Adamant Atheist Meets Agnostic Christian

A recent tweet by Peter Bowden, creator of UU Planet TV, led me to a fascinating conversation between Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, retired minister of the Unitarian Church of Portland (Oregon), and Christopher Hitchens, atheist and author of God Is Not Great.

Published by Portland Monthly Magazine, you can listen to the not-so-great recording or read the transcript of the conversation here on their web site. I prefer the recording, actually, because the voices add a dimension that conveys a better sense of the people behind the words.

The engaging back-and-forth raises lots to reflect upon, including a few ironies.

Hitchens is dismissive of religion. His measure for validity is that religion must provide a unique ethical contribution to humanity, one that can’t be provided by Humanism. That it doesn’t leaves only the atrocities performed in the name of religion — which proves his case. Hitchens’ view is that, in time, Christianity will become as dead as the Greek gods and goddesses on the Parthenon.

Marilyn Sewell counters that his narrow view of religion is actually fundamentalist. Of course he doesn’t agree.

Sewell’s efforts to find common ground are largely thwarted until, near the end of the conversation, Hitchens speaks of his own sense of transcendence. Sewell suggests that’s a religious impulse, to which he responds “Well, it’s absolutely not. It’s a human one.”

Different perspectives, yet the same underlying source of meaning, if you ask me.

Hitchens disparages doing good because of one’s faith, rather than one’s conviction. Again, that seems like quibbling rather than acknowledging our common humanity that finds expression in any number of ways.

I wish Sewell had probed Hitchens on the benefit of religious community, both as source of inspiration and nurture, particularly during the challenges and tragedies we face during our lives.

Marilyn Sewell’s own reflections are quite intriguing. She describes herself as a Christian, although she does not believe in the divinity of Christ nor the literal truth of the Bible. Later in the conversation she says she doesn’t know whether God exists. I grinned as the words agnostic Christian came to mind. Paradoxical? While it may be, it’s also quintessential UU.

As interesting as the conversation between Hitchens and Sewell, the on-line comments responding to the article are provocative. Not surprisingly, “traditional” Christians take issue with Marilyn Sewell’s liberal view and discount her definition of being Christian.

While there is much to criticize about organized religion, particularly when belief leads to righteousness and on to extremism, I’m not ready to totally abandon religion as a source of inspiration and good in the world. Abolishing religion does not change that we are spiritual beings, seeking meaning in our lives.

I find Unitarian Universalism an example that religion can be open ended, not closed. It’s a worthy companion on my journey towards meaning and enlightenment, one undertaken with humility and never-ending exploration.

“Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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