Room for the Universal

“If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement.”

–Søren Kierkegård

My theological and exegetical training afford me myriad tools with which to address the question of Universal Salvation. The expectation amongst many of my friends is that I will put forth clear, black-and-white interpretations of the Bible, replete with conservatism-friendly apologetical strategies that play properly into our agreed upon dialectic.

A recent gathering of some Houston and Dallas friends for a short summit on the topic of Universal Salvation all but destroyed such a strategy from my plan, and here’s why: we all realized that anyone can play that game. The appropriation of this or that text to suit my theological needs is not going to settle the matter for me or anyone else, because we don’t make theological decisions that way. Certainly, we want to treat the Bible fairly, giving it enough of its own voice as we can, working hard to ensure that our philosophical and theological desires don’t interfere with our interpretations; but how successful are we at doing this?

What highlights this problem very well is asking the question itself: Is Universal Salvation a live option for Christians? The most accommodating response I received thus far has been a smirk, with a head toss, followed by a “I don’t know, man…that’s a tough one.” Other responses range from “Does it really matter? Just follow Jesus.” to “There’s no way, and here are all the reasons John Piper knows that can’t possibly be what God would ever do.” It wasn’t until I visited my summit friends that I heard more than one person admit the possibility. One thing on which we all agreed: you can read nearly any salvation text in a Universalist way, giving a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and being justified in doing so. The summit was set up so that I defended the Universalist view, while a good friend argued against it. He had made up his mind beforehand, but even he admitted that things were not as cut-and-dry as he previously thought. Questions were raised that stumped all of us, and we could not give a good reason why Universalism should not be a live option for any and all Christians.

Indeed, I have yet to hear a good reason why not. Every person who has had a ready-made answer thought they said something novel, made an objection no one had thought of before, and had an emotional reaction to the very idea. But why? What is so objectionable? The problem with deciding beforehand is difficult enough to swallow, but to have such a strong reaction against the idea raises another very troubling issue: why do we seem so opposed to Universal Salvation? It’s one thing to say, “You know, I wish it were true that everyone went to heaven when they died, I just don’t see it in the text; but I’m willing to change my mind in light of better evidence” and another to say, “No way. There’s no way. That’s heresy, and it’s not biblical, and it’s spitting in Jesus’ face.”

So, before we even consider the texts, the philosophical arguments, the theological discursive strategies, we need to decide if we’re willing to have our minds changed. If not, then there’s no point moving forward. If not, I’d really love to hear a good reason why not. What are we so afraid of? What do we really lose if we change our minds? Can we imagine that there might be more to gain than to lose?

The Unexpected Atheist

“The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.”

Carl Sagan, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”

Several years ago, I received a midday phone call and discovered on the other end a young woman with a troubling story. She had reached out to me in my role as then-director of the North Texas Church of Freethought, an occurrence which wasn’t terribly uncommon, as I found myself frequently the recipient of inquisitions from random members of the public. Still, she was surprised to find a real live atheist to talk with, and after some initial hesitation, shared her conundrum.

Raised a Bible-believing Christian, she had been an enthusiastic disciple and parishioner, who at the time found employment with her hometown church, a pleasant little Methodist congregation in rural Texas. She ministered primarily to the young children of the community, running their Sunday School program and youth activities.

She was also an atheist.

The transition from believer to skeptic had begun slowly for her, motivated by theological curiosity more than anything else, then picked up steam in large part due to the Four Horsemen, and ended in a flurry of critical Bible study. Though she had emerged the process psychologically unscathed and intellectually satisfied, her parochial vocation now concerned her greatly. Although she was still happy working with the church’s youth and they were happy to have her, her apostasy gave her the feeling of being disingenuous. After some reflection, she decided to tell the story of her deconversion to the church’s pastor and await his justice.

He listened patiently to her account, to her references of the Books of Daniel and of Dennett, and to her concerns that she had just disbelieved her way out of a job. In response, he smiled kindly, and said that his advice was the same for her as his bishop’s had been for him when he told a similar story: “It’s okay to have doubts, even if you feel that you can’t believe. You’re doing great work for your church, and I urge you to stay.”

She left her church a few months after our call.

Some time later, I received a distressing email from a Baptist pastor in rural North Carolina. He briefly introduced himself and told me a bit about his background and the makeup of his congregation before laying a stunning confession at my feet.

He was also an atheist.

He’d been so for several months, following a long and torturous journey of theological and philosophical exploration. His wife had been privy to this development, and fortunately was supportive of him. His congregation, he feared, would be much less so, to say nothing of the religiously conservative community around him. Did I, he asked, know of any way that he could find support and community? More importantly, did I know of any way that he could make a living for himself and his family after a lifetime of experience only in ministry?

I offered my sympathies for his plight, but little else aside from the names of some atheist organizations in the nearest city.

Then in 2011, in Houston for the Texas Freethought Convention, I was having drinks with a friend the night before the main session began. We were thrilling in the anticipation that Christopher Hitchens, then being treated for late-stage cancer at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, might be feeling well enough to attend the event personally. At one point she turned to me and said, “Zach, I just HAVE to introduce you to this guy I met, Jerry DeWitt. He’s absolutely the sweetest guy, and a former pastor who just graduated from The Clergy Project.”

tfc_aaa 8

Jerry at the Texas Freethought Convention, October 2011

Indeed he was. From the moment we first shook hands, I found Jerry to be a humble, polite, and unassuming person. A great listener and a great questioner, he possessed none of the self-importance that I typically encounter when journeying through houses of worship. Indeed, such was his modest demeanor that I found it hard to imagine Jerry behind a pulpit, or under a revival tent, or even perched at a church entrance shaking hands and receiving the adoration of the faithful.

That all changed for me the first time I heard him preach.

It was a secular sermon, no doubt. Jerry had traveled to Dallas to speak at the Fellowship of Freethought’s monthly Gathering and promote Recovering from Religion, a new organization that he had taken on as its first Executive Director. Two months after we first met in Houston, many things had changed for Jerry. While initially he had been hopeful that the personal and financial costs of his apostasy would be minimal, during the intervening weeks he had lost his job, had been ostracized by his community, and the strain was beginning to affect his marriage. As he looked ahead to the future, he was worried that he would be struggling to keep a roof over his head and his life from completely derailing.

Still, he was with friends, and he had plenty to say. That day he gave a message that really cut right to the heart of what he had been going through as a Christian pastor slipping into apostasy.

Jerry @ FoFD

Jerry at the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas, December 2011

The face we show in public, Jerry taught, even if done for the most virtuous of reasons, can be used to define us. The traditions that we initiate and continue can be used to restrict us. The expectations that these things create will provide safe passage through the culture that sustains us, but we pay a toll in the loss of freedom and self-identity that can only be recovered by embracing a freethinking life.

This thesis, give or take a few hundred pages, became Jerry’s first book.

Titled, “Hope After Faith,” and subtitled “An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism,” it is endorsed by such Hell-bound luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker (himself a former pastor as well), and currently enjoys a position of popularity with their books on best-seller lists. At least, among atheists, that is. By contrast, the most popular books out today among Christians are two separate (and contradictory) accounts of near-death experiences told in wildly fantastical (and non-Biblical) prose.

And more’s the pity. Because I think the true audience for “Hope After Faith” is not the atheist unfaithful, but rather the kind of believer whose religious experiences have been so unsatisfying that the active imagination of a four-year-old is preferable to even C. S. Lewis or, Heaven forbid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Responses to Jerry’s story from Christians who’ve bothered to read it offer only one rejoinder: “You were never truly a Christian.” It’s a common refrain, all too common to those of us who have left the faith of our families.

It’s also a terribly bitter pill to force down someone’s mouth, cutting right to the core of their self-identity, their honest faith, and their cultural context. Perhaps Pentecostalism was the wrong denomination to start in – well, which is the right one? Perhaps Jerry was led to follow flawed leaders with bad theology – who are the right ones? Perhaps he didn’t pray fervently enough, read the Bible enough times, or (most insulting of all) simply wasn’t chosen as one of the Elect? Perhaps there is somewhere a list of confirmed Saints that remains uncontested, but as yet I’ve not seen it.

“We have to recognize, therefore, that even where a single deity is worshiped, the varieties of religious experience represented by the worshipers may differ to such an extent that it is only from the most superficial sociological point of view that they can be said to share the same religion.”

Joseph Campbell, “Masks of God: Primitive Mythology”

In his book, Jerry painstakingly recounts every event of religious significance in his life. It begins with a rock ‘n roll foundation of gospel and revival, prompted by a visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s tent meeting in 1986, that set the course of his religious journey from then on out. An intellectual and inquisitive boy, he more or less taught himself the ministerial trade and showed enough aptitude behind the pulpit to soft-launch himself into a something of a revival preacher. But curiosity and satisfaction are bitter enemies, so his rocky career bounced from church to church, from Brother This to Brother That, as he struggled to pile enough stones in a heap to serve as a witness to God that, yes, he believed in Him and, yes, he trusted in Him and, yes, he sought to do right by Him, as best as he could, as best as any Christian could hope.

In the end, of course, [SPOILER ALERT] Jerry’s heap of stones tumbles, he loses his livelihood, his wife, and his standing in the community.

51pWwjeSBZL

The book is divided into five “chapters,” which really only serve to separate the five steps in Jerry’s theology that led to his atheism: God Loves Everyone, God Saves Everyone, God is in Everyone, God is Everyone’s Internal Dialogue, and finally God is a Delusion. The first and longest chapter (taking up more than half of the pages of the book) ends with a personal and spiritual defeat and retreat that culminates years of eking out a living on the revival circuit, trying to please his young wife, and attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to find a satisfying church home. Written with author Ethan Brown, the memoir focuses narrowly on Jerry, which may have been necessary given the manner of its writing, but it unfortunately leaves key figures in Jerry’s life either poorly characterized (e.g., his family), or painfully one-dimensional (e.g., his Pentecostal mentors and friends).

My greatest disappointment with Jerry’s book, however, is that it fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Ending on a grey, lonely Christmas following his bankruptcy, the breakup of his marriage, and the fear of even walking into the local Wal-Mart, Jerry’s hope after faith is a small thing indeed. But perhaps that’s my problem, and not Jerry’s. After all, when he reached out to the atheist community he received plenty of moral support, but not much else. Plenty of people were willing to give him time on their podcast or blog, but who gave him a good-paying job? Who even gave him a “love offering?” Who started a fundraiser to save his house from foreclosure? If Jerry’s hope is malnourished after everything he’s been through, what have his fellow apostates done to feed it?

Many in the atheist community find the idea of an atheist pastor just as distasteful as do many Christians. To be an atheist is to leave all the trappings of religion behind, they say, and revel only in the delight of pure intellectualism. I have found this assumption to be inaccurate, as I have watched communities of freethought and humanism crystalize and grow by leaps and bounds around me, providing the same benefits that churches and temples have known for millennia. But these communities, for all their pluck and hard work, consistently lack something I feel is inescapably necessary, especially at this moment in time: revival.

We need to be reminded of the joys of existence, and to be inspired to manage its sufferings as well. We need to be reminded how to show compassion to those who desperately need it, and how to ask for help in times of trouble. In short, we need to have our humanism recharged. We need Jerry, and lots more like him. We need to prepare the way for doubting preachers, youth pastors, and theologians to enter our community, we need to figure out how to support them socially and financially, and we need to do it now. Otherwise our communities will grow like weeds and die off just as quickly, and people like Jerry will find no fertile soil for their talents and their time.

Happily, Jerry’s story is gaining attention, from a New York Times article to appearances on NPR and MSNBC, as well as an ongoing documentary:

Following his sermon in Dallas, I sat down with Jerry and told him that even if nothing else were certain about his life, I was convinced that he was born to be a preacher. One who, ironically enough, found a satisfying gospel to preach only after leaving the church and community he loved. How many other pastors like him put a mask over their inner theological struggles? How many other Christians like him hide their doubts behind the wall of tradition? “Be Brave,” Jerry says often while tweeting from the road, an admonition as much for himself as for those who follow him. It’s advice that I would give to anyone reading his book as well, especially believers; there but for the grace of God could go any of them.

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion”

A Universalist Prolegomena

Intellectual honesty offers little comfort when faced with the possibility of estrangement from the vast majority of people one knows. To consider the marginal theologies of Christian history viable means to challenge the popular opinion, the “traditional” view, the “biblical” or “orthodox” position. One’s church options shrink, particularly in the Bible Belt where conservative perspectives rule, and the last comment on “liberal theologies” is laughter—the marginal is also the joke. If one has been trained at an evangelical seminary, the move into adopting a different theology relegates one to the number of graduates who have either abandoned the faith or, at least doctrinally speaking, “gone astray”.

The climate continues to change, of course. Many I know are sympathetic to various theological niches, and most have lightheartedly entertained my willingness to bend, flex, and change. My move from angry Arminianism to compassionate Calvinism proved moderately difficult. Then came a more drastic change: abandoning the traditional view of eternal conscious torment for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view, which states that, after allowing for some period of conscious punishment, those who do not belong to Christ will be completely destroyed—the utter elimination of opposition to God’s redemptive, restorative purposes. This view draws a fair amount of criticism, with some even considering the view heretical. Our family’s movement away from an Anabaptist understanding of baptism to a Presbyterian (paedobaptist) one raised a few eyebrows, but did not cause much of a stir otherwise.

My most recent exploration is quite different. Evangelical Universalism is the doctrine that all will eventually be saved, will enter into God’s kingdom because Christ paid the price for all people, every individual. Not to be confused with religious pluralism (any and all religious paths lead to God), in Evangelical Universalism there is still no salvation apart from Christ—He took on the sins of the world by dying on a cross, and was raised to life three days later, which conquered death in our place and secured the salvation of the entire world. The major difference between this and traditional belief is that Hell is a place where punishment still takes place, but for the Universalist it is restorative, corrective, purposeful; not ultimate and final. Hell still exists, but those who go there eventually see the full impact of their sin and are able to repent, praising Christ, and rejecting opposition to Him.

The doctrine of Hell is what makes this brand of Universalism evangelical: there is still reason to preach repentance here and now because Hell is not a place anyone wants to go. The objection that Universalism removes the urgency to preach the Gospel is false: if my wife is using a chainsaw in such a way that, though she won’t kill herself with it, she will cut off an arm, I would still warn her and help her use the chainsaw correctly. Just because Hell will not last forever does not mean we should cannonball into the Lake of Fire. The punishment is not the ultimate point anyway. Christ is. If our humanity functions at its best when it properly worships and obeys its Creator, then that is our task and our song regardless of whether or not punishment will result from disobedience. This objections runs the risk of making avoidance of Hell, instead of the beauty of Christ, the reason why someone should repent—the very reason why Jonathan Edwards threw away his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” after only a few preachings. He was no Universalist, but he knew the dangers of emphasizing Hell in quickening sermons instead of emphasizing Christ.

This exploration of mine has several movements that I will develop in the posts to come. Feel free to interact and ask questions as much as you wish. I have not finished this exploration, and much is at stake, but I am looking forward to the rest of the journey.

The Spectrum of Atheism

prism-and-refraction-of-light-into-rainbow-AJHDThere’s a story we tell ourselves as atheists. It goes a little something like this: “I used to believe silly things, but now I’m different. I’m smarter than what I was, than what the people that I was like still are, and I don’t fall for the things that they still do. All I need is a good set of books, some friends to discuss ideas with, and I can solve any problem.”

This story is a lie.

The truth is that we’ve given up our previous beliefs for any number of reasons. The truth is that we’re not all that different from people who still believe. And the truth is that we can’t just rely on ourselves to think our way out of every problem.

We have made great strides in little more than a decade. Long the domain of esoteric philosophers and apologists, the intellectual force of atheism is stronger now than ever, and a cultural tide is already building underneath the waves. We have much to be proud of, many successes, many victories. But in many neighborhoods, those triumphs ring hollow. Because although we have done reasonably well welcoming women and sexual minorities into our movement, when it comes to engaging with and connecting to other communities, we have failed.

We have FAILED.

We have failed the young Black woman who showed up years ago at an atheist group I attended, who had one simple question that none of us could answer: “Do you know any other Black atheists?”

We have failed when hundreds queue for hours for the chance to get an autograph from an old white guy at a national atheist convention, yet only one person appears at the hour-long signing scheduled for the only Black woman who spoke at the event.

We have failed the two young Black guys who traveled to a skeptic convention to learn and sharpen their debating skills, but returned back home without a community to benefit from their knowledge, and without an audience to encourage them.

We have failed as long as our conventions and grassroots organizations’ speakers and attendees consistently under-represent background demographics. Many, many of us have thought long and hard about how to solve this problem. And yet still we gather together, a sea of white faces barely peppered with color, unable to transform our movement into the inclusive, diverse tapestry that we hope (I hope!) for.

These failures pass silently by White suburbia; they aren’t felt in the Apple Store. They cross into other neighborhoods where they fester in the sun, slowly eating away at communities that friendly, open-minded, White folks like me never see except on the evening news. These failures are easy to ignore when we’re surrounded by schools that are well-funded, our public spaces are immaculately landscaped, and we eat cheap fried food as a sinful indulgence, not as economic necessity.

The stench of failure is hard to bear, and no less so for me. My parents went to great lengths to teach me to love and respect people of all colors – taught by showing, and by doing. I was transferred to a predominantly Black school that had a tremendous yet unsung academic reputation. There, for the first time I was in an environment where Black was the norm, where most of my teachers and friends didn’t look like me. And so I didn’t hesitate when I crushed hard on the cute girl who wore blue ribbons to hold back her kinky black hair, who was the only other person in class to beat me in multiplication drills, and who kissed me in gratitude after I beat up the boy calling her names on the playground one day.

But look, I’m no Freedom Rider. I was just a kid relating naturally to the people around me, doing the best I could. Years later, I was asked to help organize an aging atheist group in North Texas. The people were intelligent, interesting, and in severe demographic deficiency. So overwhelmingly monochromatic was its collection of old White men, that it heightened my own label-awareness even more than being a token White kid in a Black grade school. I don’t like thinking about myself that way, even though Louis C.K. is right, it is pretty awesome to be what I am. To have the labels I have. The opportunities I’ve been given. But there’s a darker side as well.

How much of who I am comes from me, and how much comes from the advantages I had, the privileges I enjoy? Did my parents and my teachers, even my Black teachers, encourage me more than other students because even subconsciously they thought the little White boy should be smarter than the rest? Did I get considered for jobs over other candidates because someone thought, “now there’s a White guy I can trust?” Why is it I’ve never seen a single store security officer watching me? Never been stopped ‘randomly’ by the police? Petty anxieties, I know, but what’s most troubling is this: do I really know what’s going through the head of someone of a different color, someone who is treated so differently by our culture than me?

The answer, I think, is NO.

For me to feel the queasiness of demographic insignificance, I have to work especially hard. I have to cross those railroad tracks, I have to walk into a Black Baptist church, I have to wrench my assumptions free of the White Supremacist culture that nestles and comforts primarily those who look like me. But for some among us, the weight of ethnic identity begins to crush as soon as they walk out their front doors. And no matter how hard I try, no matter how rational I try to be, no matter how successful I am at looking past my significant cultural privilege, I just can’t share that experience. And neither can any of my White brothers and sisters in the atheist movement. The moment a new person of color walks in the door of our Freethinking and Humanist organizations, no matter how inclusive and understanding we want to be, there is a cultural divide that we simply cannot fathom.

And the only way to cross that divide is to acknowledge, first and foremost, that we can’t navigate it ourselves. That we can’t think our way past this problem. That we are not qualified to be ambassadors to members of a population that has been systematically beaten down by the same culture which raises us up. Don’t get me wrong, being nice White folks is necessary. Being open to conversations about diversity and cultural privilege is necessary. Being willing to cross those tracks and feel uncomfortable and experience minority is necessary.

But it is NOT sufficient.

We have been exceptionally fortunate. The atheist community has been lucky enough to attract a first wave of Black activists who have been willing to step into a community that privileges intellectualism and academia over the real-world concerns of their communities of origin. They have crossed our thresholds sometimes leaving one foot outside, waiting for that sinking-stomach feeling of ethnic isolation yet again, and perhaps only staying because their biological family is on the other side of a smoking bridge, or because their kids need friends to play with, or because they lucked into a personal connection. We have been wise enough to recognize some few of them as pioneers, invite them to our gatherings, and offer them our podiums. But we have not listened to them. We have not listened to the criticisms of the atheist community as a function of the overarching White culture, we have not listened to stories of personal struggle that are fundamentally different from our own, and we have not listened to the urgent pleas that ask our movement to increase its focus on social justice and diversity outreach. We have been presented with clear directions, clear guidance, and clear leaders, but we do not take them seriously.

That is why it has become necessary to create a new paradigm to serve our atheist brothers and sisters of color. Not because we don’t want to be inclusive (of course we do), not because we have given up on promoting diversity (though we can still do much better), and not because Black and Latino atheists are just sick of waiting for us to get our collective act together (though they could hardly be faulted for feeling that way). It’s because, despite our best intentions and efforts, the atheist community as it exists today, as an overwhelmingly White culture, simply cannot provide a home that is welcoming enough, nor supportive enough, for people whose experiences so profoundly transcend our own that we cannot even properly empathize with them.

But we CAN help.

We can help by refracting our communities. The general atheist and skeptic community at large is not going away, and it will remain overwhelmingly White for years to come. But we can adjust the optics if we set at least one room aside, specifically for our Black brothers and sisters to come together to be able to share their experiences with each other and empathize with their own unique struggles. We can dedicate a percentage of our resources every day, not just once a year, to advancing an agenda on behalf of minority populations who otherwise would not have a sufficiently loud voice in our forum. We can do this, and we should do this, for our brothers and sisters in the Black community, the Latino community, all our atheist sisters and people of non-privileged sexual identities. We should create these areas of specialization, these safe ports of entry, and then purposely and considerately support them within the context of the general secular community. Doing so will not diminish our goal of inclusiveness, but it will maximize the impact of our full spectrum.

There are many ways this can be done. Outreach projects can be spearheaded by those who have ties within the culture they serve, but be promoted and supported by the wider community at large. Social connections can be forged first at the level of shared experience, serving a special minority population, and then integrated into the larger calendar of events for each community. Large gatherings are the perfect opportunity to bring those from several different populations and demographics together to learn and share with each other. Nothing we do should happen in a vacuum. Every major city in America now has a robust grassroots secular community, overwhelmingly White, heterosexual, and male – now is the time to refract them, to build specialized areas within those communities to reach out to and welcome atheists of color, women, those with marginalized sexual identities, and any other non-privileged groups that exist. This is a call for diversity, not homogenization. Diversity brings new flavors and new experiences to the forefront, but homogenization blends everything together into a milky mess. Diversity also breeds strength and flexibility – what the general secular community cannot do on it’s own, our Black brothers and sisters can find a way to achieve. Or the Black and Latino communities working together, or the Latino and Women’s communities, or the Women’s and GLBT communities, or any possible permutation of these, each with the weight of the general secular community behind them in support.

That is my vision for the future of the atheist community. We do not need color-blind atheists, we need our community to be color-aware. By celebrating our differences and respecting our boundaries, we have the potential to go beyond the best efforts of our religious friends and neighbors, to create a Humanist kaleidoscope view of the world which is able to understand, empathize, and work with any community of people anywhere in the world.

We have failed, yes. But the lessons our failures teach are usually the most important of all. We are now on the cusp of a new chapter in our community’s history. Will we continue to insist on viewing our world monochromatically, as we have always done? Or will we take the step that admits our limitations, acknowledges our privilege, and creates the brilliant rainbow that I think we’re all desperately searching for?

After the Advent

IMG_0796

“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.

The Generosity Gap

Why should we give?

Ask a group of atheists, and you’ll most likely hear answers such as, “because it helps people in need,” or “because it makes society better,” or “because we might need people to help us someday.”

What you don’t hear very often is, “because God tells us to.”

Which is something that you might be likely to hear if you ask a group of Christians the same thing. And rightly so, because you can find gorgeous gems of generosity throughout the Christian scriptures, like “God loves a cheerful giver,” “Give, and it will be given to you,” and of course the classic, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are verses so profound that many people quote them blithely, not realizing their sacred provenance.

To say nothing of the magnificent story told by Jesus of the “Good Samaritan,” which comes to us uniquely from the Lukan Evangelist, quite possibly the most poignant example of a secular humanist parable within the canon. As the tale is told, a certain man was waylaid while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious men passed by and did nothing to help, presumably to avoid complicating their important errands of piety. Yet a third man, a Samaritan in fact (read: religiously unorthodox and socially despised, sound familiar atheists?), sets aside his travels to tend to the man’s wounds and make arrangements for his care. If ever the champions of humanism needed an icon to revere, it would surely be this Samaritan.

Though they may be scripturally fortified with compassion, we can yet be skeptical that Christians reflect this same kind of generosity to practical effect. But the Barna Group is eager to point out that within the general public, only one out of every three individuals gave at least $1000 to non-profit charities, whereas four out of every five Evangelical Christians met this minimal charitable level. And when compared to atheists, the differences are even more striking: Evangelicals gave an average of $4260 to non-profits, while atheists gave an average of only $467. That’s a order of magnitude difference. And that’s embarrassing.

One might be temped to hold these Barna data at arms’ length, especially given the fact that George Barna himself is an Evangelical Christian. And yet as it happens, I’ve conducted my own research here in Dallas-Fort Worth, and in an unpublished survey I helped run in 2011, when the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason was compared to a local Methodist church, there was a similar order of magnitude difference in giving between the two groups. But perhaps we just coincidentally sent the survey to one of the wealthiest congregations in town, right? Well, we also compared the annual household incomes between the two groups, which turned out to be virtually indistinguishable. That is to say (not accounting for secular student organizations), both our local atheists and their Christian counterparts had the same relative ability to donate money.

So, why then is there a generosity gap?

I frankly don’t know. It’s certainly likely that if you subjected one group of people to regular inspirational talks that appealed to the highest ethical standards of their worldview, and then asked them to donate in front of their peers, you would probably see more systematic generosity than a comparable group that was told to simply give individually whenever the mood happened to strike. And yet there are some atheist organizations that do the former, without generating the same level of generosity that we typically see from churches.

That’s not to say there aren’t atheist organizations that are trying. At the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, there are regular cocktail party benefits, they adopt roads and lakeshores, they conduct food, blood, clothing, and virtually all other kinds of drives for all kinds of needy people, they cook dinner for HIV patients, volunteer at food banks, and help out with LGBT charities. They also regularly partner with other organizations in the DFWCoR, and encourage their members to join the Foundation Beyond Belief.

But as wonderful as those activities are, they’re still miles behind the average church. Most atheist organizations can’t even afford a building, to say nothing of professional staff, or the ability to sponsor outreach projects such as sending volunteers on emergency relief trips, building houses for the needy, running a soup kitchen, or any other kind of medium-to-large-scale charitable activity that churchgoers take for granted.

What will it take for atheists to approach the same level of generosity that our religious friends and neighbors manage with regularity? Again, I’m at a loss on this point, but I suspect that too many of the former group are needlessly skittish about systematic giving behaviors that remind them of the religious influences and patterns from which they’ve attempted to distance themselves. And it’s true that atheists may be able to rally every once in a while to make a big generous splash, but the real impact is made by the constant drip over a long period of time.

Look, the question of whether or not gods exist is interesting, and within a culture where theists enjoy the majority (for now), perhaps it’s costly enough to criticize those ideas which one finds problematic. But at some point we need to look hard at ourselves and the world around us, and ask ourselves the question of why, in a world without gods to make things better, aren’t we taking on the burden ourselves to build Heaven here on Earth?

At that point, perhaps the generosity gap will go away. I’m looking forward to it.

The Atheist Con

If you wanted to find diversity, community, and humanism at Skepticon 5, you had to walk next door.

I love atheist and skeptic conferences. I really do. There’s something exhilarating about pulling into a hotel parking lot and seeing regiments of marching fish, stepping into a hotel lobby and noticing heretical trinkets dangling from seemingly everyone, and sitting down to eat in a nearby restaurant where the faithful are an obvious minority. Especially for those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line, such occurrences are rare enough that the novelty alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Which is why I was surprised to return from Skepticon 5 (the “fifth-most Skepticon yet”) weighed down by profound disappointment.

Not because the organizers did a bad job – far from it. In fact, the event itself was a fantastic gathering, a testament to their Herculean efforts and organizational proficiency. In fact, I would daresay that this year’s convention was damn near equivalent to other atheist and skeptical events with longer and more professional pedigrees.

Which is precisely the problem.

I’ve gradually grown weary of the popular edutainment and personality-driven nature of these conventions. I suppose that for the newly-unchristened, the novelty of attendance is sufficient to sustain interest, in much the same way that one’s first discovery of manual-genital congress is stimulating enough to attenuate the desire for more meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, the two most meaningful talks of Skepticon 5 were consigned to the literal margins – James Croft‘s excellent discourse on the value of secular communities, and Tony Pinn‘s crucial explanation of the challenges in reaching out to ethnically non-privileged communities. The former was placed at the earliest position on Sunday (while most attendees and other speakers were still nursing the effects of the previous evening’s debauchery), and the latter was given the final position of that day (after the vast majority of attendees had evacuated Springfield out of logistical necessity).

Croft’s talk represented the humanist soul (for lack of a better word) of the atheist and skeptical movement. It’s easy enough (relatively speaking) to stroke one’s rationality and reargue the nonexistence of gods, the silliness of creationism, and even the value of feminism. But it takes a good deal more intellectual and ethical rigor to hash out the particulars of building real value-driven communities. Particularly for atheists and skeptics, who have a poor track record of creating proactive and harmonious groups online, to say nothing of their capacity for contention in meatspace. Without community, the best we have to offer is either the intellectual one-night-stand of conventions like Skepticon or a passport to the Great Online Troll Sanctuary, where clashing tribes band together around the glow of their iPad screens and cast virtual spears at anyone who speaks differently. What we need, Croft says, are real places where people can look each other in the eye, forge long-term friendships, and celebrate life’s milestones. Or, as my friend Alix put it slightly more pragmatically, “people I can invite to my daughter’s first birthday party.”

Pinn’s presentation, delivered to a fraction of the weekend’s attendees, was particularly poignant to me. Most atheist and skeptical conventions have done a reasonable job of increasing the visibility of women within the movement, but for those from ethnically non-privileged communities, it’s been another story. Surveying this year’s larger conventions, I note with particular disappointment that non-white speakers comprise an average of 12% of each event, while African-Americans make up only about 7% (with Dr. Pinn’s appearances contributing close to half of that amount). This is, in a word, UNACCEPTABLE. These numbers should be at least twice what they are now, or higher. Pinn pointed out that the atheist and skeptical movement has not attracted minority participants because it doesn’t proactively include them, and also because it doesn’t proactively engage with the interests of non-privileged communities. And this isn’t the first time a Skepticon audience heard this message – Debbie Goddard said essentially the same thing two years ago, but the organizers apparently didn’t listen. No wonder, then, that less than 1% of the attendees this year, as in years past, were from ethnically non-privileged communities.

And most distressing to me was the breathtaking dichotomy I witnessed on Friday and Saturday as Skepticon organized on one side of the Springfield Expo Center, while the local organization Friends Against Hunger held their first “Meals a Million” event to pack low-cost, nutritious meals for needy families around the world. There had been an offhand mention ahead of time by the Skepticon organizers that this event would be coinciding with their convention, and the suggestion was made that those who weren’t attending the Friday workshops or film festival might possibly consider volunteering, but there was no official partnership or significant promotion.

Standing outside the convention center Saturday morning while chatting with some Christian “protesters,” I noticed ever-growing groups of people entering the doors behind me while wearing shirts marked with their church’s logo. At first, I was impressed that there were church members, apparently in large numbers, coming to Skepticon. After walking inside, I was disappointed to find that the Christians were walking downstairs with the atheists, but then turning to walk the opposite direction. When I realized that the Christians were there to pack meals for the needy, while the atheists were there to purchase snarky T-shirts and congratulate themselves on their intellectual acuity, I was disappointed again. Disappointed in us. As I stood at the bottom of the convention staircase, Christians and atheists walking in opposite ethical directions, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience join those selling “humanist” buttons without first acting like one.

And so, irony be damned, I stepped in line behind a group of middle-aged Lutheran women, because I wanted to spend some time with real humanists at Skepticon.

I don’t share this to brag (I only had time to work a couple hours before I had to meet back with my family), or to unreasonably condemn the Skepticon organizers and attendees. I understand, people traveled from far and wide to attend and speak and meet other atheists and skeptics. I did too. But the lack of practical and positive expressions of humanistic values within the Skepticon crowd should be addressed by this time next year. For example, the convention organizers could partner officially with Friends Against Hunger, or a local blood bank, or some other worthy cause. But there needs to be SOMETHING, otherwise the labels we pin on ourselves are as superficial and meaningless as the aluminum and plastic from which they’re made.

Which brings me back to Croft and Pinn, both (like Friends Against Hunger) kept to the periphery of the Skepticon experience (intentionally or otherwise). At his website, Croft says that he seeks to create communities that inspire people to “build a better future for humankind.” So do I, and so do (I presume) most of the Skepticon attendees, organizers, and speakers. Pinn said about his frustration with the ministry, that “what [he] was saying and preaching was not translating into ethical action.” How much more do those words also convict those of us who attended Skepticon primarily to go drinking and take pictures with our favorite bloggers?

It is time for atheist and skeptical conventions to aspire to more than this. It is no longer enough to trot out some well-known names, hand out trophies, and show everyone to the nearest bar. The time for self-congratulation is over. Until we take seriously the need for practical humanism, until we set aside our privilege to listen to our non-privileged brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve the warm and fuzzy feelings that we get on our way out of Springfield. It’s time to stop the circlejerk, and get our hands dirty planting real seeds of humanism.