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Atheists going to church
March 8, 2013 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Sunday Assembly: an atheist service run by two comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.

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posted by dilettante (66 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's just lovely, they're almost Quakers ;-) But it's the only real comment I have about atheists: good on pointing out the problems with organized religion, but what would we do without church picnics, long passover dinners, or all the various events that mush together old and young and everything in between to stand around chatting and gossiping and stepping over toddlers and just generally being board or having a fine time.
posted by sammyo at 2:27 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


what would we do without church picnics, long passover dinners, or all the various events that mush together old and young and everything in between to stand around chatting and gossiping and stepping over toddlers and just generally being board or having a fine time.

Have a non-religious civic life?
posted by jaduncan at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2013 [33 favorites]


I thought atheists who felt too guilty to not ditch service altogether were called "unitarians".
posted by dunkadunc at 2:34 PM on March 8, 2013 [12 favorites]


The jokes Unitarians tell about themselves include: "What is a Unitarian? An atheist with kids."

Because raising kids makes even the most homebody, self-sufficient atheist long for the community of other people. It's tough, lonely work when they're young and the loooong stretch between Friday night and Monday morning can be a slog when all you want is a few minutes of downtime. Churches give you a safe place to park your kids and the chance to talk other adults on a weekend. Meditating quietly is also nice.

Kudos to Jones and Evans, I think it's a good idea and hope it serves their community well.
posted by emjaybee at 2:43 PM on March 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Man I wish they had one in my city!!
posted by xarnop at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


The best thing about not having to go to church is lazy Sunday mornings and hours for brunch! How else are we going to make scratch english muffins (totally worth it) for the eggs pacific?
posted by bonehead at 2:51 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Have a non-religious civic life?

Cool, but help me out here, what was the last regular all ages civic event you attended? (that actually had your peers, toddlers, teens & octogenarians "mushhed together")
posted by sammyo at 2:53 PM on March 8, 2013 [12 favorites]


"Have a non-religious civic life?"

There are many reasons this is out of reach for many people in the world, due to financial situations, disabilities, differences, caregiving for children or other family members and other obstacles-- where a safe accepting community that values pro-social behaviors and ethics could provide that connection and access to social activities and relationships.
posted by xarnop at 2:54 PM on March 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


what would we do without church picnics, long passover dinners, or all the various events that mush together old and young and everything in between to stand around chatting and gossiping and stepping over toddlers and just generally being board or having a fine time.

We didn't go to church when I was a kid, and I went to a lot of dinner parties and stuff with my mom. There were nearly always other kids there. I know that there must have been kid-free events too, because sometimes I stayed with a babysitter or my aunt and grandma, but there were plenty of all-ages things we went to even without the church-going.

On preview: Hi, sammyo - what I just said! In addition to dinner parties, there were cookouts, all-day music festivals, trips to the beach (I grew up in Hawaii), and like that. Honest, church is not the only place where these kinds of things can happen.
posted by rtha at 2:57 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I used to live near the First Existentialist Church in Atlanta, which I thought was ridiculous. Later I learned that there is indeed a religious strain to existentialism (like Kierkegaard), and the idea wasn't as much of a contradiction as I first thought.
posted by thelonius at 2:58 PM on March 8, 2013


If they can do it in Latin and figure out a way to make me feel guilty and bored at the same time I'm in. Oh yeah, they need to ditch the no funny hats rule too and I would appreciate it if hired a couple guys to swing a censer near me for a couple minutes causing a hilarious mid service sneezing fit.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:58 PM on March 8, 2013


I thought atheists who felt too guilty to not ditch service altogether were called "unitarians".

There is no God, and Jesus Christ is His only son.
posted by thelonius at 2:59 PM on March 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Relevant AskMe.
posted by audi alteram partem at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Honest, church is not the only place where these kinds of things can happen."

Yes but I've been desperate for something like this and as a single mom with little to no income frequently this is just not something you just go to a meetup and pops in your lap.

There are many people and families who could really benefit from this. I'm confused why anyone would have a resistance to this existing for people who could benefit from it. Like those of us who are already isolated and rejected by people should be more ashamed for not just ... realizing community is easy to find without religion?

It's not for a lot of people. There is no place to go and be part of an accepting community with pro-social values. (As opposed to an accepting community in which you're expected to accept a bunch of heavy drugging and drinking and harmful behaviors which are available to me currently but not so great for kids).

It's SO isolating for families right now and I can't even pay for a membership in meetup groups. There is no "Hey xarnop, come hang out with other families every week and let the kids play!" that people like me can be part of.

I think it's a genuine community need, especially since so many people are finding they have problems with organized religion and the social support previously available through churches is not available to them. My parent friends who are religious have had a much easier time with play groups because they all meet every week anyway. Meetup groups are unreliable, members change a lot, there's not regular meeting point and it doesn't generate a meaningful community experience.
posted by xarnop at 3:08 PM on March 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


Ah just to be clear, I have no resistance to the post, totally fabulous idea, especially if they are really funny.
posted by sammyo at 3:16 PM on March 8, 2013


The cult vibe is strong with this crew.
posted by Optamystic at 3:20 PM on March 8, 2013


It seems like a very interesting way to examine what aspects of religion really are the pernicious ones, particularly in the context of the various debates that take place between celebrity atheists and religious debaters about whether religion is a net good and whether churches are harmful and that sort of thing. A lot of the complaints of high-profile atheists against religions (though not all) seem to be less a function of a belief in the supernatural than of a close-knit community with a centralized leadership structure formed around a set of unifying principles about how life ought to be lived, and the attendant problems that arise in the power structure and dynamic of such groups, both internally and in their relationship to the outside world.

So if you remove religious dogma and a common set of religious tenets from the equation, and all you're left with is a few charismatic leaders guiding a community of like-minded individuals who meet to discuss and form a collective movement based on common ideas of how to live life, will the absence of that one element prevent things like internal power struggles, schisms in the beliefs of various factions of members, people being ostracized from the organization if they fail to meet certain minimum, agreed-upon standards, marginalization of and intolerance for minority views, in-fighting to influence the direction of the development of the group's core belief systems and teachings, antagonism toward competing groups, leadership and membership motivated by greed, etc? I guess we'll see. My first question, I think, is whether they're asking members to pay dues.
posted by The World Famous at 3:27 PM on March 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


To be extra-clear, I have no feelings of resistance to anything like this! My mom was a single mom and we were on food stamps off and on when I was a kid. And this was decades before Meetup was ever thought of (and probably before its founders were born). I don't know that she ever made a conscious decision to build community, but it was the 70s, so there was a lot of hippie ethos floating around. And she was in grad school for much of my young kidhood, so I'm sure that was a factor.
posted by rtha at 3:33 PM on March 8, 2013


I would love to have something like this, a secular church, with all the community aspects of church but without the religion. In my particular fantasy, there would be Sunday gatherings with people talking about things like social justice, secular humanism, skepticism, philosophy, and general audience science. I dunno about the jokiness of this one, though... it might detract if they're like that all the time.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:35 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


My grandmother back in the 70's used to go to her neighborhood church, and she was pretty much an atheist. She'd get into arguments from time to time with the pastor, but mostly just hung out with friends. It was a social thing for her, and I bet it's more common than many think.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 3:46 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cool, but help me out here, what was the last regular all ages civic event you attended? (that actually had your peers, toddlers, teens & octogenarians "mushhed together")

Chinese New Year, London. London is however great for civic life and has no particular religion so YMM admittedly V.
posted by jaduncan at 3:55 PM on March 8, 2013


I'm really leery of cultish groups myself. I went to one non-religious community that set off my crazy cult vibe. Really charismatic group leader, like OOZING "I am here for you to guide you in your spirit life journey in the ways I think you follow your spirit life journey!" And would guide the meetings in a very group therapy but "you are the one empowered to speak now! Tell us your life growth experiences"!

It might have been better than it seemed from one meeting but that was all I could take.

I was also part of a buddhist living co-op for while where we would all do restorative justice meetings...talk about pulling teeth. "I really feel like when you leave the pickle jar out it injures this community. You really don't care about my feelings!" and then we would debate whether the hippies who didn't want to shower were infringing on the community...

LOL. It was of course repressive in it's forced non-repressiveness. I think groups are always going to be problematic and prone to leaders taking too much power and weird shit like that. But the best counter to that is aware participants who can and will walk if things get wacked out. Unfortuantely cults - and their predecessor weird group dynamics- are like a frog in hot water-- it seems really nice and wonderful and loving! And then odd but wonderful and meaningful! And then, kind of unpleasant and awkward but you're still seeing the good and you've built up trust and then HOLY SHIT?! What the fuck is this? (Hey kind of like abusive relationships sometimes too?) I don't like new agey spirit guide sorts of crowds for this reason, it weirds me out and it's partially why I'm really hesitant with the UU groups I've visited a few times.

I'd just like a playful community hang out spot of people with a few general agreements about tolerance and non-violent behavior. That's about it. Maybe some craft activities for kids or potlucks... it would just be nice to have a home base for this that allows people with very minimal or no income to participate.
(By the way rtha-- I didn't mean that comment to come out so grumpily, I pressumed you meant nothing harmless at all, I just wish SO HARD that there were more family friendly spaces and communities for people with little income or other difficulties participating.)
posted by xarnop at 4:25 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I love the idea, as long as its being lead by comedians, or other people who take the idea less seriously than not at all. Because as somebody who is new to town and works from home, I just don't know where to get started.

The Unitarian service I attended a couple of weeks ago still had songs and moments inspired by the numinous, and the songs didn't seem very singable either. When I was a Christian I couldn't stand mushy spirituality, and as an atheist I have even less patience for it.
posted by wotsac at 4:42 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sectarian community groups are out there without going all out "atheist church". The Loyal Order of Moose has rebranded itself as a "family fraternity", and other organizations may not be as implicitly cross-generational but usually try to sponsor family-inclusive events.

Part of the problem is that the whole idea of joining clubs in general has fallen so far out of the public consciousness that it strikes most people as hopelessly old-fashioned... and in a society where a lot of people have long commutes and shuttle their kids to and from all kinds of after-school stuff, the thought of giving up a couple of nights a month scares them off.

I think people do increasingly have a sense that they are detached from their community... I've thought a lot about how a fraternal organization could be built to meet the needs of busy, far-flung people in the 21st century, but so far I've come up empty-handed. It's hard to get something going in your own town when you don't know any of your neighbors and everyone works 30 miles from home in different directions.
posted by usonian at 5:02 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I see, they are taking the religion out of organized religion.
posted by vorpal bunny at 5:34 PM on March 8, 2013


Perhaps, in this coming Asian Century mixed-up globalized world of ours, some enterprising fellow in China should dust off Confucianism, modernize bits of it, and export it outside of East Asia. It could go a long way towards increasing soft power, as well as provide a creed for irreligious Westerners as well as fancy rituals and robes to wear.
posted by Apocryphon at 6:52 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sectarian community groups are out there without going all out "atheist church".

Isn't this not what sectarian means? Do you mean non-sectarian?
posted by hoyland at 7:21 PM on March 8, 2013


You know, I realize another thing that weirds me out about groups is that is NOT an agreed on moral code. That seems great when you're young and want a crowd who won't judge you, but when you want people who won't scream in your kids face or get trashed drunk and think it's funny--- it's a little more freaky to join group and wait to find out what sort of awful awaits you. I think making more clear behavior codes, while limiting and not fun and all-- would actually make groups more inviting. People who want to get drunk and scream at people or smoke pot while hanging out with kids or whatever things they're into can make it clear what sorts of behaviors are and aren't tolerable in the group.

I think this is the part that makes me crave "church"-- people who care about ethics and treating each other well more than just showing up for kickball or to go canoeing.
posted by xarnop at 7:49 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I would love to have something like this, a secular church, with all the community aspects of church but without the religion. In my particular fantasy, there would be Sunday gatherings with people talking about things like social justice, secular humanism, skepticism, philosophy, and general audience science.

It's called The Society for Ethical Culture.
posted by slkinsey at 7:56 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can somebody who knows Zach and Kelly Weinersmith get them working on an American branch? This sounds like the perfect project for them.
posted by dubusadus at 8:04 PM on March 8, 2013


It's just another church. As a priest, who also does comedy, and has a dozen non-believers in the congregation, this reveals how atheists know little about what actually happens in living churches. The implication is that churches are interested in death and the after life rather than living better here on earth. That's simply false.

Good for them. Unusual? No. Already happening. In churches. But those churches don't fit the standard media narrative of what a congregation is. Before the radical right defined "church," churches were far more diverse in their thinking.
posted by john wilkins at 8:11 PM on March 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


The point that there is a need for community institutions that aren't dogmatically demanding is a really good one. And they do need to be accessible in asychronous or at least multisynchronoous ways, or ways which are varied for the various members (though that does cut into the goal of intergenerationality and mixed demographics).

I am glad I have a church tradition in my life, because I'm finding that it does provide things which my secular life simply did not ever do, but I also gravitated toward Slow Food, local arts councils, the community radio station, community gardening, the library, summer camps, and live music venues to get some of these same needs met. So there are usually options (though they are dramatically different based on the nature of your community and also your personal resources available for travel to events and alternate locations -- not all places are equally rich in these options).

What I found was that it's easy to get a social connection going, and it's easy to get an issues-oriented conversation going. But the broader and more ineffable questions of what are we here for, and what do we need to do as individuals and groups to live together harmoniously, deal with life's slings and arrows, and care for one another, were rarely central in these gatherings - they were there, of course, but tangentially, and we did not really have a comfortably vocabulary or ritual structure for dealing with them in any of those non-epistemologically focused groups.

The second issue - what about people who commute, people who don't have kids, people who have few points of contact with other people who are not just like them? - that's a big one, and it's one very relevant to community and individual health. The ways in which we have been encouraged to live (choose a job on one set of criteria, a living place on another set, family decisions on a third set) have drawn us into a fragmented and disconnected existence, and only those really gifted with outreach skills or who have careers that cross boundary lines easily find themselves connecting with dissimilar people in the same simple way church programs do. That's a community health problem. Church can be a solution for some people, but there need to be some other solutions too - and those solutions aren't about which Sunday morning gang to join, but about more fundamental values and life choices and even political and economic incentive development.
posted by Miko at 9:12 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


some enterprising fellow in China should dust off Confucianism, modernize bits of it, and export it outside of East Asia.

I'm sorry, but the Chinese government has already co-opted that idea with it's Confucius Institutes, which really don't feature much about the teachings of Confucius himself and have more to do with soft power promotion of Chinese language and culture.

And well, there are academics in America that study and interpret Confucianism. For example, I stumbled on the Boston Confucians article in wiki before.
posted by FJT at 11:16 PM on March 8, 2013


That's just lovely, they're almost Quakers ;-)

I immediately thought of the Nontheist Friends, a group for Quakers who don't believe in God.

I imagine their meetings are a lot quieter and more serious than these Sunday Assembly things, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
posted by jack_mo at 12:49 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


My ex was raised in the only extant (then, anyway) secular humanist synagogue, The Birmingham Temple in Michigan (the man who married us was on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline "AN ATHEIST RABBI?"). They preserved Jewish culture but took God out (for instance, my ex just did a project on an inspirational Jewish person from history who he hoped to model his adult self on for his bar mitzvah). The community was very strong.
posted by sweltering at 2:21 AM on March 9, 2013


Whoa whoa whoa.

One of the better things about being an atheist is free Sunday mornings...

I ain't giving that up.

OTOH, I actually agree with sammyo. There's something good about the community of church. I don't have kids, so that doesn't matter to me. But I do think there's something good about getting together with others from the community--more-or-less randomly selected from the community, too, so far as I can tell.

As it is, I get together with friends...ok, pretty homogeneous, opinion-wise...or sometimes maybe some other faculty...also pretty homogeneous...or maybe some runners or mountain-bikers or whatever...still a pretty similar group... I actually just basically don't have any contact with folks from other parts of the socio-economic-political spectrum of my town or county.

Not sure the proposal on the table here is a cure for that, though...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:55 AM on March 9, 2013


Out here in the small town sticks, we have community festivals - every little town has one or two at some time during the warm seasons, and since the towns aren't that far apart, going to the festivals in neighboring towns provides for several non-religious community gatherings every season.

There is little that is spiritual about these festivals, but it is a chance to get all the generations mushed up together and doing fun and artsy things, and eating all sorts of delicious, unhealthy foods.

On top of that, some churches, particularly the Catholics, throw festivals (though not as much as they used to) that have very low religious content and welcome everyone. These are often fundraisers for the church, but so what. Their food is especially delicious and unhealthy.

One negative trend - the food at some festivals is now sold by traveling commercial "food booth" outfits, rather than the local clubs, schools, churches, VFD's, etc. that used to do this.
posted by tommyD at 5:06 AM on March 9, 2013


At the Unitarian church of my youth the running joke was that we were a halfway house for atheists, a place for people who felt guilty not getting dressed-up on Sunday mornings. This joke was reflected in the actual numbers. Half a century ago 85% of all active Unitarians had been raised in other faiths and few born into the church remained active into adulthood [raises hand]...
posted by jim in austin at 6:40 AM on March 9, 2013


I appreciate that some on this thread see an important community function in their church and believe their church would be welcoming to atheists. However, I think this view can overlook atheists' own experience and preferences. Many atheists prefer to find community in non-religious, non-theistic settings for various substantive reasons other than the ignorance john wilkins suggests above. For example, even in Unitarian Universalist contexts there are lines of thought that replicate some of the uglier anti-atheist prejudice circulating in the US today.

There are options out there for secular community (which need not be explicitly atheist) as described in comments above, but I strongly sympathize with xarnop's desire for a simple, stable community organization accessible to all income levels and flexible to the time constraints of families. A lot of the non-church options don't have the institutional inertia to keep them going in the face of high turnover, thus requiring more time from participants than those participants may have. It also takes a lot of time to "shop" different groups.

A couple years before our son was born, my wife and I attended our local Society for Ethical Culture for about six months. It was OK in terms of the content of the Platforms and Colloquies but the group was small, older and homogeneous in ethnic makeup. We dropped out, partially because we didn't feel a strong connection and partially because of time constraints. The group's a little larger now and runs a Sunday School during the weekly meetings, so it might be something we return to when our son gets a little older, though I'm also going to try some of the ideas mentioned in the AskMe thread I linked above.

In the long term, I'm hopeful that the work of groups like the Humanist Community Project at Harvard might spread and contribute to a larger array of options of secular community organizations, though this doesn't answer near-term needs.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:48 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is a terrific idea that doesn't give ammunition to the idiots who claim atheism is a religion at all. I suspect Pippa and Sanderson are yuppie Christian fifth columnists, and I hate them.
posted by Decani at 6:54 AM on March 9, 2013



Cool, but help me out here, what was the last regular all ages civic event you attended? (that actually had your peers, toddlers, teens & octogenarians "mushhed together")
posted by sammyo at 10:53 PM on March 8 [8 favorites +] [!]


The pub. If it weren't for the disgusting development of allowing kids in UK pubs it would have been perfect. Seriously, this thing of feeling that "church" is necessary for some sort of social reason (which appears to be primarily an American thing) is absolutely mystifying, certainly to most British atheists.
posted by Decani at 7:11 AM on March 9, 2013


It's just another church. As a priest, who also does comedy, and has a dozen non-believers in the congregation, this reveals how atheists know little about what actually happens in living churches. The implication is that churches are interested in death and the after life rather than living better here on earth. That's simply false.

Good for them. Unusual? No. Already happening. In churches. But those churches don't fit the standard media narrative of what a congregation is. Before the radical right defined "church," churches were far more diverse in their thinking.


I don't think you understand the point of this. No one is saying that churches with similar services to this don't EXIST... but, you know, they all kinda require you to at least pretend to believe in religion. And I don't. So I'm not gonna go. Not to even the most fun and freewheeling church in the country. Because I don't like lying to people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:13 AM on March 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


I immediately thought of the Nontheist Friends, a group for Quakers who don't believe in God.

Just as a point of information, a fair number of [Liberal-tradition] Quakers are nontheist. Quakerism has a strong deistic tradition but the ultimate right and responsibility of each individual to conceive of the universe as s/he is led to is utterly confirmed. Nontheist Quakers worship right alongside theist Friends, in unprogrammed meetings. There are definitely loads of agnostic Quakers.

I used to be of the "church would be fine if it weren't on Sunday morning" mind, but since we started going to this Unitarian nearby us I have really changed my mind. First, I look forward to going, so it's not hard to get up. Second, I've had about 40 years of lounging in bed and slouching around in my PJs on Sunday mornings, and in recent years what usually actually happens is I find myself sitting at the computer at 3 PM still in my PJs, wondering where my last weekend day went. What's great about getting up to go to church is that now, my partner and I are out of the house by 9:30, see a bunch of awesome people who I'd never have met at work or in my social life for an hour and hear some good ideas, then we are in the downtown and can walk around, grab a coffee at the local cafe and talk things over, roam around to all the shops we never seem to get to otherwise, get home and find it's still early enough in the day to go for a hike or get stuff done or whatever. It's a good "energy begets energy" lesson in overcoming inertia. This has been my biggest surprise about getting back into a church-community habiit.
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


they all kinda require you

Fixed that. It's just not true. Quakers and Unitarians are great examples of specifically non-dogmatic faiths, but I'm of the opinion you can find an athiest in any flavor pew. And the idea of "require" is an interesting one: what's the mechanism for this requirement? They can't examine inside your head. Many religions do have public proclamations of faith, such as baptism, that you're supposed to do at one time in your life or another, but the commitment to how serious that is varies, and in religions where it's once and done, much can happen after that date. Some faiths have personal testimonies you're supposed to utter to indicate your conversion or membership. But most faiths are made up of mostly people whose personal theology differs quite a bit from official dogma, even if they know what that is which most don't, and most faiths are not especially engaged in policing the inner thoughts of the congregation. I'm well aware there are some quite dogmatic faiths, and congregations, in which there's serious pressure - but in my lifetime of varied experience with mainline Protestantism, garden-variety Catholicism and Reform Judaism, I've found that it's quite a rare being who will say "I believe everything my church's dogma says lock, stock, and barrel." Fortunately, you don't have to.

Many people come from upbringings where their family or church community saw worship as a set of answers rather than a set of questions, a congregation as a group of lockstep believers rather than mutual seekers. I can understand how that prejudices people against church. And many others did not grow up with a church tradition and simply have a very sketchy understanding of what one is. Both those viewpoints, while understandable, don't do justice to the fact that real life churches are full of people whose opinions and thoughts vary widely, and there are many faiths and congregations where that's at least understood if not openly welcomed. There truly is variety in religion, something that we don't always recognize as fully as we should.
posted by Miko at 7:19 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm of the opinion you can find an athiest in any flavor pew. And the idea of "require" is an interesting one: what's the mechanism for this requirement? They can't examine inside your head.

I have considered checking out my local Unitarian church. But don't try to tell me that in the vast majority of churches, if I walked in and said "hi y'all, I'm an atheist, I'm just here to make friends," I wouldn't be either mobbed by people trying to convert me, or shunned. And I have no interest in hiding my atheism. I don't preach it, but I don't pretend it isn't there, either. Going to a non-secular church would feel like a lie, to me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:24 AM on March 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


d "hi y'all, I'm an atheist, I'm just here to make friends,"

Why would you announce it? Most people don't talk about their personal theology during coffee hour. I can't speak for every church, but I'm being truthful when I say that I know or know of Catholic athiests and agnostics (many in my own family), Lutheran athiests and agnostics, Mormon athiests and agnostics, etc. In those cases I am sure people have a significant reason to be part of those commuities other than making friends - they grew up in that faith, family is still active in it, their friends go there, etc. I'm not saying to arbitrarily join a strong-on-dogma church just to prove you can do it, - but I wanted to speak up against the idea that beliefs are required by all churches. Even where this is overtly stated, at best that is an official declaration and can never be ultimately verified.

On the other hand, the local Unitarian Church should entirely welcome your present goals for church participation. You might also be surprised though, like a lot of people, that it isn't the "church of nothing" but operates within a centuries-old tradition of honoring and welcoming individual thoughts and beliefs and pursuits of truth in a shared setting, with a liturgy and a church year and references to dozens of world religious traditions for what they may offer.
posted by Miko at 7:36 AM on March 9, 2013


I never said I didn't believe that there are atheists who go to non-secular churches. I'm sure there are! But if given the choice, why would I want to go listen to an hour-long speech every week about something I don't believe is true? Would you go to a weekly lecture about, I don't know, Scientology just because it was a great social opportunity?

To sit and listen to something I think is false and then not speak to anyone about that fact... I could not do that. The last time I went to my parents' Lutheran church I felt extremely uncomfortable the entire time, even though I also felt very nostalgic.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:41 AM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


You should do exactly what feels right to you. I am saying this merely to counter to your single statement "they all kinda require you to at least pretend to believe in religion" - which isn't really true, and I wanted to make that clear.

As for your other comments, of course ideally those of us interested in having church participation in our lives would all find somewhere to attend where we feel not just tolerated but welcomed and understood and free to speak. Some people want to work toward that from within their churches of origin or choice, but some of us have to leave those and find something different.
posted by Miko at 7:47 AM on March 9, 2013


"Already happening. In churches. But those churches don't fit the standard media narrative of what a congregation is. Before the radical right defined "church," churches were far more diverse in their thinking."

I've actually spent a good deal of time looking at the websites and visitor materials of churches in my VERY LIBERAL city. They ALL (all the christian based ones) come to belief that one must or at least SHOULD believe in some sort of theistic deity even if they are somewhat flexible in the interpretation. Even then I thought the liberal advertising churches would do better at welcoming non-theists than they do. NONE of them have any sort of "we welcome non-theists as well!"

There are a few that accept "imperfect people" meaning you can come without being a believer but it's very clearly stated they want you to come so they can "teach" you to be a believe and fill you with god's message.

The whole thing just weirds me out. I'm agnostic and I think there is (a remote) possible of something like spirituality or at least consciousness beyond what we understand etc etc...but I also think sanity and reason mean acknowledge these ideas for the kind of masturbatory fun time thoughts they are.

For me it's not a matter of that I am allowed to go with my bad atheism/agnosticism in tact, it's that I will not be afforded respect of my belief system and am expected to accept that in order to be part of a community. That my beliefs are imperfections/flaws/wrong based on an illogical system of obtaining truth that has no real "proof" of being more factual than my own musings.
posted by xarnop at 7:52 AM on March 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


xarnop, it may be worth looking at the Unitarian churches there and seeing what's going on in the theologically liberal scene. Strangely enough, often in very liberal places the effect is that since there are other choices, the churches still falling with a distinctly Christian tradition maintain that more strongly because they don't need to stretch to build congregation by further liberalizing, since theological liberals will most likely be associating with Unitarians, Quakers, or some other group like the one in the FPP. Whereas in smaller communities, often a liberal mainline church like the UCC will steer much less dogmatically and select ministers accordingly, because it tends to reach to take in the group of people who are theologically liberal but have no other nearby choices. YMMV as all of it, after all (excepting maybe Catholics which have hierarchically driven structure), is locally driven by what congregations want. And there are big geographical variations in this as well. It's really easy to find a liberal church in New England. In the Midwest, less so, in the South, not so much.
posted by Miko at 8:00 AM on March 9, 2013


On the other hand, the local Unitarian Church should entirely welcome your present goals for church participation. You might also be surprised though, like a lot of people, that it isn't the "church of nothing" but operates within a centuries-old tradition of honoring and welcoming individual thoughts and beliefs and pursuits of truth in a shared setting, with a liturgy and a church year and references to dozens of world religious traditions for what they may offer.

I feel like I should mention, also, that I have some beliefs that I guess you could sort of categorize as 'spiritual', in a way. But they're all based in science. For example, reading books about evolution gives me this sort of expansive awe and feeling of being part of something greater, and it reminds me of things my religious friends have said to me about their belief. I don't believe in nothing- I just don't believe in the supernatural. That's why the idea of going to a Christian church is unpalatable to me, because not only am I being told to believe something I don't believe, but also there is no room for me to express what I DO believe. Surely you can see why that would be uncomfortable for me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:03 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like I said, of course I can see that. My narrow purpose was to counter your claim that there were no people who thought like you in mainline churches because those churches require certain views. There are those people, they're just more comfortable there than you are, for various reasons of their own. As I said, you should be where you are comfortable and those places aren't them, for you. It was your generalization I wanted to counter, not your statement about what would be most right for you.

Our new minister is actually a nontheist science geek, which makes his sermons awesome. I sometimes suspect him of being a MeFite.
posted by Miko at 8:11 AM on March 9, 2013


"hi y'all, I'm an atheist, I'm just here to make friends,"

Why would you announce it?


Why not? If pretending to believe in religion is not a requirement to belonging to a church, why not just tell everyone you're an atheist?
posted by 23skidoo at 8:43 AM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


"It was your generalization I wanted to counter, not your statement about what would be most right for you. "

Miko,there's something about how you took one overgeneralization showbiz_liz made and are turning it around onher topoint out how great churches are for "other people like her" that's sounding to me a little dismissive of her, and my point.

We aren't ignorant of churches that tolerate atheists. We actively DISLIKE many things those churches require of us and the statements they make in sermans and the kinds of conversations about emotional growth and being human that are impossible for us to participate in without being met with encouragement to accept a higher power and to see the light of God's love.

I've been to UU church, and I did not like the pews, singing, or sermon format that included a lot of Spirit references that were pretty theistic in nature.
posted by xarnop at 9:03 AM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


(By the way the pews thing I can adjust to given it's a practical way to sit many people. It was just odd that a church trying to do something different had (to me) duplicated like ALL the worst parts of church. So I was very disappointed having perhaps built my hopes up too much.)
posted by xarnop at 9:04 AM on March 9, 2013


Quakers and Unitarians are great examples of specifically non-dogmatic faiths

A Quaker can come and correct me, but while 'non-dogmatic' applies to both Quakerism and Unitarianism, it does in different ways. Unitarian Universalism is specifically non-creedal. Quakerism is non-dogmatic in the sense that God could move you to believe in purple unicorns and that's okay, but they still sit down in groups larger than a local meeting and hash out Faith and Practice. Now Quakerism schisms so frequently that there could be non-creedal Quakerism out there. (Of course, non-programmed worship is actually a minority practice (in the world and, afaik, in North America) by quite a large margin and the programmed-worship groups are rather more dogmatic than the non-programmed worshippers.)
posted by hoyland at 9:11 AM on March 9, 2013


(By the way the pews thing I can adjust to given it's a practical way to sit many people. It was just odd that a church trying to do something different had (to me) duplicated like ALL the worst parts of church. So I was very disappointed having perhaps built my hopes up too much.)

For what it's worth, UUism wasn't founded to try and do something different. It's an outgrowth of a subset of Christian practice in the early US, which is why on the East Coast, you find UU congregations in what were once Congregationalist churches. They didn't buy an abandoned church, they built the church 200 years ago. I think they only officially left Christianity when the UUA formed in the early 1960s. Until that point, the Unitarians and Universalists were still Christian, at least on paper, afaik.
posted by hoyland at 9:16 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think I could have been clearer there. It wasn't founded by people sitting down and saying "Let's make a new religion that doesn't share much with Christianity." It was founded by merging two groups that had their beginnings as forms of Christianity. (If you decide you've officially left Christianity, you probably haven't been feeling too Christian for a while.)

I think there's wild variation in how church-y UU congregations are, which is probably pretty sucky if you move, given that a lot of places have only one congregation.
posted by hoyland at 9:21 AM on March 9, 2013


It seems to me that there are a lot of volunteer organizations that basically function as "church" (socially, not spiritually) for a lot of people. Some basis of shared values / interests, typically some basic rules and maybe a requirement to actually participate, socialization with like-minded people, and a big foot-in-the-door if you're new to an area, etc. I don't think such organizations generally get credit for those side-benefits, though.

Stuff like volunteer fire departments / rescue squads, Rotary or Kiwanis-esque charity-booster clubs, even stuff like Chamber of Commerce or local political organizations, at least in my experience draw people in because they're interested in the cause, but retain people for the long haul because they fill an ongoing social need for the members. The best of them meet many of the needs sammyo noted, and have ways of getting both young people (offspring or otherwise) and keeping older folks involved.

I don't know how you'd tell which organizations are good at that or not, though, aside from just showing up and trying to gauge the diversity of the membership, asking about what sort of stuff they do socially that's open to families, and basically interviewing the organization as a whole to see if it fits.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:44 PM on March 9, 2013


The Calgary Secular Church
Mr. Berquist joined Mr. Peters’ secular church several months ago.

“There’s a sense of belonging, of knowing we’re not the only ones out there and that it’s OK to question the majority and that questioning things is good,” he said. “Everyone [at the church] knows the feeling of being a black sheep as it were and they’re all really supportive.”
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:44 AM on March 10, 2013


A Quaker can come and correct me

Well...I am a Quaker, which is why I brought it up. I'm attending another kind of church just because there's no Quaker meeting nearby me, and the local Unitarian Church can well accommodate my agnostic Quakerism.

while 'non-dogmatic' applies to both Quakerism and Unitarianism, it does in different ways. Unitarian Universalism is specifically non-creedal. Quakerism is non-dogmatic in the sense that God could move you to believe in purple unicorns and that's okay, but they still sit down in groups larger than a local meeting and hash out Faith and Practice.

Unitarians also do this in the UUA. For Quakers, each Yearly Meeting does meet to update its Faith and Practice annually, but in almost all contemporary liberal Quaker meetings there is specific provision made for the ultimate right of each member to be individually led.

Now Quakerism schisms so frequently that there could be non-creedal Quakerism out there.

Liberal Quakers definitely do not have a creed. What they have are testimonies, which differ from creeds in a way nicely put in thisPDF: "The testimonies arise out of a deep, inner conviction and challenge our normal ways of living. They do not exist in any rigid, written form; nor are they imposed in any way. All Quakers have to search for the ways in which the testimonies can become true for themselves."

(Of course, non-programmed worship is actually a minority practice (in the world and, afaik, in North America) by quite a large margin and the programmed-worship groups are rather more dogmatic than the non-programmed worshippers.)

That's why I took care to specify Liberal (unprogrammed) Quakers. Programmed Quakers are a Third Great Awakening Protestant movement that is usually specifically Christian, Bible-driven in nature. They have an entirely separate system of local and yearly meetings and separate service organizations. The two forms of "Quaker" are so different than nothing I've said can be imagined to apply to them. Also, they're quite rare on the East Coast, and as far as schisms, I'm not aware of any major ones since the 19th century; the system of local, monthly, yearly meetings has pretty much allowed congregations to develop as they want without needing to split off from a central body.

ON Unitarianism. Unitarianism is non-creedal, but not a non-faith. Exactly as with Quaker testimonies, there is a set of seven principles "promoted and affirmed" in Unitarian worship - an important counter to the general impression of "believe whatever you want." As for things like pews, UU churches today embrace a diversity of views but, nevertheless, the faith's history and genealogy is specifically that of Protestant Christianity; in the US, Unitarianism and Universalism were congregationally driven evolutions of the Congregational (formerly Puritan) churches of New England. An early schism split Congregationals (now united with other similar independent mainline Protestant churches in the UCC) and Unitarians/Universalists; so, today the primary difference between former Congregational parishes and Unitarian parishes theologically is that the UCC churches retain the Bible and Christian liturgy. Most of the churches in my neck of the woods were built before 1900, and therefore before they considered themselves to be "doing something different" in a way as modern as today's UU churches. Where Unitarianism arrived on the religious landscape more recently, you see more alternative forms of church architecture, but there is a reason, in the lineage, why Unitarian meetings look more like churches than not like churches - or even more like churches than Quaker meetinghouses.

I certainly understand that there are those who don't like the "church" vibe that Unitarianism distinctly has. It has sermons, hymns, Sunday School, pews, the whole lot. At the same time, for many attendees those are the main attractors. They can enjoy the church experience, which a lot of people long for, without needing to suppress, change, contort, or set aside their beliefs during the time they are there. This is one reason that not many people who are otherwise theologically liberal really don't take to Liberal Quaker worship - unprogrammed worship is quiet, sometimes dull, quite demanding, difficult for families, and simply does not scratch the "church" itch - I want to be a familiar structure where I understand the expectations and experience a liturgy and a church calendar - that many people are coming for. So the UU faith has evolved in a way that accommodates all beliefs but solidly and proudly retains its historical church tradition and history.

So it may well be that those groups that really want to "do something different" that doesn't feel at all churchy should form to allow people to pursue their epistemological thoughts outside of a historical church tradition.
posted by Miko at 8:46 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oops, Quaker Testimonies (PDF)

Also, was curious so looked up the stats: everything Quaker is a tiny minority!
In 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world, with about 87,000 in the United States. This includes all the various branches of the Religious Society of Friends. All of the branches are represented in the United States. In other parts of the world, unprogrammed Friends (who practice silent worship and don’t have pastors) are most common in Europe and in former colonies of Britain; programmed Friends (with prepared worship services and pastors) are most common in Africa and South America.
I can say that I've never actually met a programmed/evangelical Quaker in my life experience though I know they exist out West. On the US East Coast, as I noted, if you're Quaker you're pretty much liberal/unprogrammed.
posted by Miko at 8:52 AM on March 10, 2013


Xarnop, Christian churches will certainly use Christian language to welcome others. The work might be, for example, "seekers." However, my inclination is that churches are being "descriptive" rather than prescriptive when describing themselves. The world "should" sounds normative, whereas most Christian churches - including liberal ones - are simply indicating what they as a body believe. And of course, most people congregations are theists in some sense. There's a variety of theistic beliefs, ranging from panentheism, to deism, to a more personal God. My argument is that while a church certainly believes in God, the beliefs of individual members are diverse, and historically the non-pious often had some denominational commitments.

Atheists who are morally offended by religious language and think that a belief in theism is actually a moral failing (both plausible positions) should probably not join churches. For such persons, reconstituting religious language is not worth the time and is actually a form of deception. In this case, creating anti-theistic communities makes sense. This is certainly a respectable position, but it is not the only position. An atheist could also just see religion is a form of human play.

Certainly, if an atheist attends a mainline church, the initial presumption among other members will be that they are believers, because their experience is that most atheists simply don't think going to church is an option.

But anyone who refuses to say the creeds and don't take communion, for example, will not be disparaged in, for example, an Episcopal church. If they don't cross or genuflect, most people will not ask why. But a respectful non-belief would not be astonishing.

For a good portion of the late 17th and early 18th century, most Anglican Bishops were functionally Deists (or Latitudinarians). Liturgy and ritual were mainly pragmatic. Our founders, most of whom were non-believers, still went to church. It's only in our current situation that a sizable body of Atheists find religious language offensive, and have a diminished capacity, or a moral opposition, to reconstituting religious language non-theistically. My main point is that attending church or having a membership in a denomination does not indicate, nor need it indicate, religiosity.

A well-coordinated group of Atheists could join any existing protestant church, build a parallel community within one, and eventually hire a sympathetic pastor. It would take time to do it, but it takes the tenacity to actually build community, and the competing pleasures of the market - a different sort of God - are hard to resist.
posted by john wilkins at 11:55 AM on March 10, 2013


A well-coordinated group of Atheists could join any existing protestant church, build a parallel community within one, and eventually hire a sympathetic pastor.

Something similar happened in the United Church of Canada in Gretta Vosper's congregation, though there the pastor led the way. See her interview on the 2013-3-2 edition of Freethought Radio (no transcript unfortunately).

anyone who refuses to say the creeds and don't take communion, for example, will not be disparaged in, for example, an Episcopal church.

I think in some instances that's likely to be true, but not in all. Disparagement is often felt by the disparaged party even when unseen and unintended by others. This is what happened in the experience of the former UU atheist I linked to above who encountered anti-atheist prejudice among fellow UUs despite the church's commitment to a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

In this case, creating anti-theistic communities makes sense. This is certainly a respectable position, but it is not the only position.

Yes, atheist communities do not need to be anti-theist. They can affirm human value within a wholly naturalistic framework that notes the supernatural does not exist (as beautifully stated by the International Humanist and Ethical Union's minimum statement on Humanism).

Personally, I'm not "offended by religious language" nor do I think theism a "moral failing." Theism is simply not consonant with my understanding of the cosmos as I experience it and as methods I've come to trust (science, empiricism, argumentation) describe it. "Human play" can manifest, for myself and other Humanists/atheists/etc., in words and customs that embrace the wonders and carry us through the sorrows of reality without transcendence, revelation or deity.
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Between the recessional of our weekly Mass and the parish hall for donuts and coffee I look around and feel so tangibly blessed by my Church. In my short walk I see married couples my wife and I prepared for marriage, kids I have babysat, young adults who have babysat my kids over the years, older guys who have been mentors to me, the grumpy old guy who up and gave our family a large sum of money when I had been out of work for six months. People I have cried with, made dinners for, and gave money to when they were down and out or had a relative on death's door. The new mom of twins my wife comforted just a year before because she thought she was infertile. And the couples we still comfort because they have been infertile for decades. Kids we have watched grow up who are now in my marriage classes. People who have watched our kids grow up... it's just overwhelming the blessings that come from Being There for people and letting them Be There for you.

They are not just our friends. Our lives have grown together. I would not have known these people any other way. They are a way more diverse group than I would put together for myself.

My sincere wish is that everyone has this same kind of opportunity, regardless of how they express their belief or non-belief. I don't think it requires overtly religious language or ritualism, but I think it does require a bond stronger than a common interest or activity. I do think that it requires Love, or at least a commitment to the idea that the welfare of others, even strangers, is important to our own welfare.

Another very wise mentor of mine defines Love as "the willingness to be bothered for the sake of another." Frankly I don't give a damn if you "believe" in God if you are open to Love. Our world needs a lot more people who are open to being bothered for the sake of others.
posted by cross_impact at 12:49 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


So I actually happen to go this. Mainly as something reasonably entertaining which forces me to get up occasionally on a Sunday. It doesn't feel cultish since it's light hearted and they are at pains to point out you can do what you want (not sing along etc).

Although this is probably true of every cult in the beginning, so if you see me suddenly start posting with a Guyanese IP please feel free to stage an intervention.
posted by Erberus at 1:28 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


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