Atheists in Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, and Mainstream Religious Services

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?

Your Thoughts?

For more on my thoughts on the possibilities for “true religion” and for atheist religion, see the posts:

Answering Greta: My Goals As An Atheist Writer

Islam, 9/11, and “True Religion” (Or “What Could George W. Bush Mean When Talking About ‘True Islam’?”)

The Dangers of Religion Itself

I Am Interviewed About My Personal (Atheistic) Religiosity/Spirituality

Sex and “Spirituality”

Is It A Waste Of Time For Atheists To Care About Spirituality?

On Defending True Spirituality And Taking The Word Back From Spiritually Bankrupt Fundamentalism

Disambiguating Faith: How Faith Poisons Religion

What’s Worse For Atheism: Being Confused For Being Too Much Like Bad Religion, Or Too Little Like Good Religion?


ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Drunken Mall Santa
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Raging Bee

    Yeah, I’m kind of with you on the Unitarians. They’re really nice and well-meaning people generally, but I still get a little irked at their woolly accomodationism, not to mention all the books in their library, mostly aimed at kids, about Jesus and Mohammed, most of which you could probably find in any other “mainstream” church or mosque.

    But here’s a suggestion: try seeking out other Unitarians who feel the same as you, and explore the option of creating an affiliated sub-group within your Unitarian church. Many UU churches in my area have specific Pagan affiliated groups, who get to use church facilities in return for their support; so you might try exploring the same option for atheists.

  • blotonthelandscape

    Our local Unitarians disassociate themselves from universalists; they’re “strict” in the sense that they affirm the christian God, but dispense with “Jesus as God” and the notion of the Holy Spirit (so unitarians in the sense of distinguishing themselves from Trinity dogma). So although I wanted to go along to see what it was like, it kinda put me off on the basis that they still peddle woo, and I was only interested in a community with shared values. A pity, as there’s nothing in my small town for me, and my wife’s church is just too christian.

    • Alex Songe

      Those churches are actually pretty rare in the UU scene, but are making a comeback. Most UU ministers report the experience of backlash by even mentioning God.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Most UU ministers report the experience of backlash by even mentioning God.

      I find that quite surprising. A short while back some sort of atheist ad (you can be good without god or something like that) ran in a Unitarian publication and there was outcry over that too.

      Is a neutral agnosticism the only thing acceptable to utter among Unitarians? Is the god question undiscussable?

    • Alex Songe

      It’s very odd. The pulpit represents a kind of authority that they still respect in a way. To hear God-talk from the pulpit is very disconcerting, even for those who believe in God. This is why a lot of UU’s hate icons and even support the Jewish tradition of spelling God “G-d”. Sermons are often not longer than 20 minutes, however, and much more time is spent in the coffee room (which is often as big as the sanctuary) for discussion. The joke is (most UU culture is explained in terms of jokes) “God goes to those other churches for worship, but comes here for conversation”.

      This is all from my experience, but many people there will have varying levels of openness on discussing the God question. Many will just abstain from the conversation and listen in. Some will shift uncomfortably and leave. A few more will engage in conversation than those who are completely uncomfortable. Everyone understands that being open about your belief means that you are opening yourself to conversation about your beliefs, even polite challenge. So those that are uncomfortable about beliefs often talk more about other things, and the UU has tons of activities like social justice work and generic charity. Many people flow through UU’s out from some other more emotionally abusive religious community, so perhaps the stand-offish atmosphere is warranted in some way.

  • Alex Songe

    Dan, having been in a few UU churches before, I think I can speak from experience to color some specific aspects of UU life that are rewarding (and others that might be tolerated as part of the package).

    Theologically, you are somewhat right. Each church is slightly different, and while most of the ones I’ve been to have an-iconic sanctuaries, there is definitely a “unifying” syncretic spirit to the whole thing. I do, however, think that there is perhaps a “legitimate” way to do this, even as a staunch atheist. The UU I attended took a cafeteria approach as it made religious texts human. The minister would mix poetry readings in with a few verses from the Bible and other religious texts, often religious poetry outside of the canons (like Rumi). It had the effect of reclaiming the beautiful, artistic parts of religions as human accomplishments. The things that are preached on usually have some way of being true apart from the texts, but the teachings often give the message its inspirational bounce though I don’t know how much that actually changes behavior. The sermon’s only 15 minutes anyway, so the theology/philosophy from the pulpit doesn’t matter much. The UU is congregation-governed completely, and as long as the congregation doesn’t break the rules, they can be part of the UUA, so there really is no larger theology here, despite UU’s history of being simply non-trinitarian.

    Culturally, you have at least 3 contingents being represented in the UU congregations. There’s the pagans, the generic theists/liberal Christians, and the humanists/atheists. Sometimes one of the groups takes over the local UU church but is still part of the UUA. There’s a joke about a UUA conference where congregants complain about how each of the other 3 groups have taken over their local church to someone…but they were all from the same church. The UU congregations often have a problem in that the people there are comfortable talking about religion, but few are comfortable talking about their beliefs. Everyone there knows how easy it is to “break the spell” (as Dennett puts it), and so there’s a kind of dance around getting consent to talk about the nitty-gritty in the coffee hour after the 15 minute sermon. Anyway, while there’s always a Sunday service, there are also other options in the larger UU churches for each subgroup. My church had a “freethinkers” meeting, and only about 1/3rd of them were church members. Maybe one key could be utilizing the local UU’s resources? Atheist groups are often in want of space (and I’ve noticed several groups rent out UU facilities for some functions).

    What I think the UU is mostly useful for are the institutions. Any atheistic recreation of community MUST look at the UU for its congregational self-governance, the adult and child religious education, and their sex ed curriculum. The religious education there is objective, and covers the facts about each religion. I was always impressed by the quality of the education there, and I audited the class on humanism that the middle schoolers were going to take. I think any good atheistic religious education would supplement this by covering some inspirational passages from the texts, some of the horrid ones, some of the more liberal theology, some of the more conservative theology, and what the distribution of adherents in that religion looks like. Basically, not only cover the “what is the religion?”, but “what is the community like?”. And the sex ed curriculum is simply the best out there in the US. You can google “Our Whole Lives”. My local congregation even does field trips to different religious communities’ services (though it was funny how the kids were told that they may be told they’re going to hell). If I were raising kids, I’d definitely think about attending a UU for the educational aspect and the pluralistic surroundings there. I do not want my kids to grow up not knowing kids from every major religious tradition in the area, and I don’t want them to grow up thinking they’re idiots from my criticisms of some of the tenants of faith.

    One of the problems with leaving the myths completely behind is that we may become disconnected from a lot of good art and literature. Nietzsche was, after all, a classicist who referenced Greek mythology in some of his work (from what I understand). One of the driving factors of the enlightenment was the syncretic midrash of Greek culture which included philosophy. Just look at how Greek religious architecture has influenced our secular American architecture in D.C. While it’s harmful to reinforce the notion that religious texts are the only way to come up with moral truths, we shouldn’t completely forsake it. The fact that we have to talk to religious people about morality and how to live, and in the political world often on THEIR terms, the required balance lies with some mixture of the two. Philosophy for the heavy-lifting with ornaments and alternative arguments in syncretic cultural religion.

    • Daniel Fincke

      one of my concerns is that the UU experience as you describe it is more of an education in what religion is rather than a recreation of some of the immersive and philosophically constructive dimensions of having an actual religion.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    Two other religious groups which can be quite accommodating to atheists are the Sufi and the deceptively termed conservative Quakers.

    Sufis I have only a passing experience with, since there’s only a small community where I live. My experience has been not so much they ARE atheists or can even coherently incorporate an atheist worldview, but they believe every person is on their own “Path to God”, and since that necessarily includes atheists even we deserve serious consideration and participation when trying to discern the Divine Law.

    What I do have extensive experience with are “conservative” Quakers, so called because they keep the original practice of silent services (meetings) with no established pastors or leadership, as opposed to the “evangelical” Quakers who’s meetings are pretty much standard Protestant fare.

    A fundamental aspect of the Quaker worldview is that every person as an equal part of the Divine or Light. The progressive conservative Quakers (not a contradiction confusingly) are very open to differing ideas of what “Light” or “Divine” means, including fully natural consciousness and/or a moral sense.

    In the meeting that I’ve frequented I don’t think many people know that I identify as an atheist, and I’m sure nobody really cares that much, because it simply doesn’t matter. About the time I started participating the “clerk”, who is effectively the leader of the meeting, was an atheist and humanist, and I never heard one word of controversy about her. Both my parents followed me over to the Quakers, and they’ve ended up fairly prominent people in the community, and they are also atheists and again no other Quaker appears to care.

    So Dan, if this is something you’re looking into personally, I recommended adding conservative Quakers to your list. I understand practices vary a fair amount between meetings, so you’ll probably have to do some trial and error before you find a meeting (never “church” BTW, that’s the evangelicals) with a similar setup to what I’m describing.

    If there’s a Sufi community somewhere near you that might be interesting to check out too, thought in my limited experience they’re always theists who just don’t have a problem with atheists having spiritual insights.

    • Robert Oerter

      I’ll second what Jubal says. Though here on the East Coast we call ourselves “liberal Quakers.”

    • stasa

      Conservative Friends and Liberal Friends are quite different theaologically. Both are unprogrammed, true. Conservative Friends, however, are generally Christian, and while they might be very hospitable to non-Christian visitors, might not welcome a non-Christian into membership (or as long-term attenders?).

      Here is what has to say about the Meetings listed on its site:

      Meetings identified as Pastoral have programmed or semi-programmed worship services, which may include prepared messages, Bible readings and hymns.

      Unprogrammed meetings not affiliated with FGC [Friends General Conference] are identified as Independent (generally universalist or Christian universalist), or Conservative (traditional Quaker, trusting in immediate guidance of the Inward Christ). Independent meetings are located primarily in the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states. Conservative meetings are found in Iowa and nearby states, Ohio, and North Carolina.

      Pastoral meetings not affilliated with FGC are identifed in the notes field as FUM (Friends United Meeting), where Christ is acknowledged as teacher and Lord, or Evangelical (Evangelical Friends International), where Christ is acknowledged as Lord and Savior. For more information, click on the links provided.

      The three Conservative Yearly Meetings in the US are Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Ohio and North Carolina both have overlapping Yearly Meetings in the same geographical area which are liberal.

      Non-Christians are sometimes very welcome in unprogrammed, liberal Friends Meetings, sometimes not — it varies greatly depending on the Meeting, as well as on the geographical location. I have experience in the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes, I have felt quite welcome; other times I have experienced a fair amount of hostility.

      There is an organized movement of non-theists and atheists within the Religious Society of Friends in the US and the UK which includes publications, a list-serv, workshops, retreats, and more.

      I recommend the anthology Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism as a good introduction:


  • danielwatkins

    Having been raised in the UU church, I can tell you from the inside that there is a wide variety of smaller groups.

    There are those who do attend in order to have a religion, the structure of a weekly service and identity, both group and individual. There are also those, from the free-thought groups to pre-nicean christians to pagans to wiccans who seek more substance and direction in their search for truth. I have heard sermons entirely on poetry and music. I have also heard a very informative sermon on the research of Jonathan Haidt. When my father taught us sunday school we did science experiments and our sex ed was taught by two doctors and the founder of the local AIDS hospice.

    There are also the picnics and social activities for a fully immerse (although not in the baptismal sense) religion. There was even talk of creating a UU “holiday” some years back so UU kids could have a day off from school (or go on a river cruise with their father).

    As far as the “philosophically constructive dimensions”, it terns out that all you need to know *wasn’t* taught in kindergarten, but a lot of the details will depend on which church you attend and which group you hang out with. I have heard laments about white privilege from the white male minister, and been in a play about the life of Moses that introduced me to the term “Yahweh” for god, as a way of slaying the sacred cow. If you want philosophically constructive, UU can be a sand box, specifically for the purpose of trying out or learning about new philosophies; one thing it won’t do, and very specifically doesn’t do (well, tries not to anyway) is weed out the philosophies that may lead nowhere or become detached from their starting point. One statement of belief from a member that has remained with me is how in graduate school she was castigated for claiming to see a full circle rainbow after a hike in the woods, since such things are impossible. The basic assumption is that everyone is entitled to make their own mistakes.

  • daenyx

    You know, when I first deconverted (in undergraduate), my (liberal United Methodist) mother told me that she hoped I would, at least, consider raising my hypothetical future children in some kind of church, for the very reason of having that grounding community thing.

    Now, it’s a bit of a moot point because the likelihood about me changing my mind about the children I don’t want is very low, but I truly don’t understand the benefit. I can understand that if you had a religious upbringing, it’s something you’re used to and might be comfortable because of that (not the case for me, but I can grok it), but if ritual was never a Thing? What then? Has anyone here started participating in some kind of church-like structure as an adult, voluntarily, after not having been raised in such a structure? What did it do for you?

    • Jubal DiGriz

      Sure, that’s me. First time I participated in any kind of religious ritual was when I was 13, because a friend invited me to their church. I found the practices interesting in an academic sort of way, but completely unmoving. I’ve been to a variety of different churches and services since then with the same result, one unique exception being a Jewish Renewal service in a Jerusalem synagogue, but that was a one-time thing.

      Even my time with the Quakers has been largely non-ritual… a silent meeting is almost completely unstructured, it’s mostly an unguided group meditation. Those I find rather satisfying, but it’s the people I kept coming back for, and that’s structured as any group with common interests would be, with a few minor twists.

      However I was part of a zendo for about 6 months, which was very structured and ritualized, though nothing like a church. That was both intellectually and (for lack of a better word) spiritually fulfilling, though I stopped going when the intellectual part petered out.

      So from experience I think pushing ritual for ritual’s sake is foolish, unless one has some kind of ailment that desperately requires any kind of arbitrary structure. Ritual CAN be used to have worthwhile experiences that don’t seem to be achievable in any other way, but I cannott think of a reason why a child ought to be immersed in such things.

  • conrad schnakenberg

    I have been a member of a UU society for many years. I think of myself more as a religious humanist them as an atheist. It is however a relatively unimportant distinction in my opinion. The UU societies on Long Island have been essentially nontheistic and are much more philosophically oriented than theistic. Individual services do vary so if you go just once you may see a very untypical talk. I have personally found a sense of community of people who are willing to think and discuss serious material extremely important to me. Many times I have heard worship defined as respecting things of worth. In general truth is an extremely important element in what they are talking about. Of course I will also second that the coffee hour following the service is an important element in the Sunday meeting. Many of the societies attempt to engage in substantial amounts of social service to others which is sometimes not obvious on Sunday meetings. There is an intellectual bite their that is of importance to me and I recommend that you take a serious look at it.

  • James Croft

    Great question – I’m delighted you’re tackling this. Some suggestions as to where to begin your search for information:


    One of the central purposes of our site is to offer people a venue to write accounts of their life in nonreligious moral communities like the ones you describe. We have accounts by HUUmanists, Ethical Culturists, Secular Buddhists and others. Particular posts of interest might be:


    This is the magazine which preceded the Humanist Community Project and is still updated with longer articles about Humanist community building.


    My personal blog, which has some of my reflections of living in my own community at Harvard!

    4. ‘The Humanist Way’ by Eric Ericson is an interesting account of Ethical Culture.

    5. Check the websites of the various Ethical Culture societies for some blogs by members etc.

    I’m so passionate about this topic – when I write my inevitable book on Humanism (I feel it coming on =P) it will be about Humanist congregational communities. I’d love to talk at length about this!

    • John Morales


      One of the central purposes of our site is to offer people a venue to write accounts of their life in nonreligious moral communities like the ones you describe. We have accounts by HUUmanists, Ethical Culturists, Secular Buddhists and others. Particular posts of interest might be:


      (Such non-religiousity!)

    • James Croft

      You make an interesting point: there’s a lot of tension in this community regarding what counts as “religious”. Often, it is stressed that it is supernatural beliefs that are central to the definition of religion, and that attempts to define definition as a social phenomenon a la Durkheim are belittled as muddle-headed and even a form of apologetic. At other times, though (usually when some criticism is being made of people whom the poster disagrees with on a point regarding community-building), Durkheim’s definition is enthusiastically embraced, and used as a stick to beat people with – “look how religious what they’re doing is – they even sing! Proper atheists would never do that!”

      You can’t have it both ways: either the strictly-naturalistic practices, philosophies and communities we explore on our site are non-religious because they include no supernatural elements (and therefore the charge is incorrect), or they are “religious” because they form some of the same social functions of religions (in which case the charge is moot).

    • John Morales

      James, take a look at the first two paragraphs of Wikipedia’s article on religion.

      I think that’s a fine definition, and that the supernatural aspect is optional.

      (So far so good for you mob! :))

  • Jazz

    Interesting piece and thought-provoking questions.

    First, thanks for providing the foundational context that is your religious background and lack of direct personal experience with Unitarian Universalism. It makes it easier to understand your current position.

    Second, my background: My grandmothers are very religious/spiritual. One is a teacher and preacher. The other spent 70+ years religiously attending church. Once she left her abusive marriages to TWO non-religious scoundrels, she refuses to go to church. My grandfathers were the epitome of what people call “lost souls”. They drank, fornicated, adultered, gambled, etc.

    My mother and father were raised Southern Baptist. My mother questioned and studied religion from a very young age and concluded that BeingNiceism served her best. My father converted to Islam when I was a toddler, voyaged to Mecca and taught me some Muslim practices but was largely absent from my life as a religious teacher, though I learned many spiritual lessons from him (still am). I’ve attended over 30 schools. Among them: Pan-Africanist/Rastafarian, Muslim, Scientologist, Secular/Public with Christianity sprinkled in via pledge of allegiance, public school in the U.S. South where we had to exercise “moments of silence” (aka prayer time), and learned philosophy & business ethics from atheists.

    Third, in my senior year of undergrad studying Business, I did a marketing plan for a Unitarian Universalist church that wanted a new pricing structure for their Special Services (weddings, quinncearas, etc.). At the time, I considered myself agnostic – in a state of neither disbelief nor belief (after having gone through a period of challenging every strongly religious person in their house of worship as a teen – like you). This marketing project required me to attend UU services, interview UU equivalent of pastors, UU members and UU competitors (other UU churches, Catholic churches, hotels, etc.). This 7-month project was time and labor-intensive, and it greatly helped me develop my own current spiritual philosophy, which no longer includes anger at my early teachers/indoctrinators.

    Lastly, I would suggest that you go through a similar intensive spiritual research project that includes personally experiencing the various religious practices from INSIDE versus as an OUTSIDE OBSERVER, and that you do so with an open mind, open heart and open hands so that you may receive the honest and pure answers to your many thoughtful questions.

    As you continue on your spiritual journey, remember: there is nothing new under the Sun or in our Universe, only recycled energy. And that is a scientific fact. ;-)

  • Mclean

    In Vancouver, many members of the BC Humanist Association (a secular humanist group) used to belong the Unitarian/Universalists and there was a strong secular subgroup there, but as the Unitarians got more spiritual and ritual-based, and frankly more church-like, many left and joined the humanist group.

    A quick note on secular humanism: you shouldn’t be branded a humanist just because you are atheist: humanism is a value-based philosophical outlook. For instance, if you are an atheist nihilist, you are not a humanist, while if you are a deist you may be a religious humanist.

    The BCHA has been around for over 25 years, and been dealing with these issues. We don’t like religious ritual (nearly all of us are atheist, although some are agnostic), and we don’t like churchy-things, but we try to replace the social aspects that churches provided: community, ideas to chew on, and support. Our sunday morning breakfast club has evolved to do this well.

    1. We start with just informally talking amoung ourselvers around tables over coffee and tea (this is all we did at first)
    2. After 30-60 minutes or so, we watch a video (often a TED talk these days) or have a live speaker in on a thought-stimulating topic, or have a member present on a topic of interest.
    3. We then discuss the content afterwards among ourselves so everyone who wants can get their ideas and different perspectives out there (nobody here likes the ‘shut-up, listen, then leave’ concept of the sermon)
    4. We announce other events going on in the area, and close with a quote or poetic idea to leave on.

    Sometimes we’ll have a picnic or a dinner, or rent out a larger room for a public speaker. We also have trained officiants to say something poetic and appropriate for funerals, weddings (shortly), and other life events.

    What I compromise is that I’m not 100% Humanist, but I accept the label as being close enough. I also am still (irrationally) slightly bothered by meeting on Sunday mornings. Minor things have bothered me over the years, but then invariably someone else will be bothered and we’ll have a good argument over it (we recently tried experimenting with closing with a fixed statement of goodwill, and then stopped shortly afterwards).

    It is more than worth it (getting out of bed on Sunday morning) to have somewhere to go and chat, think, and relax face-to-face with a group of interesting people with a positive outlook on life without worrying about or dealing with religious ‘sensibilities’.

  • Physicalist

    I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for well over a decade now.

    How do they already meet your needs or not?

    It satisfies many needs:

    It provides a community that is concerned with social justice and intellectual honesty.

    It gives a framework for ceremonial recognition of significant life events. I’m glad we had a minister for our wedding, and not just a justice of the peace. We’ve had naming ceremonies for our children as a way of welcoming them into the community, etc.

    I find the religious education program for kids very valuable. They learn about world religions without being indoctrinated.

    I have to say that it’s also somewhat convenient to be able to call on the societal authority of Religion (with a capital R). In the fight for marriage equality in Massachusetts, it’s a plus to have explicitly “religious” people arguing for equal rights. And here in New England, the UUs have all the big old churches in the center of the town, so in some sense we’re *the* religious authority.

    How much do you feel like you’re playing along with things you don’t believe in?

    Things are always presented in the services with the understanding that not everyone is going to sign on to a particular item (except for generic wishes for peace, understanding, and so on) — so I very rarely feel like there’s a question of whether I “believe in” some aspect of the service.

    Personally, I see the service as a time that’s set aside from daily life for meditation and to reorient oneself. I think that’s psychologically and sociologically valuable even though there isn’t some bearded guy up in the sky listening in.

    At a previous church we’d occasionally have a pagan wiccan aspect in the service (calling on the four corners of the Earth, or some such). I obviously don’t “believe in” earth magic, or whatever, but I didn’t find it annoying. There was no expectation that participating in the ritual reflected any epistemic or ontological commitment.

    I know some have run into UU communities that frowned on atheism, but that hasn’t been my experience.

    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?

    Well, I’d say a lot of it has meaning to me personally. And even a bit of play acting is OK. After all, putting on a play, or singing a song about some fictitious person, can have important benefits.

    Obviously your mileage may vary, however. I’ll say that personally I don’t expect that I’d get *more* out of some rigorously atheistic community than I get from my UU community.

  • Mary

    I became UU and atheist around the same time. I was agnostic and church shopping. I liked the UU church and their welcoming of LGBT people and their support of social justice issues and such. I started becoming involved there and found that they encourage people to ask questions and express doubts. One of their principles is “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. They especially promote this in the children’s and adult religious education programs. I took a class there called “Build Your Own Theology”, which directs people to ask themselves what they believe about different issues and why. It was partly through this process that I realized I was atheist. I’ve always felt completely accepted there being atheist, even though I know there are Christians and new-age-y types that I may disagree with there as well. I like that diversity and having a place to come together with people who may disagree with me about specifics of spiritual issues, but agree on what we think is important, which are described in our principals.

    Part of what I find valuable is the set of principles we ascribe to: “There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
    • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
    • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
    • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
    • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

    Those are important to me, and I enjoy participating in a community that helps me find ways to enact those principals and teach them to my children.

    As far as “playing along with things I don’t believe in”, I agree with what Physicalist said earlier, “Things are always presented in the services with the understanding that not everyone is going to sign on to a particular item (except for generic wishes for peace, understanding, and so on) — so I very rarely feel like there’s a question of whether I “believe in” some aspect of the service.” That is my experience as well. Also, in my congregation, when religious stories are mentioned, they are usually referred to as myths, as in “What can we learn from the Easter myth?; How can the Hanukah myth speak to our economic hardship?”, etc.

    I really love having a community where I am accepted, where I listen and learn, where I feel people want to hear my ideas and opinions. I find it to be a truly caring community. Those are my needs that are met.

    Just as you began with saying that you are not directly familiar with UUism, I should say I’m not very familiar with your blog. I read a couple posts after attending the Reason Rally. From THIS post, I get the impression that you may have some inaccurate perceptions of UUism. (I wouldn’t say that “it’s all leftovers and syncretism and watered down vagueries”, and we don’t bang on about Jesus, and such.) However, I also get the impression that maybe you would be annoyed with the polite (and often genuine) acceptance of others’ beliefs. If you go to a UU church, although you will encounter atheists and freethinkers and humanists, you will also encounter Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, and Mystics. When you are in the company of ONLY atheists (maybe what you envision for a new church), it seems OK to say, “Reiki is a fucking load of bullshit”, whereas in the UU church, we might say “I personally don’t believe reiki works”. So, my impression of you, is that maybe you’d prefer to not have to listen to the announcements from the Christian Covenant Circle or the request for “positive energy” from someone during sharing of joys and concerns. You will encounter people with all different beliefs. Personally, I like that. You may not. If you have a UU church near you, I’d try it out a few times. If you start to form an Atheist church, maybe you’d get some ideas from the UU’s. I’d love to visit an atheist church, but even if a truly purely atheist church existed, I imagine I would still stick with the UUs.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and I hope you get a variety of responses. I think I will post the link on my church message board.

    • John Morales


      When you are in the company of ONLY atheists (maybe what you envision for a new church), it seems OK to say, “Reiki is a fucking load of bullshit”, whereas in the UU church, we might say “I personally don’t believe reiki works”.

      Accommodationism and churches.


  • Bill

    The first question should be “how can an atheist be religious. Religions with dogma or doctrine hold that faith is strong belief. And if you don’t believe then you pay consequences. Belief is then an act of fear. Faith is an act of courage. They cannot, therefore be the same. Atheists like everyone else must often make their best guess and live by it. That is faith.

    Believers in God have “revelations.” The more spiritual of us atheists or agnostics have “epiphanies.” In a search for meaning, we come to know “truths” in that manner. The more objective humanist has “insights.” These transcendent experiences are meaningful. Sometimes a group of people (congregation) can be moved together in a transcendent way. That is, in my view, religious experience. It is the kind of experience that Christian churches tend to phony up.

    How could anyone, especially an atheist, who lives with community purpose and values be considered unreligious?

    • Lance Armstrong

      The question gets a bit semantic. How do you want to define religion? While community values and goals are often associated with religions, I don’t think that these things make a religion in and of themselves.

    • KG

      I would strongly object to being described as religious. I don’t believe in the supernatural, I don’t attend or want to attend any church or any humanist or atheist pseudo-church, and the word “spirituality” nauseates me. I work for peace, justice, freedom and sustainability, and will happily work with religious people and rationalists for those ends – in organisations established for those specific purposes.

  • MarkNS

    I really don’t get this apparent hankering among atheists for some sort of community based around church-like bullshit. I think something like skeptics in the pub is much more appropriate to a free-thinking group of people. As for a moral grounding for children…jeez, how hard is that for a parent to do through discussion and modeling of moral behaviour? I did it with my kids.

    • ash

      I’m with you on this one. I don’t seem to have that “hole in my heart” that needs to be filled with hierarchy and ritual. And anyway, it’s common to be blind to what’s right in front of you. I mean, what exactly is FTB then? Or the SSA or the Rock Beyond Belief concert, or the Reason Rally? Plus there’s the dubious urge to join with others in meatspace when our numbers shine in the internets. It’s the causes that are commonly attendant with atheism that are worth building and strengthening.

    • Editor B

      Ash, like you, I don’t desire ritual to fill a “hole in my soul.” But I do like ritual as a way of celebrating life and community. As for hierarchy, I have no use for that either.

  • JoeBuddha

    I’m an atheist in the strong sense (there are no gods) and a Buddhist. Some reasons for that: Buddhism doesn’t tell me what to believe, but that I need to seek understanding of reality as it is. It emphasizes compassion and responsibility and thinking for myself. I also like the community I’m part of. The practice of Buddhism helps me organize myself and clarify what I know, what I believe, and what I need to understand better.

    I enjoy reading atheist books, blog posts, comments, whatever; they help keep me questioning and honest. However, I’m not really a debator, so I’d probably not be that comfortable as part of the atheist community.

  • Andrew Hall

    “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”

    I would like to speak to this for a moment. My wife and I are both atheists and are bringing our kids up as atheists. Many of the godless have problems with this viewpoint and say let the kids make up their own minds. That we should say to them “I don’t believe in God, but other people do.”

    My response?

    Telling my kids that while I do not believe in leprechauns, unicorns and God, but other people do is not only absurd but also not doing one’s job as a parent.

  • Ruth

    I have been a member of U.U. “church” for over a dozen years. As has been mentioned, U.U. “churches” are all directed by their local “congregations”. This results in a wide range of focus between groups, some being more religious feeling than others.

    Both the ‘Unitarian’ and the ‘Universalist’ branches of the U.U. have their roots in Christianity, but in North American the groups have mostly moved away from Christianity (though some groups may still lean towards it). The “church” in my city was started by Icelandic Humanists and it still has a strong godless bent. “God” is a controversial word there. I have put the words church and congregation in scare quotes to reflect the controversial nature of those words too within the Canadian U.U. movement.

    I was in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ camp when I started going to the U.U. church so it was a good fit for me. I liked hearing spiritual words in a female voice (the local minister is a woman) — that was something I was looking for at the time. One of the reasons I went to my first U.U. service is that I was looking for more social connections. I had a strong distrust of organized religion so I was very cautious when checking it out. Nothing at the that first service offended me, which was a change from Christian services I had been to (I grew up in a Catholic household). The local U.U. community really is what attracted me.

    I do like the U.U. focus on common values as opposed to common beliefs and the commitment to social justice. I worked with the youth group for a time and even became a sexuality educator with the U.U. “church” taking the ‘Our Whole Lives’ (O.W.L.) sexuality education training for trainers. That really is the best sexuality education program I have ever encountered, comprehensive, age-appropriate with levels from 5 years to adults. I had a wonderful time co-facilitating a multi-week O.W.L. training for high school age students.

    If you’ve only been to the Sunday services you don’t really get a good sense of what the community can give you. I think my best experiences with the U.U. community have come from working with the youth. U.U. Youth conferences are amazing connecting experiences.

    Over the years I have been moving more to the agnostic and atheistic end of the spectrum and one of the values of the U.U. community is that it can accommodate that shift without pushing people out of the community. I’m not sure if U.U. “churches” are the sort of community you envision for atheists (there are certainly many atheists within it), but I think they serve a great purpose in being places where a person who is religious or spiritual can join and safely make the transition away from faith without risking a social network that may have become important.

    • Alex Songe

      I just have to comment on something this post made me realize about what the UU meant to me while I attended. The UU was a safe place in my transition away from my fundamentalist youth. I’ve stopped going because I no longer need what that place and those people meant to me then. I only stopped going since I moved away and moved back, and I think I’d still be attending if I’d have maintained my friendships there.

      This made me realize something: without the safe environment of the UU, I feel like I would’ve been less willing to question without a community that fostered that environment, and it would’ve actually slowed my intellectual development had I not been part of that community. The UU community may actually be doing good that the atheist community itself would have trouble doing. In order to go to a lot of these freethinker meetings, you’ve already got to be part of the club. Those not in the in-group, those who do not call God a bully, they’re not going to feel welcome no matter how nice your group is. I think many UU congregations are different from the liberal religious community in that you can drop God completely from the equation, and it is very difficult to feel out-of-place for your beliefs. I can’t imagine going to any liberal mainline protestant denomination and not feeling like Dan did after complaining about the beliefs to his friends to and from the church. The UU may be breaking soil that atheists can’t do themselves (or can’t do themselves in a way that they feel is honest), and I don’t see why these people should have their experiences questioned by those saying that they don’t need “the hierarchy and ritual” of church life. Which is also funny, because while I was at my local UU, the hierarchy was flatter than most atheist organizations.

  • Editor B

    I’ve been participating in a local pagan groups for a couple years. They are independent, not affiliated with any UU congregation. In fact it’s a diverse group of people following different paths, not a part of any single tradition. The group is quite welcoming, and we have supernaturalists and atheists side by side. Some people conceive of the gods as metaphors or archetypes. Some of us don’t relate to gods or goddesses much at all. No one seems to care much about being in some kind of doctrinal agreement. When it comes to ritual, if gods are invoked, we are invited to conceive of them however we see fit, and I’ve found the substance of the rituals more like psychology than anything else. Ritual therapy, I suppose you could call it. Anyhow, as an atheist I’ve never felt uncomfortable ill at ease. After a recent ritual, the convener and organizer was heard to exclaim “atheists are awesome!” when the conversation turned to the recent Reason Rally. Through this group I’ve been encouraged to “find my own path” which is of course entirely naturalistic. In short, I love the group and it’s been a very positive experience for me.

    • Lance Armstrong

      This is similar to my own experience. I would say that atheism is not common within the pagan community, but a sort of agnosticism is. When I came out as an atheist to my pagan community there were questions and confusion about why I continue to participate without belief, but I never once felt unwelcome and it is now shrugged off as no big thing. Most of paganism operates as a sort of deism + whatever feels good to the individual practitioner.

      There are extreme amounts of woo in the pagan community, and like the UU church people are very respectful of the beliefs of others, almost without limit. I have known people who take faeries very seriously. Not many are serious about literal faeries, but you could talk about faeries and no one would bat an eye. Putting milk out for them is common enough.

      The value, to me, is ritual that accesses the subconscious. Ritual in a church has never accomplished this for me, but pagan ritual does. It is similar in some ways to meditation or yoga, and has a psychology to it as Editor B has described. The ideas of Joseph Campbell come to mind, how myth is powerful to us, and how myth can allow us to access metaphorical truths.

      The beauty of paganism (or any of these systems you mention) is how un-dogmatic it is in most regards. Don’t hurt people, patriarchy is bad, homosexuality is ok… I think we’re at the end of the list. We used to joke that it’s a sort of Choose Your Own Religion, in that people are generally free to accept or reject any given belief based on their own judgments. This was how I came to a spirituality that was both pleasant and morally consistent when I was a theist, and I have retained some affection for the practice after acknowledging its intellectual inconsistency. I would say that despite their claims to total open-mindedness, that in practice pagans are, as a community, somewhat hostile to Christianity. Sometimes we commiserate about Christian privilege in America, and I think that atheists and pagans are natural political and legal allies in this regard.

      For me, it is the primitive practices that really evoke feeling in me, and leave me afterwards with that meditative state of well-being. Standing with friends, lighting fires, feeling vaguely tribal in the whole affair, and affirming some common value in metaphorical terms is a practice that I enjoy. I also find that there is value in associating with people who are not also atheists, in that it is an example to evangelize to the open-minded, whether overtly or through personal example and casual conversation. Sometimes my presence gently constrains the woo.

      I attended UU a few times, and while it was non-offensive, I felt nothing for it and stopped going. Sitting in church just doesn’t do it for me. I want to be laughing in nature with people who aren’t stuffy.

      I think that if someone went around saying that “Reiki is fucking bullshit” that this would be unwelcome, but I have said things like “Look, I just don’t see any reason to believe that pretty rocks heal people. I think it’s placebo if anything, that your belief itself is somehow beneficial, but you don’t need to study an intricate system of what effect each rock has in order to invoke something like that, you can just find one you like and put it in your pocket.” and this sort of thing, if not pressed to the point of debate, is probably fine. People come to feel good, not to be told that they are wrong. Most of them are pagans because they got tired of Christians telling them that they’re wrong, so there’s this very strong individualistic, anti-authoritarian streak (usually) and defense of the notion that everyone can be right.

      The pagan temple that I attend is actually starting to operate in a manner that is similar to UU, in that they are inviting a buddhist group and some others to use their facilities (which are nice, and outdoors.) I’ve discussed this sort of thing with the High Priestess (who is “very agnostic” herself) and she was enthusiastic about the idea of having an atheist group. It is something I may pursue, though that leaves me with the task of trying to decide what an atheist ritual would look like, and whether there will be any significant attendance.

      It would be nice to experience this sort of thing without people abusing conservation of energy to somehow mean that we are immortal, or twisting quantum around in the style of Deepak Chopra. I do question whether creating an atheist practice is a worthwhile investment of my time. If the lack of such a community is genuinely preventing a significant number of people from coming over to atheism, then I think the answer is yes. If it’s just for my personal gratification – I can get that fix from the pagans and spend my time on other endeavors. Ignoring the woo does not really bother me.

  • noel

    UU’s believe in rational thought and dialogue, but they welcome all comers. The only theist Unitarian I ever met was my sister, who left her UU church because she felt she was not respected because of her belief.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Even when I was religious, I never saw much point in the rituals. They seemed like a waste of time and I hated going to church. It was the theology I was interested in. I never got all these peopel who think they need some sort of replacement ritual.

  • annaliesa

    There are two UU congregations in my area. One is primarily Judeo-Christian with more of a metaphorical look at things, the other is…well…I can’t quite figure that one out. I went a few times and got sick of listening to fundraising speeches versus intelligent conversation. I went back a year later to see if things had changed, and they were still talking about a capital campaign. Not just a brief few lines, but the whole sermon. I found out later the church, which had been around for over 100 years, was in a lot of trouble financially.

    We have a Unity congregation in the area as well. They’re pretty interesting. Their view of God makes my head hurt a little bit – not all that clear on what it is. They officially state they wish to do the work of Jesus Christ, who is human and a separate entity from God, and the Bible is documentation of the spiritual journey of people prior to and a bit after the birth of Christ. They are not associated with the UU churches and do not refer to themselves as Unitarian – they say they are members of the Unity church, which is a Christian denomination. My husband and I had a Unity minister officiate our wedding. I imagine different congregations vary, but our local one is happy to play in the sandbox with other belief systems.

    Buddhism is interesting. I’m too lazy to dig out my books on it, but I think at one point Buddha was quoted on saying something to the effect of not contemplating a higher power for awhile. Dhammapada maybe? Don’t recall. Anyway, deities are irrelevant in that deities alone will not get you to Nirvana. You can believe in deities all you want, but getting too hung up on them is going to hamper the Nirvana path. Seems pretty compatible with any belief system, really. I suspect it was meant to be way that given it’s history.

    I was recently talking to my husband about trying to find some sort of congregation again, but I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to do that. He said it’s nice to feel a part of something that feels meaningful.

    I decided on yoga classes taught by a mix of Hindus and Buddhists. Nice people, good conversation, and I get some exercise in. Works for me.

  • craigmcgillivary

    UU Churches are relatively welcoming communities. You will find some atheists at most of them, but also a lot of Wiccans and stuff like that. The Sermans are very dependent on the congregation and the current minister as are the actual rituals and the like. There is always an acknowledgement that many members of the congregation don’t actually believe in God and such, but usually the minister themselves has some vague religious belief bordering on deism. It isn’t a substitute for actual atheist activism and groups but its a place to meet fairly reasonable folks.
    Personally I had no significant prior church experience except on rare occasions. I was an atheist since 6th grade, and I probably wouldn’t have believed that I would be going to church regularly. But if you are new to a community and are trying to make some friends it is a very easy place to do that. You might want to wear atheist clothing just to prove to yourself that these people really are cool with that. It was actually hard for me to believe at first.

  • vikingrunner

    I’ve put off responding to this for quite a while now because I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say, preferably without going on for days. Long-ish story short: I don’t believe there is any sort of interventionist deity out there, and I still have 7 months left of a three year term on my Lutheran church council. That’s been fun, sometimes, since I don’t really feel comfortable being open with my beliefs as long as I’m on that council, but I don’t feel I can just surrender the commitment I made, either (especially since we’ve had an unusually high turnover since my term started…). I can’t even use the excuse that well, my beliefs have changed in profound and important ways because those beliefs were already in danger when I signed on; it was, in fact, one of the reasons I agreed to serve (to see if it would bolster my faith, and if I wanted it to).

    But. I do definitely get something valuable from attending (which is maybe 25% of Sundays through the year), and that is simply community. Yes, I talk to many of my friends online. Yes, I enjoy that and find it valuable. But when I take my son to church, I can know that no matter what time of year it is, there will be somebody there who is glad to see us, who will ask how things are going and has my husband raced lately and how is daycare, and in turn will share stories of their kids or grandkids or students or vacations, and just generally enjoy the time together. For me, those experiences are worth putting up with the occasional sermon that focuses on how worship is as or more important to the church as fellowship, or gritting my teeth when someone makes a remark about how good it is that I’m bringing my son because it’s so important to start kids on church early. Also, I figure I’ll be able to do more disagreeing and less gritting once I’m done with council. Not that I think many people will be very surprised; I have been wearing a pentacle necklace pretty much non-stop for the entire term. And I already have a bit of a reputation for arguing things.

    Now, I do not think I would be so comfortable (I generally am) or feel this way about the people if it wasn’t a liberal church. St. Peter’s is a Reconciling in Christ church, which basically means that we have made a formal statement, including it on our webpage, that we are open to all regardless of race, sexual orientation, whatever (we have two openly gay council members, currently), and when sermons get civic-minded they focus on the importance of women’s rights and gay rights and whoever else’s rights we can think of (we also have a woman pastor who was ordained within just a few years of when the ELCA allowed women to be ordained at all). The church motto is “In the city for good, in the city for God.” While I haven’t discussed it with anyone, I think it’s descriptive of the spirit there that the phrases are in that order. When St. Peter’s is involved in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc., they feed the hungry and clothe the naked, dammit, they don’t stand around jabbering about the importance of believing the right way. If it were otherwise, yeah, I don’t know that I’d still be there. I sure as hell wouldn’t be on council.

  • JonLynnHarvey

    I both am active in the local Unitarian church because it’s a good community, but do not publicly identify as a Unitarian (on Facebook or elsewhere) nor am I a formal member (though I once was). I remain on the margins. This is because I have precisely the ambivalent feelings that you do.

  • Thom

    One thing I want to clear up for everyone here is that Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists are three distinct groups. Unitarians are Christians who reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Universalists believe all religions are equal paths to enlightenment. Unitarian Universalists have roots in the Unitarian Christian denomination but embraced Universalism. Traditionally they valued the teachings of Christ more than other prophets but this is no longer the general rule.

    There seems to be a lot of confusion about these groups going on here.

  • Mary

    Thom, I think that is mostly historically accurate, and helpful for knowing the roots of the movement, but I don’t think that it is an accurate description of current practice. Also, Universalism is the idea of universal salvation (no hell), not equal paths to enlightenment (although many universalists would believe that). It is born of the idea that a loving god would not condemn people to an eternity of hell.

    I think it is all irrelevant though, since in practice these particular specifics are non-issues to many (most) UU’s today. (There aren’t any just Unitarian churches or just Universalist churches that I know of.) Even for Christian UU’s, matters of the trinity of afterlife are seen as individual preferences and not discussed in the church as a whole (in my experience).

    • Thom

      Thanks for the correction. I was thinking of salvific uniniversalists rather than the denomination.

      I do thing the distinction matters however because there are actually quite a few plain Unitarian churches around. They are not a huge denomination but I believe that there are more of them than UU’s. Also, there is denomination called Christian Universalists that believe Christ died for all men’s sins and reject the concept of hell.

  • Dave Domingo

    What an enlightening post and discussion.
    I’ve been to two services at my nearest UU church. Prayers at this UU church are addressed to “Spirit of Life” and “God of Many Names,” but I’m sure it’s only a small minority of this congregation who believe in the kind of spirit or god who hears prayers. Even though UU says that each person finds his or her own path *to* God, it seems like the typical UU experience is a journey *away* from “God” — i.e., away from belief in a supernatural, personal being. I doubt that many people arrive at UU churches as atheists and subsequently ‘find God.’
    So the God talk — what there is of it — seems intended to placate people who ‘still’ believe in gods. (To me, it’s a little like an evangelical church using pop music or movie clips to appeal to people who ‘still’ enjoy ‘worldly’ entertainment.)
    If I’m seeing it clearly and UU culture is generally like this, then it does not surprise me that Noel’s theist sister felt disrespected in a UU church.
    I’m an atheist (and former evangelical) married to a cultural Catholic. My wife has not attended UU with me yet, but I feel I’ve accurately described the experience at this church — in particular, the quasi-religious language and the emphasis on ethics and justice. Whenever I talk about it, she says “That sounds perfect *for you*” — in other words, it has no appeal for her as a believer. With apologies to Groucho Marx: Any church that would welcome an atheist like me as a member, my theist wife wouldn’t want to join.
    So basically, it feels like the God talk is there for no good reason.