A Church for Atheists

That’s the title of the piece from a recent Nightline story.

It refers to the “atheist Sunday school” held in Palo Alto, CA and other locations around the country. It’s also the topic of an article in Time magazine over four months ago. (Nice job being current, Nightline!)

At first, I was a bit taken aback — disturbed — by the comparison to a church. To most atheists, that would be an insult, given the churches many of us are familiar with.

Turns out there are a few similarities:

What’s interesting about this non-church is some of its churchlike aspects. There’s a hymn book, talks that sound like homilies and, at one point, an actual collection plate passed through the aisles after one song.

And of course, there’s the atheist named [Peter] Bishop. The manner in which he teaches is similar to how some fired-up preachers preach. But if he’s not preaching faith and he has a Sunday school, what is Bishop teaching?

“Community,” he said, “a sense of community, that they get to know other kids… It’s a place where, I don’t know, Jane, what do you think?”

“It’s cool ’cause you can, like, think freely by yourself,” [eight-year-old Jane Kovak] said.

The similarities end there. There is one striking difference between this “church” and most Christian churches:

As for Jane, her parents believe that her religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should be up to her.

“They have had many discussions about this, and we’ve had our discussions too,” said her mother. “I think that we just give our view, I always tell Jane that she has to make up her own mind, she has to experience her experiences — figure it out for herself.

And Jane is doing just that — trying to figure out for herself the answers to life’s difficult questions, like what happens when people die. “Well, usually you kind of go in the earth, but I don’t believe that heaven’s not really real,” she says. “It would be cool if it was real. But there is a possibility that it is real, but I don’t think so. ”

The parents can teach but they don’t indoctrinate. At no point, I imagine, would the parents at this Humanist Center tell the children to believe in anything because they said so — or because Charles Darwin said so. The children must discover these truths for themselves by asking the right questions. The parents teach the kids how to think critically; they teach them how to think, not what to think.

If they simply said that evolution (or what-have-you) is true because the scientists say so, they would be committing the same crime a pastor does when he says the Bible is a source of literal truth. You have to have a way to know if the authority figure is telling the truth or not.

You won’t see that here, though.

Also, as the piece notes, one of the most important reason for having this “Sunday school” is not to teach the children these lessons. It’s to provide them (and their parents) with a community of like-minded people. You can discuss how to raise children without religion rearing its head. It’s an aspect of living an atheist lifestyle that’s not sufficiently addressed outside the few good sources that are out there.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://www.drzach.net Zachary Moore

    Of course, this is nothing new. The North Texas Church of Freethought has been in operation for nearly 15 years. There’s a sister church in Houston, as well. The only thing wrong with traditional churches is their appeal to tradition and superstition. Once you remove that, it’s actually a great social experience.

  • Kate

    uh…UU?

  • Jen

    uh…UU?

    that’s what I thought too

  • http://www.atheistspot.com/ Freethinker

    Sounds like the perfect church

  • Christian Guy

    I found your blog while looking for a completely different point of view.

    I am a Christian. I trust that by leaving my Email name it will NOT be listed next to this comment since I’d prefer not to be spammed.

    Also, emotion can be misunderstood in textual responses such as blogs or email. Please treat my response as though we’re sitting in a local coffee house having a polite conversation.

    I attended Christian schools from 1st grade through college. I was never “indoctrinated”. I was never told what to believe. I am aware that some Christians take this approach but it is certainly not the norm.

    In fact, we were encouraged to write papers that were critical of Christianity in order to get closer to the truth.

    The paragraph in the original post could be re-written and it would match the experience of many Christians that I know:

    - The parents and teachers can teach but they don’t indoctrinate. At no point, would they tell the children to believe in anything because they said so — or because the Bible said so. The children must discover these truths for themselves by asking questions. The parents and teachers teach the kids how to think critically; they teach them HOW to think, not what to think.

    Thank You.


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