An Atheist in Church

This past Sunday, I went to church and had a wonderful time.

No, I haven’t converted, nor am I thinking of doing so. I was there to accompany my girlfriend, who’s a lapsed Catholic and is seeking a new church to attend. We went to a Unitarian Universalist church on Long Island. That Sunday there was a relatively small congregation, I’d guess between thirty and fifty people. The church itself was a pleasant modern building with a high, sloping ceiling and tall picture windows in the back. There were bookshelves along the back walls and tall, potted plants everywhere. One wall held two long lines of plaques commemorating the people through history who were persecuted or martyred for their belief in Unitarian Universalism – a startlingly large number. Evidently, the idea that all human beings will be saved has often been a dangerously heretical proposition.

I’ve been to UU services before, in college, and this one had many of the same elements. The service opened with a ceremonial ringing of chimes and then lighting the chalice, a traditional Unitarian Universalist symbol, as well as a peace candle. One member then led the group in a recitation of UU’s seven principles, followed by a hymn.

The next part of the service was also at the UU service I attended in college. It was called “Joys and Sorrows,” in which each member of the congregation who had either joyous or sorrowful news was invited to come forward, share their story with everyone present, and light a candle to signify the emotional resonance of the event. A lot of people had stories to share, perhaps a dozen, and everyone who participated seemed genuinely eager to step forward.

Most of the service after this was broken up into several brief speeches and sermonettes, each given by a member of the congregation. A young lady who couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 spoke on the topic of “What Would a Unitarian Universalist Do?” For her age, she was one of the best speakers there that day. I think there are great things in her future if she stays on this path.

Continuing this theme, the day’s sermon was titled “Living Our Principles.” The minister (who hadn’t spoken until now, and who didn’t do all that much talking compared to the length of the entire service) spoke about working at an interfaith clothing drive, and how she reminded herself to show patience and compassion while dealing with the people who made use of it.

Afterward, there was coffee and food. There seemed to be a real sense of community and friendship among all the people there, most of whom stayed after the service to chat. I had wondered if anyone would recognize my girlfriend and I as newcomers, and at least two people did: the director of the church’s youth program, as well as the minister herself, came over to meet us and asked us if we were new. This church must have a very good community indeed if its employees can tell by sight whether someone is a regular visitor.

All in all, I’m happy that I went. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Unitarian Universalists, and if I were religious, that’s almost certainly what I would be. The closing hymn at the service I went to was John Lennon’s “Imagine” – how could an atheist not love that? I don’t plan on making attendance a weekly habit – I just don’t feel the need – but I wouldn’t be opposed to going back.

I like the idea of a religion built on community rather than on shared dogma, which lines up nicely with the humanist churches I imagined in “What Will Replace Religion?” UU is itself a thoroughly humanist belief system, with nothing in its principles I could disagree with. I think the UUs largely lack the dangerous exaltation of blind faith and dogmatism that characterizes so many other religions, and if UU gained more ground, I wouldn’t be at all upset.

However, I think a person coming from a traditionally religious background might have some difficulty understanding the appeal of UU. After all, it’s nearly unique among established religions in not having any established dogma or official creed. A churchgoer who’s used to being told what to think each week from the pulpit might find the doctrinal looseness disorienting. And people for whom belief in God is an integral part of their lives are unlikely to feel satisfied here. The only time God was mentioned during the service, in my recollection, was to point out that it doesn’t matter whether he exists, because that wouldn’t change the moral obligations we have toward each other.

I’m intrigued by the phenomenon of people retaining the trappings of their faith for cultural and historical reasons, while casting off the supernatural beliefs and dogmas that long accompanied them. This has long been noted among secular Jewish people, and I see it starting to happen more and more among Catholics as well. Unitarian Universalism is a more explicit step in this process, recognizing the importance of community without requiring the hoary superstitions that have long accompanied it. From origins in liberal Christianity, UU has evolved to a point where it can – and does – embrace atheists and humanists without qualm. (As many as 46% of UUs may be atheists, according to a 1997 poll.) This could well be an effective rebuttal to propagandists who claim that atheists don’t do charity work – we do, as part of the UU church and many other organizations – or that religious charity would cease if atheists became predominant. UU is an effective testimony that supernatural beliefs need not accompany the desire to do good.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.