More on the Calgary Secular Church

[Author's Note: For my newest AlterNet article on atheist churches, I reached out to some friends and acquaintances who were involved with these organizations, including Korey Peters. Korey has previously written on Daylight Atheism about the Calgary Secular Church, the atheist community organization he cofounded, and was happy to help out for my new column. In fact, he gave me much more material than I could use, so here's the full interview.]

When and by whom was the Calgary Secular Church founded?

The Calgary Secular Church was founded by myself and my friend, an ex-Mormon who would probably not be comfortable with her real name being used. Unfortunately, her larger family is not yet aware that she has lost her faith. I ran into her at a piano concerto a few years back and during the intermission outlined the idea. She liked it and together we ran with it.

Where do you meet?

We have two meetings a month.

We meet the second Tuesday of every month at a local pub for our “Led by the Spirits” meeting. Curiously, we get most first-timers at this meeting. Whereas many Christians wouldn’t get caught dead in a pub, many atheists wouldn’t get caught dead at a church (or anything that vaguely resembled it), so the pub is a safe place for them to check out what we’re about. We’ve been hitting 15-25 people for 6 months or so.

We meet the last Sunday of every month at 10:30 am in the shared recreation room of a condominium complex. It has an attached kitchen, and separate room for the children, and the price is right (free!). These meetings start with a brief liturgy, some discussion of coming events, and then a short talk or speech is given by myself or one of my members. A discussion time is blended into a potluck brunch. I try to end the meeting at 11, so that we can have brunch until 11:30, but this never happens. We’re often don’t get brunch going until 11:30, and then only because I yell “Everyone Shut UP!” several times and physically drag them to the brunch line. It’s not unusual for people to be standing around talking to each other at 12:30/1:00 pm. It’s really great to see this community of friends developing! Our attendance is usually about 20 and includes several families.

What happens at a typical service?

The pub night is quite casual, but usually starts with me quizzing people as to our New 10 Commandments (which you’ll be familiar with already), and our Constitution. This usually sets the tone, and many great discussions are spawned. Most first-timers have lots of questions about what we’re doing and why, so I try to answer those. But for the most part, people are just happy to meet other non-believers, and it’s not unusual for me to pop my head up and see everyone paired off, heads-down in a great discussion. It’s a safe place to not believe, and that has real value.

http://www.calgarysecularchurch.org/2013/07/the-calgary-secular-church-constitution.html

The Sunday service is much more structured. I start with a disclaimer, that I realize church-type things are problematic for some people, so please don’t participate if you don’t want to. I’ll still like you. But having said that, research indicates, and long experience has taught that standing together and saying words together helps us to learn and live them. Then I invite everyone to stand and say our liturgy together:

We are the stuff of stars.
We embrace our responsibility as thinking beings
to reduce pain and suffering.
to increase beauty and happiness, as best we can.
Guided by reason and evidence, let us work
to make the world a better, more deeply fulfilling place
until that day our bodies return to the stars.

Most stand. Some don’t. Then I do some announcements and we talk about any upcoming events or what’s been going on for people. We’ve become an informal resource for secular ethics to some organizations in the city, so there’s usually lots to talk about.

Then I introduce the speaker (which may be me), and they will give a short talk designed both to teach and spark discussion. We’ve had talks about a child’s rights vs. a parent’s rights, abortion, free will, the Drake equation, selfishness (as a good thing!). This talk spills over into a potluck brunch.

What value do you see in it as a gathering for atheists?

The CSC provides many values to atheists. For some, our meetings are the only place they are allowed to say they have no faith, and that has proved quite valuable. We provide community as well, so these people now are building fellow non-religious friendships.

We provide ethical teaching to children (an important role as our world becomes less religious).

We provide “normalcy” for atheists/secularists/humanists in our wider culture. Over the coming year we have several activities planned that will subvert traditional Christian church roles, bringing secular people into culture on a positive footing, making it okay to be a non-believer. We’re trying to make a church that is a better church than a Christian church (due to our abandonment of faith and our embrace of reason and evidence).

My target audience actually isn’t atheists (at least, not just those who are atheists now). It’s all the nominal Christians who go to church because they think it’s the right thing to do, it’s what they’ve always done. By working at the homeless shelter, by taking a “prayer before city council meeting” slot, by challenging other churches to a blood drive, by starting a confidential email “doubt hotline” for people with no one else to come out to, we are doing (or will do in the coming year) all the good things that churches do. And we’re doing it from a powerful ethical place, one you don’t need to turn your mind off about.

So I guess our main value for atheists is that we are making a world that is safe for them to live in. That’s my goal, right from the start. The church just happens to be the tool I’ve chosen to get it done.

See here for more information about the Calgary Secular Church.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Martin Penwald

    I´m curious about the statements here. I live (when not on the road) in Alberta since 4 years, and I never had this oppressive feeling about non-believing, compared to United-States where religion is everywhere (radio, signs, ads).

    Never heard a « god bless you » or anything like that from an Albertan. Although, I´m not very social, and essentially know Calgary and Edmonton, where there is probably a more mixed population than in rural area, but still, I don´t feel it is oppressive like in the US.

    However, I recently heard that in Taber, a kid has been fired from his school (a PUBLIC school) because he didn´t want to participate at the prayer. But it was the first time I heard that religious privilege were applied in Alberta.

  • Bdole

    I awoke this morning(sunday) to the sound of church bells and thought of all the people going to church in their biz casual Dockers or slacks. I lay back in bed thinking, “it’s good to be an atheist.”
    :-)

  • Robany Tiffert

    Bill 44, passed by the Alberta Legislature in June 2009, allows
    parents to remove their children from any classes with “subject-matter
    that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation”
    with no consequences to the student. Talk about religious privilege.
    By allowing parents to have their children opt out of any
    “objectionable” teachings while still allowing them to graduate without
    any indication that they modified their own curriculum to suit
    themselves they have debased the education of all Alberta students. It
    is no longer possible to be confident that our children have a grounding
    in science, literature, art, philosophy, social studies, etc. The
    government has, as is usual , decided to be expedient to their “base”
    while leaving the rest of us to deal with the mess they’ve created – a
    grade-school metriculation that no reputable institute of higher
    learning, or enlightened employer, would consider to be evidence of an
    education.

    Our very Charter of Rights and Freedoms has a preamble that states “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God”.

    Anecdotal stories from Taber are one thing, legislation from our Provincial Legislature and is quite another.

    I was born in Lethbridge and have lived in Calgary almost exclusively since 1967. Although the level of religiosity in Canada is lower than in the United States, it’s still very high, and Alberta is loaded with the most pious of all. Remember that our Prime Minister represents Calgary Southwest and is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, an evangelical “libertarian” sect of Protestantism. He refuses to ever discuss his religious beliefs, but he seems to be eager to legislate them (luckily,
    and conveniently, his beliefs are that his god is a libertarian capitalist with no regard for actual citizens but a love for selling rawresources, lowering wages, eliminating social safety nets and ignoring Parliament).

    Jason Kenney is a Conservative Catholic that acts so piously he has often overshadowed the Prime Minister, and his riding is right next door in Calgary Southeast!

    I have no idea how it is that you haven’t noticed the religious privilege
    in Canada, especially in Alberta, but I assure you it is enshrined in
    our laws much to everyone’s detriment.

  • Martin Penwald

    Thank you.
    Like I said, I´m not a very sociable person, so I don´t feel it because I don´t meet a lot of people, and I am often out of the province due to my job, so I can easily miss some religious signs.
    However, I don´t remember seeing any signs against abortion on the side of the road in Alberta, although they are very common especially in Saskatchewan (and I cross the country from BC to NS).

  • Robany Tiffert

    There’s no doubt that the level of “piousness” in Canada is lower than in the United States, but it still permeates every level of society here as it does there. As much as I would like to single out certain political parties for this, using religion as a lever for social control is a feature, not a bug.

    Anti-abortion crusaders travel across Canada to both attend and create rallies. Just this last year we’ve had Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP, try to get fetuses legally designated as persons with a large chunk of both the Conservative caucus and cabinet backing the motion (and just about three weeks ago he introduced a motion to legally recognize “the equal worth and dignity of every human being.”). These are exactly the same tactics used by Republicans in the States with exactly the same results; a defeat for the legislation followed by a renewed offensive that allows the politicians to keep their base engaged and unstatisfied.

    You may see less of the overt piousness than is displayed in the U.S., but that may be because you have acclimatized yourself to the idea of a Canada as a more secular society as opposed to noticing the rather overt religiosity we have. Did you notice that in your own original post you had to emphasize that the Taber “incident” was actually in a “public” school. The Americans who read that would assume that the alternative would be a private school rather than an actual taxpayer supported separate school system administered by the Catholic church! The privilege of religion is all around us in Canada.

    Now, about the Calgary Secular Church. As much as I respect the idea of creating a meeting place for people with similar ideas, the use of the word church is my problem. A church (as a noun) is expressly for worship, and almost exclusively for one religion, Christianity. Using that particular moniker is at the least disingenuous and at most deceptive. It also feeds the propaganda about how atheists worship themselves. I believe that if one wants to create a community of like-minded secular people, then using a term to give it a religious connotation just feeds into the argument that atheists are only seeking their own religion where they get to make the rules. It may also be a word that automatically causes secularists to dismiss what it is that you are offering.

    It’s also upsetting to read Mr. Peters talk about using the church to volunteer at homeless shelters, take up prayer slots at city council (another example where Canadian and American politics give religious privilege), challenge other churches, establish a “doubt line” and generally “all the good things that churches do”. Those are all things that PEOPLE do, not churches. To even allow the suggestion that it might be a church responsible for any of those actions is to imbue religion with a quality that it doesn’t possess.

    Using deception to mollify people (and hopefully encourage them to behave in a way more in line with your own preferences) is not a practice that I find myself able to support.

    Other than the name, though, the service they provide is definitely valuable and they can call it whatever they wish to, but they shouldn’t be surprised by negative reactions to the use of the term “church” (and not just from atheists or anti-theists!).


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