On Atheist Church

United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper has been open and outspoken about her atheism for quite a while, and the United Church is starting to question her validity as a priest. CBC’s The Current recently ran a short documentary about her and her congregation.

I remember reading about Gretta Vosper in 2009, my first year of seminary. Our class was asked to think through the question of taking Jesus out of church and rewriting hymns (“Jesus Christ is Risen Today” was changed to “Glorious Hope is Risen Today”) and I remember at the time being completely boggled by the concept. My initial reaction, still, is to ask two questions.

First: if you don’t believe in God, why bother even going to church? Perhaps because I’ve never been a member of a liturgical church, I’ve never seen much value in going to church for its own sake. I find the social interactions to be pretty forced (shaking hands and saying hi – or passing the peace, as the high church calls it – without actually having any time whatsoever to actually connect with anyone); I dislike singing on command, and find most modern worship music to be banal at best, theologically questionable and banal at worst; and the number of sermons I can remember even an hour afterward can be counted on one hand, not because they were necessarily poor but because most lectures or sermons render the audience passive and are therefore bad at actually transmitting information in a way that is memorable. The only thing that makes any of these things worthwhile or valuable is because they are a form of communicating with and communing with God – particularly in liturgical, sacramental churches, which believe that the sacraments actually embody God in some meaningful way. Without God liturgical churches are just clubs, and non-liturgical churches are just a show, and there are much better and more interesting clubs and shows to partake in. If you don’t believe in God, you have a get-out-of-church-free card that can be redeemed for sleeping in every week, or for whatever edification or good works you may be up to on a Sunday morning if you aren’t stuck in an awkward handshake with someone you don’t see or talk to any other day of the week.

So why keep it up? Vosper and her congregation seem to emphasize community and ethics, both highly important and laudable. But why dress them up in the trappings of a religion you believe to be false? The reason seems to be that they believe that this is an evolution of Christianity. Which brings me to the second question that immediately comes to mind.

Second: So you like getting together with people once a week for mutual edification: but why call it Christianity? I could understand calling it a church even if it doesn’t believe in God – after all, we have many other organizations that call themselves churches that certainly don’t believe in the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The Unitarian Church, for example, is pluralist and includes room for atheists. The Church of Satan, contrary to its name, does not believe that Satan is real, but uses the name as a provocative way to declare their atheism; from what I’ve heard they value community and philanthropy, like most theistic churches. So why keep up the pretense of Christianity if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Christ, if you don’t read the Bible, if you have to edit your liturgy and songs to remove God from them entirely?

Well, if for whatever reason you no longer believe that God is real, the only way to approach the concept of church is through the sociology of religion. Sociology of religion is a powerful field that examines why we behave the way we do in regard to religion: why we believe in things we can’t see, how we use religion to enforce or reinforce behavioural or belief structures, how those belief structures organize our communities, etc. If you believe that God does not exist, then sociology of religion can provide all sorts of reasons why religion is important – after all, many sociologists of religion (even most?) are atheists themselves, and at least attempt to assume a value-neutral position on the existence of God in their work, studying religion from a why/how/social perspective rather than a so what/theological perspective. In the documentary embedded above, Vosper mentions that religion was useful for so long, but that it no longer is; this is a sociological viewpoint.

Christianity has a long history of taking things that it disagrees with and repurposing them. For example, Christmas and Easter celebrations in the West both incorporate numerous holidays and traditions from various other religions (think: Christmas trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, Easter eggs/bunnies, etc). We take the best of other traditions and use them for our own purposes. Some people see this as syncretism, merging two disparate religions into some mutation that doesn’t truly represent either (such as the Unitarian Church); others see it as cultural/religious colonialism, adopting the things we like best about those we conquer and making them our own, while forgetting where they come from; and still others see it as the natural function of a religion, to orient all things in the world to God, which might mean recognizing the godliness in the best of another’s culture and might mean finding other practices to be void of meaning or resonance with Christ and therefore dismissed or forgotten. It can be all three, and more, depending on the context and the way it is done – and whether or not you’re in the in-group. In any case, I think that this is what Gretta Vosper is doing: apropriating church itself, the outward trappings of the Christian religion, for the sake of their sociological value to the community.

Vosper’s congregation has changed by degrees, only changing song lyrics or removing prayers (or changing the name of prayer to “community sharing time”) when someone brings it up as something that doesn’t align with their values. The change from a church to an atheist church has been an evolution of sorts, a bridge from a tradition and community into a new kind of community that still believes itself to be in line with its tradition (from what I can tell). This quote from the documentary seems to illustrate Vosper’s view of why her church is still a Christian church:

The United Church has to hear how important it is that our continued use of theological language that posits a moral authority in some supernatural realm and a supernatural being, that that is a very dangerous tool in the 21st century, and that we need to argue strongly and lead the way in the conversation that says we are responsible for our own choices here, we are responsible for deciding how we want to be in relationship, we are responsible for how we want to interact with the world…. If I find out through this review process that the United Church is unwilling to do that work…I will feel betrayed, because that’s my church, and my church doing that will mean that it’s not the church that I thought it was.

It seems that she still very much wants to belong. The fact that she would feel betrayed by an organization that is calling her out on the fact that she has disowned its central reason for existence, its founders, its core beliefs, and further that she would feel that betrayal not just because they would call her on it but because they might not be willing to follow her in apostasy, is fascinating. Of course, she maintains theological language and justification for her atheism, and believes that she can in good conscience continue to sign on to the statement of faith of the United Church, which affirms trinitarian theism – or at least, that it is good enough that she once did. The reversal is possible because of the emphasis on inclusiveness.

I love inclusiveness, but not at the expense of identity. The United Church of Canada has been trying to walk the line of inclusivity for its entire existence, and in some ways it has been a leader in embodying a christlike inclusivity that puts the rest of the church to shame; in other ways it has sacrificed identity and theology for the sake of inclusivity, and created a theological vagueness that allows theologians like Vosper to break away from theological tradition. The other United Church minister in the podcast, Connie denBok, pointed out that as soon as we say that we believe one thing and not another we are already being exclusive, a statement that echoes Vosper’s belief that even using theological language is exclusive. If an organization based around the worship of God cannot speak theologically for fear of excluding someone who does not believe in God, is it really based around the worship of God? It is one thing to question this, quite another to implement it with the level of prejudice that Vosper does. It appears to me that she has good intentions, but that she is misleading herself and her congregation by maintaining the title of Christianity while deliberately and explicitly excising the name of Christ from every other aspect of what they do.

I think they’re doing a lot of good things. They’re bringing people together to forge a strong community. They show grace to one another. They value ethics very highly, and strive for authenticity. When Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 3) about people “having a form of godliness but denying its power”, he was referring to people who adhered to religious rituals but were hypocritical and deceptive. Aside from the fact that none of us are perfect, I don’t think these people are evil in that way, but I do think that the phrase fits well. These people have a form of godliness in their ethical community, but what is godliness without God? Their ethical community may still even have power – the power to change their neighbourhood, maybe even their city, further into the image of a God they do not acknowledge. But what does the image of a non-existent God look like? They may find that their own cognitive dissonance – calling themselves Christians despite denying Christ – will undercut the cohesion and longevity of their efforts. For the sake of the good they hope for, I hope that is not true.

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