Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why we should have Atheist Ministers (Part 1 of N)

The simple version is this: ministers provide services that atheists currently cant get. And in a series of posts I mean to outline what those services are, why we could use them, how to provide them safely, and so on. Today I am going to start with this question: "Who do you go to to help you understand what you believe?"

If you are not inclined to philosophical thought, which is an inclination most people are blessed to be without, then certain ethical, moral and complex pragmatic problems seem vague and intractable. Or even worse they seem like a mix of clear certainties and unanchored opinions. For example most conversations about sexual ethics or the goodness of public policy. I am hard pressed to think of where an atheist could turn to have these questions addressed (not answered, addressed). I've tried to look for secular sexual ethics and found literally nothing. When people talk about it at all, people seem to have no clear ideas, unless they are (anti)religious ideas. And are you going to look to political parties to tell you which policies are right and which are wrong? They will tell you, but it’s a mix of self-righteous assertion and political spin. Or how about the media? Those bastards are beyond useless. So is there anyone who you trust to have thought about these kinds of issues? Do your friends have such a person?

If you're actively church going, then you have a person to go to. A minister. That minister's beliefs are grounded in foundational texts to which you subscribe. And you don't have to take his word as gospel when it comes to welfare policy, but they might be able to frame your questions. You may not like the way religions have handled this responsibility to date. But if you were an atheist when you hit puberty I bet you would have been deeply relieved to have someone you trusted who you talk to. I know it would have saved me a lot of time in high school.

Now you might say "This is exactly what we as atheists are avoiding. Priests and ministers are authoritarian's with values I don't respect and wouldn't trust." But if you consider the general case as I have carefully chosen to describe it, you might see a different possibility. Religious ministers have a mission rooted in theological texts. In order to maintain their credibility they must seem to remain devoted to their foundational texts and the entities presupposed by those texts. What if there was a minister who's "foundational texts" where contemporary research and secular culture? You would have a ministry of science.

A minister of science's mission would be to provide a congregation with an effective and rational understanding of the world as it was empirically knowable. And god knows, with all the flip flopping about the goodness of eggs, red wine and running shoes, we could all the help. An atheist minister would not be offering interpretations of the Bible but interpretations of the research. Someone who would do the reading that you don't have time to do, and the thinking that seems too muddy to bother with and make an honest argument for and against things on secular, ethical, rational grounds.

Taken by itself, this one service sounds more like science journalism than anything else, and that isn't an unfair way to characterize this one service. But as I add other points of service for a secular ministry, it will make more sense. 

And feel free criticize, I need help seeing the other side of these kinds of arguments.


  1. It has been said else where that "Wasn't Carl Sagan an Atheist Minister?" and if so that alone proves my argument.

  2. You ask: 'What if there was a minister who's "foundational texts" where contemporary research and secular culture? You would have a ministry of science.'

    The theology of the Episcopal Church (my church) is based on the 'three-legged stool' of scripture, tradition, and reason. As such, Episcopal priests' sermons often draw extensively on contemporary research and secular culture. In this way, they can have a lot in common with many secular orations. What (I think) make them sermons is their attempt to understand difficult questions in terms of the wisdom which lurks in the bible, particularly in the life and teachings of Jesus.

    Now, a minister in the pulpit or in private consultation is much more than an ethicist on retainer. A good sermon or bit of pastoral counseling sets an example, or gives a blueprint, or offers a caveat, so that we who hear may hope to make a little progress in learning to align our lives with the teachings of Christ.

    I do admire your project, and I see that you have ample respect for religion and its institutions. Still, though, in striving to preempt your most cynical interlocutor I think you sell religion short. Do you know any ministers or theologians? Have you talked with them about your project? If you don't know any, I could put you in touch with a few people in your area.

  3. To me, an atheist minister seems almost like an oxymoron.
    Ministers of science would not be the same as atheist ministers. It presumes an embrace of science follows from atheism, which it doesn't necessarily. That's not to say it isn't a good idea, because it is. :) But I could see some atheists being sensitive to such a presumption, and one would do well just to remain cognizant of this, going forward with the plan.