Monday, February 21, 2011

I wrote a letter to the bishop

No, not the Mormon bishop. I’ve been attending an Episcopal church for the last several months. The congregation there is in a time of transition. There have been some changes in staff and clergy and discussion about the future. Meetings were held, inviting feedback from parishioners on the direction they should take and how they might reach out to more people in the community. Music was a forefront topic of disagreement between those who prefer a traditional service and those who prefer something more contemporary. I decided to share my perspective with the bishop there and wrote him a letter in December:
Dear Bishop,

I am relatively new here. I have attended both town hall meetings regarding the future of the cathedral and would like to share some of my thoughts about why I attend services here. 

I recall at the first town hall meeting you mentioned wanting to know what it meant when people call themselves spiritual but not religious. A gentleman sitting near me somewhat scoffingly said, “It doesn’t mean anything.” While I can’t speak for all who define themselves this way, my own perspective is that I am part of a growing number of people who are longing for a dimension of the divine and sacred in our lives, but are turned off by organized religion because our experience with it has been authoritarian and dogmatic.

I was raised as a Mormon. I grew up in a tiny town on the Arizona Strip. I am the sixth of eleven children. My parents now live in Utah and are still very devout, believing and practicing Mormons. I have been through some incredibly destructive experiences in the name of religion, at the hands of an organization that I loved and had devoted my life to, and that I sincerely believed spoke for God. After hurt, betrayal, anger, then a brief return to Mormonism that made it clear to me that the LDS Church was not the One True Church that it claims to be, I decided I no longer wanted to be Mormon, and I left for good five years ago. 

But I never wanted to give up religion altogether, only to find a way to be religious that I felt authentically matched my heart, and that didn’t crush my spirit.

I grew up in a tradition that claimed to be the absolute truth, where belief is paramount to all else, and intellectual dissent can be grounds for excommunication. After I left I attended various Protestant churches and read C.S. Lewis. I read books about the sacred feminine and about Eastern traditions, but none of it felt quite right. Every tradition that I dabbled in had good things to offer, but none were anything that I could believe in fully the way I wanted to. 

I came across The God Delusion about a year and a half ago and found myself nodding along as Dawkins delineated so many conclusions that I had already come to on my own. I decided that more than likely, God and religion were both inventions of humankind, and if they weren’t “real,” what was their value? Furthermore, I could see the damage done by misguided beliefs in the world at large and in my own life. I have been an honest atheist. I have been anti-religious, and I believe it was helpful for me to allow myself to be angry about all the ways my past experiences with religion have harmed me, but after a few months, I was bored with that. I missed mystery. I missed experiences of sacredness and holiness that I knew I’d had, and my conclusion that these experiences probably had some tidy scientific explanation didn’t diminish my longing for them. I missed striving to be a better person that had been part of my practice of religion. Atheism made perfect logical sense, but it lacked the emotional map for my life that I was craving and I couldn’t find a secular equivalent that filled that void.

But I was skeptical about finding a religious community where I could belong, and I don’t mean socially. I’m quite introverted and am not one to fret much if no one says hi to me. I was worried about finding a place where my beliefs--and lack thereof--wouldn’t be threatened or threatening. I had a friend who said, “Try the Episcopalians.” So I’ve been coming. To be completely honest, I am still incredibly skeptical about how factual the claims of Christianity are, but I don’t think something necessarily has to be factual to be true, if that makes sense, and I perceive deeper truths in the teachings of Christianity. Perhaps I shouldn’t take communion, though I’ve been baptized twice and I love the teachings of Jesus, because I don’t think I’m all that Christian in my personal beliefs (I’m not really comfortable saying the Nicene Creed, for example). But with all my heart I love Christ as a figure of love, peace, healing and hope, and my soul responds to the symbolism of taking His body into mine, of an old self being washed clean in His blood and a new self that is more like Him being born. How beautiful to participate in that ritual of death and renewal every week.

The second town hall meeting was somewhat heated and some might look on that as a bad thing. I personally was thrilled to see a community where you can even have conversations like that. Where I came from, everything was decided by the (all male) priesthood, and their word was final. It came down out of Salt Lake City what music was allowed in church services, which instruments were appropriate for worship. I can tell you for certain, you would never see the likes of a guitar or a tambourine in a Mormon service. There was one Right Way, not just for music, but for just about every detail imaginable, and if you didn’t like it, it meant you were rebelling against God and needed to be more humble. 

I don’t know if you Episcopalians realize how good you have it to belong to a community where you are allowed to disagree and think for yourself, and where your personal life stays personal.

I completely understand and sympathize with the position of atheism. I don’t want anyone thinking I believe in the God I believed in as a child, but I’m not sure I can honestly define myself as an atheist anymore. I’m not sure who or what I think God might be, and I’m not convinced that any God exists outside the human imagination, but if my goal is to change myself, I think that’s the perfect place to engage with Divinity. My views on religion now are that it’s less about believing and more about doing. There is plenty in the music and liturgy at the cathedral for a seeking heart and mind to latch onto, to unearth the deeper truths that can change a person from within. I am not in a place where I want to officially join a church, but there is a peaceful and loving spirit at the cathedral that is good for my soul to be a part of, and so I come. I am grateful to have found the cathedral, and I pray that the doors stay open.

Sincerely,

Leah Elliott

The bishop’s reply was kind. He called my letter a blessing and said he thought God was working in my life. Well, maybe, maybe not, but I thought it was refreshing that he didn’t tell me that my doubt was the influence of Satan and I needed to pray it away. I gave him permission to share the letter with board members or others that might find it helpful. Several of them have thanked me for sharing my views. No one has treated me like a scourge for not believing as they do.
Some of this is hard to share on my blog, since I started this blog as a staunch atheist, but I don’t know how to not be honest. I’ve tried to respect other people’s right to define themselves by whatever labels feel right for them, and not to tell any self-defining agnostics that they’re really atheists, or vice versa. I know plenty of atheists who consider themselves spiritual people, but the label “atheist” doesn’t feel authentic for me anymore. I’m not sure “agnostic” is right either. Perhaps “non-literal theist”? All I know is that I feel things when I engage in religious practice, things that I’m sure are psychologically and scientifically explainable, but things that also make me feel more like myself.
I like the path that I’m on, and I’m looking forward to watching this story unfold.


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28 comments:

  1. I really relate to this post. I too have been uncomfortable lately with the agnostic/atheist labels. As you said you have been respectful of others. They should be respectful of you too. :)

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  2. i enjoyed this post very much. thank you for sharing.

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  3. Beautiful letter. I was confirmed at 14 into the Episcopalian Church and loved everything about it. I am no longer Christian, but the Church still holds a special place in my heart. I hope you find what you are looking for while attending Mass.

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  4. I'm looking forward to watching the story unfold as well. I also grew up in a patriarchal manipulative mindset, and even though so much of me wants to ditch the religion thing for good, I too am still drawn to it. I have my Atheist days, and then I have my days that I hope for something more...

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  5. Thanks, Kiley! Labels can be useful, but they also have their limitations.

    Emily, Thanks!

    Cora, Thank you! Some weeks I find more meaningful than others. On the whole, I feel like it's a good thing for me.

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  6. Young Mom, I know exactly how you feel!

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  7. Leah, It's always great to read your posts.

    Don't worry so much about the labels or what you call yourself, they're just thoughts and ideas and they can change. They are always changing.

    You're doing just fine!

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  8. TGD, you made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! :-) Thanks!

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  9. I really appreciate this post. Thank you for being so honest and willing to share your journey.

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  10. Very nice letter. Personally, I do not like the "atheist" label that much either. For me it is just a literal definition of not believing in god or the supernatural. If you ask me, I go for "Secular Humanist". We as a community need to understand the vast differences that make up our world in order for us to better get along. The biggest anger with "atheists" is when religion tries to impose their beliefs on the way of life of others

    If, like you, people who long for the spiritual or religious just focus on helping our communities move forward, helping those in need, without being judgmental of others... then I think we would be a much better place and on the right track.

    I believe that as long as you feel happy with what you accomplish in your life, that should be enough.

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  11. but after a few months, I was bored with that. I missed mystery. I missed experiences of sacredness and holiness that I knew I’d had, and my conclusion that these experiences probably had some tidy scientific explanation didn’t diminish my longing for them.

    Please, please, at least consider the fact that a person who had recently overcome an addiction to hallucinogenic drugs would probably feel the same way after a while -- missing the emotional comfort of the delusions. The danger of this is all the greater when the delusion is something you were raised with from childhood.

    There is no such thing as "deeper truth" and nothing can be true on one "level" while being false on another. A comforting or alluring lie is still a lie, and religion is a lie, whether you call it "spirituality" or whatever else.

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  12. As you know I write a popular atheist blog. Even so I consider myself a post-theist. I've grown more comfortable with the idea of tolerating religion, even enjoying it, without necessarily having to belittle it, only offering criticism where criticism is due.

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  13. I don't think she's in any danger of reconverting. It's not as if the Episcopalian church is "gateway drug" back into religion or anything. Just because you know something's not true doesn't stop if from being enjoyable. Take movies for example. We know that's just an actor pretending to be someone else but their character still made us cry or laugh. Or even greek mythology. At one point people believed those gods were real and even after that slipped into realm of mythology we still tell the story of Hercules just because the idea of a demigod living on earth entertains us.

    Personally I feel that our life here is completely random and pointless and has no value. But that doesn't stop me from creating value in my life and enjoying it to the fullest.

    Leah, maybe you could call yourself a "Ritualist".

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  14. yay for the Episcopalians/Anglicans (I was raised Anglican and still have a warm place in my heart for them). And if there is one thing they do well, it is debate, lol!

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  15. A beautiful and impressive letter, L. I don't know much about the Episcopalians, but it sounds like they are open enough to appreciate honesty. That's a good thing. And they seem to recognize that doubt is (possibly) the highest virtue.

    As others have mentioned already, don't worry too much about "what you are" right now. It's perfectly fine to be inconsistent, to be agnostic one day, atheist the next, and wistful about deities later on. You put it perfectly when you say, "it’s less about believing and more about doing." Amen, sister.

    "God" has been decoupled from any specific meaning anyway. The most common response nowadays to "I believe in God" must be something like, "What do you mean by that?"

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  16. I enjoyed your post a lot. I was raised Mormon and I'm still Mormon but I struggle with a lot of the same things you have, I believe in God but the whole organized religion part and putting people down because they don't think like the cookie cutter mold way is so frustrating. I want to believe there is more and that we aren't just all "random and pointless". Thanks for the thought provoking insight, I was also happy that your bishop was respectful and encouraging, I think that shows you are in the right place for you right now.

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  17. smithj1@unisa.ac.zaMarch 1, 2011 at 1:42 AM

    I came to this blog via Jen the atheist, and I'm so glad I did pay a visit.

    With respect to infidel, it's too simplistic to say that religion is simply another form of hallucinatory drug and one people like you (and me, but that's another story) need to "get over". I think Karen Armstrong's writing is helpful here: if you want an analogy, Art is a better one because religion, like Art, helps us to interpret human existence and to make that existence meaningful. I'd go one step further and say: to be human is to create meaning.

    As far as doubt is concerned, I recommend "In God We Doubt" by John Humphrys". A wise and funny book that pokes fun at everybody, including pompous atheists!

    Also, of course, there is Abelard: "It is through doubt that I come to questioning and it is by questioning that I come to know the truth."

    Jane (Pretoria, South Africa)

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  18. First Time reader. I can understand your confusion. That is what religion seems to do it creates alot of confusion. When you have done something for so long it is hard to change that habit and think it is ok.

    You feel like you might be missing out or maybe you still care what other people think about you like you are an outcast. Religion is so ingrained in life and our heads.

    I just recently made the choice after 50 years of reading most religions and doing the church thing that there is NO god. People use god for their own agendas. That is all I see.

    But we all have to make chocies daily and I wish you the best on your path. Glad to have found this blog and I will be back. I also listed you on my blog. www.atheistwomen.blogspot.com

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  19. You might consider Deism as an alternative to religions. It is a belief in a god but not necessarily one who gets involved in this earth and it doesn't mean there is any afterlife. It has a proud tradition in this country. It is unfortunate that fundamentalists, whether of the religious sort or not religious, have decided they know all they need to know and wish that upon others. I think it's fine to explore life and change beliefs as new ideas come to us. Fundamentalists of all stripes are uncomfortable with those of us who don't fit their set of beliefs. I'm okay with that too.

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  20. Jane: if you want an analogy, Art is a better one because religion, like Art, helps us to interpret human existence and to make that existence meaningful.

    But the "interpretations" and "meanings" that religion generates are entirely false, malignant, and worthless. In that respect, it really is more like a consciousness-distorting drug.

    There are better ways of interpreting life and giving it meaning -- ways that don't involve religion.

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  21. Tremendous. Thankyou for sharing this.

    I wish you luck in finding a community where you can thrive while continuing to ask important questions and answer them with reason and compassion. Sounds like you may have already found it.

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  22. I think it's quite brave of you to be willing and honest enough to share when what was once a staunch opinion is changing.

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  23. Jen, thanks!

    Secular Dentist, I agree, "atheist" doesn't really give you much information. Positive descriptions like "Secular Humanist" are more useful. And yes, we'd all be better off if we sought to better ourselves and our world without imposing our ways on those who don't want it.

    Infidel, you provoke thought! Several points of disagreement too lengthy for a quick comment reply. Expect a post!

    Tristan, I, too, was quite anti-religious when I launched my blog, but have since decided that painting a broad brush of condemnation across all religion isn't really warranted. Criticism where it's due, but not where it's not.

    John, good analogy. My personal opinion is that the story of Jesus probably doesn't have much more fact than the story of Hercules, but I don't feel that diminishes its value as a story.

    Becca, thanks!

    Andrew, I don't believe faith and doubt are enemies. I have a friend who says that a person who is able to have both. And yes, if one is going to discuss God, we have to define what we're talking about. Was it you who said (months ago) that "God" is too powerful a word to leave in the hands of fundamentalists? Heard that somewhere and loved it!

    Heidi, thanks! I feel good about where I am. I hope you, too, will find what you're looking for and a place to belong, whether you stay in the Church or decide it's not for you anymore.

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  24. Jane, thanks for visiting. I'm a big admirer of Karen Armstrong. I also see religion more along the lines of an art form, which I've written about before. And thanks for the book recommendation.

    Dinky P, thanks for stopping by. I understand your position. I wish you the best as well, and I appreciate the link!

    Rain, I'm familiar with deism, but don't feel it really describes me either. I'm asking a lot of questions, thinking, reading, experimenting, and just going with it!

    Timothy, thanks! I don't know that I've reached a "destination" as far as community, but I feel like it's a good place for me for now.

    Kacie, thanks.

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  25. Thank you for posting this. Your experience resonates with me. I tend not to believe in the literal existence of any gods, but I also crave something spiritual that I definitely miss. I'm a fan of religious ceremony and symbolism, but all the baggage that comes with religion can be hard to take. I hope everything continues to go well for you at the Episcopalian church. It sounds very nice.

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  26. Very nice letter. Personally, I do not like the "atheist" label that much either. For me it is just a literal definition of not believing in god or the supernatural. If you ask me, I go for "Secular Humanist". We as a community need to understand the vast differences that make up our world in order for us to better get along. The biggest anger with "atheists" is when religion tries to impose their beliefs on the way of life of others

    If, like you, people who long for the spiritual or religious just focus on helping our communities move forward, helping those in need, without being judgmental of others... then I think we would be a much better place and on the right track.

    I believe that as long as you feel happy with what you accomplish in your life, that should be enough.

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  27. Beautiful letter. I was confirmed at 14 into the Episcopalian Church and loved everything about it. I am no longer Christian, but the Church still holds a special place in my heart. I hope you find what you are looking for while attending Mass.

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Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism