Mark de Solla Price talks “On Being a Church-Going Atheist” (full text)

Sermon Audience

Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 11:00 am
First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn



Call to Worship

[Mark begins] Welcome. My name is Mark de Solla Price and earlier this year, I became a member here at the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn. It is an honor and a privilege to have been invited by the Worship Committee to create a service and sermon “On Being a Church-Going Atheist” for this historic congregation and for an amazing group of members and guests that are here today and who have come to mean so much to me. Thank you and welcome.

Today’s service is very much a team effort, and I especially want to thank today’s Worship Assistant Nancy Witherell and our pianist Brian Kim who put up with me being a little extra creative with the music for today.
Hymn number sixteen in our “Singing The Living Tradition” hymnal isn’t really a hymn at all, it is an 1848 Shaker Dance Song by Elder Joseph Brackett that he entitled “Simple Gifts” The Shakers were a pretty heretical bunch who valued social equality, what we would now call “voluntary simplicity” and rejected traditional family values including marriage. They also believed that the best way to show their love of life and of their god was through “turning” in dance. This was pretty shocking for “church” behavior of the day.

Emma Goldman, the early twentieth century anarchist, atheist, feminist and freethinker, once said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

In this radical spirit, please stand in body or in spirit, join me in singing this Shaker Dance Song, hymn # 16 ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

Opening Hymn # 16 ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Chalice Lighting

This week we have three special candles. Rather than the usual paraffin, which is a petroleum product, we’re using beeswax, which is a renewable resource.

I would now like to ask my husband of seventeen years, Vinny Allegrini, to light our Chalice.

This Chalice is styled after the flaming chalice logo set inside two offset circles that is the symbol for Unitarian Universalism. This was designed by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch for the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War.

As we light this chalice, we join together with over a thousand other UU congregations across the country that set aside this time on Sunday morning for a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

And now I ask Rachel Stone and Rosemarie Stupel to come up and light our Silver Candle of Memory and the Glass Candle of Hope

Please join me in singing our “Song of Hope” which is printed on the first page of the order of service.

Song of Hope

From all that dwell below the skies

Let songs of hope and faith arise.

Let peace, good will on earth be sung

Through every land, by every tongue.

Please Greet Your Neighbor

Please take a few moments to warmly greet those near you and introduce yourself if you are not acquainted.

Words of Welcome/Announcements by Nancy Witherell

[Mark continues] As a teenage girl, my mother Ellen Rosenstand-Hjorth, was a resistance fighter against the Nazis who occupied Copenhagen, Denmark. By day, she was a schoolgirl, by night, printing the resistance newspaper and even blowing up bridges. Whenever Hitler delivered a speech, everything came to a halt and you stood listening to the ubiquitous loud speakers. Everywhere there was a forced show of Nazi patriotism.

When I was a child, I was forbidden from standing for the pledge of allegiance or any national anthem. My mom found it chillingly close to the forced Nazi pageantry of her school years during the war.

There was one song we did stand for: The Internationale. We stood in solidarity with workers everywhere.

The Internationale music by Pierre Degeyter in 1888, this arrangement by Brooklyn’s own Jerry Engelbach from 2001 with English Words by Billy Bragg.

Please stand in body or in spirit, and in solidarity with workers everywhere. The words are in your order of service.

Anthem: The Internationale

Stand up, all victims of oppression

For the tyrants fear your might

Don’t cling so hard to your possessions

For you have nothing, if you have no rights

Let racist ignorance be ended

For respect makes the empires fall

Freedom is merely privilege extended

Unless enjoyed by one and all


So come brothers and sisters

For the struggle carries on

The Internationale

Unites the world in song

So comrades come rally

For this is the time and place

The international ideal

Unites the human race

Let no one build walls to divide us

Walls of hatred nor walls of stone

Come greet the dawn and stand beside us

We’ll live together or we’ll die alone

In our world poisoned by exploitation

Those who have taken, now they must give

And end the vanity of nations

We’ve but one Earth on which to live

And so begins the final drama

In the streets and in the fields

We stand unbowed before their armour

We defy their guns and shields

When we fight, provoked by their aggression

Let us be inspired by like and love

For though they offer us concessions

Change will not come from above

Reading/Reflection: The Charter for Compassion

[Mark continues] On February 28, 2008 Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize and made a wish: for help creating, launching and propagating a Charter for Compassion. Since that day, thousands of people have contributed to the process so that on November 12, 2009 the Charter was unveiled to the world. It has since been affirmed by over 50,000 individuals and spiritual and political leaders around the world. Today, my dear friend Sandy Brooks will read The Charter for Compassion.

[Sandy Brooks  Reads]

The Charter for Compassion

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women

~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion

~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate

~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures

~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity

~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Offertory by Nancy Witherell

Prayer and Meditation
[Mark continues] For today’s Prayer and Meditation, I would like to read a

Taoist story about not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe.

It is from my book “Living Positively in a World with HIV/AIDS”

There is a Taoist story about a poor man who lived alone with his son in an abandoned shack outside of a small village. Their only possession was a very old workhorse. One day, the workhorse ran away. Hearing of this, all the poor man’s friends felt sorry for him: “That is so terrible for you,” they said. The poor man simply answered, “How do you know?”

The next day the old workhorse returned, bringing with it a dozen young wild horses. Everyone in the town came by to see the poor man’s miracle. “That is so wonderful for you,” they all said. The poor man again answered, “How do you know?”

The day after that, the son tried to put one of these wild horses to work in the field. Being unused to wearing a harness, the horse kicked, and the son was badly injured. Again everyone said, “That is so terrible for you”. Again the poor man simply answered, “How do you know?”

On the third day, a great army came through the village and forced all able-bodied young men to join them and fight in a great war from which few would ever return. The poor man’s son was still too bruised to go.

By the next week, the son completely recovered, and, with a dozen young, strong workhorses, the man and his son became the richest family in town. What makes something “terrible” or “wonderful”? Sometimes life’s biggest heartbreaks crack open the shell we can build around our heart. After we go through all the pain — which isn’t easy — we can be either more open, more loving, and more loved, or we can build up even more scar tissue and become more numb.

Candles of Joy and Concern

[Mark continues] I would now like to invite anyone who feels move to do so, to come up and light a Candle of Joy or Concern and call out the names of those people who are especially in our hearts and minds today.

[Mark continues] Please stand in body or in spirit, for my mother’s favorite hymn: Don’t Fence Me In by Cole Porter. The words are in your order of service.

Hymn: Don’t Fence Me In by Cole Porter

Oh, give me land, lots of land

Under starry skies above,

Don’t fence me in.

Let me ride through the wild open

Country that I love,

Don’t fence me in.

Let me be by myself in the evening breeze-

Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,

Send me off forever, but I ask you please,

Don’t fence me in.

Just turn me loose,

Let me straddle my old saddle

Underneath the western sky.

On my cayuse,

Let me wander over yonder

Till I see the mountains rise.

I want to ride to the ridge

Where the west commences,

Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses,

Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences,

Don’t fence me in.

My sermon today is titled “On Being a Church-Going Atheist”

I’ve been living with HIV/AIDS for twenty-eight years, and this perspective and experience has really shaped how I view the world, what I spend my time doing, and what I write about.

My husband, Vinny Allegrini and I are featured in an HBO documentary “Positively Naked,” about POZ Magazine’s ten-year anniversary empowering folks living with HIV/AIDS. You can watch the film from our website, [click Positively Naked to see the video]

In the film, my friend and business partner, Sean Strub, the magazine’s founder, describes the spiritual path of living with AIDS: “Feeling your mortality enables a clarity of focus; you learn about friends, about real love. You really get an understanding of what unconditional love means. You also learn that everybody is going to die; and everybody knows that, so that isn’t news to anyone. So it isn’t about having information, but it’s about learning it, and experiencing it in your life, and realizing it. That makes the time we have while we’re alive precious and important. And for, I think, a lot of survivors of AIDS, it’s given them the inspiration and even courage to make their lives important and to have meaning.”

In the film, I say “The best news you can get is to be told that you are going to die, and then not die… No one ever dies and says, “oh, I should have been working more” – you know, they always go, I meant to be doing this, I should have been writing and I [had really] wanted to do that. When you are hit over the head with “you are going to die” it refocuses things [brilliantly]. I think this is one of the reasons that Vinny and I have had such a wonderful relationship. Because we keep on being told, “you know, you might not have much more time together,” so [we make sure to]… make the most of [every moment of] it.”

Living ethically, morally and spiritually connected is very important to me. I am a Unitarian Universalist, a Zen Buddhist, and an Atheist. “Atheist” can be a pretty controversial word, so let me talk about it a little.

There is an apocryphal story about Albert Einstein being asked if he believed in God, to which he answered, “tell me what you mean by “God” and then I’ll tell you if I believe.”

The website uses a definition of “God” as “referring to a fickle, angry, vengeful, needy, mass-murdering super-human being who tortured and killed his son as an expression of love and who lives in the sky?”

I don’t know if that’s a particularly useful definition of “God” and I doubt that there are too many folks who say that this is exactly the sort of “God” they believe in. But perhaps there are more than I would think.

According to a 2007 Newsweek poll, “Nine in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as [Christians]. Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact.”

To quote the theologist Woody Allen: “Not only is there no god, try getting a plumber on the weekend”

The Newsweek poll doesn’t define what they mean by “God,” but I assume most would say the God of Abraham. The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, account for about 54% of the world’s population, and from an Industrialized, Western perspective, with the monotheistic Abrahamic religion is the de facto norm.

This isn’t the case with Unitarian Universalists, who tend to have a very different understanding of “God” and spiritual practice. A recent study found that today most UUs identify themselves as Humanist (54%), followed by Agnostic (33%), Earth-centered (31%), Atheist (18%), Buddhist (16.5%), with Christian (13.1%) and Pagan (13.1%) being tied for smallest segment.

Perhaps these weren’t the most useful questions to poll. These concepts are really fuzzy, overlapping facets of spiritual belief. Atheists reject the belief in the existence of deities and religious dogma as well as all supernatural, superstition, occult, paranormal, and magic; Humanists also reject these same things, but elevate the collective human wisdom, art and philosophy as specially reverent; Agnostics believe that many spiritual matters are inherently unknown and unknowable; I think of being Buddhist as more of a ethical philosophy and life style rather than a religion or theology, per say

Currently, the UUA represents 1,078 member congregations that collectively include more than 217,000 official members. According to the United States Census Bureau, about three-times as many people, 629,000 individuals self-identified themselves as being Unitarian/Universalist in 2001.

Both the Unitarian Universalist Principles and Buddhist Precepts recognize that we are not separate from all that is, but rather part of the interdependent web of all existence.

On February 25, 2008, Colin Nickerson of the Boston Globe reported in “Of Microbes and Men” on the findings of the Broad Institute, that ninety percent of the cells in the human body are actually non-human cells, mostly bacteria and some fungi.

“We’re not individuals, we’re colonies of creatures,” said Bruce Birren, director of microbial sequencing at the Broad Institute, a research center affiliated with both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, about a newly launched five-year project known as the Human Microbiome (Micro-bi-ome) Project, which aims to use DNA sequencing technology similar to that used to map the human genome to catalog and understand the thousands of species of microbes that pervade five regions of the anatomy – the digestive system, mouth, nose, skin, and female urogenital tract.

Humans and their microbial colonies have evolved together as a single, extraordinarily complex ecosystem. These one hundred trillion microbes in each person aren’t just casual hitchhikers capable of causing disease; many may be so essential to our health that human life could not exist without them.

We are only just now learning that some “bugs” that we used to think only caused disease and that we’ve “cleaned up” in industrialized communities actually have important disease preventing properties as well, such as provided protection against asthma and esophageal diseases.

I found this science about humans not being individuals but interdependent colonies to be spiritually very powerful. I also think of the whole planet earth as one big living being – also made up of interdependent colonies – with it’s own intelligence. That’s why I wear lava beads to remind me that the earth itself is alive. To me, the Earth Goddess Gaia (guy-ya) doesn’t seem to be only a metaphor. This is what Baruch de Spinoza called pantheism.

My father’s good friend Carl Sagan joked: “In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”

I’ve talked about Atheists but now I’d like to tell you about some remarkable, devoted Muslims…

Zaid Kurdieh (Za-hed Kur-Deh) is about my height, build and age. He is an observant Muslim. Zaid’s grandparents had owned a farm in Palestine, where they cultivated oranges and raised sheep, but they lost their land in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded and the family end up immigrating to New York.

Zaid’s wife is Haifa Kurdieh (Hi-Fah Kur-Deh) who is perhaps 5’2” and always has her head respectfully covered with the traditional hijab (he-zjab) or headscarf.

Zaid & Haifa Kurdieh own Norwich Meadows Farm; perhaps you’ve seen them at the farmer’s market at Union Square, Tompkins Square Park, or in the dozen or so Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) that they have setup, including Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Fordham University, Central Park, Washington Square Park, South Street Seaport-Battery Park and Judson Memorial Church.

Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge to support a farm operation so that the farm becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support, and sharing the benefits and risks of food production. The prime requisite is the belief by all members that the CSA system and the farm in particular is an integral part of their everyday life by providing vital sustenance to their families.

Halal (hal-ale) literally means lawful from a religious perspective. Halal food complies with Islamic laws in the same way that Kosher food complies with Jewish laws. Beyond Halal (hal-ale), there is an additional, more-complicated Islamic principle that many devoted Muslims strive to follow: Tayyib (Tay-Yib) which means pure and good in the same way we talk about food being “organic” or “whole food” or “sustainable.” In order for a particular food to be considered tayyib, it must be created in a wholesome manner. Produce that has been sprayed with pesticides, for example, or harvested by poorly paid migrant workers, would not be tayyib.

Muslims who want to eat only tayyib foods must consider the far broader physical, social, and even ethical implications. They must ask the right questions, such “Does this milk contain antibiotics or growth hormones?” Keeping tayyib requires a higher degree of vigilance than merely eating halal does.

I have always been impressed by the theological diversity at both Unitarian Universalists and Buddhist gatherings. You have an atheist sitting next to a Christian next to a Jew next to an Earth-centered pagan or native American spirituality. It doesn’t seem like a mixed group at all because although they all might believe differently, they love the same and the practicle results of there differing faiths is remarkable similar action.

Theologically, it would seem that Zaid & Haifa Kurdieh and I couldn’t disagree more. We certainly have different views on God, religious practice, the roll of women, and homosexuality. And yet, the results of their faith produced efforts of sustainable agriculture, healthy food, fair wages, community building — and on and on — that were identical to the results of my very different beliefs.

One of my dear friends is the Unitarian Universalist Minister in Rochester, New York, the Rev. Dick Gilbert. He and I spent a week together a few years back at the week-long Unitarian Universalist Leadership Team Institute. Dick Gilbert is one of the denomination’s great experts in Social Justice work. He advises forming interfaith coalitions based on shared goals rather than shared philosophy, ideology or theology. For example, UUs and Catholics might not have a lot in common with their views on reproductive rights or homosexuality, but they absolutely can work together in environmental issues or serving the homeless or hungry.

Vinny and I facilitate the Buddhist Explorers Dharma Fellowship on the Third Sunday of each month at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Well, except today, when we’re here and it is moved until NEXT Sunday at 2 PM. The guest speakers we have throughout the Fall are theologically diverse: a Buddhist who is also an observant Jew, one who is a Protestant Minister, one who is Lakota Sioux Native American Spirituality and one who is an Atheist, and yet they have shared practice and shared goals.

My friend, Robert Thurman, is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University; he is also President of Tibet House and Vinny thinks of him as Uma Thurman’s dad. He was the first American to have been ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk and has been a personal friend of Tenzin Gyatso (Ten-zin Gay-at-so) the fourteenth Dalai Lama for over 40 years. The New York Times recently called him “the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.”

Vinny and I were at a lecture he gave at Tibet House, and someone in the audience asked him a theological question: “Do you believe in miracles?” He answered that the Dalai Lama always paid his complete, undivided attention to whoever was in front of him at that moment. In forty-years, not once had he ever seen him “multi-task” or zone-out, or think about the next meeting or the next trip. Robert said that he thought that THIS attention was a miracle.

In Buddhism, this interdependent mixing pot of people is called “Sangha” meaning both Community and Order. August has been an important month for me and my Sangha…

My Zen teacher, Roshi Enkyo Pat O’Hara, is the Abbot and co-founder of The Village Zendo and is one of the Founding Teachers and Co-Spiritual Director of the Zen Peacemaker Order. She received dharma transmission in both the Soto and Rinzai lines of Zen Buddhism, through the White Plum Lineage. This is the same Zen lineage as the UU minister and author Rev James Ishmael Ford. The Zen Buddhists have not historically been as progressive as the Unitarian Universalists, and it has been ground breaking for Enkyo Roshi, as both a woman, and as an out lesbian, to become one of the spiritual leaders of the denomination. She’s an amazing Zen Master.

Last Sunday, on August 8, in a ceremony called Zaike tokudo (Zai-key toe-ku-do) or householder (“lay”) ordination, Enkyo Roshi gave me the Buddhist “Dharma” name GakuJô (Gah-Koo-Joe), which means “A steep mountain peak of mercy, love and compassion.” The Zaike tokudo (Zai-key toe-ku-do) ceremony is the end of the Jukai process where a Zen student takes refuge and receives the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts, which is the Zen way of saying that I have committed myself to live an ethical, moral life, to do good for others, to work to save all sentient beings, and to be both a member and a steward of the Sangha.

Rev. Bruce Southworth, the long-time Senior Minister at The Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist is found of saying “that prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people, and people change things”

At the Village Zendo, there is an Evening Gatha or prayer that is recited at the end of the evening meditation period. I think it does change people. Let me recite it for you…

Let me respectfully remind you –

Life and death are of Supreme Importance

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost

Each of us should strive to awaken… Awaken!

Take heed. Do not squander Your Life.


[Mark continues] On November 27, 1978, Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered in San Francisco. The gay community took to the streets in protest, in outrage and in mourning. Holly Near, the social activist, singer-songwriter who performed here this last year as part of our wonderful First Acoustics Series, and my Facebook friend, wrote what would become our Hymn 170 “We Are A Gentle, Angry People, Singing, singing for our lives” It’s a great song.

But sometimes, being angry people can get in our way. As Unitarian Universalists, our faith calls us to social activism. We are a quirky bunch of strongly opinionated people with a broad range of theologies, but we have a great history of working together for the greater good.

Please stand in body or in spirit, and sing Hymn # 170 We Are a Gentle, Angry People by Holly Near

Closing Hymn: Hymn # 170 We Are a Gentle, Angry People by Holly Near