The Complexities of Language

We had a fabulous time with Kile B. Jones, founder of Interview an Atheist at Church Day an idea that grew out of his desire to spark dialogue between the atheist and secular communities and Christianity. For some time, working in that field, Kile had recognized the seeds of distrust and prejudice in both groups about the other and decided to do something about it. His idea has brought together transformational conversations (like this one with Neil Carter, blogger at Godless in Dixie) that would never have happened had he not invited the first conversation to take place and had such a good experience that he wanted others to create that same possibility for dialogue.

When Kile spoke a couple of weeks ago, it was two years since gretta and Catherine Dunphy had been interviewed as part of the first Sunday dedicated to the conversation. It was likely a little less threatening for West Hill than most other congregations because Catherine had spoke there previously and, well, gretta is our minister. Still, the potential for great conversation was there and we watched the results. Our video of the conversation has had almost nine thousand views on YouTube.* 

While preparing for the first interview, gretta was aware of much that was happening in the world that indicated that intolerance for non-believers was on the rise. Although often called an atheist by those in the general public, gretta decided, with the support of the Board, to identify as an atheist herself during that 2013 interview to align herself with a group that was at risk in so many areas in the world.

Since that time, as gretta continued to publicly identify as an atheist, despite the fact that her beliefs had not changed, the media has focused on the apparent oxymoron "atheist minister"and West Hill, as one of the principal players is often identified as an atheist congregation. In the April edition of The Observer, Ken Ramsay responded to that mistake and noted that we include "traditional believers, agnostics, atheists and everyone in between." If it is hard for our own church magazine to get their editorial head around it, it's no wonder others get confused. 

As a result of rising expressions of concern related to the media attention, including the truncated version of gretta's beliefs about Jesus that appeared in a recent Toronto Star article, she felt it important to reiterate her reason for identifying as an atheist and to recognize the cost that has been to the congregation as a whole and to some of its members personally. Her response was read that morning and distributed to the congregation. It is pasted below. Please feel free to share it as widely as you feel it should and to connect with gretta should you wish to speak to her about it. Gretta is clear that she wants everyone who has been affected by the choice she and the Board made to intentionally identify her with a label that triggers so many misperceptions.


"One of the characteristics of my congregation, West Hill, that many value is its openness to exploration, to examination, and to reflecting seriously on what it says, does, and projects. That openness has led it to many changes over its history because it has considered nothing to be off limits. If understandings change, we feel it is important to change what we say we believe, the choices we make, or the way we express ourselves.

We’ve done that work together for almost two decades. During that time, we have been challenged to integrity on a number of different issues with respect to exactly those things: our beliefs, our choices, and the way we express ourselves. For some of in the church, it has felt like an exhilarating journey. For others, it may have been more like a series of unexpected surprises; sometimes good, sometimes bad, but never quite what was expected.

In 2013, as we prepared for our first INTERVIEW AN ATHEIST AT CHURCH DAY, the denial of human rights and the perpetration of violent acts against those who identified as not having religious beliefs were on the rise. Four Bangladeshi bloggers had been arrested and were being threatened with execution. Internationally renowned Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, had been sentenced to ten months imprisonment for declaring his atheism.

In solidarity with these persecuted atheists, and in the tradition of the Christian witness to stand with those whose rights are denied or abused, on that day, I publicly named myself an atheist. Sadly, events around the world continue to underscore how dangerous it is in many countries to identify as someone who does not believe; they continue to affirm my decision, the recent violent and public murder of atheist blogger, Amanta Das, but one horrific example.

Although I had been open about not believing in a theistic, interventionist God since 2001, the word, with all its complications, has added to the challenges we have faced as a community. It has had a significant impact on the way I and West Hill have been portrayed in the media, with assumptions often being made about the church that are incorrect. It has affected how I am received by my colleagues and in the wider church world.

More importantly, however, I expect it has affected the way participation in the church is perceived by those who are not familiar with West Hill but are exposed to media comments about us. While some West Hill people may be delighted and share the news with anyone who will listen, others may have had difficulty with family or friends who are astonished to hear that they go to a church where an atheist is the minister. My identifying as an atheist may negatively affect how people feel about being part of West Hill or about having me as their minister.

Today we are having our second INTERVIEW AN ATHEIST AT CHURCH DAY. This time, Kile Jones, the founder of the project, will be speaking with me. I’m looking forward to the conversation. But I am also taking advantage of the moment to acknowledge with my congregation how difficult this particular part of the journey has been for them. In the version of this blog that is being printed and handed out this morning, and that will remain available at the church for any who wish to pick it up, I apologize for any of the ways my being known as an atheist has been challenging or even difficult. And I invited conversation. I do that here, too.

My friend and colleague, Jerry DeWitt’s very public journey has taken him from evangelical ministry to atheism. In the midst of more losses as a result of that journey than I will ever experience, he crafted this incredibly astute clarification for those of us who struggle to express what it is we believe and why we believe it. I share it in the hope that you and I, whatever the differences in our beliefs, might have an ongoing conversation sparked by his wisdom.

Skepticism is my nature.
Freethought is my methodology
Agnosticism is my conclusion.
Atheism is my opinion.
Humanitarianism is my motivation.

Jerry DeWitt

As I often write inside one of my books as I’m signing it, 'Let’s keep the conversation vibrant!' Thanks for helping me do just that."


*In the first video, gretta mistakenly describes herself as a "positive" atheist. She actually argues that positive atheism, which says there is no god, cannot be proven. Gretta believes that she has no way of knowing whether there is a god or not but as she see no evidence that points to the existence of a divine supernaturat being she is an atheist. By that somewhat technical delineation, gretta is what is known as a "negative" or "weak" atheist. 

West Hill United