December 22, 2017


It is entirely possible that I'm the only atheist who sings Handel's Messiah every Christmas.

I don't know many other atheists, but I've seen enough from sites and comments online to know that we're not immune to polarization; there is vitriol hurled at the religious, a counter-balance of intolerance, the perception that religious belief is the poison responsible for every single thing wrong with the world today - a perception sometimes irrefutable.  I certainly would not win an argument with a reanimated Christopher Hitchens.

When questioned, I find myself unable to persuasively justify my tolerance of the religious to other atheists.  We are just as guilty of crying, "But they're wrong, the other side is wrong!" as our nation's Christians are.  (I'm addressing Christianity because it's still by far the prevalent faith in America.  I'm addressing all flavors and varieties.)

I do think the religious have got it all wrong, but to an extent, I understand why.  I think the masses need the opiate.  The human race invented deities to meet its needs.  Religion addresses everything from attachment disorders to the conscious fear of death, climbs every rung of Maslow's hierarchy.  It fulfills the need to feel secure by rendering everything orderly in the world around us, by having everything make sense.  That which is still animal and fundamental about us clashes with even the rudiments of self-awareness and conscious thought.  Religion allows them to talk to each other.  It isn't necessary, but for the vast majority of us moist robots, religious belief fits like well-worn jeans.  

The pebble in my particular shoe appears when someone wearing those jeans twists everything and participates in the Christian culture in our country, which has about as much resemblance to the concept of abiding by the recorded, ostensible words of Jesus Christ as a wet buffalo has to a pack of organic strawberry fruit snacks.   A Venn diagram of these would look like two circles sitting on opposite sides of a large room, glowering at each other.  These culture-worshipers foster hatred, divisiveness, and a sheep-headed attachment to receiving input only from sources that they find agreeable and validating, feeding on the insecurity that underlies evangelism while fancying themselves persecuted.

Before I stopped attending church altogether, I spent several years as part of the congregation of a liberal Christian church.  They do exist.  I was heartened by watching the people there, and not just because they accept gay members.  They believe in social justice and walk their talk, refusing to raise capital and expand the building, opening the doors to programs that help the poor and socially disadvantaged.  Theologically, they are rooted firmly in an unshakable belief that all belief is shakable.  There is no literal interpretation of any particular holy book or text, only a willingness to embrace the possibility that the Bible is full of metaphors and is the jerkily recorded story of one particular people's experience of their perceived deity - and that truth can still be gleaned from it.

They gave me my own firmly held belief that liberal Christianity is the only hope for America's future.  We atheists aren't going to convince anyone to give up God.  We just need to work to crack open some minds and throw our resources at the strawberry fruit snacks, no matter how ironic.

I capitalize Bible and God when I write.  Any self-respecting atheist would read it and suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere on the Internet.  I am not apologetic.  I choose to be tolerant, not of the twisters, but of the brimming possibilities that Christianity (and all religion) holds, to wit, that for all of the evils done in its name, there is likewise much good fruit that can be borne.  If people are going to partake of the opiate, they just might in turn be kinder, more just, more thoughtful, more environmentally friendly, less fearful of science, and able to incorporate the world with their faith.  Religion is often the cause of, but also arguably the only antidote to, the dangerous polarization that currently grips us.

So there I sit in my chair in the alto section of the Messiah choir rehearsal room at a large downtown church, holding my paper-clipped, slightly worn Watson Shaw score in my lap, ready to warm up and begin singing.  The work tells a story, mostly through Old Testament prophetic scripture, and concludes that Jesus was in fact the Messiah and lays out the resulting Christian theology.  It is devoid of cultural reference.  It does not hate.  It simply presents a story.  

Each year, I look out over the orchestra from my seat on the stage during the performance, sweating under my white blouse and black skirt, and I see hundreds and hundreds of heads, old and young, dressed up and casual, sleepy and attentive.  Heads in the house, heads in the balcony.  These people come to hear the raw story underpinning their beliefs, often very different from several standard deviations of dogma they might hear from pulpits.  I always wonder if it bolsters their faith, if it straightens out a thing or two in their hearts, their minds, improves them just a little.

I tell the story to them without fail, every year.  I do not believe a word of it.

I just believe that in some way that even I do not understand, it is still worth telling.


  1. The farther I run from evangelicals/ fundamentalists, and towards the simplicity of Mennonites, the more I see the damage my old running buddies do on an hourly basis.

    1. The flip-side of tolerance is being pretty scared because, having been one of them, one knows the thinking and worldview.