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An Interview with Dr. Tim Gorski, Pastor,
North Texas Church of Freethought

By Marilyn Westfall

 
Dr. Tim Gorski is one of four founding members of the North Texas Church of Freethought (NTCOF), established in 1994, in the Dallas/Forth Worth municipalities of Texas. This "church for the unchurched" holds monthly services every first Sunday; a variety of meetings and events occupy the rest of the calendar month. It is the position of the NTCOF that a non-superstitious, non-supernatural religion is the "filet of religion," allowing individuals and families the benefits of religion without subjecting them to beliefs that they likely find offensive and unpalatable. The words of Thomas Henry Huxley, in a letter to the cleric Kingsley, on the death of Huxley’s son, inform the moral vision of the NTCOF: "Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility."*

The church’s outreach is largely to atheists, agnostics, humanists, doubters, skeptics, and freethinkers, who have found themselves excluded from traditional church life in America. The leaders and members strive to kindle highest ideals of good to which human beings can aspire: honesty, integrity, intelligence, insight, creativity, and compassion and respect for others, to name the most important. A second Freethought Church was founded in Houston, Texas in 2000. For more information, visit the NTCOF’s home page at http://www.churchoffreethought.org/

The interview was conducted via e-mail during late February/early March 2005.

Westfall: The North Texas Church of Freethought has been a fully operating organization for 10 years. Give us a quick summary of what it has achieved in that decade.

Gorski: Well, we did get an amicus filed with the US Supreme Court in the Newdow case and also with the Ninth District in the Eklund case in which a school was having children "pretend" to be Muslims. We've also had a bit of media coverage and even once noticed completely by chance a mention in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed. So maybe we are beginning to pass into the popular culture which, if so, I think is an achievement. Our members have donated gallons of priceless blood in our blood drives, which makes a huge difference. Also, a fantastic group of fellow unbelievers launched the Houston Church of Freethought which is independent of but affiliated with us.

But I think our main achievement - of both ours and the Houston church's - has been much humbler and less flashy, which is that we have made a decent start at creating a sense of religious identity and self-confidence among many people who really didn't even know what they were from a religious standpoint. Because most of our members - great people that I would never have known otherwise - came to us either as closet atheists, or, more often, as "agnostics," atheists who were afraid to acknowledge that they didn't believe in the supernatural, as well as doubters and skeptics who hadn't really ever given much thought to the basis of their doubt and skepticism. This, to me, is one of the most important things that needs to be done today: to give people who think of themselves as "not religious" or religious "nothings," but who are actually as interested as devout believers in religious questions, a sense of their identity as people whose core value is a reliance on facts and reason. I think the usefulness of this is primarily to our members themselves - charity begins at home! - and then, secondarily, through the complex calculus of the vast inter-relationship of people which is our society and culture, to all of us as well as the cause of reason. That is, to the extent that we have contributed even the tiniest bit towards eroding the hatred and fear that believers have of unbelievers, I think that is a great achievement.

Westfall: Many atheists disagree with your organizing a religion for unbelievers. I recall that American Atheists, for instance, returned a donation made in the name of NTCOF, because it was money from a church. How do you (or do you bother to) answer such objections?

Gorksi: I think the majority of those who object simply do not understand what we're doing. And I think that many atheists have been so turned-off and so outraged and so traumatized by superstitious religions that words like "church" and "religion" have become anathema to them. I spoke recently at one of our services about the fact that cherished beliefs held by many theists and atheists alike depend on the completely unsupported assertion that religion and church have to be about believing in and teaching supernatural doctrines. Well, we have shown that this is simply not the case. In fact, churches are about how we organize ourselves as social animals. In the case of churches, the organizing principle can be whatever people see as the core values around which they structure their life and intellectual and emotional outlook.

You know, hospitals were once places where people with very serious illnesses were taken to die, where nobody knew better about washing their hands and, consequently, where many people who were not all that sick got worse or died. Sensible people in those days avoided hospitals at all costs. Well, all that has changed, of course, and for the better. Our efforts are devoted to a similar transformation of making church and religion what they really ought to be, ways of thinking and ways of organizing people that meet human needs in a sane and healthy way.

Now, with respect to American Atheists, I should say that their goals of countering state-church entanglements and earning greater respect for atheism are ones that we share. But AA's trademark has been a no-holds-barred down-and-dirty assault on religious faith since it was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Their present leadership is still very much committed to that approach, which is a bit different than ours. They did, as you say, reject our support for the ad project you mention. But AA subsequently accepted us as supporters of another project they sponsored. And I've had private assurances that they have come to see their earlier rejection of us as an unfortunate error on their part. Still, it shows how radical a project the Church of Freethought is embarked on, an effort to redefine what religion and church are all about.

Westfall: Do you attend or are you invited to interfaith gatherings? Have you any indication that religious people consider your church part of the liberal religious tradition?

Gorski: We inquired about joining the Dallas Council of Churches some years ago and were told that, as atheists, we were not welcome. Surprisingly, when we pointed out that the Unitarian churches were members and the Unitarians were infested with atheists, we were told that that didn't count!

As for our being considered to be a further liberalization of a faith-based religion, no I don't think we're seen that way at all. Not that we're trying to be. In fact, our approach is not to try to be another, even more liberalized version of something rooted in superstitious doctrines that are fundamentally wrong and harmful. What we want to do is to identify the functional role of religion in addressing healthy human needs and the puzzling questions traditionally considered as religious in nature. And then to perform that function while relying on facts and reason instead of fears and fairytales.

Westfall: It seems to me that the NTCOF is David to the religious Goliath. Why take on this battle? Wouldn’t it be preferable for unbelievers to walk away from religion and support other kinds of organizations, either secular or "spiritual?" Dan Barker, for instance, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in an interview for this magazine, expressed hope that humans would progress beyond the need for religion.

Gorski: I think it's important not to confuse the important issues here. Yes, we are a "David to Goliath" in that we are small and weak as churches go. On the other hand, there are other churches that are small and weak. We're also small and weak in the sense not just of numbers but because our opinions on religious questions are in the minority. But this also creates more interest and, with it, more opportunities to communicate our message.

But the really important point is that the Church of Freethought is not fundamentally about going up against other people's superstitious religions. We don't devote our services to attacking belief in god(s), for example. Our aim is to explore something much more interesting, which is our own religion - a functional religion - that relies on facts and reason to make sense of all the things that the superstitious religious traditions have tried so hard and for so long and with such dismal results to make sense of. We're not trying to take something away from other people that they feel they need. We're trying to provide an alternative.

Of course, I agree with Dan Barker that we can reasonably hope for a future - probably a long way off, granted - when people do not need superstition. And notice I say "superstition" and not "religion." Because superstition, wrong-headed and harmful ways of coming to grips with the human condition, is the problem, not religion as such, which is only the effort to come to grips with what we are and should be. Now it's also true that maybe we will someday have a world where people have no need of that - of the search for meaning and morality that grows from within people and gives them a sense of personal integrity and purpose. But I think for that kind of world to come about that people would have to be reduced to the mental level of toddlers or be plugged into the TV all day or something. Because a certain proportion of people who can think will always become interested in what are considered "religious questions" and the ideas and opinions that result from that will, functionally, be religion.

Westfall: I recall Michael Newdow saying at the Godless March on Washington that atheism could be considered a religion. How do we unbelievers reconcile our disparate views about religion? Do we need "religious education?" I recall your saying that unbelievers should be familiar with the Bible.

Gorksi: Dr. Newdow is entirely correct. But I don't think he's completely correct because I don't think either atheism or theism can be considered "religion" since both are simply positions or ideas with respect to one narrow question, the question of the existence of supernatural beings that go by the term "gods." As Isaac Asimov once famously said, to call oneself an atheist only means that you don't believe in gods, which is insufficient because there is so many other kinds of nonsense. Also, there can be various reasons why someone lacks belief in god(s), some of which would leave open the possibility that one will come to believe in god(s). So, yes, we do need religious education for atheists because it is important that people understand not only the grounds for what is taken to be true but also to understand the factual and rational basis for doubt and unbelief.


As for the Bible, I think it's clear that it's worth knowing about what's in it for the same reason that people should know what's in the plays of Shakespeare or The Iliad or the Odyssey or Aesop's Fables. The Bible is no less and no more a part of our literary heritage than these other works and in the far-flung future that I am imagining that is exactly how everyone will see it.

Westfall: You’ve appeared on radio and television, as a spokesperson for the NTCOF, and lately received some rough treatment from Sean Hannity and Jerry Falwell. What impressions have you gathered, from your experience, about the levels of religious tolerance/intolerance in this country?

Gorski: Oh, there's tremendous fear and hatred of atheists. On Hannity's radio show that I was on this can be seen very clearly by the fact that they simply had to tack that label "atheist" on me. They were not going to let me get away with saying that I didn't believe that Jesus was anything more than a man (if he ever existed as a specific person) or that I believe in Jesus Christ in the same way that I believe in Captain Jean Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. Because they know that "atheist" carries terrible connotations with most people that they - people like Falwell especially, as well as his ideological forbears - have themselves nurtured. Thomas Jefferson and our intellectual forbears experienced the same thing. For example, we know Jefferson said things like "question with boldness even the existence of God" and that "to talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings." But these ideas have to be shouted down and the label "atheist" applied, which, of course, stands for everything despicable and evil. Of course, it doesn't help when someone self-identifies as an atheist and then curses and behaves offensively for TV cameras.

Now there's another curious thing about fear and hatred of atheists and it is that even many unbelievers have absorbed some of this whether they realize it or not. It's why so many people who doubt supernatural doctrines don't talk about it, feel guilty about it, and refuse to think of themselves as atheists. Every single person who says, "I'm an agnostic" is, in fact, an atheist. Because they don't believe in god(s), which is all atheism means. Thomas Henry Huxley wrote about what agnosticism really is. We have the essay on our website. He makes it very clear that the whole point of agnosticism has to do with how one holds one beliefs and not to provide a way to deny that one has a belief or lacks a belief with the dodge that "I don't know!" Unless one is willing to affirm a belief, one does not have the belief.

Westfall: In the FAQ’s section of the NTCOF homepage, you pose and answer the question, "How are you different from the Unitarians?" The answer to the FAQ claims that in UU churches it is impolite to question mysticism and supernaturalism. Did you attend a UU church? Why are you of the opinion (expressed on NTCOF’s web site) that UU’s "elevate" tolerance "to the level of dogma"?

Gorski: Oh, yes, before we ever started up the Church of Freethought we visited some Unitarian churches and listened to people preaching numerology and homeopathy and all sorts of weird stuff with no factual or rational basis. For someone whose core values and whole world-view are a reliance on facts and reason, to have "tolerance" in the sense of any kind of approval - even a tacit approval - of such stuff is as wrongheaded as to have "tolerance" for the most scandalous of doctrines pushed by the mainstream faith-based religions. As I said earlier, what distinguishes churches is that they are social organizations in which people are bound together by the core values around which they structure their life and intellectual and emotional outlook. To do without this is, it seems to me, to have core values of basically no values, to have an attitude of "anything goes" or some kind of postmodern doctrine that there is really no real truth of any kind. Except, of course, the truth that there is no truth.

I don't mean to slam UUism and I have a lot of respect for the people in that tradition especially who insisted that hell was a blasphemy on the idea of a loving deity. But, honestly, one cannot have such an open mind that one's brains fall out. I try very hard to keep an open mind but I do rely on two "bouncers" to keep order. Their names are Fact and Reason.

Westfall: I recall a conversation in which you told me about attending Humanist meetings in the past that were not family or child friendly. This was a reason for starting the NTCOF, as I remember. Is this attitude toward families and children changing? Do you think it contributed to a declining interest, by young people, in Humanist organizations?

Gorski: I really don't know the answer to that with respect to what Humanists are doing, specifically the American Humanist Association (AHA), but, yes, I recall it being suggested that I could bring my children to an annual meeting of the AHA and hire a babysitter to care for them in the hotel room. Well, I could hardly think of a better way to turn off my kids to Humanism if their earliest memories of it were connected to being stuck in a hotel room in another city with a stranger. This is also why, from the beginning, the North Texas Church of Freethought has offered childcare and Sunday School free of charge in conjunction with our regular services. I think this is very important because it's part of fostering a sense of religious identity and belonging among unbelievers. Why should our kids have to go through the struggle many of us did to find their way to the promised land of reason? And how else are we going to have the kind of progress that we're interested in on the subject of religion unless the next generation can really start the world over again as it were instead of struggling under a load of superstitious baggage?

Westfall: Given all your experience, what mistakes, in your opinion, must we unbelievers avoid making? What actions can we take to shift the culture of the United States toward the values we endorse?

Gorski: Well, I don't claim to be much of an authority on this subject. But there are some mistakes that stand out. One is that many of us have a kind of allergy or phobia to anything connected with religion and churches. While understandable, this skews our perceptions in ways that make us less effective. For example, it tends to cause us to lump all faith-based religions and all of their followers, no matter how watered-down or benign they may be, in with the fire-breathers who preach a return to a civil society based on Leviticus. It also causes many unbelievers to suppose that, since there can be no legitimate benefits whatsoever to religion, believers must all be crazy, stupid, evil, or all three. Yet when we blind ourselves to the more general functions that religion and churches serve, the functions that go beyond the specific dogmas and doctrines that they peddle, we fail to see and take advantage of a very important means of combating superstition, which is the real enemy. Because if we understand the more general functions then it opens up the possibility of doing what religion and churches do but to do it right, to do it without superstition but with facts and reason, and to finally get on a path that will help to bring an end to the history of religious wars and the kinds of horrors that arise when people cannot settle their differences by recourse to facts and reason.

We unbelievers make a lot of other mistakes as well but this is the big one, the one to which most of the others are related. For example, I think it's because all the superstitious sects make such a big deal out of asserting their identity that we tend not to take seriously the need to assert our own. Because the various religious groups insist on raising their kids "in their religion," which basically consists of feeding them nonsense and teaching them that it's wrong to question it, we unbelievers often don't teach our kids anything about religion and say ridiculous things such as that we want them to "decide for themselves" whether to believe in superstition. I could go on.

But I think that in order to begin to shift the culture towards our values we have to stop seeing ourselves and our values in oppositional terms. That doesn't mean we cave in to nonsense and superstition. It doesn't even mean that we have to tolerate it anymore than we should tolerate racism. But we have to begin showing that the way to solve the problems that people and society have is to stick to facts and reason and to make distinctions that correspond to reality.

 
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