Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Atheist Teen at BigTent

I missed the Big Tent. The Big Tent has become the PC(USA) celebration in the off-year when there is no General Assembly. Since I didn't go I don't have much to say about it except to comment on a report by a teenager who went to the tent. This young woman is bright and writes well. She is the daughter of a minister and... gotta love this. She is an atheist.

She gives religion a good comeuppance:

As I walked around the exhibit hall, hid in the corner (figuratively) during worship and stared hungrily at my food as my parents prayed before dinner, I contemplated religion and the toll it takes on the world. Racism, slavery and the notion that women are property are what came to mind.
But the line I liked best:
I certainly was happy, at least, during the sessions of the youth group meetings. They sure know how to make an atheist feel welcome!
That is no small accomplishment.

I found it amusing that the editors felt the need to explain why they published this story.

We found her story to be honest and refreshing, if also a bit disconcerting. We decided to publish it for two reasons: first, there are very few among us who, like this 14-year-old, have not had our own crises of faith and belief -- therefore, Eleanor's story is both descriptive and instructive; and second, Eleanor's experience of Big Tent is exactly what all Presbyterians should strive to create -- an atmosphere of welcome, of acceptance of all people regardless of where they are in life, and of encouragement to continue their faith journey all the way into the loving arms of Jesus Christ.
I found her story to be honest and refreshing as well. I also was pleased that she felt welcomed by her peers and that they didn't try to inject her with a brain-numbing shot of Jesus' blood. Yet while the tone of the editors' comments are tolerant, the message is the same old tired assurance that atheism is just a phase. The editors seem to want to communicate to us:
We want you Presbyterian faithful to know that little Eleanor is having a crisis of faith and will jump into Jesus' loving arms in due time.
What if she doesn't? What if jumping into Jesus' loving arms would be a bad thing for her? Faith is not always a sign of maturity. One person's "faith" is another person's magical thinking. "Faith" can be little more than caving to peer pressure or embracing superstitions from fear or laziness. Faith can also become courage, resilience, integrity, intelligence, and joy. But "the loving arms of Jesus" don't make it so or not so.

It could be that for Eleanor and the millions like her whose number is growing, atheism is what faith used to be. Because institutions (such as the PC(USA)) have been so slow to challenge their own dogmas and do not appreciate even the questions that people like Eleanor are raising, atheism is the faithful choice. Atheism, the denial of the existence of supernatural beings, is a logical, credible, and humane way to exist in this world.

We have a great opportunity right now. Let's challenge the dogmas. Let's ask some questions. Questions that perhaps even Eleanor might be asking.

While I dearly love you folks at headquarters, What Presbyterians Believe does not cut it. If we are going to have any credible communication with anyone outside of our creedal box, we have to get out of the box.

For folks like Eleanor, I will continue my series of What Presbyterians Believe (Except Me). Here are parts one and two. More to come.

As far as Eleanor is concerned, thank you. You may not need us. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs you. We do not need you as we want you to be, but as you are. Where ever your life journey takes you, I hope our tent will be big enough.


  1. Well, this was a timely post! I was just sitting here stewing over a conversation with my Uncle last week, who asked Mr. Dewey and I why we don't just go out and kill people, since we aren't locked in the loving arms of Jesus, ourselves.

    It is such an insult to humanity to assume that there can be no ethical or "moral" living without Jesus (just as it is an insult to assume that this young woman's atheism is a "crisis of faith"). My response was to suggest that person who does not believe in heaven, hell, eternal life, or the rest of it has just as much "faith" as the next guy, if not more - faith in the notion that we can all strive to be better human beings, and to leave this world a little better than when we got here.

    Sounds like Eleanor might have figured that out. Good for her for sharing it with the rest of the gang.

  2. Maybe she will attend ETSU and discover us. She would fit right in!

  3. We really need an honest discussion of what it means to have faith in the modern world. (Maybe the discussion is already taking place among some people, but I am currently stranded on a desert island). The most common position seems to be, that if you want to say you have faith, you must subscribe to an approved list of pre-modern worldview concepts developed 1800 years ago or so (with many honorable exceptions, such as our host!) As a starting point I'd say that if you believe that it's fundamentally right to be kind and just to all, that's the kind of 'faith' that matters.

  4. as a Jewish person (sometimes I consider myself a Quaking Jew as the Society of Friends has been a big part of my life), I have felt sometimes unwelcomed...and I do treasure my agnostic and atheist friends.

    A young person in my life made a comment a few years ago, assuming me to be an atheist, and it was a sweet moment really.

    We could all do much worse than to learn to be welcoming, and to keep studying that without the arrogance / assumption that there is a mastery achieved...

    In Hebrew school as a teenager, I studied a bit about Benedict (once Baruch) Spinoza who was excommunicated by his Jewish community for Pantheism !

    Sending Rhode Island embraces to the blogging world ~ and gratitude ~

  5. Thanks, John! This is a great post from Big Tent. She would be welcome at my church anytime!

  6. Thanks all for the comments! Even though the church is not getting it, her views are those of many, many teens and twenty and thirty-somethings.