At Your Service: ‘Coming out of the godless closet’


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The parlor at First Congregational Church, where the Billings Association of Humanists held its Socrates Cafe.

Billings Association of Humanists, meeting at First Congregational Church, 310 N. 27th St.
Meeting: 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014
Length of meeting: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Length of sermon: none.

Scouting through the Gazette’s “Faith & Values” section, trying to decide what church to visit next, I came across a notice for the Billings Association of Humanists’ Socrates Café, apparently a regular discussion group.

The topic for this particular Sunday was a question: “What reasons do non-theists have for not coming out of the ‘godless closet’?”

AtYourServiceIt looked promising, though I had to wrestle with the question of whether it really fit in with the premise of this series. There was no church and there was no service, after all. But I also told myself that the whole point of the series was for me to explore this city’s spiritual offerings, so I saw no reason to exclude it.

The discussion was held in the parlor of the First Congregational Church, which I attended for several years. There were 16 people, not counting me, six of them women, seated around tables arranged in a square.

The leader of the group was Danny Choriki, whose business card described him as a “writer, strategist and techie.” The meeting began, as so many church services do, with announcements—including news of an upcoming solstice celebration called the Human-Lite Party.

Then they launched into the question of the day. The discussion started promisingly enough, with a man who said he had no problem talking about his lack of belief with his friends and work colleagues in Billings. It’s another story when he goes back to Rapid City, S.D., he said, where he is particularly concerned about offending his aging father.

What is this series about?

To read the essay that introduced this series click here.

He ended with a clever line, though I don’t recall the context. He said that when asked to swear on a Bible, he was inclined to answer, “I’d rather swear on a phone book. At least I know those names are real.”

The next person to speak described himself as a “professional Republican” whose beliefs on faith and social issues are alien to most everybody else at Pachyderm Club meetings, while his views on most other issues are at odds with his those of his fellow humanists.

Choriki said he has “actually pulled back from calling myself an atheist” because so many of the “new atheists,” following the lead of Richard Dawkins and nonbelievers of his ilk, are militantly anti-religious. A woman said she preferred the term “non-theist” and said that in her worldview, “practice is actually much more important than belief.”

There were similar comments from others, hedging remarks about how best to present themselves and their beliefs to the world. That prompted another member of the group to say that he proudly describes himself as an atheist, let the chips fall where they may.

“They’ll either discuss it or get the hell out of my face,” he said. He also said that the dynamic, dramatic story of evolution is more interesting, loaded with more food for thought, than any religious narrative.

There was more scattered talk about atheism, agnosticism, humanism and secularism, and the differences between the terms, and one woman said she preferred the term “post-theological.” It was like watching the formation of sects among non-sectarians.

Choriki passed around a one-page explanation of consensus beliefs called “Humanism and Its Aspirations,” developed by the American Humanist Association and consisting of statements like “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change,” and “Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.”

Several attendees said they weren’t looking for a set of beliefs. “That’s part of what I wanted to get away from in leaving the church,” one woman said.

“You don’t have to believe any of this stuff,” another member answered, “but it ties us together.”

I found much to agree with, in a vague, not particularly satisfying way, but then, I’ve never felt I had to find some group as a substitute for an organized church. I don’t know whether I’m like this as a result of being a newspaper reporter and editor for 35 years, or whether I went into newspaper work because of pre-existing notions, but I bristle in any group setting and want to disagree with the prevailing ideas. I gather others at the Socrates Cafe felt the same way.

And speaking of being a reporter, I was paid to sit through hundreds of meetings over the years, and I think I can call myself something of an expert in meeting dynamics. I sensed that more than a few of those gathered for this humanist meeting wanted more structure, more guided discussion.

I was in a Great Books club for several years when I first came to Billings and I learned that those discussions were quite structured, always led by a moderator who was not allowed to state his own opinion, but only to provoke discussion by others, and to encourage the widest possible involvement in the discussion.

This was needed here, if I may say so. Also—as is the case with nearly every group discussion I’ve ever sat through—I wanted to hear more from the women and less from a small group of alpha males.

Those, anyway, are a few of my beliefs, none of them deeply held.

Previously: Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.

Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.

Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.

Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Chapter 5; First Baptist Church.

Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.

Chapter 7: Faith Chapel.

Chapter 8: Eagle Ministries Inc.

Chapter 9: First United Methodist Church.

Chapter 10: Pilgrim Congregational Church.

Chapter 11Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Meetinghouse.

Chapter 12: First Christian Church.

Chapter 13: Victorious Word Church.

Chapter 14: Oasis Church.

Chapter 15: Harvest Church.

Next week: Word of Life Fellowship.

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