AS a minister, I was startled to pick up the March 14 newspaper and see my denomination linked with one of the most hated groups in America.

"Stark gives confession," the front page headline read, next to a quote identifying Rep. Pete Stark as a Unitarian.

"What is Stark confessing?" I wondered. Embezzlement? X-rated hanky-panky? Or is he hooked on heroin?

No. Pete Stark acknowledged publicly he doesn't believe in God.

The April American Sociological Review reports that "Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry."

They are "seen as a threat to the American way of life. ... Many ... associated atheism with ... criminal behavior, ... rampant materialism and cultural elitism, ... self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."

Whew. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, how can I allow my congregation to be associated with such riffraff?

It's easy.

I know lots of atheists. They include some of the most moral and selfless people I have ever met.

My congregation is open to many different philosophies, so on Sunday morning I preach to theists, pantheists, atheists and agnostics.

I have discovered that there is much more that unites them than divides them.

What could unite theists and atheists? Values.


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The commitment to make the world a better place.

Some theists are saints and some are scoundrels, and exactly the same is true of atheists. You can't determine a person's character by finding out his or her theory of reality.

Often the difference between theists and atheists is just wordplay. Jesus said, "God is love," and some people in my denomination take that literally. They define God as the caring and compassion that connects persons. Obviously love exists, so in that sense God exists. But not everyone would call it God.

Believers and unbelievers also can be united in humility, admitting the limits of our knowledge.

Some people are confident that God is a lot like us (except infinite, eternal, and perfect). That could be, but it also could be that ultimate reality is a mystery beyond our understanding, regardless of whether we call it God.

With whatever flimsy evidence we possess, we make our choice — yes, there is a divine consciousness hidden in the darkness; or no, there is not.

Our beliefs are spiritual wagers, leaps of faith or leaps into unbelief. This suggests that a mystery-affirming theism and a mystery-affirming atheism are actually brothers in disguise.

If we clothe life's mystery with god-language, we are theists. If we do not use such language, we are the dreaded atheists. To divide up the world in this way is simplistic, misleading, and destructive.

People don't need to fear eternal torture in hell in order to be moral.

We should judge Pete Stark, or any other legislator, by the values he shows in his actions, not by whether we agree with his theory of the universe.

Remember what Jesus taught — a good tree bears good fruit. The same is true of people.

The Rev. Chris Schriner has been minister of Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2000, when he moved to Fremont with his wife, Jo Ann.