All souls welcome at church's morning service for atheists
BY BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2012
11/10/12 at 7:31 AM
Why would atheists go to church?
Wouldn't that be like someone going to a movie theater, staring at a blank screen for an hour, and then going home?
Not at all, says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, who this fall started a special service for non-theists at All Souls Unitarian Church.
"These are people who are not inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by Scripture but who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death," he said.
Lavanhar said the church started the humanist service in September, partly in response to the rapid growth of atheism in society.
"The fastest growing religious segment of our society are those who call themselves non-religious," he said.
"If I can't make my case for loving your neighbor without reference to God and Scripture, then I am truly going to miss a huge segment of the population who may find themselves permanently outside the walls of organized religion," he said.
Lavanhar said the new 8:30 a.m. non-theist service has drawn as many as 280 people and averages between 100 and 200.
On a recent Sunday, the service had no invocation to God, no congregational hymns, no Scripture reading, no prayer and no benediction. Instead of opening with "This is the day the Lord has made," it opened with, "This is a day not of our own making."
"Just the word 'God' turns a lot of people off," Lavanhar said.
The service included a song from the popular Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon," which lampoons religion and Mormonism. In his message, Lavanhar said Mormonism was the last socially acceptable prejudice in New York City, a prejudice based on ignorance.
Like Unitarianism, Mormonism is a quintessentially American religion, he said.
"I'm not going to mock the tradition ... but I'm not going to sugarcoat it either."
He criticized Mormonism for its historic treatment of women and blacks, but said the Mormons he has met are some of the warmest, smartest, most genuine people he knows.
In an earlier interview, Lavanhar said he himself believes in God, as do most of his 2,000 members.
He said he prays regularly and experiences God's help in his ministry, especially when he is counseling people facing illness or the loss of loved ones.
He does not like to be labeled, which is not helpful, he said, but when pushed, he says he is a theistic naturalist. He believes in God but does not believe in miracles.
He said he does not believe in the Christian orthodoxy that Jesus Christ was truly God in the flesh, but said he has no dispute with people who say they have found a life-changing relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
He said developing a relationship with God is at the heart of what All Souls is about, but he believes Jesus is only one of many paths to that relationship.
Many people who come to All Souls as atheists have not rejected God but their fourth-grade concept of God, he said.
"I say to them, 'Tell me what God you don't believe in, and I'll probably tell you I don't believe in that God either.' "
As they learn more, they sometimes come to a theistic position, he said.
Lavanhar said each of the three services at All Souls represents one of the three main roots of Unitarian Universalism through its nearly 200-year history.
The 11:30 a.m. service is in the tradition of Christian Unitarianism, which sprang from the Congregational church in the early 1800s, and considered itself a fully Bible-based Christian church, but one that did not believe in the Trinity.
The 10 a.m. service is transcendentalism, classic Unitarianism that emerged around 1830 and embraced other religious traditions, insisting that the Bible is not the only revelation of God's truth.
The new 8:30 a.m. atheistic service reflects humanism, which was popular in the World War II era, a non-theistic position that says there is no God, and that humans are ultimately responsible for the fate of mankind.
Lavanhar said he preaches essentially the same message at each service, but tailors each to fit that service. "It takes a little more time to prepare sermons," he said.
"By trying to bring together such a wide diversity of people, we're really trying to bring harmony and unity and peace to the world, and to be an example and a model of that for the world," he said.
"There's always been an aspiration in humanity to see ourselves as one human family and to get along in a way that fosters peace," he said.
Who are the unaffiliated?
The percentage of Americans 18 to 29 who are unaffiliated with religion nearly doubled from the 1980s to the 2000s, to 23 percent, from 12 percent.
Sources: Pew Research Center, Gallup Surveys and other surveys
- Unaffiliated make up 16 percent of the total population: 2 percent are atheists, and 2 percent are agnostic.
- They are half as likely to have an absolutely certain belief in God, 36 percent, compared to 79 percent for affiliated.
- They are less likely to believe in absolute standards of right and wrong, 67 percent, compared with 79 percent for affiliated.
- They are less likely to say government should do more to protect morality, 27 percent, compared with 43 percent for affiliated.
- They are more likely to believe in evolution, 72 percent, compared with 44 percent for affiliated.
- They are less likely to agree that Hollywood threatens values, 28 percent, compared with 45 percent for affiliated.
- They are more likely to support legal abortion in all or most cases, 68 percent, compared with 42 percent for affiliated.
- They are more likely to say homosexuality should be accepted by society, 71 percent, compared with 46 percent for affiliated.
- They are less likely to believe Scripture (Bible, Torah, Quran) is the word of God, 25 percent, compared with 71 percent for affiliated.
Original Print Headline: All souls welcome
Bill Sherman 918-581-8398
A congregation listens to Associate Minister Rev. Tamara Lebak talk about the meaning of gratitude during a humanist (atheist) church service Sunday at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Senior Minister Rev. Marlin Lavanhar speaks during a humanist (atheist) church service at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World