Let me stress at the beginning of this post that I essentially have no substantial personal experience with Unitarians or Unitarianism whatsoever. It’s probably also worth noting, while I’m at it, that I am also largely unfamiliar with the infrastructure of organized Humanism beyond the activist atheist level. I don’t know much, for example, about Humanist groups that function equivalently to how religious groups do or Humanist groups that have brick and mortar buildings and established presences in their local communities.
When I was a Christian my conception of religious belief was that it was either literally true or it was decisively false. Coming to terms with the literal falseness of Christianity made me not the least bit interested in even trying to have a religious attachment to things which might be only metaphorically accurate (and, if scrutinized with an open mind rather than with religious prejudice, do not seem to be even that). Even before conceding the falseness of Christianity I found it irritating when people who did not believe in Jesus would bow and scrape before what a great guy he was anyway. And soon as I abandoned faith, I had no intentions of going out of my way to assume he must be an especially awesome teacher and person anyway, rather than to treat him like any other historical figure or to scrutinize his moral claims objectively.
So, I never made any stops in the halfway houses of religious liberalism on my way from evangelical literalist Christianity to out and out irreligious disbelieving anti-theism. The closest I got to embracing a watered down faith was turning for the last couple months of my believing to liturgical Anglicanism, where going to church was more about psychologically satisfying rituals and symbols and less about strict theological meaning. I continued to attend those services for a few weeks after relinquishing my Christianity even because I still loved the ritual, both of the services and the trips there with my friends. But when one of my friends was tired of me bashing the faith the whole way there and back and asked why I was even going if I was no longer a Christian, it seemed simply right that I just quit the indulgence. I did read liberal and postmodern philosophers of religion once my faith was dead in an attempt to give as fair a hearing to them as I could for the entire winter break and summer after I deconverted. But they didn’t leave a dent on me. They were wholly unconvincing rationalizers and that was all.
And I had no living atheist role models and few close atheist friends—and certainly none with any connections to organized atheistic community. And I was suspicious of the whole concept of Humanism because of my Nietzscheanism and resented being lumped in with Humanists simply on account of my atheism (or as I mislabeled it back then, my “agnosticism”.)
All of this is to say that for the first nine years of my atheism, before I got involved with the atheist blogosphere, I never seriously contemplated the reality of committed atheists who conscientiously stayed (or returned to) attending religious services. But many of you are there. Many of you are Buddhists or in Unitarian churches or in pagan religions or in explicitly Humanist groups.
Growing up I knew of many skeptical fathers (including my own) who indulged their wives’ fervent religiosity to one degree or another and showed their faces in church on occasion or made some efforts at belief for their wives’ sakes (again, as my own silently but noticeably agnostic dad did). But I really had no sense of the men and women who disbelieve and yet deliberately choose to get involved with religion for either the ritual or the moral education and traditional grounding of their kids.
Then, as part of my atheist blogging, I started to quickly wake up to the reality of how many people do sell their children’s souls to dubious religious institutions and to think about the need for atheists to have constructive alternative institutions in order to meet the needs a tremendous amount of people obviously feel for an interconnection of philosophy, community, ritual, symbol, “spiritual” exercise, identity, tradition, ecstatic experience, and (most importantly) the moral education of children. We need to meet people’s psychosocial, moral, and philosophical needs for coherent, conscientious identity, values, beliefs, community, and rootedness or people will continue to judge it worth it to shutdown their brains or compromise their commitments to intellectual principle for the sake of these goods they feel as urgent.
And so I have written a whole lot about how I think constructive alternatives to religions need to work and what they need to do to avoid the pitfalls of the existing religions.
But what’s missing from my thinking is any systematic personal study of, or firsthand experience with, the ways atheists are in practice already making do with the options that already out there for them in more atheist friendly religions—and even in atheist unfriendly ones. I have only picked up bits and pieces. And I admit I get irked when I describe my visions for self-consciously atheistic, philosophically robust alternative communities to religions and get told, “We already have the Unitarians.” This might be my ignorance and prejudice but my first response is to recoil and think that settling for Unitarianism is just unbelievably philosophically and spiritually lazy and apathetic about truth. As far as I understand the Unitarians they meet in the spirit of “everyone being essentially right” and they don’t overthrow the traditional symbols and rituals of the traditional religions. They may jettison literalism and water down their notions of gods to the most rationally acceptable deism or to a form of mystical abstraction that is functionally equivalent to nothingness, and they may be so open to freedom of intellectual conscience that they welcome even atheists with open arms, but in theory they have still always sounded to me like people who are trying to cling to the trappings of religions they don’t really believe, instead of as innovators willing to start fresh and build new rituals and symbols on fresh foundations using true philosophies.
In other words, my suspicion, of Unitarians is that it’s all leftovers and syncretism and watered down vagueries that cling to the symbols of religions that, frankly, due to their superstitious legacies I simply want little to do with. I really want atheists to have alternative communities and organizations that can make superstitious, authoritarian, patriarchal, irrationalistic religions obsolete—or which can at least prevent atheists from perversely feeling like those are the only games in town for giving their children roots and a moral education. I really want atheists to have rituals and values discussion that are rooted in sophisticated, critical, well-informed, and thought-provoking philosophy and not in the selective reading and decoding of the tired and idiosyncratic myths and sayings of ancient religions.
I really want atheists to have groups that are not just dressing up like the traditional religions but which are built on foundations we can actually believe in and which are structured rationalistically from top to bottom. We don’t need a church that is retrofitted to accommodate us among others but we need our own buildings and institutions. I don’t want the price of rituals and community for atheists to be having to pay lip service to how swell Jesus was. I mean, it’s fine to quote or otherwise approve of him where he actually gets things right, but I don’t see the worth in pretending that he deserves special attention. I don’t see the point of religious services that are a tribute to the history of religion rather than an attempt to get in touch with truths as understood using the contemporary state of knowledge in philosophy and science.
Now, my question is for all the atheists involved in existing religions and in existing Humanist groups that have functional equivalence to religions to some extents. How do they already meet your needs or not? How much do you feel like you’re playing along with things you don’t believe in? How much of what you do cuts against your atheism specifically? How much is it play acting in the forms of religions you don’t really accept and how much is it a successful reappropriation of symbols that still have some life in them and which you feel capable of reinfusing with some true meaning? How are my inferences about Unitarian Universalism off base and how on target are they? How good a job at building from a new foundation is Humanism doing? What should constructive atheist groups of the future be incorporating from Buddhism and paganism?
For more on my thoughts on the possibilities for “true religion” and for atheist religion, see the posts: