An Empty Seat of Sadness and Satisfaction

Yesterday was my commencement ceremony from seminary. But, my seat stood vacant as circumstance kept me from attending my graduation from Meadville Lombard Theological School and receiving my Master’s of Divinity degree. Months ago, I made the decision to skip this milestone event based on predominately financial reasons. As the date drew closer, health issues had also intervened to make participation troublesome. But, I will admit that much of my decision derived from indifference of attending yet another similar celebration after a lifetime of educational efforts. I had convinced myself not to care about my absence.

Then I received a message from one of my dearest friends – a fellow seminarian whose life path has paralleled mine many times over the years in spite of physical distance separating us. She mentioned my empty seat next to hers and all I felt was sadness for missing a special and unique opportunity and sharing a moment with this loving colleague. I was reminded of a time perhaps 10 years ago. It was midweek preceding a youth conference I was attending as a sponsor, chaplain, and van driver. I learned that my favorite uncle had died and that the funeral was being held that weekend – in a distant city. I did not have the money for the trip, but what really prevented me from going anyway was my desire to fulfill my obligation to our youth and to be with them at the con.

You see, my uncle was a lay Baptist minister who served a small congregation for many years. I knew as truly as one can know in my heart that he would rather I spend that time ministering with my youth than flying to spend time with unknown cousins and other distant relatives. As it turned out, the con was an amazing experience and I felt the vibrant presence of my uncle with me during that Saturday night worship service.

Similarly, yesterday I preached at a neighboring fellowship on one of my topics of evangelical calling – atheism. I find that when I preach on the subject that many listeners, who otherwise find little of themselves in our spoken and sung religious messages, finally feel that a clergy person is speaking directly to them and inviting them into the fold of community. It was a joyous opportunity for me, as it always is, to experience that frontier of potential for ecstasy and transformation.

I suppose that that is when you know that you are truly living life. When you have so many opportunities to serve and to celebrate, to experience and explore, that you cannot achieve them all, then you know that you are not just existing. I wish I could have filled that empty seat, that seat of momentary sadness in my life. I would have loved to be with my colleagues celebrating the sacrifice and hard work of completing our seminary training. But, I overflow with the sensation that my choice afforded me yet one more opportunity to do the work of ministry – to inspire and inform, to encourage and empower, to be with other people in all their vulnerability and courage in an atmosphere of worship.

Maybe someday, I’ll find a way to physically occupy that seat of sadness and satisfaction. For now, only my spirit sits as my body continues walking.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Mystic


From: Middle English mistik, from Latin mysticus of mysteries, from Greek mystikos, from mystes initiate
Date: 14th century
2 of or relating to mysteries or esoteric rites: occult
4a: mysterious b: obscure, enigmatic c: inducing a feeling of awe or wonder d: having magical properties

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
A mystic is one who claims to know god immediately through a form of spiritual inwardness, as against knowing through sensation or through logical processes. They may report the experience of a sacred-human relationship, particularly of a oneness with a divine or trans-divine being or state.

Mystic is a word that has acquired much baggage, often associated with pseudo-science, magic, and the occult. Divorced of these exotic inferences, the mystic simply believes that there exists a reality beyond the material plane of ruled by mathematics and physics. The mystic accesses these realities through “peak experiences,” or moments of transcendence. Just as light exists as both wave and particle, the mystic believes that humans can exist in both the physical and the spiritual world simultaneously.

By including one’s perception to all realms of consciousness, the mystic opens themselves up to all fields of possibility. A common conception in Eastern thinking, the mystic pursues an egoless existence, seen as the route to authenticity, wholeness, and intuitive knowledge. The Western construct tends to connect the mystic with a deity, or some absolute divinity.

Atheist Definition: The mystic believes in a reality beyond the physical plane of human sensory perception, and through peak experiences senses this mysterious existence, transcending culturally imposed beliefs and conceptions. The atheist mystic connects intuitively with this alternate reality, becoming more authentic and whole.

Views on Torture by Religious Demographic

We may not consider Jesus divine, but one survey suggests that atheists pay closer attention to his teachings than those who do. An analysis of a new survey illustrates differences in the views of four major religious traditions in the U.S. about whether torture of suspected terrorists can be justified.

The specific question put to the 742 adults polled last month was, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can be justified often, sometimes, rarely, or never?”

The summary of responses to the question posed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 62% of white evangelical Protestants believe that torturing suspected terrorists could be often or sometimes justified to get critical information. Fifty-one percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics and 46% of white mainline Protestants agreed. Ironically, the respondents with no religious ties (“Unaffiliated”) were the least supportive – 40% – of the use of torture.

Now, this is one survey of only a few hundred people. But, the results raise the question of how people develop their ethical standards and whether or not religious belief, specifically theistically-centered religious belief, is a stronger grounding for this work than atheistic approaches. As an atheist, I am completely free to adopt part or all of the moral teachings of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius, or any other great prophet without needing to place one above the other.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Prophesy


From: Middle English prophesien, from Anglo-French prophecier, from Old French, from prophecie
Date: 14th century
transitive verb (i.e. requiring a direct object)
1 to utter by or as if by divine inspiration
2 to predict with assurance or on the basis of mystic knowledge
intransitive verb (i.e. cannot take a direct object)
1 to speak as if divinely inspired
2 to give instruction in religious matters: preach
3 to make a prediction

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
To prophesy is to conduct the act of revelation, giving an inspired message from God or the Gods. Usually a prophecy is associated with foretelling the future, but it can also include messages of inspiration or admonishment that reveal the will of God towards a particular people or even an individual.

Grammar plays an important role in determining the use of the term “to prophesy.” In its transitive form, the act of prophesying implies that the message originates from a deity (“The minister prophesied rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked.”). In its intransitive form, prophesying derives from the human speaker (“The minister prophesied in the Sunday morning sermon.”) In its intransitive form, therefore, anyone is capable of prophesying, to teach, to predict, or simply to make observations.

In this broader view, any oration in a religious venue can be viewed as an act of prophesying. Ordained clergy, who have generally received extensive instruction in religious matters and gone through a discernment process to prepare them for ordination, might be expected to regularly prophesy as part of the practice of homiletics (delivering sermons aimed at the spiritual needs, capacities, and conditions of a congregation). When viewed as a profession, prophesying might be considered an act expected of ministers to offer insight, inspiration, and instruction through preaching.

Atheist Definition: Prophesying is the act of speaking or writing to make observations, to inspire, or to teach others regarding religious matters.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Prayer


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French priere, praiere, preiere, from Medieval Latin precaria, from Latin, feminine of precarius obtained by entreaty, from prec-, prex
Date: 14th century
1 a (1): an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought (2): a set order of words used in praying b: an earnest request or wish
2: the act or practice of praying to God or a god

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
Prayer is the means by which an individual or group attempts to enter into verbal or mental communication with a deity.

Prayers can be separated into two categories: prayer with and prayer to. When we are with others, either during a worship service, at a meal, or alongside one who is ill or troubled, we can pray with. Prayer with begins with listening to and caring about those with are with. Our prayers reflect their needs, the matters afflicting their minds and hearts. The purpose of prayer with is to let others know that they have been heard, that they have had the opportunity to articulate their fears, and that they are not alone in their struggles. Prayer with aims to help others find within themselves, their family, and their friends the resources to cope and to explore the wonders of existence.

If one does not believe in a deity, then what is the target of prayer to? We are all part of a universe of forces, fields, and life. We may never comprehend all of the levels of consciousness that exist in that expanse. As constituents in that enterprise, prayer to simply means asking for help from whatever resources there are – whether those resources lie in the depths of time and space, or deep within ourselves.

Atheist Definition: Prayer is the act of engaging spiritually with our inner selves, with others, and with the universe by reaching out and asking for help, support, and reassurance.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Religion


From: Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back
Date: 13th century
1 b (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
4 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending in the last resort on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. Religion clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social, and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are those that presume the existence of the Sacred (Peter Berger, Emile Durkheim), the Supernatural/Divine (James Frazer, Immanuel Kant, Rodney Stark), or Order/Purpose (William James).

Some definitions of the term focus more on the presence of different states of being and humankind’s grappling to come to terms with those differences, without making judgments regarding the nature of other states. George Hegel called religion “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind,” while Friedrich Schleiermacher called it “a feeling for the infinite,” and Alfred North Whitehead described it as “what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

Some etymologists connect “religion” to the Latin ligare, which is the same root of the word ligament, meaning “to bind.” Re-ligare, therefore, would mean to bind again, perhaps in a ritualistic manner, or in meaningful practices.

Atheist Definition: Religion is the collection of practices by which groups of people come together repeatedly to find meaning in the relationship of themselves and of humankind to all existence, known and unknown.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Spirit


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
Date: 13th century
1 an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
2 a supernatural being or essence: as Holy Spirit or Soul
4 the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person
5 a: the activating or essential principle influencing a person b: an inclination, impulse, or tendency of a specified kind: mood

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
In some religions, spirits are disembodied entities that display the characteristics of individual persons, and are sometimes regarded as the souls of dead ancestors. Spirits can interact and even communicate with the living through dreams, illness, and unusual events which reveal the presence of a spirit. The soul is the immortal element in human beings sometimes regarded as our true self. The immortality of the soul gradually replaced the earlier emphasis in early Christianity that the central concept was the resurrection of the body.

One may assume that the human brain is the seat of information collection and processing and that the glandular system contributes much to our emotional responses. Does anything remain unaccounted for in that system of human physiology, requiring the presence of an immaterial sentience essential for personhood? If so, do we interact with other humans, other sentient beings, even inanimate objects in ways that do not occur on the material plane of measurable observation?

In recent years, thinkers such as Jung have postulated a collective unconsciousness based on the occurrence of acausal coincidence, and that some level of deep meaning exists in universal symbols and human archetypes as revealed in mythology. Others argue that the search for meaning and significance where none exist gives rise to pseudoscience and undocumentable paranormal practices.

Atheist Definition: Spirit describes those essential elements of individual identity that are immaterial and do not, therefore, adhere to physical or medical laws. An individual’s spirit may interact with others, or with all existence (Spiritus Mundi, the spirit of the world) in ways that may reveal shared experience or common affect from which one may glean meaning. If one is concerned with the association with Spiritism, then the word perhaps may be used interchangeably with the terms “mind” or “soul.”

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Sacrament

During conversation after my worship service yesterday, it occurred to me that people whose theology has moved beyond the traditional construct of god could use a dictionary of religious terms. For one, we could benefit from having our own understanding of words commonly used in our culture. Two, such a dictionary might help us talk with our theist friends and colleagues and create better understanding.

So, herein I propose a possible format for such a dictionary, starting with a word I have been working on myself recently. I welcome comments and feedback on the usefulness of such a project.


From: Middle English sacrement, sacrament, from Anglo-French and Late Latin; Anglo-French, from Late Latin sacramentum, from Latin, oath of allegiance, obligation, from sacrare to consecrate
Date: 13th century
1 a: a Christian rite (as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality b: a religious rite or observance comparable to a Christian sacrament
2 capitalized a: communion b: blessed sacrament
3 something likened to a religious sacrament

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
A Rite in which God (or Gods) is (are) uniquely active. Augustine of Hippo defined a Christian sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” The Anglican Book of Common Prayer speaks of them as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Examples of sacraments would be baptism and the mass.

For Roman Catholics, recognized sacraments include baptism, confirmation, ordination of clergy, the Eucharist (communion), confession, matrimony, and unction for the dying. Protestant churches largely retain only baptism and communion among their sacraments. Sikhs and Hindus recognize as many as 42 samskāras. These ritualistic rites of passage celebrate accomplishments of life and prepare the individual’s mind and body for full membership in the community. While these represent the recognized form of sacraments, what defines something as a sacrament more generally, that is, for someone who does not adhere to a specific religious tradition?

A common thread running through the many definitions one finds of the term is that a sacrament is an act that bestows grace through a material vehicle on a recipient, where grace (in the Christian theology) is God’s free expression of love. So, by consuming the wafer and the wine, God transfuses the faithful with his spiritual energy. The touch of water during baptism blesses a child with the enabling power of God. Generally, a sacrament requires the right matter (such as the wafer and the wine), the right form of action of ritual or ceremony, and the right intention on the part of the participant. The sense of such requirements prevents mundane or simply habitual practices from acquiring the important status of sacrament. Sacraments show that the grace of God lies not always in the invisible and the unknowable, but can work through specific matter, people, and institutions.

An additional attribute of sacraments recognized by various faith traditions is that, generally, salvation or the achievement of religious consciousness requires the performance of sacraments in a person’s life. Now, if one does not adhere to the belief in a god who would create any soul destined to an eternity of damnation, then no specific act is required to attain salvation or ultimate consciousness, which is inevitably inherent in every person.

Atheist Definition: A sacrament is a ritual or ceremony (perhaps related to significant life stages or rites of passage) during which one seeks, receives, and accepts through a physical act and form the sensation of unexpected energy from unknown sources, or the revelation of deep personal or universal understanding.

An Atheist’s Easter

Among the religious paths one may travel, that of the atheist can be unique. Our biggest pitfall lies in defining ourselves by our nonbelief, rather than our beliefs. When combined with anger, with shame and guilt, and with the ever freshly-laid macadam of betrayal, we may find ourselves wandering in our own wilderness. Once the first surge of courage subsides, comfort lies in the sure knowledge that one has rejected that to which so many others adhere.

Easter can present particular challenge for the atheist. Even the marginally religious find their way to church leaving the atheist to taste once again the bile of discarded myth and the oppression of social paradigm. We might get edgy and may be a little shorter of patience at this time of year. We love the crocus, the daffodil, and even the dandelion, but we resist the unbridled joy of springtime metaphors in favor of a balanced appreciation of all seasons.

The lesson for me came when I realized that atheism is not an end, but a freeing and glorious beginning. Released from the constructs of sacred and supernatural, the atheist plunges into the wonder and mystery of the cosmos as an equal partner with all existence. Freed of the tyranny of science and sentience, the atheist examines the unknowable fields and forces surrounding us

The atheist can know epiphany without a risen Christ and can appreciate the man Jesus and his message. The atheist can know the triumphal redemption of Passover beyond the temple rules and the bound of any one folklore. Easter and Passover represent the celebration of renewal, a feeling we all can marvel in and share.

This Easter, I will sit in my congregation’s worship service. I might actually listen to the words being spoken. But, mostly, I will be present with others, stretching out beyond this identifying shell to commune with the minds and souls around me. I will feast on the quick energy of chocolate, the sustaining strength of my fellow humans, and the raw power of the universe.

Second Draft UUA Purposes and Principles

According to, an agenda item for the January meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association was the second draft of the new UUA Purposes and Principles prepared by the Commission on Appraisal. I am sure that many months of intensive discussion lie ahead of us on this matter.

I have concerns about a number of the proposed changes. I certainly agree with many comments I have read on some discussion lists that the new draft Sources section seems to represent a step backward as an expression of our religious heritage.

But, I will restrict my comments to one word in the current document – the word that most distresses me and addresses all of my other concerns with the current discussion. That word is found in the revised seventh principle, which the current draft has altered from:

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” to
Reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

I can well imagine that many people will see little difference in this modest appearing change. But, for the many thousands of Unitarian Universalists whose religious philosophy has moved beyond the construct of god, the new word carries ominous baggage.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the word “reverence” contains the following as the first meaning: “honor or respect felt or shown : deference; especially: profound adoring awed respect.” Following the link to the meaning of the word “deference” provides this amplification: “respect and esteem due a superior or an elder ; also: affected or ingratiating regard for another’s wishes.”

Anyone whose personal religious philosophy includes atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, humanism, and nontheism, among others, should be concerned about the alteration of this word. What is it exactly that we are considering “superior?” To what or whose wishes exactly are we ingratiating ourselves?

More details are available if one examines the synonyms of the word “revere.”

revere, reverence, venerate, worship, adore mean to honor and admire profoundly and respectfully. revere stresses deference and tenderness of feeling. reverence presupposes an intrinsic merit and inviolability in the one honored and a similar depth of feeling in the one honoring. venerate implies a holding as holy or sacrosanct because of character, association, or age. worship implies homage usually expressed in words or ceremony. adore implies love and stresses the notion of an individual and personal attachment [my italics].

Parts of this summary give me little cause for concern. However, taken as a whole, I feel a distinct tone of theism infused in the meaning of this word. As one who has spent many years of his life moving beyond believing in an omniscient, perfect, holy, or even just superior force for “good” in the universe beyond what we as equal beings in all existence are capable of creating and preserving ourselves, I cannot support this proposed word change.

I must admit to finding it ironic that during the “language of reverence” debates of recent years, it never occurred to me to question the word “reverence” itself, until this proposed draft was released. Perhaps those responsible for this draft felt that the word “respect” did not reflect strongly enough our regard for the interdependent web of all existence. If that is the case, then I would propose modifying the existing principle to express our “deep respect,” and might even go so far as to consider “ultimate respect,” although I imagine others might challenge that modifier. But, “reverence” is not a word I am willing to support in this context.