[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.
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.