I Don’t Believe in God, But I Believe in Church

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I Don’t Believe in God, But I Believe in Church by Jordi Comas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at netsweweave.wordpress.com.

This is the sermon I gave at UUCSV in February 2009.   A few people asked me for copies.  If you want to use or cite, please reference me.  Maybe this will finally be the nudge I need to figure out how to use CC licenses.

This includes readings used which were essential for the sermon.

Call to Worship:

From Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Chalice Lighting

Tao Te Ching

Faithful words are not pleasant. Pleasant, or specious, words are not faithful.

The virtuous do not bandy arguments. Those who bandy arguments are not virtuous. The wise do not seek learning from outside. Those who do so are not wise.

The Sage does not lay up hidden stores, The more he employs it on behalf of others the more he has for himself. The more he imparts to others, the more his own stores increase.

The TAO of Heaven confers benefit, and injures not. The TAO of the Sage acts, and does not strive.

Second Reading


Starts at “The Sea of Faith”



By Matthew Arnold



The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.



Both are from Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Sorry, I don’t have page numbers on me but I can track them down if necessary.)


“In reality then, there are no religions which are false.  All are true in their own fashion; all answer, though in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence…So when we turn to primitive religions it is not  with the idea of depreciating religion in general, for these religions are no less respectable than the others.  They respond to the same needs, they play the same role, they depend on the same causes; they can also well serve to show the nature of the religious life, and, consequently to resolve the problem which we wish to study.”


Explain that he is referring to two types of knowledge- what we sense and the categories of thought.

“”So between these two sorts of representations there is all the difference which exists between the individual and the social, and one can no more derive the second from the first than he can deduce society form the individual, the whole from the part, the complex from the simple.  Society is a reality sui genereis; it has its own peculiar characteristics, which are not found elsewhere and which are not met with again in the same form in all the rest of the universe. …

Collective representations are the result of an immense co-operation  which stretches not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united, and combined their sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their knowledge and their experience.”


“In summing up, then, it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion…. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”


As a lay minister today, I think it best to forgo rhetorical fireworks.  I’ll start with the title.  “I Don’t Believe in God, but I believe in Church.”  This is what I am saying in the title: there is not a metaphysical, real God out there but that does not mean the end of religion.  Church, organized value communities with symbols, rites, and rituals, are essential to being human.

I am a social scientist by vocation.  I thought I might be a physicist in high school because I really liked understanding the mechanisms, the interplay of forces, that explains what we observe.  But banging my head against the walls of calculus for two semesters in college was kind of the end of that endeavor.  But the persistent itch, the unsettling urge to know what is what and how and why found a new object of affection.  People.  And all the various horrible and wondrous things we do and have wrought.

A persistent question in my field-the study of organizations-is what is the nature of the environment.  Is it legal forces?  Is it market forces?  Does “culture” matter?  How does it change, and so on.  These sorts of questions.  Once, I recalled, or, I thought I had read another scholar write that “we have met the environment, and it is us.”[1] I thought this very clever as it takes the focus of the question- what is the nature of what is out there, and it turns it backwards onto us as humans, as culture producing beings.  I tried to find out who said this using all the amazing research tools at my disposal.  I googled it.  I used quotation marks around the quote.  I searched my computer for files with those words in them.  I resorted to more “primitive” technologies.  I asked some people I thought would know.  I even looked in a few books.  Couldn’t find it.  The idea was “just out there.”  Or maybe my mind had made it up, on its own, taking fragments of language and culture and recombining them in my sleep, my neurons like little Charlottes, little spiders, weaving new words from whatever fell off the truck today, from whatever scraps my Templeton eyes and ears had been collecting with the garbage.  I know Barack Obama had me when he said in one (or several) of his speeches that “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”  Although my “we are the environment” quote is a little different in a big way.  The idea it captured for me is that all of the forces we feel and perceive as outside of us, law, trends, culture, ideas, and, as I will get to, religion and even God, are really from us.  Whether I borrowed the quotation from an unknown source, or my mind invented it is irrelevant to the extent that I have the sense that the fundamental building blocks of these ideas– environment, us as individuals, and us as a species-these are concepts that I had not invented.  They are surely removed from me as a person.

This difference between what, on the one hand, we know from first-hand experience, what we can sense directly, and on the other hand we know as categories is one of the notions that Emile Durkheim uses in his book Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  [Hold up my copy.]  My sermon today is inspired by my own reaction to reading this as a student. I knew I would need to go back and find some of the passages, and I was really glad I had my own copy.  I wish my students were here today to hear this as I am aghast at how quickly they dump their books for cash at the end of the semester, so sure that their short term relationship with the words and ideas in their books is over.

Anyway, I read Durkheim as a graduate student.  He is a French Sociologist who wrote about the division of labor in society, about suicide, about sociology as a science, and, of course, about the fundamental nature of religion.  This was mostly in the latter part of the 19th century, although this book was published in 1912.  He died in 1917.  The book is explicitly about explaining the various kinds of religious forms that other anthropologists had reported among the Australian Aborogine peoples.  However, he is really discussing what religion is in a universal sense and would just as happily have his ideas apply to Christianity or any other religion.

As I said about my experience with the “we are the environment quote,”  I have a sense that the words and ideas are real and true at a linguistic, at a categorical  level.  They just are, they are not some slip of the ear on my part, some mis-seen glimmer or naturally occurring optical illusion.  This is the difference between what we perceive, or empirical knowledge, and what we believe to be ultimately true or indisputable, what we might call reason.  Durkheim makes much of this difference in his explanation of religion.  Durkheim, or Emile as I will call him today, would tell me this is an example of the duality of our nature.  Emile would say [QUOTE] “man is double.  There are two beings in him: an individual being with its foundation in the organism and the circle of whose activities is therefore strictly limited, and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order that we can know by observation– I mean society.”  [END QUOTE]  Let’s hang out with this.   Emile is arguing that we have a duality, not of flesh and spirit, but of individual and social identity, or social consciousness.  This consciousness is the result of our nature as social beings.  This point, us being social beings, is not a philosophical one, but one Emile studied.  Perhaps most famously in Suicide where he showed that, contrary to beliefs at the time of, suicide as the ultimate act of egoism and unrestrained individualism, suicide rates vary significantly across countries and religions.  This is a social fact that is still true and it forces us to dismiss the idea that something that seems so ultimately of the mind, of psychology, is purely about individuals.  So Emile was standing on firm ground in his mind when he argued about this duality of self and social consciousness.  He called this internal dialogue we all have, the sense of what you ought to do, a collective consciousness, and society is the consciousness of consciousness.  Emile had another term for this, which is always left in Latin for reasons I am unsure of, but knowing UUs, you might tell me afterwards.  He said, as I shared in the reading, that society is a reality sui generis, a reality that has its own genesis, that springs into being without any prior cause.

What does this have to do with religion?  The collective consciousness is the source of categories of ideas.  Religion is a system of ordering everything into two types; the sacred and the profane.  All symbols, rites, ceremonies and the rest of the gears and cogs of a religion reinforce this division of the sacred and the profane.  But it is not just about thought, religion is also about action.  We thrive, we need the emotional energy we get from solidarity.  Emile liked to call this the efferevesence of solidarity.  I always think of this as a refreshing lemon soda of comity.  We get this form all sorts of ceremonies.  A sporting event has a more yeasty effervescence.  Political rallies another.  And so on.

In religion we have this process of solidarity combined with the categorization of the world into the sacred and the profane.  We know the sacred in symbols.  Our focus is on some symbol which represents a totem, deity, or god.  But these symbolize collective representations.  These representations are really the higher intellectual and moral concepts of society itself.  Of us.  This is why Emile wrote, in the passage I read before, that “society is the soul of religion.”

This reading of Emile that I have described, that I developed while reading this book and talking to others, as I look back on my life, seems like a key moment for me in understanding religion.  My sermon, I don’t believe in God, I believe in Church, is my reaction to Emile’s thoughts.  We are what we were waiting for; the universe of emotion, thought, aspiration, spirit, universal imperatives, morality, everything that one time or another has been ascribed to higher powers, dead relations, bearded white guys, ineluctable unknowables, Taos and Gods, it is all really us.  Religion is like a diorama, those around the room paintings at certain vintage national parks; religions are like 360 degree reflective mirror dioramas.  Here was my answer.

There is no “real” God or metaphysical entity is the only conclusion I could draw.  That makes me an atheist.  I have to admit to a certain vanity here.  It feels dangerous to say that, even here.  Some research has shown that atheism is one of the most distrusted or reviled categories in US society.  Some have suggested it is the last acceptable prejudice, although I think body image and homosexuality are obviously in the running for such a grim prize.  The evidence comes from good, representational surveys of the US population in which people are asked which of several categories “does not at all agree with my vision of American society”?  In other words, people with whom there is no least common denominator, who is utterly alien from me.  The top 5? Atheists?  40% Muslims? 26% Homosexuals? 23% Conservative Christians? 14% Recent immigrants? 13%  If little Susie or Jose wants to marry one, the next questions goes, would you disapprove?  Top 5?  You guessed it

  • Atheists: 48
  • Muslims: 34
  • African-Americans: 27
  • Asian-Americans: 19
  • Hispanic-Americans: 19
  • And just to round out the no-love fest here, Jews: 12

On a side note, I don’t mean to make a big deal about this.  This is not a game of one upmanship on intolerance.  Every reviled group has its own peculiar and unfortunate context and history.  There is not a lot of atheist bashing.  Atheists can blend in pretty well.    My point is, as a contrarian, I take some glee in labeling myself an atheist given how it is likely to be perceived.  My hunch is that most people understand it as something like an amoral person, or maybe a Satanist.

But I am a funny kind of atheist then.  I go to church!  I am a professor (well no surprise there).  I teach Sunday School!  Come to think of it, this may make me even more dangerous in some people’s eyes.  Honestly, I am a pretty uneducated, under-read, unreflective atheist.  There is a rich literary tradition of writers tackling this $20,000 question of $20,000 questions.  Nietzsche: God is Dead in thus Sprake Zarathustra.  I think I skimmed it.  Bertrand Russell, te ritish mathematician and Philosopher.  Haven’t read him.  Recently, Christopher Hitchens, writer, fantastically drunk jerk, and king of snarky insults, recently wrote God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Haven’t read.  Also, Richard Dawkins, a British biologist, wrote The God Delusion.  Haven’t read.  The comedian Bill Mahrer has a new film called “Religilous” which not-so-gently mocks faithful people of all stripes.  Have not seen.  You get the point.

I wouldn’t mind.  It is just time.  If one of you all wants to take the kids for a holiday weekend, I’ll get right on that.  It is more than time, of course.  I make time to watch the new Battlestar Galactica, which, if I get asked back to give a sermon, I will have to discuss as it is full of interesting religion questions.  My view of religion, and of science, does not lead me to feel compelled to try and kill God, or religion.  Like Emile, I don’t see the point in trying to convince anyone of the errors of fact or laws of nature that their religion may be based on.  Now, I am also a pragmatist, or I try to be; as well as a fierce defender of democratic principles.  So, I am very intolerant of anyone who will argue that our government or society have any one specific religion or theocratic character.  Just needed to say that lest I imply the political activities of the Christian right don’t matter.

My atheism may deny any metaphysical or supernatural entities, any God God out there.  But the question crumbles when confronting the immovable object of church, of organized religion.  There is no human who is not a social being.  A social being whose very categories of thought and action are the reflected experience, for good or for ill, of, as Emile write in our reading, “an immense co-operation which stretches not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united, and combined their sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their knowledge and their experience.”

Religion presupposes, predates, prefigures all else.  And it is rooted in tradition.  What religion will become in a modern, global, networked, multicultural society is an open question, I think.  But we are not moving to any society without religion.  Nor is religion immutable.  As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said, change is all.  “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”


The covenant reading I chose, by the English Poet Matthew Arnold, imagines a world where faith is disappearing.  The poet hears  “the sea of Faith”  which once lay around the world  and is now making a

“melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. ”

The naked world, stripped of faith he imagines.  As many have imagined as they trace out the world altering forces of science, capitalism, technology, media, wars, social movements, democracy and other struggles for the commanding heights of our times.  In that naked world, shorn of religion, it

“Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;”

In such a desolate place, the poet calls to his love, and I suggest to us.

“Ah, love, let us be true

To one another!”

Yes, let us be true to one another.  True enough to believe in church, in our capacity to self-organize, to produce complexity from simple interactions, to own our sins and our miracles.  Our best hope has also, always, been a source of poison, religion.  There is joy, love, light, certitude, peace, and help for pain.  Not out there in the world, but in the “we” that we have been looking for.


Winnnie the Pooh:

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”

So Say We All.

[1] After giving the sermon, a handful of congregants told me it is a variant of a famous Pogo (?) comic about the enemy.


Filed under sociology, writing

6 responses to “I Don’t Believe in God, But I Believe in Church

  1. Natalie

    As someone who only recently awakened from my own fastidious approach to being a ‘good Christian’, I applaud you and admire the way you have expressed the same ideas on atheism that I have been having. I too still have a deep appreciation for the concept of church and religion but was having a hard time expressing my self. Thank you for clarifying some of my thoughts.

    • Sure. I am glad you found the post. I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist church. Maybe you can find one where you are? Are you in Oregon? Oklahoma? (going by email).

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