After my wife and I moved to a new town a few years ago, we talked about joining a church in order to meet people. This wasn’t easy for us since I’m a devout atheist, and I refused to take my kids anywhere that even mentioned the idea of hell.
At some point we tried out a nearby Unitarian Universalist church, and much to my surprise we both enjoyed the experience. My being an atheist wasn’t an issue – in fact, there were several other atheists in the congregation, all of whom wanted to be a part of something bigger that could do some good for society without all the dogma.
Not long after we joined, I was asked to speak to the congregation about what I believe. Here’s most of what I said:
If 20 years ago you had told me I would speak in front of a church crowd, I would’ve laughed hysterically. I decided I was an atheist at a very young age, so the idea of me standing at a pulpit would’ve seemed ridiculous, at least until I discovered churches like this one existed.
I guess you could say that by age 16 I had a pretty bad attitude about religion. For many years that bad attitude only got worse as I continued to witness people justifying cruelty in the name of religion.
That bad attitude reached its peak after I saw all the “God Bless America” billboards go up prior to the war with Iraq. At the time I took that as proof religion was nothing more than something politicians all over the world rely on to get people to approve of the awful things they want to do.
Yes, I was one of those smirking atheists who think they’ve got it all figured out.
But I’ve mellowed a lot since then. I’ve become friends with too many good people of faith to continue being a smirking atheist.
I used to believe that religious people were wrong, but now I believe that everyone is wrong – including me. We’re just monkeys with expensive haircuts. How on earth can we presume to have anything figured out?
I mean, look at all the mistakes we’ve made – we once believed that the world was flat, that the earth is the center of the universe, and that George Bush would never be a two-term president. Look how wrong we were!
Perhaps some of us have seen a clue of what the truth really is. People like Jesus, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and George Carlin may have caught a glimpse behind the curtain and seen further than the rest of us.
But they’re probably wrong, too, and it really doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that regardless of what gods we may or may not worship, I believe we’re all here for a very short time, so it’s not a bad idea for us to focus on enjoying ourselves and each other while we can.
And I believe it shouldn’t be as hard as it is to improve the lives of every person and every animal we share this temporary planet with.
I think we have to separate between what we believe and what we know. Atheism is what I believe, some of you believe in a religion. We believe we’re following something that gives us some answers or some comfort, but none of us actually know how we got here and where we’re going, and that’s great.
It’s only when people convince themselves that what they believe is also what they know that the bad stuff happens.
So anyway, this godless journey of mine somehow led me to this church. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t expect to like it here. I’ve wanted to run away screaming from every other church I’ve visited.
But much to my surprise, I like it here. I enjoy being part of this group of intellectual misfits. This church is like a non-conformist convention where people actually show up.
So I want to thank you for welcoming me and accepting me here – that’s something I’m not used to, and it means a lot to me.