Ask a Christian if they have ever felt the presence of God, most will say yes. Who hasn’t sat in a church service and heard a powerful sermon, a stirring choir number, or a melodic song by a soloist, and not “felt” the presence of God? Countless times over the years I “felt” the presence of God in my sermons, my prayers, during communion, the birth of my children, or walking the woods on a crisp fall day. There were times that I thought that God was right there with me, that I could just reach out and touch him. God was very real to me, even if now believe that his presence was the result of social and religious conditioning. In the moment, these experiences were very real to me.
As an atheist, I continue to have deep, wonderful emotional experiences. The locus of my emotions are different, but they are still there just the same. Recently, Polly and I attended a Darius Rucker concert in Forty Wayne. I wrote about our experience:
Darius Rucker was who we came to see, and he proved to be everything we hoped he would be. Rucker sang for about an hour and forty minutes. He sang songs from his solo albums, along with a number of songs from his time as lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish. Rucker’s vocals were crisp and we loved every moment of his concert. We sang along with many of the songs, especially the Hootie and the Blowfish songs.
Polly and I love listening to live music. There is just something about the live music experience that can not be duplicated at home. In many ways, the emotions that are stirred during a live concert are like the emotions stirred during a revival service. I whispered to Polly that the concert has a “religious” feeling to it, minus Jesus of course. The triune god of country music is alcohol, southern life, and heartbreak. But hey, they will all be in church on Sunday!
What I “felt” at this concert was every bit as real and intense as any feeling I had worshiping God. I had the same feelings a couple of years ago when Polly and I attended a baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and St Louis Cardinals. It was a sell-out crowd and the air was filled with the emotions of Reds and Cardinal fans. Again, it felt like being at a revival meeting. I can have similar emotional experiences watching my grandchildren play, watch the cats chase one another round the house, or sitting on the beach of Lake Michigan with Polly and watching the sun set. Yes, life can be mundane, predictable, and monotonous, but, some days, some moments in time, remind us that we are emotional beings. For me anyway, these moments are what remind me that life is worth living.
Many atheists fear their emotions. They want to be considered stone-cold, stoic intellectuals, who use only use their critical thinking skills to arrive at their beliefs. I think this is a naive belief, a denial of their humanity. Yes we should strive to think critically and we should treasure rational thought. Facts, knowledge, evidence…these things matter, but what fun is there in knowing without a bit of emotion thrown in?
Emotionless intellectuals must have a boring sex life. I suppose before they have sex they consult the internet to find out the most effective ways to achieve maximum orgasm. They critically examine the sex organs each partner has and they delve deeply into the physiological responses that take place during sexual intercourse. They know “doing it” inside and out. Result? They are as passionate as Bill Masters in the Showtime hit, Masters of Sex. Cold, clinical, correct, mission accomplished.
Yes it is important to know how to “do it”, but I suspect most of us want a heavy dose of emotional connection, of passion, when we are making love. Yes, we want to “know” our lover intellectually, but more than that we want to “feel” them in every sense of the word. Hopefully my analogy didn’t lead you so far away from my point that you left off reading this post and headed for the bedroom. :)
One of the dilemmas a preacher turned atheist faces is what to do with his oratory skills. Granted, some preachers don’t have to worry about this because they sucked as a public speaker. Their skill set was more in line with being a people person. My father-in-law is a wonderful people person, but his sermons are, well, uh, let’s just say, the rabbit gets a huge head start and Dad never does catch them. He does the best he can, but no one would ever say he was an orator.
Based on what countless people have told me over the years, I know that I have pretty good public speaking skills. I was good at my craft and rarely were parishioners bored with my sermons. Using the skills I was taught in college and modeled to me by well- known preachers, I was an effective public speaker. I knew how to get the crowd to respond how I wanted them to. While I did not think that this was emotional manipulation at the time, I now see that I was quite good at emotionally manipulating people. Surely, people getting saved or getting right with God, is all that matters, right?
As an atheist, I still have the same skill set. While I have had no opportunities to publicly speak at atheist/humanist/secular events, I have no doubt my preaching skill set would come in handy. I have listened to many a dry, boring, emotionless lecture by an atheist/humanist/secular speaker. I think to myself, my God man, can’t you at least get a little exited about the subject you are talking about?
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about Atheist Orators. Unfortunately this post was lost in the July 2013 hack of this site. Part of what I wrote was posted to Daniel Fincke’s blog, Camels with Hammers:
Dan waves the red flag of warning and rightly so. Preaching, particularly certain styles of preaching, can be used to manipulate and control. Dan wisely warns about making an end-run around reason. Far too often preaching is nothing more than the reinforcing of “this we believe” and “we shall not be moved from this we believe.”
People are not taught to reason or to think for themselves. They are taught to believe. They are taught when reason suggests something that runs contrary to the received truth that it is to be rejected. Just have faith, people are told.
As a preacher turned atheist I can not turn off the speaking skills I used to ply my trade for 32 years. They are very much a part of who I am. The best I can do is be mindful of the power of the skills I have and make sure I use them in such a way that people are not only moved but instructed. I need to be aware of the power I have to manipulate people with my words. Self-awareness of this will keep me from falling back into using the tricks of the preaching trade to elicit the desired response from those listening to me.
That said, I want to put a plug in for passionate, pointed, challenging public speaking. Quite frankly, the atheist/humanist movement needs a bit of life pumped into it. I have listened to many speeches/lectures/seminars/debates that people told me were wonderful. Well-known atheists and humanists, aren’t they great? Uh, no. B-o-r-i-n-g. Dry. Monotonous.
Some speakers are better off sticking to what they do best………writing books and magazine articles. Leave the public speaking to those who do it well. (or go back to school and get some public speaking training)
What was the power of the movement for racial equality in the 1960’s? Baptist preachers who had powerful, moving public speaking skills. Yes, their words were packed with meaning but it was the delivery of those words that moved a nation.
The atheist/humanist movement in America needs people who have the ability to passionately move people to action. I would rather suffer a bit with Jerry Dewitt’s preaching style (and I am not a fan of the Pentecostal style of preaching) than listen to well-educated, boring men WOW me right into an afternoon nap. We are in a battle against religious zealots and theocrats and we need speakers who can stir and motivate people to action.
Some atheists and humanists naively believe that knowledge is all that matters. Like Joe Friday, they think if they just give people the facts they will see the error of their way. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important. Way too many people become an atheist out of anger or disappointment with the Christian church. Just like the Christian zealot, the atheist should KNOW why he believes what he believes. Or as the Bible says, be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within them. But, at the same time, we should not divorce our beliefs from our emotions. Some things matter…..and if they matter, our emotions should be stirred,motivating us to act accordingly.
While I might state some of this a bit differently now, I still think that our emotions are an important, vital part of who we are. If we are passionate about something we are more likely to invest our time and effort in articulating and advancing the things that are important to us. I realize that each of us are different emotionally, so I am not making a judgment on the level or quality of a person’s emotions. I would say this, if something matters to us, it should show in our face, body language, and emotional response.
I love reading about people like H.L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll, three of the greatest spokesmen for atheism in the 19th and 20th century. Say what you want about Madelyn Murray O’Hair, when she spoke about atheism and getting religion out of the schools and the government, few doubted her passion and commitment. When I watched the recent Ham on Nye debate, I was delighted to see Bill Nye’s passion for science. He is a wonderful communicator. The same for can be said for Neil deGrasse Tyson. Every time I hear him speak, he is filled with passion for science and he make me feel glad that I am on his side.
Yes, the atheist/humanist/secular movement needs scholars and scientists to continue to write books, articles, and teach our children and grandchildren how to think critically. But, we also need a few atheist/humanist/secular firebrands who are willing to stir the faithful and willing to encourage the discouraged. As I pastor, I wanted to be the man who led the charge on hell with a squirt gun. I am still that man, the only difference is that my squirt gun now has the water of reason and critical thought in it.
As I was leaving my counselors office on Thursday, he told me, Bruce, you will always be a preacher. This used to offend me when people would say this to me, but I now know what they mean. I no longer run from my “calling.” I am who I am and I appreciate each of you who have been willing to sit in the digital pews and hear my sermons. When I walked away from Christianity I lost most everything I counted dear. I am thankful that I still have Polly and my family…and I have those who, through this blog, have become dear friends. I have plenty to be passionate about. Death will arrive at my door all too soon, so I intend to live as passionate of a life as I can until it does.