My friend and fellow secular humanist, Judge Tommy Hughston, invited me to attend the Unitarian Church in Charleston on July 19. He would be coordinating the service for his visiting minister friend, Dr. J. William Harris (Doctor of Divinity). The intriguing sermon title was “God Must be Proud of Atheists.” Tommy asked me to bring a copy of my book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt, for Dr. Harris.
I, of course, was happy to attend. The Unitarian Church is atheist-friendly, but often too new-age spiritual for me. I once gave a sermon there on “Positive Atheism,” agreeing with most of the congregation’s socially progressive positions about diversity, tolerance, and openness to new ideas. But I added, “You shouldn’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” In typical Unitarian fashion, they praised me after the service for my thoughtful criticisms. I think it would be a real challenge to insult members of this church.
A hell-free afterlife for everyone might have been more than some in his flock could bear.
The church program at the service with Dr. Harris included this quote from him: “The courage to move beyond traditional theism opens us to a far deeper and richer sense of the presence of God and to a feeling of peace with the great loving mystery in and around us.”
During his time as a Baptist minister, Dr. Harris risked more in his profession than I ever did in mine. I’m an open atheist in South Carolina, but I had job security as a tenured math professor at the College of Charleston. Dr. Harris, on the other hand, was raised as a fundamentalist Baptist who believed in biblical inerrancy and had been baptized and saved for eternity at the age of seven.
He became the minister at First Baptist Church in conservative Greenwood, South Carolina. As Dr. Harris’ beliefs gradually changed, so did his sermons, sometimes to the chagrin of many of his parishioners. Ten years after becoming a Universalist, he began preaching about it in his Baptist church. A hell-free afterlife for everyone might have been more than some in his flock could bear.
Dr. Harris is no longer minister at First Baptist Church, and he is now closer theologically to Unitarian Universalism than to South Carolina Baptist. So he was quite comfortable giving his sermon at the Unitarian Church to some openly godless attendees like me. I liked Dr. Harris and enjoyed his sermon, but still found lots with which to disagree.
Dr. Harris seems to be saying that God is proud of atheists because God is proud of and loves everyone.
Part of Dr. Harris’ theology is consistent with a T-shirt of mine that says, “Smile, there is no hell.” But I wouldn’t wear a T-shirt with another part of his theology, “Smile, everybody goes to heaven.” He believes that in death we will all be one with God, whatever that means. Dr. Harris proudly and humbly cited his favorite current prayer: “O God, I do not know who you are, I do not know what you are, but I know that you are. And that is enough.” The scriptural passage most meaningful to him is “God is love” (I John 4:8). So Dr. Harris seems to be saying that God is proud of atheists because God is proud of and loves everyone.
One of the many reasons I prefer secular humanist meetings to church services is that there is usually a robust Q&A after a secular humanist talk, while church services I’ve attended end with the minister greeting congregants at the door as they mumble something like “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Once again, the Unitarian Church takes a middle ground. Dr. Harris greeted congregants outside, but a coffee hour followed so congregants could talk to the minister and one another. That’s how I engaged in my personal 15 minutes of Q&A with Dr. Harris, which we both enjoyed.
I asked Dr. Harris if an accurate elevator summary of his sermon would be, “God is love, I love God, so I love love?” He said, “That sounds about right.” I then told him that during his sermon I couldn’t help humming to myself the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.” He laughed and said he understood how people could come to that conclusion.
When I asked if his Universalist beliefs meant that Adolph Hitler was being treated well in heaven, he acknowledged that he hadn’t worked out the problem of evil yet. But he likes to think that Jews are at a banquet table with Hitler having some laughs and good conversation. (I’ve never known any Jews who conceived of that kind of heaven.)
I think of theism as “with god belief” and atheism as “without god belief,” but people are free to label themselves as they see fit.
Dr. Harris’ comments about Hitler reminded me of the recent reactions from congregants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, who quickly forgave the white racist who killed nine African Americans in their church even though he didn’t show any remorse for his actions. Both Dr. Harris and these church members focus on the goodness within everyone, which I think is both admirable and often impractical. Yes, I judge and expect others to judge my actions, though neither Dr. Harris nor I believe in a judging God.
Dr. Harris acknowledges that he is closer to atheism than to theism, but still maintains belief in a mystical God who does not exercise any control over our lives. Harris has moved beyond theism, but does not consider himself an atheist. I think of theism as “with god belief” and atheism as “without god belief,” but people are free to label themselves as they see fit. For all practical purposes, I see Dr. Harris as a functional atheist. His behavior has nothing to do with his God belief.
We closed our lively conversation with my telling him of one advantage he had over me. “If you’re right about a universal heavenly afterlife, you’ll be able to say, ‘I told you so.’ But if I’m right about no afterlife, I’ll never be able to say, ‘I told you so.’” Dr. Harris liked my take, and said he would use it in future discussions with atheists.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.