I have been an atheist for several years now. I have three younger children, all under the age of ten. I grew up a fundamentalist Christian in a “spirit filled” evangelical church. Everyone I have ever known was a Christian. I live in a small town and the closest group of atheists is an hour’s drive. My attempts to create an atheist social group in my area have failed. However, there is a Unitarian Universalist church in the next town over that seems to be accepting of atheists.
My family and I are dying socially with little to no one who believes like we do or even accepts us for our beliefs. Our kids cannot play with the neighbors because they hate us and tell my kids they will burn in hell. My kids didn’t even know what hell was! My kids need other kids to play with that are accepting or at least have parents that are accepting. I need social interaction with people that I don’t have to censor my own speech around for fear of further alienation. My wife needs to be around others as she cannot work due to severe arthritis. I would cry if my anger at the situation wasn’t overcoming the emotion.
I want to try and visit the Universalist church, mainly for the social aspect of it, and because I want my children to be religiously literate, but without my disdain and bad feelings towards most religion. However, my own feelings about religion are getting in the way as I feel I am betraying myself by going to a church at all. Am I betraying myself? How can I make myself do what I feel is right and set aside these feelings about organized religion?
Dear Socially Deprived,
To answer your letter, I decided that I need to visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation and see for myself. There is one that meets at a community center right here in my home town, and I went there last Sunday. I tried to imagine that I was you, struggling with a strong loathing for organized religion in general, which wasn’t that hard because I share it.
Many readers who comment on the letters I publish have recommended that the writers should investigate UU for a social outlet, for accommodating a religious spouse, for having some kind of “church” to point to for their neighbors’ sake, and for their children’s educational and social needs.
I cannot know how typical this UU group is compared to others around the US or the world, but I had a very positive impression. I felt welcomed but not pressured. Everything was invited, nothing was obligated or expected. The general feeling was very inclusive, and not at all exclusive. The service had a variety of activities that were enjoyable, positive, affirming, and reflected very humanist values. Someone played good jazz on a saxophone, the singing was fun, and the lyrics were thoroughly humanist. There was very little ritual, no “woo” at all, and a great deal of basic people-to-people warmth.
But they really had me when I learned that at any time during the service I can get a cup of coffee and sip it in my chair.
The theme of the minister’s talk was joys and sorrows. The emphasis was on people caring about each other and taking real action to help rather than just having detached sympathy. God was only mentioned once close to the end, and that was only as part of a brief description of the story of Job, the only Biblical reference at all, as an example of the challenges of life. Neither naïve nor saccharine, it was a positive attitude mixed with a realistic outlook. The only things that the talk asked me to believe in were the value and dignity of human life and my own best qualities. I felt very comfortable through the service and the socializing afterward.
I spoke with a few members, two of whom identified as having humanist viewpoints without my prompting. Certainly there were several who believe in God and Jesus, but it was clear that my conforming was not a requirement to be there. I sensed no agenda to get me to think, believe or do anything.
I spoke with the minister and mentioned in the conversation that I’m an atheist. She had no problem with that, and said that several others in the congregation would easily identify with my viewpoint. I described some of the social problems that my fellow atheists face, and she said that she well understood, having come originally from Arkansas. She wants the group to be a refuge and a resource for anyone who can benefit, both believers and nonbelievers.
I asked her about the several children I had seen, who at the beginning of the service came through the crowd collecting cans and jars of food for the local homeless shelter. It was an adorable and heartwarming thing to see. Then they left to have some kind of fun treasure hunt. The minister told me that they introduce the kids to the world religions so they can be literate about them and can make informed decisions about religion for themselves. They teach the kids skills for making ethical choices without formulaic or legalistic dogma, and to be involved with helping others who are in need. I saw the older kids being very sweet to the little ones. She said that she recommends that parents read “Parenting Beyond Belief” by Dale McGowan.
This group is active in supporting social and environmental justice. They work for local charitable causes including a food pantry, a homeless shelter, adopting needy families during the holidays, finding placement for homeless pets, supporting the families of gay and lesbian children, and many more. In a more global arena they organize fundraising events for AIDS research, support gay and lesbian civil rights, and promote fair trade coffee and chocolate industries, among several other things. From what I could tell, these are all seen as opportunities to help rather than opportunities to proselytize.
Socially Deprived, if I had the needs that you have described, I would be very comfortable coming to this group for those needs and being completely up front with them about my motives. I think they would consider those motives entirely understandable and legitimate, and would continue to welcome and accept me, just as I am, including my coffee addiction.
You are worried that you might be “betraying” yourself. Certainly you will be going against your initial emotional revulsion to something that you associate with unhappy personal experiences and/or with religious organizations that you oppose. But getting past our reflex aversions is an important way that we grow. Seeing past our blanket associations can open up opportunities to enrich our lives and broaden our perspectives. Ask yourself if there is some principle by which you live that you would be betraying. If not, if it’s just your acquired distaste for all things even vaguely churchy, then go visit that UU congregation in the next town over, and give it a try.
Hopefully, it will have some resemblance to the one I visited. Of course, all groups have their “warts” that you will notice after a time, but if that openhearted acceptance is there, it might rub off on you, and you’ll focus on the benefits instead of the flaws. Beyond the activities at the meeting itself, you might find like-minded friends who live relatively close to you.
The congregation may fit your needs or not, it may be to your liking or not, but either way at the very least I think you’ll emerge with your rationalism undamaged and your values uncompromised. And you just might get over your repulsion and find a valuable asset for you, your wife and your children.
Here is a link to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, which is apparently an umbrella group for UU congregations and fellowships around the world. There is information about their principles and activities, as well locations of congregations around the US and the world. There are also more congregations under another organization called the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
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