Why did the atheist go to the “Morning of Prayer”?
No, it’s not a joke or a riddle. This really happened.
I am the atheist in question. Some people don’t like that label, finding it too negative or prickly, but it’s an accurate description of my belief, at least from a Christian perspective.
Reality is always more complicated than such simple labels. I’ll come back to this.
At the Catholic school where I work, once per semester, Campus Ministry convenes a service called the “Morning of Prayer.” The event is advertised as welcoming all faith traditions. I was intrigued. Was that really true? Did they really mean it?
I’d heard about the concept of interfaith dialog, but I’d never participated. It’s not how I was raised. In more conservative Protestant denominations, interfaith dialog is actively discouraged, as a matter of doctrine.
I reject such doctrine of course. I’m an atheist, remember? You might think that I’d have no interest whatsoever in interfaith dialog or a “Morning of Prayer” service. You might think I’d have no interest in religion or spirituality.
But you’d be wrong. That’s because I’m a religious atheist.
It might sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. Religion is not about God. (Loyal Rue wrote a whole book under this title. Check it out.) That is, a belief in God is not a prerequisite to a full and meaningful religious life. The concept of religious atheism is perhaps rare but it’s not unknown. Certain varieties of Buddhism, for example, don’t employ a concept of God. This is not my invention. It is, in the succinct parlance of our times, “a thing.”
Readers of this column already know I’m a nature-worshipping Neo-Pagan. Does Mother Earth count as a goddess in your book? Does she equate to God? Am I really an atheist, or not?
I told you it was complicated.
After years of working in a Catholic institution with a mission of social justice, I’ve come to appreciate certain aspects of the Roman Catholic Church in general and its many particular manifestations. I’ve studied the life of the founder of our school, an extraordinary woman who was canonized as a saint at the beginning of this century. I’ve studied the most recent encyclical by Pope Francis, and even went so far as to convene a study group on campus.
While I retain serious disagreements about crucial theological questions, to say nothing of certain doctrines and policies which strike me as oppressive, still I’ve found much of value and I’ve encountered much work which I simply have to respect.
Keeping my mouth shut
And so it was that I attended my first “Morning of Prayer” some years ago. Yes, I had some trepidation. Would I truly be accepted, if people could see into my heart? I was quiet during that first service, but I found much of value. Despite the name, the morning was not focused on the saying of prayers. There was a thoughtful talk given by a staff member, a period of silent reflection, a musical performance, and a period for everyone to give voice to their thoughts and reflections.
I thought it would be wise if I kept my mouth shut. This had been my strategy for many years on our campus. I was used to keeping my mouth shut on matters related to religion and spirituality.
Yet increasingly, I found myself moved to break that silence. I got interested in contemplative practices and how spirituality might inform and support good teaching. I don’t mean proselytizing, of course; I mean, rather, that teachers need to be grounded and centered and balanced and compassionate. If we can learn how to maintain these qualities in the hectic conditions of modern life, and if we can transmit these lessons to our students, then we will be succeeding on some level.
I kept going back to the “Morning of Prayer,” once every semester, but in fact I found myself visiting the chapel much more frequently than that. I convened a weekly series of silent meditations, and we continue to meet every Wednesday, just after mass. I may not go to mass myself, but I’m in the chapel more often than most.
The razor edge of anxiety
It was not entirely a surprise, then, when I was recently invited to speak at the “Morning of Prayer.” I was honored and excited and a little nervous. I’ve made no secret of who I am, but neither do I advertise it on campus. Did they really know what they were getting into?
I labored over my presentation for weeks. I wanted to get it right, to hit the right notes, to sing the right song, one that was true to myself but also honored the institution and celebrated the unique moment.
When finally the morning arrived, the morning of the “Morning of Prayer,” just last Thursday — well, what can I say? It was a grand and glorious morning with my community, my second family, and bared my soul and shared my heart and hoped that I would be accepted.
It’s cliché to say “you had to be there,” but I think it probably applies.
These experiences have been instructive for me. By accident of birth, I enjoy many of the prominent privileges of our society: I am a cis-gendered straight white male of middle-class background. To be a religious minority, to feel the sharp edge of these anxieties, gives me a fresh perspective on the experiences of others.
Every dimension of identity has its unique and peculiar characteristics. Religious identity is constructed differently than race or class or gender or sexual orientation. Even so, I fancy I can learn something through extrapolation, and I am hopeful this will make me a more thoughtful and compassionate ally in the struggle for justice.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.