December 22, 2017


It is entirely possible that I'm the only atheist who sings in a performance of 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, and there is vitriol and hatred for the religious out there, a counter-balance of intolerance, and a perception that religious belief is the poison responsible for every single thing wrong with the world today - a perception that, in part, I agree with.  I certainly would not win an argument with a reanimated Christopher Hitchens.

I can't justify my tolerance of the religious to other atheists.  We're just as bad about saying, "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 they've got it all wrong, but I kind of understand why.

I think the masses need the opiate.  The human race invented deities to meet our needs.  Religion addresses everything from attachment disorders to the conscious fear of death to a need to feel secure by having everything orderly in the world around each of 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 lets them talk to each other.  It isn't necessary, but for the vast majority of us moist robots, it fits like well-worn jeans.  

The problem arises 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, and all of the insecurity that underlies evangelism.  "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy."  Oh, wait, that was Anakin Skywalker.

Before I stopped attending church altogether, I spent several years as part of the congregation of a liberal church.  They do exist.  These folks don't just buck the trends of the foremost social issues (e.g. letting in Teh Gays).  They believe in social justice and walk the talk, refusing to expand the building, opening the doors to programs that help the poor and socially disadvantaged, and 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 hand-created 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.

See?  I capitalized Bible and God in that last paragraph.  Any self-respecting atheist would snort.  But I can't help it.  I want to be tolerant, not of the twisters, but of the brimming possibilities that Christianity holds:  That for all of the evils done in its name, there is much good fruit that can be borne.  If people are going to partake of the opiate, they just might be kinder, more just, more thoughtful, more environmentally friendly, unafraid of science, and able to incorporate the world with their faith.  It's the only antidote to the polarization.

So there I sit in my chair in the alto section of the Messiah choir rehearsal room at a large downtown church near where I live, with my paper-clipped, slightly worn Watson Shaw score in my lap, ready to warm up and start singing.  The work tells a story, mostly through Old Testament prophecy 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 just 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 of the concept they claim to believe in.  I always wonder if it bolsters their faith, if it straightens out a thing or two in 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.