Monday, September 7, 2015

My first week of seminary, Part I

As promised here is the first blog about this atheist's first week in seminary. But before we get into that, I figured some introductions and housekeeping were in order.

First off, I'm going to assume a number of you aren't familiar with me. If you want to see how I got to this point, check out my previous blog where I visited 52 different religions.

My Background:

 I a young man now pushing 30. I'm originally from Utah, now living in Berkeley, California. I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church or the LDS Church. When I was young, I was convinced that I belonged to the One True Church and that all other churches and religions were misguided.

When I was 15 years old, I went on a trip to Europe. The first place we stopped was Rome and I saw the Vatican and a number of other historical churches there. I was speechless as I saw this amazing tradition that was centuries old reaching back to the early days of Christianity. How could I say that a religion that old with over a billion members in the world was nothing compared to my faith? I wanted to know more about it so I came home and checked every book on Catholicism out from the public library. Several books on Catholicism led to books on Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, eventually I was reading about every religion possible.

As I read on, I realized that my faith in my childhood faith was slowly dying. It scared me and I tried to deny it. But, by 17 I realized I didn't believe in it anymore. At 18, I told everybody. It was a hard experience. I lost friends, had people I respected suddenly shun me, got in fights with family, and ultimately wondered if it had all been worth it.

Starting around 17 I had begun looking into other religions. I at first was feeling drawn to Greek Orthodoxy and attended that church for nearly a year. But something told me that it wasn't my home. I ended up in the Roman Catholic Church after some more searching, the very church that had started my spiritual quest.

I threw myself wholeheartedly into the Catholic Church. It became the center of my life. I even felt called to be a priest. As part of that decision, I decided to read the Bible and found that it was a horrifying book filled with murder, human sacrifice, an unapologetic endorsement of slavery, war, genocide commanded by God, among other travesties. About the same time I was reading books about the origins of Judaism and Christianity and concluded that they were both made up religions.

I searched for meaning elsewhere, finding it for a while in Neo-Paganism. But eventually I began wondering if it was all just in my head. Especially when I learned more about how the brain worked. I wandered into agnosticism before becoming a full blown atheist. My atheism was brought on by a huge sense of injustice I saw in the world. How could God allow for the mass suffering of his people on earth? How could God sit idly by while his children suffered famine, poverty, rape, torture, and horrors the Western mind is barely able to conceive of yet are daily life among people in huge portions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

I became quite militant in my atheism. I told myself I wanted nothing more to do with religion again. For a while I was convinced that religion was a relic of the past that had no place in modern society and that those who still believed in God were part of a mass delusion. Yet at the same time, I couldn't stop studying religion.

Eventually, I softened toward religion. I realized that if I was going to make the changes I wanted to see in this world, I would have to engage the 6 billion other people on this planet that believed in some kind of god or supernatural force.

After a dark depression spell, I decided to do last year's blog, something I'd wanted to do for years, which led me to even further consider the value of religion and spirituality. I found myself being equal parts repulsed and entranced by the religiosity I saw. For every fundamentalist sermon on how slavery is a good thing if you have a good master; and Jesus Christ is a good master, there was an equally inspiring prayer for the dead in a synagogue filled with so much passion and emotion. For every sermon demonizing natural sexual impulses in people, there was an open and affirming clergy person saying, "Come, come whoever you are."

During the blog, I found myself considering becoming a minister again. I thought that such an idea was impossible. I was just an atheist with a silly blog. Then I started helping people through the blog with their own issues with religion and what they believed. It was clear to me I needed to be one.

So here I am, a brand new seminarian about to enter the experience of a lifetime.

Common questions and their answers:

How can you be an atheist and go to seminary to be a minister? The idea of a religious leader who doesn't believe in God isn't as radical as it sounds. Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, did not believe in God nor any being that created the universe, yet he founded the fourth largest religious tradition in the world. Mother Theresa was the founder of a spiritual order in the Catholic Church and devoted to great acts of charity and kindness. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church and is most likely going to become a saint in the next few decades. Yet, it has come out that Mother Theresa in private doubted the existence of God and from her personal writings appears to have had atheistic tendencies. I do not need God to be an effective minister, what I need is clear direction, love, compassion, wisdom, and training.

Why would an atheist want to be a minister? Aren't there more valuable things you could do with your time? I cannot think of any path more valuable to me than the one I have chosen. For too long in this country the primary voices of religion have been voices of fundamentalists neo-orthodoxy and those hellbent on an agenda of oppression and black and white thinking. These theologies often view the role of women as inferior and/or segregated from the role of a man. They demonize religions and philosophies outside of their own paradigm. Tend to be homophobic and transphobic. And most importantly, they build these foundations on an appeal to tradition which is groundless and a very elementary understanding of their own scriptures.

If these issues are religious issues, they need a religious solution. If people are seeking an alternative to the narrow views presented to them, then atheists hurling insults at religion and criticizing religion with an equally naive view of scripture will not present a long term solution. We must provide people with the spiritual nourishment they crave while not denying the realities of this world nor using faith as a tool of oppression.

Aren't you worried your seminary will find out your an atheist? I'm not worried about this at all. I told them in my application and my interviews that I am an atheist. It didn't bar me from acceptance.

What kind of seminary would accept an atheist? A damn good, progressive, and forward thinking seminary.

Is your seminary some kind of degree mill that would just accept anyone if they took an atheist? Nope. I'm actually attending a fully accredited, prestigious seminary that's been around for over 100 years and is allied with a number of other seminaries training clergy in many denominations including: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian.

What denomination is your seminary? Unitarian Universalist.

Where can I find out more about Unitarian Universalism? Here:

How can I help you with this blog? You can donate to my Go Fund Me in order to get my initial setup here cemented.

Well, I didn't quite get to the events of this week. That will be up in a couple hours, but it's lunchtime. We will pick this back up soon.

Until then,
Peace be with you.

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