CFI Gets the “Calling” to go to Church! (by Kevin Smith, CFI Canada board member)

February 23, 2010

Atheists and members of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church share laughs and beers

Sometime ago I reported on CFI Canada Board Member Kevin Smith being featured in the gay newspaper the Toronto Xtra on our Living Without Religion group ( Gaytheism! ).  Now Kevin provides comments on an exciting experience that resulted from that publication: 

In response to an article in the gay magazine XTRA about CFI Ontario's  Living Without Religion group, I was recently invited to attend church.  In the article, I spoke of a Canadian icon, Pastor Brent Hawkes of the gay positive Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto. Hawkes is an activist in his own right within the gay community. I still remember, with pride, the attention he received during the same sex marriage debate when he publicly married two same sex couples "illegally". I like that he is reviled by fundamentalist Christians as much as the devoutly godless are, such as me.

It was a couple of months after my article appeared when I got "the call(ing)" from Brent. As I did not go easy on believers, my first thought was that I was about to be, pardon the pun, crucified. I was encouraged and curious when he invited me out for dinner. We bonded immediately and had a fantastic discussion ranging  from religion and atheism to removing god from our national anthem. He presented me with an idea to speak at one of his Sunday evening services during Lent,  where his congregation would be discussing the big questions:  Does god exist? or Is there an afterlife? Having done little in the way of public speaking and putting myself in uncharted territory, a church of all places, I decided Thou shalt be done, on one condition -  during my visit if I see someone coming towards me carrying nails, a hammer and a large cross I would be out of there. He assured me if that happened he would be running out the door with me.

Other than the rare baptism, marriage or funeral, I do not attend church. I would rather go to a dentist and get my teeth pulled - well maybe that is a stretch but I think you get the point. I decided to attend the morning service on the "big day" to get a feel for the congregation. It was going to ease my nervousness or turn me into a basket case. Sitting on those hard pews re-confirmed my preference for sleeping in on Sundays. Little did they know that sitting amongst them was a heathen who would be gracing their stage hours from now. The choir comes in, the pastor walks out wearing his flowing vestments and now the start of the dreaded service.  Wait! - do I hear incredible gospel music, is that attractive male soloist not from some Broadway musical? Why do they have computer screens above the pews that during prayer suggest  " or if preferred do a silent meditation"? I know all the tricks of the faith trade- the music, ceremony and symbols to get one closer to Jesus. It did not work for me. What did work was a wonderful sense of bonding with my fellow humans. No god, no religion for me and that is allowed here.

My informal evening discussion with Brent went very well. I often joke that I like to attend debates with creationists to see what they look like up close. Now the tables were turned, these religious folk could see what an atheist looks like - just no poking please!  We found common ground on many issues related to the Humanist Manifesto - living an ethical life, kindness, compassion and seeking personal fulfillment. There were many jeers from the audience when we mentioned the Pat Robertsons of the world. I felt a union with them, almost. One declaration that I was asked to make was if the Pastor proclaimed that atheists were not immoral baby eaters than I would admit that religion is not a crutch for most religious people. I did have some issue with this. It is not a fair trade off to admit that an obvious is false for an obvious that, I had felt, is true. I stated that religious people are not baby eaters either although they have sacrificed them in the past. I did admit that religion is not a crutch for a liberal, forward thinking group like the MCC but it is for fundamentalist right wing(nuts). We committed to continue to work together on the many issues we have in common and finished  with a humanist "prayer". I presented my case well but didn't expect a standing ovation!  Oh, that was just the choir, sitting in the front row, getting up to return to the dais.

The atheist and gay movements have much in common although the latter has progressed further. Both groups have been marginalized  and ostracized by much of society, particularly by religious fundies. Starting as an in your face "We're here, we're queer. Get used to it" mantra the  homosexual evolution has matured to the point where more people don't  care about ones's sexual preferences - especially the generation x and y's. The atheist movement has been in the angry, militant phase since Dawkins and Hitchens came out, so to speak, with their "new atheist" books.  I feel that this has been an important first step to get attention and is still required in dealing with much of the fundamentalist media hogs. Recently there have been discussions to move forward from an atheist call to arms to a call for building bridges with the more liberal and freethinking believers. What better liaison than with the gay, straight, lesbian and transgendered of MCC. They pick their battles in a community spirit with grace and dignity.  They criticize the same lunatic religious fringe that we do. They embrace diversity,  including atheists and agnostics. Perhaps best of all - they are a blast to hang out with.

During my talk I mentioned to them that I have one more strike against me than they do. Not only am I gay but I am also an atheist. The warm reaction I received to that statement and the gracious welcome during my day at church made me feel like I had come home.