The Community of Christ wall on Facebook had an interesting debate this week when one church member posted an article about a Dutch church in the Netherlands in which some members of the priesthood were actually atheists. This church member then asked the provocative question to the group if anyone would have a problem with this in our church.
What really got the discussion going was the allegations by Mr. Anti-Government that he personally knows of several church members who are atheists but he refuses to name them. Nor will such people identify themselves. This really caused an uproar and I admit that I am among those who are outraged. In my view, the priesthood is a sacred covenant that goes beyond that of membership. Its a calling and responsible to the church organization. If anyone was an atheist and a member of the priesthood, there's only one decent and ethical response. Turn in your priesthood card. This does not mean you cannot be a member of the church. It simply means that you should not be participating in ordinances that you don't believe in.
The more some church members defended the right of priesthood members to be atheists, the more incensed I got. This is one position I won't back down on because it does not make sense. If a person is an atheist, that means that they do not believe that God exists, that we live in a spiritual world, that we have a soul that will transcend the death of the human body. In my view, there is nothing wrong or immoral or evil about atheism. Its simply a viewpoint held by people who are logically-based and materialist minded (particularly, scientific materialism). These people are generally highly intelligent and require physical evidence before they believe. The problem with atheists holding the priesthood offices, though, is that if you don't believe that God exists or heaven exists, that you believe we will become non-existent when the body dies, WHY WOULD YOU PARTICIPATE IN SOMETHING YOU BELIEVE IS A FRAUD?!? That's what I don't understand. To remain a priesthood member when you're an atheist would make you a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud. Your credibility would not exist. It simply does not make logical sense, and Mr. Anti-Government who claims to be all about logic was defending their right to remain in the priesthood. He, himself, is an atheist (though raised in the church and once was such an in-your-face rightwing Jesus freak who went around trying to convert people when he was a teenager).
As I tried to explain ad nauseum in the dialogue, how can an atheist priesthood do his or her duties as required by the office if he or she does not believe that God exists? What do priesthood holders do? Well, it depends upon the office. There are teachers, deacons, priests, elders, seventys, evangelists, and apostles (forgive me if I left any other office out). Priests can officiate weddings and baptize people. The problem of atheists in the priesthood really presents itself with the evangelists. In the Community of Christ is an ordinance known as "Evangelist's Blessing." I got mine in 1999. Basically, this is a special prayer (which you get a written copy of) which can give direction to your life (mine was vague on that part, but helpful in other ways). When I decided to get mine, it was the right time. I was nearing the end of my experience at BYU and looking at starting a career in Government in Washington, D.C. I wanted some guidance for my future. I decided to pick a female evangelist just so that I could have proof that women made effective priesthood members as men (it was one of the main arguments I had with Mormons at BYU who tried to convince me that women weren't meant to have the priesthood).
I picked a lady who attended the Salt Lake congregation (where I had been baptized at 8 years old in 1980). To prepare, I had to be interviewed by her twice and I had a week where I had to fast something of importance to me (I chose music, which meant that I had to go a full week without listening to music, which was difficult then; that would be impossible now with my current job). I had scripture verses to read, meditate, and pray over. It was a week focused on spiritual preparation. On her end, she also did the same preparation. When we met, she gave me my Evangelist blessing and I was surprised by what it said. Obviously, the words of guidance were specific to me and she didn't really know me well enough to say the things she did, so I think that shows the mysteries of God and the spiritual world.
Now, imagine for a minute...how on earth would an atheist who held the office of evangelist be able to perform such an ordinance to a member who asked for one? There is no way an atheist would be able to do it without lying and it would be morally and ethically wrong to go through with it when the member was sincere in asking for the special blessing. To me, it is just unfathomable that an atheist would pretend for the sake of appearances. If they keep their priesthood offices and remain in the closet about their real beliefs, they are doing a huge disservice to church members. And this actually does erode confidence and trust. Not to mention promote cynicism where it doesn't belong (one thing I love about church is the idea that we can leave behind real world concerns and fellowship with one another as true equals and that there is a level of trust that exists which is difficult to find in the outside world).
Last year, during the Vision Project, there was a special worship service where people sang hymns and a few priesthood members were available for special prayers. I went to one I trust completely, Erik the co-leader of YAPS. I was in my unemployment period at the time and as I sat in the chair, those who were singing hymns started singing "Touch Me Lord With Thy Spirit Eternal" (which is in my top three favourite hymns). I saw this as a "sign from God" and as Erik said an amazing prayer on my behalf, I felt tears welling in my eyes. It was a great experience and the prayer was amazing, because a couple weeks later, I landed a job that I was perfect for and that was what I was looking for. Amazing how that happened! Would the special prayer on my behalf by a priesthood member been as effective if it had been an atheist? I doubt it.
At Bend Institute over Labour Day 2010, I had sought out two members of the priesthood to give me a special prayer (which included anointing my head with consecrated oil) regarding my stressful job at that Awful Place That Shall Not Be Named. I trusted the faith of both people who placed their hands on my head and prayed on my behalf. After the prayer, I fell ill and had to have a barf bag on hand in case I threw up on the way back to Portland. By month's end, I was out of my awful job. Was it because of their prayer that helped me get out of the awful work situation that I had tried for four years to leave? Would I have experienced the same outcome had they been atheists?
The debate did inspire a mini-debate on what atheism is, which is also absurd. Some people are far too loose in their interpretation. They wanted to include agnostics, humanists, pantheists, panentheists, pagans and deists in the category of "atheists." I know atheists and they would disagree. In fact, because I had been involved in an atheist group in the early to mid-1990s, I know how they think and why. I even had a few atheist books. I ultimately lost interest in atheism when so many were dismissive of my coincidences that I shared with them. In their view, it was just a coincidence, but in my view, the coincidences were too unlikely to happen because they were the case of the outer experiences reflecting inner thoughts. Synchronicity, according to Carl Jung.
As I tried to explain to my well meaning and open minded church members, atheists are different from agnostics and the other categories because they are hardcore about their belief in a strictly scientific materialist world. Atheists don't believe in God, heaven, coincidences, spiritual experiences, souls, ghosts, psychics, ESP, Near Death Experiences, etc. This is beyond mere doubt. This is in your face unbelief. I know because an atheist had de-friended me on Facebook earlier this year after being tired of reading my spiritual comments. So, knowing what I know about atheists, why should our church allow them to continue to hold the priesthood office? You can bet that no atheist organization (American Atheists, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, etc.) would allow a "religionist" or God believer to hold a leadership position in their organization. It is just cowardice of an atheist to continue to hold the priesthood office when they believe that none of it is true. I'm very ecumenical and tolerant of different beliefs, so I have no problem respecting atheists as equals whose beliefs deserve to be respected (to be free from being proselytized) and even if they want to attend church or be a part of the church community. What I won't agree with is the deception they are engaged in. The president of our church resigned over a personal problem (that has never been publicly disclosed) a few years ago and he turned in his priesthood card. If he could do the honourable thing, an atheist priesthood member should be able to follow his lead.
Ironically, my stance of no atheists in the priesthood put me on the side of the conservative church members. It was weird to side with one, in particular, especially when she brought up her view that allowing atheists in the priesthood would lead to Satan taking over the church. Uh, since I don't believe in Satan, this puts me in the heathen camp according to the conservative church members. I'm sure some of them probably think I'm an "atheist", but that's ridiculous because I believe in a spiritually directed universe and that we all have a soul and that reincarnation is reality. I'm okay with the idea that my New Agey beliefs will probably mean that I will never get called to the priesthood. I never saw myself as priesthood material (there are certain standards that I could not abide by, anyway) but I still respect the role and its importance in the life of the church. When I've had no where else to turn, I have gone to a priesthood member that I respect, whose faith is unquestionable, and asked for guidance. They've never let me down. If atheists in the priesthood is widespread in the church, I would be saddened because it would make trust much harder to establish. I would have to interview each priesthood member before asking them to say a special prayer on my behalf. I don't want to do that. Trust is crucial.
So, if you are a priesthood member in the Community of Christ and you are an atheist (that is, you don't believe in God, a soul, heaven, or that we live in a spiritually-directed universe), please do the honourable thing. Turn in your priesthood card. If you can't do that for whatever reason, then if someone approaches you to ask for a special prayer or blessing or some other sacred ordinance of our church, please decline for their sake. Church members deserve an authentic believer in God to perform the sacred ordinances of your priesthood offices. Its the ethical thing to do. Engaging in deceit just because you like the "prestige" of having a priesthood office does damage our church community and the sacred trust among members. Think about it, please, and be honest about your doubts and lack of faith.