a choir I can sing bass in, a supportive community, a trusted institution to which I can donate and which will distribute charitable funds effectively, and team in a local basketball league. Now, the atheists will no doubt turn around and say, "yes, but we could do all this without the religion stuff!" Well, I suppose that's true, but the question is, do they? The answer is almost uniformly, "no," and as your reader's e-mail and my experience show, it's not for lack of trying. Why it doesn't work is hard to say, but the failure of atheists to reproduce the beneficial aspects of religion should be something that concerns them more than it apparently does.
I have a huge number of doubts about the doctrines of the church, but as I've come to settle in to my church (they're making me a deacon this fall -- urf), I've come to realize that many other members harbor very similar qualms and objections. Indeed my senior minister, when I was trying to decide whether to join or not, said, "you don't have to buy everything here. We just ask that we all try to work out the truth together as a community of faith rather than on your own."
Every time I get into one of these online conversations, I get the Crusades, Dobson, Randal Terry, and the Inquisition thrown in my face. Fine, if I'm going to claim the same faith as them, I have to reconcile that (I won't here in the interest of brevity). However, the cocksure assertions of what the "truth claims" that my personal faith and my church makes and its impact on the world aren't effective rhetoric; I'd go so far as to say they're pretty uninformed and clueless. Atheists of the world: if you want to have a meaningful discussion with Christians (rather than doing what can only be describe as proselytizing), find out what they actually believe before you tell them why they're wrong.
Another reader says non-believers are adapting:
Atheist groups are definitely coming around to the idea that churches have a powerful draw for the sake of community. The notion that you can have a freethinking organization with all the perks of church (like Sunday School) without religion is relatively new, but growing. And with growth come growing pains, such as your reader described. But for every flop like non-religious hymns (shudder), there are also such gatherings as picnics, movie nights, brunches, bowling events, you name it. Freethinkers (atheists, if you must) are coming around to the fact that their lack of belief in a god shouldn’t be the FOCUS of their gathering…it should be incidental. “OK, we’re all non-believers. Now, who’s up for Scrabble?”