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.

Our “sh*thole” president

This is not Trump. This is an adorable kitten.

I’ve been resisting the urge to write something about Trump’s “shithole countries” remark for a number of reasons, but I’m having a tough time so I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid off and pen a few words. I’m up early on this rainy Friday morning so might as well get it over with.

I’m not even going to go in to what Trump said because it’s just a gross sentiment from a gross human being. You can read it here or here or even here on Trump TV.

Rather, I’m going to talk about why I was reluctant to bring it up in the first place.

Here’s the bottom line. At this point in Trump’s presidency, we can safely bucket his voters into two large groups:

Group 1: These are the diehard Trump lovers who worship him like a cult-leader. They love it when he says racist things because these things represent their own beliefs. The viler, the more bigoted, the more misogynistic he is for them, the better. They love him. He can do no wrong. They will go to their graves believing in their heart of hearts that Trump was a great person and a great president who said what needed to be said. They are Americans who are petrified of change and progress.

Group 2: These are the people who are mortified they voted for him. As such, they have turned off all news about him. They will not read this post, nor will they read anything else about him. I know a lot of my friends and family voted for Trump. I also never hear a political peep out of any of them anymore. Prior to the election, their Facebook feeds were flooded with “Crooked Hillary” nonsense, and pro-Trump propaganda, but over the past few months, they’ve gone silent. I truly think they are embarrassed. I get it. I forgive you. We have elections in this country and there will be another one soon enough. But here’s a gentle reminder – it’s OK to change your mind. You can own your mistake and then work to fix it.

So there it is. The Band-Aid is off. Now back to your regularly scheduled program. By the way, I picked a kitten for this post image because, well, Trump is disgusting and everyone loves kittens.

Let’s slow our roll on Oprah 2020

I listened to Oprah Winfrey’s speech during the 75th Golden Globe Awards. It was indeed a powerful and inspiring speech. Oprah had just been awarded the Cecil B. de Mille Award for her impressive career in television and film, and she used her moment to send a powerful message about female empowerment and equality.

And it was a really good speech. In fact, her speech was so good, many are now pondering the prospects of an Oprah 2020 presidential campaign.

Oprah as counter-punch to Trump.

Make no mistake, I think she would be several orders of magnitude better than Trump if for no other reason than she has spent a large portion of her career listening to and then evaluating what others are saying, but I think we would all be wise to take a look at what’s going on here.

Oprah is a TV star. Trump is a TV star. While they both have managed to make an incredible amount of money branding, and then using, their names to promote their business interests, those are not necessarily the skills that translate to good governance in a democracy.

The laundry list of Trump’s flaws is too great to rehash in this post and I’ve written about them already here and here, but Oprah has her own set of issues, particularly her ability to suspend rational thought when it comes to science. From her enormously popular show, Oprah promoted a considerable amount of pseudoscientific quackery and, like a strange pyramid scheme, launched the careers of other pseudoscience peddling quacks.

In addition, Oprah has made that classic theologians’ mistake of presuming to know better than you, how you feel.

A case made starkly clear in 2013 when Oprah challenged her guest, the author, motivational speaker, and long distance swimmer Diana Nyad, on Nyad’s ability to feel wonder and awe. During the Super Soul Sunday interview, Nyad explained to Oprah that belief in god claims is not a prerequisite for experiencing the awe and beauty of the natural world. Oprah then let her prejudice slip through by saying:

“Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky.”

It’s a strange and illogical leap to make, yet one made by many. If Oprah is going to change the meanings of words around to suit her own narrative, then we all need to be on guard. But if that’s the worst of what she does, we would still be in far better shape than we are now.

All of that said, can we not just take a breath? Is it too much to ask that we elect a president who has real policy experience, who is scientifically literate, who understands how government functions, who is not an oligarch, and who is not a brand in and of him…or her…self? Is it too much to ask?

We don’t want to replace one cult of personality with another cult of personality. We should all tread carefully.

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