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I’ve always been squicked out by clergy. The automatic grant of deference and their complicity in reinforcing false beliefs (that they often know are false) bothered me even as a kid—not to mention the rest.

But a lot of my approach to secular humanism has been about studying religion like a psychoanthropologist to see what real human needs are being met—needs that often remain after a person sheds belief in gods. Clergy satisfy the need for an authority, for easy answers, for assurance of an afterlife, all that. But something else has gradually come into focus for me over time.

I saw this thing at work a few years back as I sat with my mom, aunt, and uncle, surrounded by boxes. My entirely secular mom was preparing to leave her St. Louis home of 22 years to move to Atlanta. As we rested between shifts of packing and talked about nothing, I glanced out the window. A man was walking across the drive from the progressive UCC church next door.

The minister.

Though Mom was not a parishioner of his, they’d been friendly neighbors. My stepdad had died a year earlier, and the youth group from his church had winterized Mom’s large half-acre backyard.

The minister knew she was leaving that day. He knocked and entered, filling the room with a warm personality. He greeted my mom, and the introductions began.

“Pastor Greg,” she said, “this is my sister Madeline Denning and her husband Ben.”

The minister then did something I’ve seen countless times: “Denning, Denning—are you by any chance related to Steve Denning over in St. Charles? He attended my dad’s church for many years, wonderful man.” They thought a minute, said no, they didn’t think so. But he had made them significant in the moment, a fact enhanced by hearing their name three times.

“And this is my son Dale from Atlanta,” said Mom.

“Hello Dale! Good to meet you. I love Atlanta—I’ve been there many times, especially up in the north end around Marietta. My brother and his wife are there.” When I replied that, sure enough, Marietta is not too far from me, he grinned broadly. “Wonderful place, so many trees. Just a forest everywhere you go.”

And we all sat down, connected.

He turned his attention to my mom, telling her how much she would be missed, remembered this or that conversation they had had, anecdote, anecdote, told her he was certain she’d make many friends in Atlanta. “You’re just one of those people who draws other people to them,” he said, knowing the type.

He had nothing to gain. He wasn’t selling, wasn’t recruiting. He was being decent at a time when someone needed it.

We chatted for a while longer, then he asked if he could offer a prayer. It was short and simple: Please protect Carol as she moves into this new phase of her life, watch over her, etc. He hugged her, shook hands with the rest of us, and was on his way.

It was nice, and my secular Mom appreciated it very much.

I’ve quoted a line from Jennifer Michael Hecht’s extraordinary book Doubt: A History many times in my work: “We live in a meaning-rupture, because we are human and the universe is not.” It remains one of the most insightful and eye-opening quotes I’ve ever seen. The minister was putting a human face on the universe at a challenging time for my mom, a time when it’s not emotionally convenient to live in a faceless universe. He was serving as the man in the middle.

I’ve seldom felt the need for that myself. I’ve resonated with Bertrand Russell’s conviction that “Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

A god is one way to give the universe a face, to give it agency. Even if it’s an angry, smiting god, I can still appeal to such a thing for mercy. I can plead and bargain and praise. It can be much more terrifying to imagine a universe that can kill me but can’t even hear my grovelling.

The loneliness and isolation of being a feeling thing in an indifferent universe can be devastating. I felt it intensely for several years in a row as a young adult, which helped me understand why people are drawn to the idea of an unconditionally loving God. It’s a story that solves not just death, but that crushing universal indifference, a problem we’re actually around to experience.

If you’ve ever felt yourself under the heel of that indifference, then had someone smile at you or say something kind, you probably felt a jolt of realization that, for a moment at least, some small piece of the universe was not entirely indifferent to you. You might remember it washing over you like a warm bath. I sure do.

As she stood on the cliff’s edge of a late-life move, Mom was lucky enough to have other faces around her when the minister walked in. Not everyone does.

It’s easier for many people to look into the face of another person than to stand in the cold wind of an indifferent universe or an angry godhead. It doesn’t have to be clergy. Doesn’t have to have authority or any explanatory power. It can be as simple as a companion, a mentor, or a partner.

As religion circles the drain and humanism imagines what’s next, I think the value of human beings standing between each other and an indifferent universe is worth thinking about.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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