The writer with her grandfather, United Church of Canada minister Rev. Don Gillies, who passed away in September 2018. (Photo courtesy of Erin Pepler)

Topics: Spirituality | Opinion

I’m an atheist who loves The United Church of Canada

I gave up on God but still try to live the church's values

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One of my earliest childhood memories is of a small, framed illustration on my bedroom wall. In it, a little girl in a blue dress knelt beside a bed in a scene reminiscent of Holly Hobbie, with a classic bedtime prayer in beautiful, old-fashioned script. I loved that illustration and I read the prayer every night. I didn’t necessarily pray, but read the words and hoped I wouldn’t spontaneously die in my sleep. Sweet as the poem was intended to be, I didn’t want the Lord to take my soul to keep. Not yet, at least.

During my childhood, my family regularly attended services at different United churches, though I’m not sure I’d describe any of us as deeply religious. I went to Bible camp in the summer and spent many happy weekends in Sunday school. We had all been baptized, but didn’t talk much about belief (or lack thereof). 

My grandfather, Rev. Don Gillies, a minister at Bloor Street United in Toronto, was the exception. He was devoted to the church, but also a critical thinker who never shied away from a respectful debate or discussing ideas contrary to his own. He was a political man with a passion for equality and human rights and he advocated for religious leaders to come together. He believed in God, but also in people. My Papa Donnie was also one of the few people with whom I regularly discussed religion who didn’t dismiss my burgeoning atheism as a phase or rebellion.

Growing up in a loving church family surrounded by other church people, you might think that faith would come easily to me. I had a shining example in my grandfather and his other United Church of Canada (UCC) minister friends. But as the years went on, I struggled with the idea of God and religion. Turns out, they weren’t for me.

On a good day, I’m borderline agnostic, but most of the time, I’d describe myself as a passive non-believer. As in, I don’t think there’s a God, but I’m not going to try and convince anyone that they’re wrong for believing otherwise.

I do not attend church and my children are not baptized. I am, by definition, an atheist. But if you ask me about my beliefs, I will enthusiastically talk about the United Church, because I believe in the organization.

More on Broadview: The United Church welcomes all — even atheist ministers

No matter how my perspective shifted over time, I never lost affection for the community that was instrumental in my upbringing: the individual people, the greater UCC institution and its values. I love the church’s inclusivity. I am very proud that I grew up among people who stand against racism, are proudly feminist and fight for human rights, who welcome and advocate for the LGBTQ community, who reach out to refugees and offer support to the homeless — people who lead by example instead of preaching aggressively.

I love the church’s focus on giving back and helping others, members’ belief in restorative justice and their dedication to the community as well as people across the globe. I feel these values more than I’ve ever felt God, and perhaps more importantly, I am proud to live in a way that reflects their mission. This is reflected in my approach to parenting, my stance on human rights issues and the charitable organizations I’ve chosen to support. I strive to be an ally to LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups, and to raise children who understand their privilege and use it to help others. My value system doesn’t stem from scripture, but it feels inherently right.

I didn’t come by my atheism lightly or by accident. It’s not born out of laziness, as some have suggested, or a desire to rebel against church and my family. I’m a 35-year-old mother-of-two who lives in the suburbs and drives a crossover. I may be a questioner and a free thinker, but I’m hardly radical.

My emotional connection to the United Church community is tied directly to the congregations I grew up in, which were progressive, left-leaning and warm. But that is not every person’s experience. Not every congregation flies a rainbow flag, prioritizes reconciliation efforts and participates in interfaith groups. As a white, middle-class, straight, cisgender woman, it’s easy to miss or gloss over the times an organization’s actions failed to reflect its mission statement. I do not attend church because of my lack of belief in God, but some believers have been made to feel unwelcome in the same spaces I feel at ease. I chose to leave; others have felt pushed out. On inclusivity, the church still has a long way to go.

I struggle with the concept of organized religion and will never be a devout Christian. But in my heart, I’m a United Church person. No community is perfect, but when you find your people, they’re worth holding on to.

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  • says:

    Admiring your views on the here and now, have you thoroughly thought: 'What happens when I die?' It won't hurt or cost anything to try.
    According to the Bible being good and going to Church won't change your standing in the afterlife.
    Don't think of Christians and religion, they both have issues. Think of your relationship with Christ.

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    • says:

      Thanks for reading, Gary. I'm honestly not concerned about what happens after we die - my personal belief is that we just return to nature and there is no afterlife, but that said, I also believe that if there *is* an afterlife, I've lived kindly and shouldn't fear anything. I've never dwelled on this or worried about it. I feel at peace.

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      • says:

        I have always wondered if the article writers read the responses (comments) of their articles. Thank you for responding to each one presented, that speaks volumes.
        Your reply to me states that you do believe in an afterlife, because if you believed we "just return to dust" you don't need to "live kindly", for nothing in life matters after death. When you do become troubled in your life (and it will come) remember my original response. I'm sure your grandfather believed Romans 3:23.

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        • says:

          I like to think I'd live kindly whether the afterlife exists or not, honestly! If someone proved tomorrow that heaven/hell didn't exist (or did), my behaviour wouldn't change. Granted, that may not be true of everyone.

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          • says:

            Good answer, Erin. I've ministered for only fourteen years but all the while questioned the writers of what has become what we deem "scripture." Who were they? What was their thought process and their agenda? Their writings are simply their personal opinion. Plus, they had no science as we have today. And, how was their work edited and how was it interpreted and changed through the years? I have many questions. That being said, I have, and do experience the presence and action of God in my life. I no longer teach about an afterlife, nor do I teach much of what the Epistles or the Old Testament says. I choose to live and teach the simple teachings of Jesus and similar teachings that others before and after him have taught. We each must walk our own spiritual path. Belief is not static. My particular belief can change with new information I take in. Neither can we judge others for their beliefs. Their are many religions and spiritual paths. You must choose what works for you. I commend you for your thoughtful views. Thanks.

  • says:

    If the UCC followed its own ethos, atheism might flourish within it instead of scuppering about defensively in the aftermath of the attack on the Rev. Gretta Vopser.

    For me, atheism is at the heart of the Gospel. The Good News proclaimed by Mark and Paul before him is that the death of a god -- though painful -- can open the way to a new life closer to the heart of Love.

    Mark creates a narrative of the ministry and death of a human-like god known as Jesus the Christ (or "YHWH the Salvation, the King"). Happily, Mark's Jesus/YHWH does not exhibit the murderous xenophobia of YHWH's portrait in books like Exodus.

    After the Romans murder Jesus, divinity and sovereignty are born again within the hearts of people who follow the Way. Paul writes "I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2).

    I don't know if Erin's grandfather Don -- whom my late parents greatly esteemed -- would agree with my take on the Gospel. But it is one I try to proclaim at every Sunday gathering. Would that our leadership let such currents flow within the UCC unburdened by attacks like the one it perpetrated on Vosper.

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    • says:

      As a leader of a Christian church, please quote scriptures, which refers to the death of a god?

      Jesus was both human and God (Titus 2:13 & Luke 24:39) - not "god like" or "man like".

      I don't see xenophobia in the Hebrew scriptures, (Leviticus 19:34, Jeremiah 22:3 and Exodus 12:48-49).
      Finally, Ms. Vosper was questioned about her faith - the majority of us in the United Church disagreed with her views of God.

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      • says:

        Mark's Jesus is an updated portrait of YHWH, the tribal god first mentioned in Genesis 2 and in many other places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Like YHWH, Jesus is a god who also appears to be human. E.g. YHWH walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening while calling for Adam and Eve to show themselves. This sort of human-like behaviour is something that Elohim, El Shaddai, and some of the other gods mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures do not exhibit.

        Mark doesn't denote his god with the Hebrew letters YHWH because Mark wrote in Greek not Hebrew. Mark used Iesous as the name for the god/human from Nazareth. The Greek name Iesous can be translated as Yeshua, or Joshua, or YHWH the Salvation. Mark narrates this god's death in Mark 15 -- i.e the crucifixion.

        As for YHWH's xenophobia, a good example is found in Exodus 23:23: “YHWH said, ‘My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” There are many more. Happily, Mark's YHWH/Jesus doesn't murder anyone.

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        • says:

          Deuteronomy 6:4. Hear, O Israel: The LORD [Jehovah] your God [Elohim] is one LORD [Jehovah].
          Would this not imply Elohim and YHWH are the same Being?
          Again God did not die, the physical form of God died, to state God died would deny the very character and nature of God, including His immutability.
          Exodus 23 is where God uses the Israelites to execute justice against an evil society. Somewhat like the World wars in the early 1900's. God was willing to be lenient to Sodom and Gomorrah.
          Jesus is God, He cannot kill anyone, yet the apostle Paul tried his hand at xenophobia.

      • says:

        I don't disagree with Gretta. God is real, but not what most people think. Just because the majority may think something, does not make them right.

    • says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Ian - I appreciate your contribution to this conversation!

  • says:

    This is a wise, thoughtful and ultimately uplifting article, and I thank the author deeply. This piece serves to affirm the importance of the community and values that United churches offer members of any age, perhaps especially modeling inclusive, generous ways of living to children. Our sons attended UC Sunday School and, like Erin Peplar, have not chosen to stay in the church. This is their considered choice and we respect it. Our grandchildren do not attend church. But there is respect among us all for our differing beliefs and for all the the UC has meant in shaping the thinking that gave them their start. Bravo for publishing this article.

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    • says:

      Thank you for this incredible compliment - it is much appreciated.

  • says:

    This is a striking, well written and cogent expression of trust, confidence and hope in people and the United Church. I was an evangelical minister outside of the UCC with strong leanings towards social justice, acceptance of anomalies and affirmation of divergence. You have said with affection what so many have said uncertainly. Thank you. Deeply encouraging to me.

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    • says:

      Thank you so much for these very kind words.

  • says:

    Don was one of my profs at Emmanuel College. I think it's fair to say he was beloved by faculty and students alike. I was called by God to United Church ministry almost thirty years ago. I served 14 years plus an additional seven obtaining my degrees and graduated in 2000. However the faculty at Emmanuel encouraged all of us to engage in a process of continuing education and I took that encouragement seriously. For the past twenty years I've read much from many learned ministers, professors, theological teachers and more. The more I've read, the more I've moved away from organized religion. I must admit, my outward movement began when I traded the theoretical version of Christianity for the practical reality of serving in pastoral charges that wanted nothing to hear of what I've learned. Yes the United Church as an organization has noble teaching but these teachings are sometimes forgotten or ignored by the individual pastoral charges or churches. Now my relationship with God is just that: MY relationship with GOD. I don't need ancient books or beliefs anymore. My value system is based on the spiritual values such as honesty, forgiveness, doing no harm and trying to live an ethical life which are the things taught by Jesus and others like him. A person's relationship with God is personal and it should always be a choice when one is old enough to make a choice. You may not be walking the path that Don walked......and it was his path, not yours, but in reading your piece I think he did a great job and he is proud of you. Enjoy "your" path.

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    • says:

      This brought me to tears, thank you so much.

  • says:

    There is Good News, know matter our take on things. Yahweh, "I am what I am up to, just watch me" holds all creation in a warm, loving and faithful embrace.

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    • says:

      Thank you for reading, Lorraine!

  • says:

    I am feeling a little confused. In your second last paragraph, you say that you chose to leave. In your last paragraph, however, you say that when you find your people, they are worth holding on to. I just do not understand how these two statements fit together. This in no way is a judgment. My own spiritual journey to the United Church has included various religions as well as atheism. I am just a little confused about the apparent contradiction in these two statements. I guess I see myself as finding my people at the United Church and holding on to them by regular attendance and participation. How is leaving also holding on to them? Thank you for clarifying.

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    • says:

      Hi Ann, thanks for reading. I did leave the church long ago but I have held on to my relationships with many UCC people, as they are important to me. I would never sever relationships with amazing people because our religious views don't align. I do not attend church services but still feel a part of the UCC community in terms of values, friendship, comfort, a sense of home. It wouldn't make sense for me to attend services as I don't believe in God, but I happily attend church fundraisers, concerts, etc with family when asked. I hope that makes sense. If not, to each their own! Take care.

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      • says:

        That does make sense. Thank you for clarifying.

  • says:

    You and my brother are very similar. I tell most Christians I meet that he is agnostic. Meaning, he doesn't want to admit there is a God, for fear he may have to act upon the ideals, and actions required to believe. That's not to say, I think his views are wrong, if he doesn't believe in God, that's his choice. In fact, I'd say he was more of Christian than most Christians claim to be.

    When we were in our 30s, we had a heated debate about faith. And to this day, it's still a point of contention. Because the argument comes down to one fact and one fact alone...He cannot prove God doesn't exist, and I cannot prove God does. So the act of belief is where we differ in our beliefs. But I love my brother, and I would defend him to the end, even if his last breath, he said "I'm sorry Matt, I just don't believe."

    Once, his son tried to challenge me on my faith, and I came back with you want proof in God...The formula for Pi. He was like what does Pi have to do with God? I said, "Ok, in the universe, every circle, no matter how big or small, when you divide the circumference of it by the diameter, works out to 3.14 (The number is infinite, but we all know that's the formula). So if it is throughout every circle ever, how the hell did that happen in a random universe? No God? There's proof in so many mathematical equations and the physical...But honestly, if you don't believe, you'll argue me on the point anyway." I never saw that kid look so speechless.

    Now I am not judging you. I grew up in the same manner as you...grandfather was a minister in the United Church, we worshipped, and we got bored, and we did the social events...But the one thing that differed for me, was the reason my grandfather became a minister, which he never told anyone, until the year before he died to me.

    He was in the Canadian Signals during World War 2 in NWT. He and his regiment took communiques for high level generals during the D-Day invasion and the liberation of Auschwitz. And he said the horrors, that they had heard (especially Auschwitz), that he decided that after the war, he was not going to let those atrocities happen, while God gave him a life to make a difference. And I cannot argue with that kind of faith.

    Anyway, thanks for the article, it gave me an enlightened feeling, and I enjoyed reading it.

  • says:

    Any experienced leader (read Minister) with integrity would advise a person not to worship any human institution including the UCC. As an atheist take responsibility for your faith. Understand what Neitche pointed out. Without faith it's all about the will to power. Really understand the implication of your faith.
    Personally I find the witnesst of persecuted Christians in the middle East or say North Korea more powerfully inspiring than the evangelical testimony of another believer who gave up on God. They risk everything and we with our opinions about God in this country risk nothing

  • says:

    my thoughts exactly. My viewpoint mirrors your own. I quit going to church but my wife has not. I believe in 'something', but my human brain is not capable of understanding the complexity of creation, the same as a herd of elephants can't fly airplanes, it is beyond the sphere of intelligence