If you’ve been following the story, Gretta Vosper is a minister in the United Church who recently made headlines as a church minister who is openly…wait for it…atheist. That’s right. She works as a minister, and she openly and intentionally teaches that God does not exist; neither does Jesus.
Now, this raises all sorts of interesting questions. What does it mean to be the church? What is the connection between God and the concept of church? How do doubt, skepticism, and just outright disbelief fit into a community that uses the word “church” to describe itself? How do we handle things when someone disagrees with us on our understanding of God? How do we facilitate dialogue between different opinions?
I don’t want to spend a lot of time initially on the question of whether or not Gretta can be a minister and be an atheist (that’s a whole different series of questions); but I did find one particular comment that she made interesting. During a recent CBC interview (link is below), Gretta Vosper says, “Our use of theological language that posits a moral authority is a very dangerous tool in the 21st century.” Gretta seems to suggest here that belief in a deity that leads to moral authority is dangerous. And I’d actually like to respond to this statement in two ways. Today, I’ll share part one of my thoughts.
I’ll start by saying this: “You don’t have to just be religious about God to be dangerous. You can be religious about anything and be dangerous.”
What do I mean by “religious?” Let me suggest that in this context, I’m using “religious” to refer to “anyone who believes so certainly in an idea or a principle that no difference of opinion is accepted.”
It is not wrong to simply have an idea or a principle, or even a moral authority. This is actually just how thought, interaction, and relationships all take place. For example, your moral authority could be “God wants me to be kind to people,” or you might say, “it is generally good for the survival of human beings to be kind to one another.” Both are moral decisions, and both possess a moral authority that drives someone to make a decision. In one case, it’s the theological idea of a God that says be kind to others; in the other case, the moral authority is a philosophy that might make reasonable sense to the person who chooses it.
All of our interactions with the world are fueled by ideas and principles (ie. it is good to have friends, I like this person, I wish to be kind to this person, it is good to be kind to people, etc.). A problem arises when we become religious about our ideas and/or principles. By this I mean, it is dangerous when we believe so certainly in our idea and our principle that any degree of coercion and/or force is justified in order to cause people to conform to your idea or principle.
For example, “non-believers are going to hell, we must make them confess belief in God through any means necessary,” or “religious belief is the opiate of the masses, we must eliminate religion through any means necessary.” Many people have made both kinds of statements.
I agree with Gretta that being religious about something can be very dangerous. We’ve certainly seen that play out in most major religions in the world; even my own faith of Christianity.
However, I would say that religions do not have the corner market on religious behavior. As human beings, we can be religious about a great many things: political systems, economic systems, scientific theories, socio-economic class divides, sports team fandom, racism, and more.
I’ll give you a bit of a teaser for next week’s part two of my response to Gretta Vosper’s statement: when asked about people who disagree with him, or are “enemies” with him, Jesus says, “love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you…if you love only those who love you, what good is that?” (Matt. 5: 44-46, NLT).
More next week!
Here is also the link to the CBC interview with Gretta Vosper: