United Church Minister Part of Rise of Vocal Atheism
Brandon Sun, November 28, 2016 – David McConkey
An atheist in a church pulpit? Yes: Rev. Gretta Vosper does exist. The 58-year-old, self-described atheist has been a United Church minister since 1993. In 2008, she wrote a bestselling book, With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe.
Vosper reflects the nature of the United Church. There is no pope or bishop who could quickly stifle dissent. Instead, the church is a more open, democratic and decentralized entity.
Let’s pause and define some terms. A theist is someone who has a belief in God, gods or goddesses. An atheist is someone who does not have that belief. Babies are atheists. As they grow up, children can be instructed – or not – in a belief in a deity.
Before Sept 11, 2001, atheists were generally obscure, quiet folks. If they thought about religion, they were content to consider it as a fading but rather innocuous force in the world. The 9-11 terrorist attacks shook up that complacency.
After Sept. 11, more atheists felt the need to come out and comment on the potential for harm not just with Islam, but with any religious belief.
“I don't think that day created a lot of atheists,” magician and atheist Penn Jillette says, “but I think it made a lot of atheists want to speak up a little more.”
A robust world conversation about religion has ensued. Fuelling the discussion have been vocal atheists like entertainers Jillette, Ricky Gervais and Bill Maher as well as public intellectuals Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Questions have been raised about religion and its connection to terrorism, to women’s and gay rights, and to a global civil society.
Part of this conversation has explored the need for Islam to become a more modern faith. Books by Harris and Hirsi Ali on this topic were reviewed here earlier this year. Hirsi Ali’s book is Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. Harris co-wrote his book with Maajid Nawaz, formerly a radical Islamic extremist and now a liberal Muslim. Their book is Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.
Back in Canada, what will be the fate of atheist minister Vosper? Right now, her case is working its way through the administration of the United Church. She could lose her job.
The firing of an atheist minister would not be surprising news. What is surprising is the support for Vosper within the church. Her Toronto congregation is thriving. Across the country, members – both lay and clergy – agree with her position. The United Church Observer magazine calls Vosper “the highest-profile United Church minister on the planet.”
The United Church has changed much since its founding in 1925. Major advances include the ordination of women in the 1930s and the acceptance of gay clergy in the 1980s. Canadians in general have looked to the church to affirm and nurture social progress.
Some church members view Vosper both as reflective of this tradition and as a harbinger of the future. Possible new theological notions for the church have been described as “atheist,” as well as “non-theist” and “post-theist.”
“All religions evolve,” a United Church minister writes in a letter to the “Observer” editor. “Do you think that in 1925 we envisioned a church that would conduct same-sex marriages or ordain women and homosexuals? Rev. Gretta Vosper is a theological Darwin, ahead of her time but closer to the truth than we were before.”
“My husband and I have been United Church members for 60 years,” another letter writer states, “and we have had to recognize we are atheists too. We do believe strongly in the teachings of Jesus. But we no longer believe in a personal deity living in the sky who intervenes in our lives in response to our pleas.”
How will the United Church deal with its unconventional minister? How will religions accommodate women’s and gay rights? How will Islam take on the challenge of modernizing? Expect more news about these and other religious issues.
And expect more news reports to include the word “atheist."
With or Without God on Amazon.com (on Amazon.ca)
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Some Reviewed Books:
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The Atheist Muslim:
A Journey from Religion to Reason
Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
An Alternative History of the 20th Century
Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
Islam and the Future of Tolerance:
The Greatest Show on Earth:
The Evidence for Evolution