About

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been a doubter.

Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve had the nagging feeling that religion in general, and organized churches in particular, have caused more harm than good.  At the very least, I’ve felt that in the modern age, they’re a bit backwards and unnecessary.

It’s pretty easy to find messages of hate or something despicable coming out of modern religious institutions. All one has to do is turn on the news, and one can see televangelists blaming natural disasters on gay marriage, fatwas issued encouraging the murder of cartoonists, women treated like slaves, complicated cover-ups of banking scandals and sexual molestation of minors, and people protesting the funerals of downed soldiers.

One can look in the Old Testament and find a lot that causes offense.  Rules that prevent women from holding authority, children being slaughtered by bears or killed off by horrible disease by an angry God, and innocent good men being tortured to prove how durable and faithful they are.  And lots more.

If you’ve read the Old Testament, and you haven’t been offended, then you’ve just been skimming to the good parts.

I recently made some offhand comments on Facebook about the current Pope, and how I was a bit pleasantly surprised by a statement he made about how everyone ought to just get along, and that you don’t have to be a Christian to be good.  More than surprised, I was impressed.  I hadn’t been aware of any other major religious figure saying that sort of thing before, except for the Dalai Lama.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought aloud, if all religious leaders did that sort of thing?  I mean, instead of blaming someone’s sexual preference on natural disasters, or demanding large sums of money on TV?

It was pointed out to me that church pastors actually tell their flocks to be good and tolerant all the time, but those things don’t get into the news.

Is this true?  Is my whole image of Christiandom wrong?  Are religious institutions more moral and ethical than I imagine them to be?

I’m going to find out.  In a very non-scientific, and highly anecdotal way, no doubt.  But being that I live in Seattle, I’m going to have to limit my sample set to that city.  It has a lot of churches, mosques, temples, and shrines, and I’m going to do my best to visit a decently representative sample of them, and grade them.

I’m going to try to be neutral and fair, but I’m a human being who is a bit biased against religion, so I imagine some of my bias will find its way in here.  But this is going to be an honest assessment, using what I feel to be a fair and honest scale, and it’s the best I can do.

What I’m looking for is religious leaders (pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, etc.) who preach something that I consider to be ethical and moral, using the following criteria:

  • Being good to your fellow human.
    Being good doesn’t mean converting him or her to your religion.  It means being nice, forgiving, reasonable, and tolerant.
    Religious leaders who include this theme in their sermon will receive a point or two.  Religious leaders who say something counter to this will get docked a point.
  • Help your community
    Helping your community doesn’t mean converting them to your religion.  It means helping people in need, direct charity and work to worthy humanitarian projects.  This can be either local, regional, national, or international, but should involve some kind of request for charity money or volunteer time.  This can be to a religious organization (obviously) but not one exclusively designed to spread the faith.  -1 to 2 points.
  • Be good to yourself
    Chill out, relax, enjoy yourself.  I’m looking for messages of personal empowerment, self-help, the general idea that it is okay for you to be you.  -1 to 2 points.
  • Good and timely advice
    Advice on how to be a moral, ethical, useful, and decent human being.  I will accept anything at all as “good” advice, even if I don’t agree with it, except for “go convert others to your religion” and of course, anything illegal or in conflict with the other criteria.   This might overlap a bit with the others, and if it does, I’ll do my best to parse it out.

This is a pretty small set of criteria, but I’m not looking for much, and I’m not interested in getting into dogma and ritual.  If the sect I visit engages in communion or denies the Holy Trinity, I really don’t care.   I’m looking for what I consider to be positive messages that, if followed by the flock, then maybe the world will become a nicer place.

Not through grace.  I know that Christians like to talk a lot about grace, but I’m talking about deeds.  I’m looking for a religious institution that encourages good deeds.

I’m going to visit a religious place or two each weekend, and write about my experiences.

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24 thoughts on “About

  1. Pingback: Crown Hill United Methodist Church | Doubting Mark

  2. Hey I came across this blog via r/Seattle. You should come visit our church in Tacoma! I want to see what it gets rated.

  3. Greetings, I found your blog via reddit.

    You have a lot of details in your posts about the churches you have visited so far, and while you mention on this page that your tests are unscientific I don’t think that you will be able to get an accurate view of any of the churches or religions that you plan to visit by only going once. Unless a church is repeating the same message every week, you will probably only hear a sub-set of what any particular church or religion believes. That won’t allow you to accurately rate them on the scale you have setup.

    Also, your 3rd criteria of “Be good to yourself” is a bit against what religions inherently teach. Many religions talk about “changing your bad actions to good” or “here are things you should/shouldn’t do to be a good person” and it sounds like you’re looking for a religion to say that “you’re ok, even if you’re a horrible person” (that’s not a reflection on you personally, just it sounds like that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for). It’s an invalid criteria, because religions that want to truly help you will want to make you a better person, not make you feel better about the way you are now.

    I would suggest picking a few churches and visiting them multiple times, instead of visiting many churches once to get a better view of each of the churches, what they believe, and what they preach about.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. I just wanted to point out one thing: If I visit a church on the one day that they don’t tell you to go out and be a good person, or the day they don’t tell you that you should help out in your community… then that tells me a lot about that church, doesn’t it? I believe that churches should be encouraging good behavior at every sermon.

      Since I started doing this, I’ve gotten this kind of comment, either in person, or via Reddit, Facebook, email, or this blog, that the day I visited just happened to be the day the pastor didn’t mention those things. At every single religious institution I’ve visited so far. So, either I’m incredibly lucky in hitting those places at just exactly the wrong time, or some folks aren’t being honest about the message.

      I think it’s the latter. Nobody wants their place of worship to be seen as lacking, even when it is.

      And also:
      ” it sounds like you’re looking for a religion to say that “you’re ok, even if you’re a horrible person” ”
      I’m not saying that at all. I think horrible people are horrible and good people are good, and I wouldn’t expect a priest or a rabbi to say anything different.

  4. You should try Trinity United Methodist in Ballard also. You could segue off your experience with Mars Hill. TUM Ballard is a “reconciling” congregation trying very hard to fill a giant old brick building with a shelter, soup kitchen, various other non-profits, and much more. This is a great experiment and I’m happy to promote your blog.

  5. Hey – also found you via r/Seattle. As a local pastor, I just want to thank you for taking a look around. I hope you find some encouraging communities of faith. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to be helpful along the way…I mostly work with teenagers and so acknowledging doubt and asking questions are my happy places.

  6. I as well found you through r/Seattle. I like your writing and your perspective. I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on my church on Capitol Hill. I can give you details if you’d like.

    • Sure, but I can’t in all honesty promise to visit it. I’m being a little overwhelmed with church invitations right now.

  7. Pingback: A note to readers | Doubting Mark

  8. Hi. Interesting experiment. I hope you can keep going for a long time and can cover as much religious ground as possible. As a fellow atheist I’ll be eagerly looking out for your review of my church – University Unitarian — to see how we measure up against the other chaps!

  9. Maybe you can start a trend of having church/temple/etc. reviews like we have restaurant reviews in the weekend paper. You could post your reviews on Yelp or Google Places, etc. 🙂

  10. Just wanted to make a quick comment, lots I would like to say but I’ll just leave it with this. It is important to note that when you visited the LDS meeting you only attended 1/3 of the normal Sunday worship, yet 50% of your criteria was met. I know had you attende 100% of the meeting that all of your criteria would have been met, as I tought the third block “priesthood” and the lesson was on The Relief Society, one of this country’s logest active charitable societies. Further your comment that every sermon should contain your critera (paraphrasing not quoting) is a little unfair. If every sermon was a litany of what the church stands for, then there would be little point in attending. Forinstance if each sermon in my church had to include the humanitarian efforts that we were engaged in around the world or even just in our communities there would be little room for teaching other gosple principles.

  11. I’m just curious. I do understand you’re perspective and can see how sometimes Christians, and sometimes other religions as well portray what you’re seeing. It’s quite sad to me that that happens. But I wonder. What would your assessment be of atheists and what they offer to the betterment of society. I know this would be in many ways harder to rate, as they don’t hold meetings (or do they? I don’t really know, but seeing they’re a lack of religion I don’t know why they would meet or what they would teach, but perhaps I’m wrong) and obviously you’re perspective would still be biased. But being as honest and fair as possible, assuming you could find a way to rate Atheists in general, I would love to see how you rate them. And I’m not trying to make assumptions that they would be better or worse than religious groups, I’m just truly curious.

    • As an atheist I would say you probably get the same mix of good and bad that you get in any religion.
      For me, the focus is not on not believing in God, it’s on trying to live my life in a meaningful way by helping others and doing good. I think folks who follow religions are trying to do the same thing, but they are simultaneously subjected to dogma and judgement which often (though not always) fosters hate and intolerance.

  12. To doubt is normal, to question divine, I love your blog. I am a mormon and have grown up my whole life with the notion that one should be good to oneself (“. . .men are that they might have joy”). I am sorry you missed that message in your visit. Becoming happy is a major theme of pure religion (it has little to do with the organization). To become happy is the ultimate “doing good to oneself”.

  13. I have been reading “The Faith of a Scientist” by Henry Eyring.

    He says, “The work of Rene Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton typifies two methods of attack on the problems of science.
    Descartes attempted to build up a universal system which would explain all the problems of nature from a unified philosophical point of view. He was quite willing to go far beyond what he could demonstrate experimentally, provided the point of view seemed rational to him. He thought everything, even problems of physiology, should be explained in terms of mechanisms. Most of his ideas on physics have been superseded by the painstaking method of careful observation. He fared better in the field of mathematics where he verified his results as he proceeded.
    Newton, on the other hand, was careful in his law of gravitation, in his mechanics and in his theories of optics to proceed slowly and to avoid going beyond what led to estimates of the moon’s force of attractions to the earth one-sixth greater than was correctly predicted by Newton’s theory. As a result, he waited years to resolve this difficulty before publishing his theory. The result is that most of what Newton published still stands. Relativity and quantum mechanics simply extend Newtonian mechanics without superseding it in the realm for which it was developed.
    In religion, too, there are two ways of proceeding. There are those truths we know by revelation and by long experience. Then there are the myriads of problems which are interesting but go far beyond the things we know. One type of mind goes plunging into the mysteries and explains them all to his own satisfaction. This probably does little harm, if one doesn’t end up believing one’s own daydreams. It is just important to keep fact and fancy separated in religion as in science.”

    Ruth

  14. Another Mormon here. I’ve read many of your posts related to your project (not just the Mormon ones) with a lot of interest. It’s something I’ve wanted to do myself, and in addition your perspective makes these posts a thought-provoking and enjoyable read for me.

    I know you’re primarily interested in your local congregations and what they preach, but here you mention not having heard much that struck you as humanistic of the mouths of major ecclesiastical figures, so I wanted to invite you to watch part of the LDS church’s General Conference this next weekend (Oct 5-6), where in lieu of regular church meetings, church members worldwide listen to live broadcasts of sermons/counsel from the top church leaders. You’ve checked the Mormons out already, but this may add to your data set in terms of what of your experience is anomalous and what is not, in terms of the tone set by the main leaders. (Plus, I’m just plain curious whether the points you tally would come out net positive or negative.)

  15. Mark, thanks for this blog. It’s great to see an atheist who is not bent on saying nasty things about people who believe in God. I hope that other atheists are paying attention to what you write and will take a cue from your fair and reasonable attitude. If you want people to listen to you, you can’t be antagonistic, and your non-confrontational approach has served you well. I applaud your efforts. I have many atheist friends, and we try to be cordial and respectful to one another. I wish more of that were going around.

    I also appreciate how you generally refrain from getting into discussions about what religions teach or what you believe about God. There are, of course, forums for those kinds of discussions, but I think they generally dissolve into name-calling and hurt feelings. I personally think it’s best that atheists and believers (non-atheists? how do I categorize people who aren’t atheist?) discuss these issues face-to-face and one-on-one to avoid confrontational behavior, although even that tends to unravel at some point. Too many opportunities to hit too close to home and offend, even if unintentionally.

    I’ve had several atheist friends try to “convert” me, even telling me to read certain books or listen to certain lectures or visit certain sites. The efforts to convert people really do come from both sides of the fence. The thing is, most of us are just trying to figure out the “right” way to live and once we think we’ve figured it out, we feel compelled to convince others to join us. It kind of goes against the grain for many people to “live and let live,” at least, if they truly believe it will affect the quality of life for their society. It’s also gotten to where the Golden Rule just doesn’t work anymore, as too many people can’t agree on what behavior they’d tolerate. I appreciate how you’ve been able to narrow down many of these issues into four categories that most people ought to share in common.

    I’m now following your blog. I’ve always been curious about what various worship services are like, but not enough to put forth the amount of time and energy you’ve expended. I’m glad to discover that I agree with your sentiments most of the time. I haven’t seen you touch on politics yet (I haven’t read all your posts), but I hope I won’t see that, actually, because it’s probably better to tackle one controversial category at a time.

    Atheists need to stop posting caustic and arrogant memes around Facebook about how atheists are smarter and better than people who believe in God, and instead rally around the themes you’ve shared here- uplifting and important things that actually would make the world a better place if those values were lived. I extend that advice to all religious folks also posting arrogant and self-righteous things on the internet. We need to stop attacking people for their beliefs and instead unite on promoting beliefs that serve all. Thanks for building up rather than tearing down. Thanks for inspiring religious/spiritual/believing folk to step it up in their services. Thanks for encouraging believers and atheists alike to be respectful and tolerant.

    On another note, have you heard about the new atheist church?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/08/atheist-church-sunday-assembly_n_2432911.html

  16. I’m really glad to hear that you’re actually going and finding out for yourself what religious people are up to. We can learn a lot by looking for the good in people we perceive as different from us. You’ve scored points in my book 😉

  17. I like your criteria. I like how you are being fair an objective. You specifically talk about deeds beyond grace. I want you to know that Mormons rarely talk about grace, although it is important. We talk specifically about works/deeds and that God will save us, but we must do our part. We can’t call on him out of laziness and expect Him to save us. We have to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, we must try everyday to help and serve others, to be present for our families, to provide for them and to be strong active members of society doing good. We are taught that where much is given, much is required. Nothing is by grace alone, but once we do our part, the God will make up the difference. I’m not sure if anyone has shared that aspect of our teachings to you, but I thought that I should mention it because I think it is good and important. And if you ever visit a Mormon church again, I think you will find that the teachings are different each time. There is always a common thread which is built upon the teachings of Jesus, but the messages do vary from week to week. And to be perfectly honest, sometimes I am bored out of my mind and other times I am very intrigued and I feel so lifted spiritually and emotionally, so I would be curious to hear what you have to say after going a 2nd time because it really is different. And if you REALLY want to get to the nitty gritty, you can go the 1st Sunday of the month which is “Fast Sunday”. There are no assignments given by the Bishop to a specific member or a topic, the pulpit is free to those who want to bare their testimony of Christ. Old and young a like have the floor. Not gonna lie, it freaks members out a little to have people learning about the church come on that specific Sunday, so it might be a fun contrast from the typical format.

    Jennifer

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