But that person is an atheist

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2008

When people find out I belong to a church that doesn't care about your personal theology, I am sometimes asked whether that means we have atheists among our membership. When I tell them that we do, the next question usually is: How can an atheist be in church?

My answer is to ask, "Why shouldn't that person be in church?" People go to church for a lot of reasons. Certainly, the majority of traditional churchgoers go to worship a higher being in the manner their denomination has chosen and that they have accepted. But others go because they want their children to attend the Sunday school, or they enjoy the fellowship that the church community offers, the joyful music of the service, the time for meditation and thought that gives respite from the stress of a busy life, or many other reasons.

In my chosen denomination (one that was recommended to me at age 21 by my then-lifelong Presbyterian minister), people come to church for all the reasons mentioned above. But the biggest difference between Unitarian Universalists and the "mainline" churches is that we don't ask what you believe; we only care about how you act. And because we believe that understanding why we are here on earth and what is expected of us is enhanced by continued learning, our learning doesn't stop with the publication of one book or the life of one person.

Most of us are very interested in what other religions and philosophies, new theological writings, and science tell us about our universe and our place in it.

We gain our understanding from diverse sources. Not long ago, I read an interview of Woody Allen in Macleans's, a Canadian newsmagazine. Allen, best known for his comedy, has moved away from comedy and toward more serious films in recent years. The interviewer was curious about how a person who has spent much of his life stating that life is "a come-by-chance meaningless little charade" could make meaningful films about the meaninglessness of existence. His answer helped me understand what church can mean to anyone, even an atheist.

His answer summarized the current view that this magnificent universe was created out of dust and violence and will end that way. Whether one views this from the perspective of modern science or a Biblical cataclysm, it is a very unpleasant future. In order to cope with this "awful truth," as Allen describes it, we develop all sorts of mechanisms that allow us to find meaning and enjoyment in our life. For some, that is found in monastic contemplation, for others, a strong belief in an afterlife gives them peace, for others, the simple act of denial, for which we seem to be admirably equipped, suffices.

For many of us though, a meaningful life is found in working for social justice, so that during our short time on earth all can enjoy some measure of well-being. The work of social justice is something that Jesus preached during his time on earth and it is something that most Christian churches try to practice. It is interesting to see that many of the more fundamentalist churches are returning to social justice as their work rather than focusing on political change. And social justice is not limited to Christians, it appears as an important part of Islam and Judaism and I'm sure almost every other "ism" that exists today.

The need for people to work for justice seems to never go away. Witness the amount of poverty, disease, armed conflict, homelessness, and other misery that affects tens of millions in the world today. So if working for social justice is a mission of a church, shouldn't an atheist be welcome to participate?

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it matters not whether my neighbor believes in one god or 20. What matters is whether he is a good neighbor. If I have learned nothing else during my decades of living and hopefully growing, it is that social justice work is done best when all of us, no matter our church, no matter our beliefs, work together to improve the lives of all.

• Dave Dierdorff is board chair of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

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