Update on the Sunday Celebration idea

This past Sunday I wrote about an idea I had for a secular Sunday celebration of reality as an alternative to church, and I just wanted to share some of the fantastic feedback I’ve already received.

First off, I had a lot of people encouraging me to follow up with the Sunday Assembly folks in Atlanta. I also had a lot of people who visited the SAA and stopped, mostly because of the long drive from the suburbs to the city. I have a dozen churches – maybe more – within a 5-mile radius of my house, so convenience as a motivator is not lost on me.

Also in my post, I mentioned as an idea that during the “service” we might spend 15 to 20 minutes talking about some topic, which might even come from some “holy book,” among other sources. I was given a suggestion to revise that a bit from “holy” book to “significant” book, which I really like. The last thing we want to do is start conveying some special reverence to a book simply because a bunch of other people have been told that it’s special. On the flip side, I think it’s just as foolhardy to dismiss these texts in their entirety for the exact same reason. I’ve always enjoyed exploring the work of the world’s most influential contemplatives throughout history, but that doesn’t mean we suspend critical thinking and resort to worshiping them.

Along those same lines, someone said they didn’t want to be “preached” to, which I totally understand.

My idea here would be more like hosting a lyceum event than a church service, but his point did give me the idea to ensure these are bi-directional messages. I think we should always allow time for questions and answers. These would not be sermons, but lectures or conversations. The speaker, whether it’s me or anyone else, does not have some automatic authority conferred by a special title. We’re just sharing knowledge, ideas, lessons, observations, and so on. I also think it might be cool to occasionally do interviews with interesting guests.

There seems to be some interest, so stay tuned for updates.

Idea for a Sunday Service

I find myself thinking about church and mindfulness this morning.

Today is Sunday. Millions of Americans are waking up, fixing their hair, putting on make-up, getting dressed up in various levels of formality, piling into their cars, and heading off to church. Once there they might reconnect with some old friends in the lobby, perhaps have a cup of coffee, and then they will slowly make their way inside a large room to find a seat.

In a few minutes, the lights will go dark in the room, and stage lights will illuminate the band. Most of the churches I’ve visited these past few years have legit bands, often led by tattooed, bearded, long-haired singers accompanied by skinny-jeans wearing lead guitarists. Slowly as the songs progress, not unlike most rock concerts, hands will start to rise in the crowd. The audience will begin to sway and move to the driving rhythm of the music. The differences here being that this is not an audience, but a congregation, and these songs are not about heartbreak or life on the road, but about lambs, lions, salvation, and the blood of Jesus.

This is “worship.”

As the band wraps up their set, the preacher makes his way on stage. The crowd is ready. The lights go up and the sermon begins. The message will likely be about the pastor’s interpretation of some snippet of scripture. Most everyone will agree.

Bookend the sermon with several prayers, make sure to remind everyone to get saved lest their eternal souls perish in everlasting hellfire, play another song or two, and pass around an offering plate at some point. There you have it; a completed church service.

The congregation will feel cathartic, renewed, upset, weepy, bored, unsettled, guilty, or any number of emotions depending upon what they heard. They will shake hands with friends again, get back into their cars, and maybe go enjoy a family lunch before they head home to watch football.

The process will repeat the following Sunday.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about and I know I’m not alone on this. We are, humans that is, social animals. There is power in scale and in numbers. It’s healthy to congregate. Some surveys suggest that people who attend regular church services report being generally happier. They might even live longer. I happen to think evolution selected for our desire to have group cohesion. Intuitively it makes sense for a social species with little to offer in terms of tooth and claw, to benefit from groups.

But with the numbers of religious “nones” on the rise and with many who like the social aspect of church but who are no longer interested in hearing about guilt, hellfire, and bathing in blood, I think there is real opportunity to fill the void.

My idea is a something like a Sunday celebration of reality.

I’m not sure what to call it exactly. I’m thinking about a service sort of like the Sunday Assembly but a bit more focused on “spirituality,” which I define as that feeling of awe and transcendence one can discover from time to time throughout one’s life, along with a physical focal point around which people can congregate.

I want something more organic and closer to home. A very simple gathering that brings people together who want to discover a spiritual connection, but who also want to have some launching point for contributing good deeds to their local community. It will be a hub for organizing food drives and blood drives, volunteer efforts at local schools, relief efforts, and all of the other good stuff that churches are able to do due to their infrastructure, tax exempt status, and scale, but without any of the supernatural accoutrements that go with it.

The Sunday service I envision goes something like:

  1. Brief welcome
  2. A 20-minute guided mindfulness meditation
  3. A 15-20 minute talk about some topic, maybe from a holy book, maybe from a science finding, or maybe just some observation about what’s happening in current events
  4. A 5-minute guided meditation
  5. Dismissal

That’s it. Everyone goes off to enjoy their day, hopefully slightly less captive to their own emotions, and certainly free from any supernaturally inspired shame or guilt.

That’s my idea. We could start meeting in a local school auditorium within a month or two. So if you live in Cobb, Paulding, Bartow, or North Fulton counties in the Metro Atlanta, Georgia area and think this would be a Sunday service you or someone you know would be interested in attending, please reach out to me and let me know.

It’s just an idea for now, but I’m happy to take the lead to make it happen if there is enough interest.

 

 

 

 

 

Shithole countries and the Bible

The “shithole” wave was just a little late in coming.

I opened my Facebook feed this morning and there it was. The usual suspects celebrating and dancing around their Dear Leader’s latest reprehensible, racist remark. I’ve said from the very beginning of the Trump phenomena that supporting the reality TV star said more about one’s character than it did one’s politics. And these types of responses confirm that observation, time and time again.

Trump’s use of the word “shithole” to describe whole nations and their people, was for his supporters a bit like sunlight on Groundhog Day. They were afraid that if they peaked out to show their agreement with his racist sentiments, they would see their shadows and scurry back in their little hiding places.

Apparently, some of my Facebook friends didn’t see their shadows.

Rather than condemn him, rather than stay silent about him; they actually took to Facebook to sing Trump’s praises.

It started off with this:

I’ve redacted their names because the feed is not mine and it’s not public, but some of this stuff you just have to read to believe:

Of course, you can see the one sad reaction from me.

I posted the following just to send a message about hypocrisy given the overt religious self-aggrandizement so many of these same people exhibit, but I doubt my friend or any of his pious lemmings will make the connection:

“I imagine first century Romans saying very similar things about people from Nazareth….”

When I posted the same observation on my Facebook page, a friend of mine from high school who is now a local preacher sent me this verse as confirmation of my hypothesis:

Perfect. I can almost hear Nathanael saying to Philip, “Have you not seen the kinds of people who come from that shithole place?”

How can so many of these people who profess so publicly to follow Jesus’ teachings and who make grand, self-important claims about compassion and forgiveness, simultaneously sing the praises of a man who so effortlessly spews racism and bigotry?

I hope preachers like my old high school friend call special attention to the John 1:46s and Matthew 25s in their holy book this Sunday, as they address the giddy Trump lovers in their congregations.

Atheism explained

My local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, published my letter to the editor explaining – and hopeful demystifying – the word “atheism.” It stayed at the top of the paper’s most popular items list for about five days. Clearly there was interest.

The word still creates significant confusion, fear, and backlash among believers of certain religious claims, particularly here in the Bible Belt. There also remains, despite the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, a stigma associated with the word. This stigma was evident to me in a couple of letters written in response to a local secular activist. I reference those letters below. Given that stigma and confusion, I decided to have a go at clearing things up and hopefully removing some of the baggage that travels with the notion of not believing someone’s claims about their god or gods being real.

First some context for the upcoming analogy. If you have a statistics background, then you are familiar with the concept of the null hypothesis. Here’s a quick refresher for those who might’ve avoided statistics like the plague. No to worry, I’ll try to make it painless. When comparing two data sets, the null hypothesis represents the idea that there is no real, on in “statistics speak,” significant, difference between the two. The alternate hypothesis represents the idea that there is a statistically significant difference between them. Simple enough right?

Atheism is just a word that applies a label to the null hypothesis with regard to all claims about gods. It is basically the real world as it is, with no supernatural beings, oversight, or intervention. It is the status quo otherwise known as reality. The alternate hypothesis then would be that a god or some gods do exist  In statistics, until there is evidence that suggests any of those alternate hypotheses are true, we do not reject the null hypothesis. The way things are, remains the way things are.

The fact we have a special label for not believing in a specific type of thing, in itself is odd. There are literally countless creations of human imaginations that no one reasonably believes are real, yet there are no words to label those skeptics. You might even be an a-leprechaunist, a-goblinist, a-vampirist, and a-Bigfootist yourself!

When I took to the op-eds with this letter, I was hoping that my explanation might create some doxastic openness among the paper’s predominantly religious readership base. In other words, I was hoping some of them might, after thinking about the analogy, stop and think about why they believe what they do. I remain particularly hopeful I piqued the curiosity of local faith leaders. I’d love to have honest, respectful conversations about what they believe to be true and why. I will keep you all posted on that front. Until then, my letter is below.

DEAR EDITOR:

Based on the two letters, “Why do atheists always bring God into the equation?” (Dec. 5) and “Atheism does not offer the answers to violence” (Dec. 5) , written in response to Ed Buckner’s letter “Price’s column shows disregard for logic,” apparently there is some serious (and perhaps self-serving) misunderstanding as to what “atheism” means. Here is an analogy that should help clear things up.

Think of a swimming pool. Not just any swimming pool, but an Olympic-sized swimming pool with clearly defined swim lanes. In each lane is a swimmer representing a religion. In lane one, we have Christianity which claims there’s one God named Yahweh, and that God has a son named Jesus who is also the Messiah. In lane two, we have Judaism which claims the same God as Christianity, only there’s no Messiah … he hasn’t shown up yet. In lane three we have Islam, which claims the same God as Christianity and Judaism but instead calls him Allah and says the only way to salvation is by practicing faith according to Muhammad. In lane four there is Hinduism, which has its own set of very different gods, including but not limited to Ganesh, Brahma, and Vishnu. In lane five we have Sikhism which claims the god Waheguru is the one true god. In lanes six, seven, and eight we have Wiccan, Mormonism, and Scientology, each with their own god beliefs and revelations.

What I’m about to explain next is very important. Notice there’s not a swim lane for atheism. Atheism just means not believing anyone in any of those swim lanes, no matter how loudly they may splash and claim that they alone have it right. In fact, imagine another large, Olympic-sized swimming pool sitting adjacent to the big pool full of different god beliefs. This pool doesn’t have any lanes in it at all. It’s just calm, open water. Comparing the two, it is the pool without swim lanes, which, represents atheism. It’s not scary. It’s not evil. It’s just a word that describes the status of everyone, before they were told in what lane in the divided pool they were expected to swim. Hope that helps.
R.L. Bays

author of “There Are No Such Things as Ghosts: A Brief Guide to Critical Thinking

The Bible college creationist

(Photo: Screenshot/YouTube)

Of all the young earth creationists with which I interacted during my short stint as a guest in the Facebook creationist group, it was the guy I’ll call “Bob the Bible college creationist” who perhaps elicited the most sympathy from me.

Here is a grown man who has spent his entire childhood and adult educational life, learning incorrect things. The mistakes in his science education being repeated over and over again, up to and including a  “college” degree. It’s a travesty if I’m being completely honest.

If you’ve ever seen pictures of toddlers with their eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer, or on a prayer mat facing Mecca, then my sympathy for people like Bob might be easier to understand. I think about those kids and wonder what chance they stand in their pursuit of the truth? Many of them will grow up so sheltered from the outside world and so inculcated in their religious tradition, that they will eventually just assume that the traditions and myths they have been taught, are a reliable representation of how the world actually is.

They are like the characters in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, the Village. They are inside a reality of someone else’s making. Their chances of escaping that fiction dwindling with each cultural barrier that is erected around them.

There is a silver lining though, and it is called the Internet.

For all the lunacy delivered to our screens via the Internet, there is also unprecedented access to real knowledge. When groups like the Facebook creationists invite champions of scientific literacy like me in to their bubble, the Bobs of the world finally get some exposure to actual science.

Maybe, just maybe, I said something or posted a link to something that caused Bob to think back on his Bible college “science” classes and ponder the accuracy of what he had been taught. The time and money he wasted on learning incorrect things can’t be recovered, but learning what is true doesn’t have an expiry date. I’m pulling for Bob to figure that out.