Fellow atheists, are you around for a discussion?

(27 Posts)
MidnightVelvetthe4th Mon 23-Nov-15 13:35:53

Not sure if there is an atheist thread anywhere & would really like some other thoughts on this.

My background is that I went to a Church of England primary school where I learned the Bible stories & doctrine. I've been an atheist since I was about 10 years old when I found that the Bible stories made no sense & that Christianity just left me cold, it didn't touch me, I felt nothing & when I decided to not believe I learned that nothing changed.

My question is: You can become a Christian by yourself by inviting Jesus into your heart. You can communicate with the holy trinity by prayer & they will hear you. So what is the point of priests/vicars?

Most religions have some kind of male middleman between the believer & the god. Is it to make money? Is it to dominate & control believers & maintain the religion (in this day & age!)? Is it to have a point of contact where said holy man can punish you & whatever you did has magically vanished? Is it for help so that if you are struggling there is a person above you who is morally better than you & can help? Is it just a need to come together & be recognised as part of the tribe?

If a religion had no houses of worship & no holy middlemen then would the religion still flourish or does a believer need to be accountable to another (flawed) human?

Genuinely interested in what you think... smile

Shallishanti Mon 23-Nov-15 13:44:54

ah, now, I think you have hit on a bone of contention between different denominations of christianity there. My understanding is that RC propose a very definite role for the priest and hierarchy, Cof E also, but to varying degrees (high vs low church) and the nonconformist churches (methodist etc) less so.
I grew up in a Baptist family. They have no truck with infant baptism and see 'communion' as an act of remembrance/symbolism (no magical tricks with bread and wine). Their minister, I think, has a pastoral/teaching/guidance role but is not thought to have any special access to god. So not a middleman/woman at all.

I can imagine an interesting thesis to be made correlating the theology around priesthood with power and control and institutional wealth.

NB am now a humanist and gave up on the church many years ago so my grasp of theological matters must be read in that light.

Ilikedmyoldusernamebetter Mon 23-Nov-15 13:48:26

Most religions have a system of middle men - priests or similar. They are roughly speaking teachers and (religious) community leaders I'd say. Also an atheist with a broadly similar background but don't think that aspect of organised religion is especially hard to get your head around. There are denominations which are less management heavy - Quakers spring to mind (although not sure they are called that any more) and some other more pared back / puritan denominations. Probably within some non Christian religions too.

VulcanWoman Mon 23-Nov-15 13:51:44

The world would a better place if the middle man was cut out.

Daffydil Mon 23-Nov-15 14:01:51

I would say there is a difference between faith (belief in a deity) and religion, with it's rules, rulers, books etc.

In would say that I'm an athiest in that inhale a complete absence of faith. It has no part in my life at all.

And that religion has been used throughout history to control populations and make money.

BertieBotts Mon 23-Nov-15 14:03:33

I always thought that a priest (etc) is more like a teacher.

I guess it's not easy to know where to start or if you're doing it "right" so it must be good to get some reassurance.

BertieBotts Mon 23-Nov-15 14:05:33

Because (if you believe in the whole communicating with god thing) for the new believer, you're unlikely to see the signs or "hear" the communication. Whereas somebody more experienced in faith can help you to interpret what they believe to be divine signs.

OutwiththeOutCrowd Mon 23-Nov-15 20:57:29

I like what Wittgenstein had to say:

In the Gospels – so it seems to me – everything is less pretentious, humbler, simpler. There are huts; with Paul a church. There all men are equal and God himself is a man; with Paul there is already something like a hierarchy; honours and offices.

The Gentile version of Christianity, as initiated by St Paul, has traditionally involved a patriarchal Church assuming the role of intermediary between God and the plebs. Jewish Christianity, the ‘original’ Christianity, appears to have been a more egalitarian affair.

I find it a bit sad that it is the more hierarchical template of Christianity that has prevailed – but maybe a pecking order is almost inevitable when a group of people come together in sufficient numbers to create an institution?

I’m an atheist and am bewildered by the idea of a priest/minister/pastor being not only able to discern the will of God – should there be a God - but being better able so to do than your average Joe. I do understand that the clergy will probably know a lot more about the contents/history of the Bible but that seems to me a very different issue.

If I were a believer, I think I would gravitate towards the Quakers on account of their flat management structure.

But many seem to feel more comfortable and secure looking up to a Church leader who is, at least apparently, seeing through the glass a little less darkly than everyone else.

niminypiminy Mon 23-Nov-15 21:49:38

Just a thought, OP: have you considered asking Christians what the point of priests is? They might a) know more about what a priest is and does, and b) have something interesting to say.

Another thought. You could actually ask a priest.

A lot of what I do is about organising and leading worship. So today I've been sorting out Christmas services which is what priests do in November.

I could tell you more if you are really interested.

Frostycake Tue 24-Nov-15 09:37:51

I have the same background as you OP but also went to Sunday school, a RC senior school and family were lay preachers too. I've always been an atheist (since 7 years old). I didn't fit in putting it mildly

As I understand it, vicars, priests, Bishops, nuns etc. are God's representatives on earth and their task, vary, depending on their position. They are meant to be a conduit/link. Their task is to gather the flock, preach, advise, pray etc.. jobs for the boys

BigDorrit Tue 24-Nov-15 09:54:54

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

MidnightVelvetthe4th Tue 24-Nov-15 10:09:55

Thanks everyone for replying smile

Thanks thegreenheart I would be interested to hear more yes, but more generally rather than the day to day stuff. Are you able to talk about where you fit into your religion? Do you sit between god & man & are you morally superior to the congregation? Do you think your religion would continue in your parish if you weren't there?

Sorry about all the questions, I hope they don't come across as being too brusque smile

Hi Midnightvelvetthe4th

I'm a priest in the Church of England. Although my job title is 'priest in charge' most people call me a vicar or rev. I trained for six years before I got my first parish so that was three years at theological college and a three year curacy which is a sort of apprenticeship.

To have a go at answering your questions....

I certainly don't understand my role as sitting between God and people. What I am doing a lot of the time in worship is creating a space where people can encounter the divine whether that is through the words of the service or through the music or through the sacraments. I am aware that people may want to try and put me between them and God but I'm pretty good at spotting it and being very firm about it. They teach you a lot about psychology and boundaries at theological college.

Religion could go on in my church without me and there are usually periods between vicars of up to a couple of years when the show is kept on the road by lay people in the congregation. It is hard work and they are usually delighted when someone is appointed who will do all the strategic, pastoral and day to day stuff. What lay people can't do is celebrate the Eucharist. You need a priest for that and one of the reasons it takes on average 2-3 years to go through the selection process for ordination and then 5-6 years to train a priest is that you are dealing with ritual which is a powerful thing and you need to be very self aware and grounded and have a bit of an idea what you are doing. Thus I don't think I am morally superior to my congregation at all. I've spend so much time in reflection and supervision that I'm very well aware of my moral failings and weaknesses.

Does that help?

lorelei9 Tue 24-Nov-15 13:03:42

I'm interested that you directed this question to "fellow atheists".

I don't think about religion much, certainly not in this way, so I have no idea, but I guess lots of people pray in their home and would do it regardless of the structure of their religion? So it depends - do you mean "would religion still flourish" or "would organised religion flourish" - the latter being no because there'd not be enough organisation.

but bear in mind not all middlemen get paid. People often organise themselves to create a sense of belonging.

mercifulTehlu Tue 24-Nov-15 13:17:12

I don't know - I think that the hierarchical nature of organised religion is probably partly down to the human desire to have our lives organised and to feel we have an expert to decide tricky matters for us. I'm not saying that this hierarchy hasn't often become a way of people grabbing power and using that power to control the masses - it certainly has.

Although I can understand the feeling that a pure and uninterrupted connection with god, without the need for middle men, is in many ways 'spiritually' a better thing, it wouldn't appeal to me (if I believed in god!).

A lot of what would attract me to religion (if I didn't think it was a load of hogwash) would be the church as a focus for the community, a source of support for the lonely and needy, a source of inspiration through religious art and music, a source of advice on matters of faith and a source of comfort through familiar ritual. I actually think a lot of those things are lacking in life now that religion is not a central part of many people's lives in this country. And you don't really get all of that structure without someone being in charge.

I was brought up in a non-religious household and have always been an atheist, although I had s slight wobble during my twenties when working in a Catholic school. I was fascinated by it and tempted to succumb. I got over it though!

MidnightVelvetthe4th Tue 24-Nov-15 13:17:29

It does thegreenheart thank you smile

lorelei I tried to discuss something atheist in Chat a couple of years ago but got a couple of creationists on & it just turned into a bunfight! By addressing it to other atheists I was hoping to avoid that smile

Also my DP is what I'd tend to call a fundamentalist atheist & I can't usually have a reasoned discussion with him as he is unwilling to agree that those who have faith also have a brain. I was hoping for an intelligent calm discussion as sometimes I'd like to talk atheism through with other people. I did subscribe to The New Humanist but its very hard going & serious when you have young children, it wasn't quite at the level I was after.

I think I'm talking about organised religion, not faith. Faith doesn't need anyone else but religion does.

SiegeofEnnis Wed 25-Nov-15 10:29:51

I grew up as a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Catholic country which had an exaggerated sense of deference towards the priesthood - my mother was taught to step off the pavement and bless herself when the parish priest approached. Priests had enormous social power - the 'denunciation from the pulpit' thing was not so long ago, and they were in a sense more powerful, though usually allied to, the local policeman as the 'natural leader', and could refuse communion, denounce non-payers of 'parish dues' etc - in a thoroughly pernicious way. The amount of abuse, sexual and other, that they perpetrated, particularly on women and children, is still being uncovered. And denied. And don't get me started on the Vatican.

You won't find any defence of priests from me. The varieties of Christianity I find most palatable are those who, like Quakerism, don't have any 'middleman'.

LilaTheTiger Wed 25-Nov-15 10:42:40

I've always assumed it's more of a historical role.

In ye olden days the average pleb in the street couldn't read, and even if they could wouldn't have had access to Bible. So the educated priest was there to disseminate the knowledge and tell people what they should and shouldn't be doing.

Problem is, this sort of position gives people men a power over others, which will always be abused, and has been.

I'm a fundamentalist atheist that struggles with brain/faith too smile

OutwiththeOutCrowd Wed 25-Nov-15 12:04:35

Greenheart, I like the way you describe yourself as a sort of facilitator for an experience. That seems an appropriate way to look at the role of the clergy in modern times.

LilaTheTiger, I agree with you. I think that at the time of the Reformation, with printing becoming possible and translations of the Bible into the vernacular being produced in tandem with rising rates of literacy, the role of the clergy as interlocutors between God and man became less important.

Frostycake Wed 25-Nov-15 14:03:48

MidnightVelvetthe4th It might be worth mentioning to your DP that a surprisingly high number of MENSA members are religious. I am not a member sadly wouldn't want to be the dimest of the clever people!

LilaTheTiger Wed 25-Nov-15 16:31:40

I like it when people agree with me Out grin

OutwiththeOutCrowd Wed 25-Nov-15 16:39:45

Well, Lila, I agree with you on that too! People agreeing with you is very ... um ... agreeable! grin

(In my case it doesn't happen as often as I would like!)

xenu1 Thu 26-Nov-15 14:01:15

OP "My question is: You can become a Christian by yourself by inviting Jesus into your heart. You can communicate with the holy trinity by prayer & they will hear you. So what is the point of priests/vicars? "

You are Martin Luther and I claim my £5 smile

Of course, all religions claim divine source and usually have a topguy (or gal, Theosophy, Xtian Science) who communicates directly to God. That's why the protestant reformation started as people didn't like this relationship. Jack T Chicks mad but wonderful tracts show how anyone can have a personal relationship with jesus - avoid the RCC!

I'm ex-Christian, now atheist. What really changed me was studying (of things!) Scientology and L Ron Hubbard. I always felt that there must be something in religion as there are many excellent people - Evelyn Waugh for example - who were far brighter and achieve much more than me, and were religious. Studying $cn, a bait-and-switch fraud set up by a master-conman, I noted other achievers (Travolta etc) who believed in something obviously false...

(I am grateful that the religion in which I was raised allows apostasy without dire penalties (unlike, of course, Islam). Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a harder road to travel, and does so admirably)

As MN is of course female-focussed (I am male) I would like to praise and recommend Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney. I've heard her give an excerpt live and have a recording of her whole show. She loved and respected her Catholic upbringing - its not the usual Angelas Ashes schtick - but eventually journeyed to atheism/skepticism (via new age and, embarrassingly, Deepak Chopra!)

juliasweeney.com/letting-go-of-god/

I will stop rambling now! smile

OutwiththeOutCrowd Thu 26-Nov-15 20:53:49

I really don’t mind Deepak Chopra, xenu1, although I’d probably like to put in a polite request that he desist with the quantum woo!

A lot of what would attract me to religion (if I didn't think it was a load of hogwash) would be the church as a focus for the community, a source of support for the lonely and needy, a source of inspiration through religious art and music, a source of advice on matters of faith and a source of comfort through familiar ritual. I actually think a lot of those things are lacking in life now that religion is not a central part of many people's lives in this country. And you don't really get all of that structure without someone being in charge.


I’d like to go back to this point made by mercifulTehlu about the role of the Church as a source of social cohesion. I have often heard it lamented that the decline of Christianity has brought with it a sense of fragmentation and rootlessness. Is there a church-shaped hole in the lives of many of us these days and what might fill such a void? Who and where are the secular visionaries who might step into the shoes of the clergy and bring communities together in meaningful ways?

As some will know, Alain de Botton has tried to address this issue in his book ‘Religion for Atheists’. His point is that you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to religion. He thinks we should try to create an infrastructure that allows us to hold onto the uplifting and unifying aspects of Church and religion, as identified very succinctly in mercifulTehlu’s post, but without the supernatural elements.

An impossible task, perhaps.

The School of Life is one attempt to try to reproduce something of the Church experience for atheists. The Sunday Assembly is a similar enterprise.

www.theschooloflife.com/london/

www.sundayassembly.com/

I’d be interested to read what people think of either of these. In the video for the Assembly, there’s a lot of pant-swinging and arm-waving going on. Does it look attractively jolly or scarily jolly? I’m not sure. It certainly looks quite charismatic and churchy.

However I think I will always prefer gravitas and silence and sunlight streaming through stained glass windows into airy stillness.

Not sure about the School of Life – it’s definitely not for someone as poor as a heathen church mouse. (Me!) I do love the idea of bibliotherapy though. Instead of a priest offering a passage from the Bible or religious work to read, a bookworm-therapist provides a personalised secular reading list to enlighten or soothe as required. However at one hundred pounds a whirl, I think I will have to remain ignorant and crotchety!

In the end, I’m not sure any of these initiatives quite cut the mustard. It all feels a little ersatz. But I'd like to know what others think.

I doubt there is anything to match having a priest pray with you, or for you, and being able to believe in it totally.

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