Ask Richard: An Atheist Hesitates to Visit a Unitarian Universalist Congregation

Dear Richard,

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?

Socially Deprived

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.

Richard

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.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Skepticat

    I used to be a member of a local UU congregation and I went every Sunday when my health was better than it is now. I enjoyed my time there and I loved the people I met. I never felt pressured or mistreated. I’d go back in a heartbeat if we had a congregation closer to my home.

    As for beliefs, the UU principles are very similar to mine and I still keep a framed copy of them on my wall.

  • trace

    Richard, that was some endorsement :)

    Yes, wife explored joining a UU congregation for a while. Our experience/impressions were very much like the ones Richard describes.

    In my opinion, UU has relatively good programs for children and particularly teenagers.

    Good luck.

  • http://www.atheistview.com Dianna Narciso

    UU churches can vary greatly. I’ve known three. One was very new age-y spiritual with incense and beads and chanting and candles. Not much tolerance for rationalism there. Another was part humanist, part spiritual. Atheism was welcome there. And they served beer. And the third was all humanism. I don’t remember beer. Life is like a UU church…well, you get where I’m going.

    For me, all three went against my principles and I didn’t return. I don’t like, or have an appreciation for, ritual and singing songs with the word “god” in them.

    But when your kids need friends, you put up with a lot. :)

  • Eliza

    When I was younger, several gay and lesbian youth programs were held at a UU church downtown. I’ve attended poetry slams with feminist atheists like Alix Olson, documentaries exposing the negative side of religious indoctrination like Jesus Camp and Trembling Before G-d, and meetings of the League of Women Voters (which leans moderately liberal). It’s very easy to forget this community space is a church, and as a lifelong atheist, I assure you I never once felt like a hypocrite.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=106663009362660 Russell Martin

    After I left Mormonism, I spent a decade attending the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I felt very comfortable there as an agnostic atheist. I loved the socialization, the campouts in the summer, I taught Junior high and High School classes in their “Religious Education” program. I also became a trained sex-ed instructor for their “Our Whole Lives” curriculum. In many ways, I still consider myself to be a Unitarian Universalist. I only quit attending to take a break after a disagreement with the new Director of Religious Education about how the high school class was being run.

    I then decided to see if there was any completely non-theist community to be a part of and now I’m knee deep in those obligations. I guess there’s still a little bit of Mormon influence in my veins. If I were not so busy trying to build completely non-theist community, I would probably be back at one of the local UU congregations. I’ve even thought sometimes that I should just go back to the UU congregation and start a sub-group there for non-theists.

    Anyway, I can’t say enough good things about what the Unitarians do. We used to joke that a Unitarian was an atheist with kids because there were very many non-believers who went there so that their kids would have socialization and a “religious” identity.

    Go to you local UU “church”. Give it 2 – 3 months of attendance before you decide whether or not to keep going. If your kids are in the RE program and their RE program needs volunteers, get involved. You’ll feel a part of things in no time. Good luck.

  • Sarah TX.

    I have never attended a UU church, but my college mentor (an atheist/agnostic, historian, and skeptic) was very active in the local congregation and reported similar experiences – he always stressed that each congregation was different, and was really shaped by their members. Some are more “church-lite” and some are more humanist-oriented.

    I remember that one time, my mentor told a story about how he felt it was necessary to give a “sermon” about how many early scientists and engineers were inspired by their faith, because he felt the congregation was perhaps TOO quick to dismiss organized religion as an absolute evil :)

  • Ally

    Browsing the site and belief statements, it seems like UU aims to have all of the benefits of a church and avoid all the bad stuff (like say, needing to believe in God). From a pamphlet about UU faith: “We do not need to have someone like Jesus look after us; we can take responsibility for our own lives and accomplish marvelous things.”

  • http://ajourneyman.wordpress.com/ Quester

    You might want to check out their website as well, if they have one. My local UU has a website that lists what the presentations/”sermons” will be on. I only go a couple times a year when the subject being talked about seems particularly interesting to me. It’s not a community I’d join, but I like to visit now and then.

  • NYCatheist

    Very interesting. Has anyone ever gone to a UU group in NYC? I’d like to hear about it.

  • Marsha in TN

    Many years ago I attended and was president at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, WV, somewhat in the bible belt. It was in a college town, and had a very strong humanist side. Our most respected elders in the fellowship were all atheists. I enjoyed my time there very much. I would recommend a UU Church or Fellowship for any atheist/agnostic searching for a social space for their family. UU’s believe in the “inherent worth and dignity of every human being”, and that says it all. Coffee is a big thing, and pot lucks, lots of fun and great civil discussions about anything and everything.

  • http://www.danielharper.org/blog Dan

    So as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister, this is flattering to read, but please remember that not all UU congregations are alike. Since we UUs are determinedly heterodox, with absolutely no creedal test or forced beliefs, you may find a congregation that happens to consist of mostly theists, which may or may not be comfortable for an atheist. In some UU congregations with very mixed theologies, the humanists/atheists may have a smaller group that meets separately, and it’s worth looking for such groups (my dad belongs to such a group). Read the congregation’s Web site before you go. Go alone (without kids) first, ask lots of questions, and see if you feel comfortable yourself — if you’re going to be reluctant to go, your kids are going to pick up on that and not want to go either.

    I also want to add that Ethical Culture Society groups would be another good choice for a community in which to raise kids. Also, some Quaker meetings, especially on the East and West coasts, welcome atheists. Both Quakers and Ethical Culture Society tend to have good programs for kids. There are a few “humanist congregations,” but I don’t know enough about their kids programs to say anything worthwhile.

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leilani

    I am an Atheist, a mother of two children under 5 years old and I attend my local UU church and never feel like I am betraying who I am. I admit that I cringe at the off chance that god is mentioned, but it’s rare and not pushy.

    My children love going, they enjoyed the Easter(Eostre) egg hunt on the 4th and the previous weeks lesson was on Uniqueness and they made art with their fingerprints.

    I enjoy the free trade coffee and conversation. I have met fellow ex-Mormons, but no one has come out as an Atheist. On that same token, I also haven’t been pressed to be baptized, saved or otherwise ‘improved’.

    It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I find it nice.

  • http://www.twitter.com/dofang Dofang

    As an active atheist UU, I’m glad to see all the good comments. As long as you don’t make the common mistake that UU congregations are atheist societies with hymns, and as long as you’re willing to tolerate views that aren’t exactly like your own, you just might enjoy yourself.

    Where else could an out-and-out hardcore atheist be asked to teach Bible study to kids? (When teaching Genesis, one of my kids said, “Man, God is really mean in these stories.”)

  • AJPIII

    There seems to be an important point over looked here:
    “My family and I are dying socially with little to no one who believes like we do or even accepts us for our beliefs.”

    As a practicing non-theist (for the simple sake of categorizing) I would care to momentarily reflect upon the great value of self acceptance. Grounding your family and yourself in a treasure of gifts and progeny that await with hard work and advanced education bringing a firmness and strength with excellent social “face.”
    I am floored by the resolve that is challenged in social situations where believing is a predominant community attitude. Further how does one demand that it be natural and yet grateful that there are organizations as represented by the above mentioned exercising tolerance and inclusion.
    However the message to those who actively practice exclusivity, exiling children with a tone of consternation, openly haranguing and pressuring those that are deemed different require a much stronger measure and consistent response. Principles as defined by “Satyagraha” may be useful as an active guide for bringing results to ones family as desired above, instead of suffering and just taking it as it comes. There is a strength in character to be gained in developing a face to withstand such practices. No one has ever determined the biological necessity of “believing” as being some inherent structure, no, rather it is a modern device of thinking and language.
    Specifically to the above letter do not let your family be bullied by “believers!” I know it is tough but you can nourish them with the history of other great struggles, inform the little ones that such differences are small and not the big dramas they are made out to be. Try to relate in terms of our human brains development, emphasizing we are all biologically “Homo Sapiens” and will grow and change. This may offer an acceptance of the seeming injustice, how to process such practices openly and with as many eyeballs as possible because it is a simple fact, no matter what anyone believes, we all know wrongness when we see it! (Resources below)

    http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/525247/satyagraha

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha

  • http://kaleenamenke.blogspot.com Kaleena

    Currently, I’m not actively involved in a UU congregation, but if/when I have kids I think becoming an active member would be a great choice! Every encounter I’ve had with UUs has been wonderful!

  • http://smartmenlovereason.blogspot.com/ Elric the Mad

    First off, i don’t have any children, so i cannot give any direct advice from that point of view. I am lucky enough that in my area of north central AZ some people have started a free thinkers group because they sought exactly the kind of community you seem to be seeking without allegiance or indoctrination toward a religious dogma. The group is still small, about 15-25 people on average at the monthly pot lucks, but the hosts have kids and a few other families come and the kids all run around and have a great time while the adults enjoy socializing etc. Its terrific.

    The creators of this group did say they had been going to a Unitarian church (i think it was UU, but not certain) and may still go sometimes for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

    My only experience with a UU church was going with a friend of mine to hear our former philosophy professor speak (who incidentally has since become a Rabbi) The group seemed very progressive and accepting, the service was brief and there was only one utterance of ‘Jesus’ in the whole event.

    If you have no atheist/agnostic/humanist group in your area that can fulfill your needs, i heartily agree that you should at least visit the UU congregation nearest you. Best of luck for you and your family getting the social stimulation that you need with open and reasoning people.

  • Nikki

    I am an atheist UU, and I have to echo the sentiments of the UU minister who posted. In my city there are three different UU congregations (and I use that term loosely), and each is completely different from the other. One, the oldest, is VERY churchy – it almost feels like a Episcopal (sp?) service. The second, youngest one, is nice, but a little too new-agey, paganistic for me – nothing wrong with it, but I was uncomfortable. The third, and smallest, is a firmly secular humanist fellowship, the members bristle at anyone calling it a “church,” are firm in not wanting a minister, and are more apt to be atheist than anything else. I greatly enjoy the time I spend with them.

    Check out all the ones in your area – you may find a LOT of differences between them, and hopefully one that you will feel comfortable in.

  • http://www.ethicalstl.org Kate Lovelady

    I just want to reiterate that UU congregations are very individualistic, so if you’re an atheist and don’t have a good experience with one UU group, try another if there’s more than one nearby (there are 4 in the St. Louis area, for example). All Ethical Societies are humanist and have many atheist members, if you happen to live near one: you can find a list at aeu.org or eswow.org.

  • Jim H

    My only contact with a UU group was as a guest speaker.

    A few years back, I was a volunteer with the local rape crisis center, doing counseling and public education. For the latter, the center always sent two speakers, one of each gender. When we went to a high school, it was always a scripted presentation (I think I could still do it, almost 20 years later!), but for adult audiences, we were much more free-form. This UU group was definitely an adult audience, consisting of about 25 people. The meeting opened with what seemed like a Roberts Rules “old business” recap, then the floor was tuned over to my partner and me. We had a very lively, open, and respectful discussion, lasting about 90 minutes. And they took us out for brunch! I think that if I had been “socially deprived” at the time, I would have seriously considered that group. (As it was, my volunteer work was my main social outlet at the time.)

    Tangent: A couple of years after that, I was discussing religion with some friends. It turn out that all of us had stopped going to churches of any kind, but one guy “won” the debate by pointing out that there ar plenty of lapsed Catholics or lapsed Baptists, but he was the only lapsed UUist, and that’s really a rejection, since it’s the most disorganized organized religion there is.

  • Charon

    “it was positivism mixed with realism”

    No, it wasn’t – at least, I don’t think that’s what you mean. “Positivism” is a specific philosophical term, about epistemology. It doesn’t mean “life-affirming” or anything like that… “Realism” is also a specific philosophical term, about ontology, but it also has an accepted different, everyday definition. “Positivism” doesn’t.

    Other than that, good article :)

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I’m a member of an atheist/agnostic meetup group that meets every couple of weeks and has several dozen active members, which is just about enough to help me let off steam. Combine that with the online communities I take part in, and I’ve got all I need.

    UU churches are definitely a “your mileage may vary” sort of thing. The one I visited (the week before Christmas) did a nativity play, with the disclaimer that “you can imagine it to mean whatever you want to” – though what it could represent, apart from the nativity story, is beyond me. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for nonbelievers there.

    They were also very, very woo-friendly. They had a hall lined with bulletin boards, one of which was dedicated entirely to energy healing, chiropractic, homeopathy, and all sorts of insane alt-med stuff.

    I’m sure they’re not all like this, but… I don’t think I’ll be visiting mine again.

  • Richard Wade

    Charon,
    Thank you for that correction. Writing that late last night, I had a vague feeling that I was using a philosophical term incorrectly, but I was too tired to pay attention. I’ve changed it to “a positive attitude mixed with a realistic outlook.”

    I always appreciate the wide varieties of expertise that people bring together here.

  • Sebastian

    Richard,

    would it be possible for you to do a special post reviewing the “Parenting Beyond Belief” book that you mentioned? It would be interesting to read your opinions on the book since so many of your columns deal with raising children in an atheistic environment.

  • stephanie

    I was going to jump on here and say what everyone else said- that there are as many different kinds of UU congregations as there are UU congregations. I’m an atheist and have never felt like I was sliding into deism by showing up at a service.
    The only reason I’m not a member of my local UU congregation is that I realized I’m have the exact opposite problem of the letter-writer. I’m just don’t like the commitment that goes with fully joining a regular social group.

  • http://www.uuchurch.net LarryD

    Add me as another atheist who is a member of a UU church… I went looking for two things for my children:

    1) I wanted my children to learn about religion without being indoctrinated

    2) I wanted my children to have opportunities for public speaking and other performances, which churches often provide

    I’m pleased to say that both of these goals were easily achieved…

    Also achieved, unexpectedly, is that I became less of a militant atheist and much more of a rational atheist.

    As an example, I no longer get defensive or agitated by the word ‘god’… for me it automatically translates to ‘the interconnectedness of all life’. That’s not some spiritual thing… it just means that my actions (and inactions) need to be deliberate because they have an impact on everyone and everything around me.

    With the caveat that each UU congregation is different (there is no creed or dogma and each congregation has complete polity), I would highly encourage S.D. to give one a shot for a little while.

  • Sophia

    I am also an atheist UU. It’s a great way for my kids to become literate in the beliefs/cultures of the world without being forced/pressured to believe in them. Last year, I taught Religious Education (RE) classes to 3rd & 4th graders (that was a laugh & a half!), and my entire class were young atheists! I was pleasantly surprised.

  • Joyfulbaby

    Another atheist UU here. Yes, I love that my kids have the opportunity to learn about other religions and cultures without being indoctrinated, but the most basic reason that I go is that I get to talk to people who think like I do. I live in the Bible Belt and going to the UU fellowship saves my sanity.

  • Alex

    I recently resigned from our UU fellowship. I was an active member or 15+ years, held leadership roles etc. I still consider myself as a friend of the fellowship and remain active since no “members” are willing to take over my responsiblities. I think there really needs to be some serious self evaluation on the part of UUA and it’s ministers. Jefferson thought Unitarianism would be the dominate religion in our country, so why are there the same amount of UU’s today as there was in his time??? I really didn’t find the path of true personal growth or genuine passion until I became more honest about my naturalism beliefs. For the sake of keeping everyone at the fellowship on good terms, frank and honest discussions were limited. Lots of self censorship was encouraged. And it seemed like the sunday services where like watching the Lawrence Welk show, how many times can you sit through that before you stop coming? There also seems to be plenty of contentment and not much passion for change and growth. Search for truth and meaning sounds good but reinforcing personal biases seemed to be the favorite activity. Unfortunately for me and probably many others UUism is just better than nothing in areas that lack much choice. Lastly whats the deal if the “Standing on the Side of Love” promotion? It reminded me of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program. It’s just not that simple or black and white!

  • Ruthanng

    Former UU Atheist here. Although my Congregation was welcoming to atheists, it became more like a traditional protestant church over time while I was there.It also attracted a number of “Wooey” types and I have gotten more and more intolerant of new agey nonsense. I finally left .
    UUism was a mostly good thing for my kids when they were small though and I am grateful for that. One of my kids still identifies as UU ,another identifies as Atheist. I live in a rather conservative area of the East Coast and my kids did benefit from meeting other weird families.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    You might be interested in the history of the union of the Unitarians (and what that term means) with the Universalists (and what that term means).

    From wikipedia

    Historically, Unitarianism referred to the monotheistic belief in the single personhood of God and a rejection of the Christian Trinity; Universalism taught that all souls would achieve salvation and rejected everlasting Hell.

    Contemporary Unitarian Universalists do not necessarily subscribe to the historic beliefs of Unitarianism and Universalism.

    I’d say give it a try.

    As a humorous note, there is supposedly a great quote by Thomas Starr King, pastor of the San Francisco Unitarian Church at the beginning of the civil war: “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!” :)

  • echoecho

    Lastly whats the deal if the “Standing on the Side of Love” promotion? It reminded me of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program. It’s just not that simple or black and white!

    Uh, Alex, did you just compare equal rights for gays and lesbians to drug use?

  • http://sundialsaga.blogspot.com Modern Girl

    I’m a UU! I’m been going to my local congregation since last May. Each congregation is indeed very different, mine tends to have a good balance between scholarly secularism, uplifting humanism, and good music. It’s in a church like room with pews and hymn books, and collection plates. It has all the superficial Christian things, but we sing about “someday there will be peace” and just awesome stuff. That fact it’s in a church like room moves me, and the fact we sing about rational secular stuff pleases me.

    I visited the Montreal congregation a week ago, it was a ton different. It made me realize that if I had been living in a different city I might not have become a UU. The service was too basic and didn’t really move me.

  • http://www.piercepresley.com Pierce Presley

    Go. You have nothing to lose.
    I am a member (and board secretary, though not for long) of a UU church here in Texas. I first attended the week after the Knoxville shootings because I felt it was important to lend moral support to people who had been attacked for, apparently, being too accepting. I brought the wife and kids because we had an accident with an industrial adhesive…
    A side note: one of the very few arguments in favor of religion that my family and friends have ever made that had any effect on me was that my kids would be deprived if they didn’t have some sort of faith community. (I’m reasonably sure that said family and friends thought that if I just basked in the holy spirit a bit more, my atheism would leave me like a flea infestation.) This really gave me some conflict, because while I don’t want to indoctrinate my kids into atheism, I sure the hell don’t want other people indoctrinating them into anything else! I even get pissed (though I don’t mention it) when my mom sends overtly religious crap around holidays.
    So we went, and I was okay with it—no one gave me any guff for being an atheist, only a few questions about what my beliefs were exactly, and it was kind of nice to be with a group that recognized that all atheists are not alike—the wife was okay, too, but the kids took to it like a duck to water. They enjoyed their religious education class, they liked the people (who were older, but mostly very receptive toward the kids), they liked the playground. We’ve gone ever since, and like I said, they’ve asked me to serve on their board and asked me to serve again next year, though I had to decline. (I’m the PTA president next year—which I likely would not have gotten had my religious views ever come up, but they didn’t—and yes, that scraping sound was the bottom of the barrel.)
    I’m not saying there haven’t been times I’ve disagreed with fellow members about theological, religious, philisophical and other matters (and some are fans of the asshat Stanley Fish, who keeps polluting public thought via the NY Times op-ed page), and there are times that I feel my views are somewhat dismissed because I’m younger than the majority, but I have never felt unwelcome for my views.
    So go. You might find that the local congregation is overly theist (or woo-ey; there are some here), but if you don’t go you’ll never know.

  • Lysistrata

    Another atheist UU here. Give it a try. My husband and I went over 10 years ago as I wanted a community that accepted my liberal beliefs.
    As stated all UU congregations are different. Our minister is definitely theistic in nature but does try to keep it a minimum. I also feel that tolerance among belief is a good thing-we live in a diverse society and if we want to be accepted then we must be willing to accept others. My friends at the church put up with my atheism and I put up with them defining god as love. We do have open discussions with each about our beliefs. I have also given sermons on why I am atheist. Nobody has ever said “Your wrong”.
    The church also has great dinners and events.

  • John

    I’m another atheist UU. Atheist for almost 20 years and UU for the last 5 or so. Many great comments so far, and I could go on about the many good aspects to the church or society, but I’ll just add that I think it is a great environment for kids. I’ve taught or served on committees with the youth at almost every age group from 1st grade through high school. The kids are great and I’ve been very happy to have a found a community where my own children can feel comfortable and a sense of belonging without having to accept any indocrination. Over the years the curricula I’ve taught have included comparative religion such as holidays or visiting other religious services. There is the history of Unitarian Universalism which includes many good role models. And also a lot of morals and ethics. There is also some sessions based on the Bible. These same lessons are going to be taught by theists or atheists; they are only going to be taught by atheists, if they are the ones who volunteer. Beyond the classroom, it’s not too many places where your teenager is going to get a chance to perform an original song in front of a 100+ person audience or your 5th grader is going to join a choir (which I wouldn’t have been able to get him to do) while you are off listening to a talk by the first black woman elected to office in your town.

    Personally I don’t feel like I’ve had to compromise anything as an atheist to also be a UU. I’m actually more forthcoming in my atheism with other UU’s than I am with others who I consider good friends.

  • stogoe

    I started at my local UU church a few years ago, mostly because there are no atheist choirs and I love singing. I did go to a local atheist gathering once, but it was way too “white males ages 18-49″ for my taste.

    Keep in mind that a UU community offers more than an hour sitting in a pew on Sundays, too. If you find the service too churchy, feel free to engage only with the activities you find valuable.

  • Alex

    echoecho Says Re: Lastly whats the deal if the “Standing on the Side of Love” promotion? It reminded me of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program. It’s just not that simple or black and white!

    Uh, Alex, did you just compare equal rights for gays and lesbians to drug use?

    echoecho, I’m glad you mentioned that, I was part of a welcoming committee that went through the program for becoming a welcoming congregation, which we finally got the congregation to adopt. Frankly I was surprised and just assumed being a welcoming congregation was a given, apparently some members did not agree and one actually left over it. Anyway I think in simple terms it’s just not enough saying you are standing on the side of love and unfortunately I think many UU’s do just that and nothing more. Maybe in someways it’s that contentment that does more harm than some right wing protester getting you motivated to do something about it.

  • bob

    Give it a shot, Socially Deprived. You have nothing to lose.

    I was a perpetual visitor at my UU church for a couple of years before finally going through the sacred and solemn rites of membership. (You sign your name in a book and sometime later are eligible to vote.) As a visitor, I was welcome to participate in all aspects of the church, with zero obligation or pressure to “join.”

    A few weeks ago, right in the middle of the sermon the minister’s phone rang. It was god. The rest of the sermon was his one-sided (think Bob Newhart) conversation, and it was hilarious.

    After the service we passed each other in the hall, and he was talking to his son on the phone, “OK, I’ll be there in about 20 minutes.” I remarked, “I hope that wasn’t god again!”

  • HankTheCowdog

    My ex was UU — the services were a little on the churchy side, but it seemed like most of the people were there for the coffee and donuts afterward.

    The best thing I ever read about UU was by a SF Chronicle columnist:
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/04/08/DDG27BCFLG1.DTL

  • Jamie

    Yet another UU chiming in here. I will agree with what others have said in here about UU churches varying wildly. The church I attend, at times has sermons on spiritual matters. However, our recent Easter service touched on humanist issues, so it really is a matter of YMMV. I’ve also attended a get together of humanists at the church wherein we proceeded to talk about how evolution is real, how it affects our everyday lives and just how terribly awful the creationist museum here in Kentucky really is.

    At the very least, go for a couple of weeks and give it a try.

  • echoecho

    Alex,

    Wow! I’m glad I asked! I’d seen the Welcoming Congregation stuff on some of the UU websites, and really appreciated it (I think there’s definitely some meaning it, as evidenced by the swift exit of a few of your congregants – explicitly setting a social norm of acceptance doesn’t prevent bigots from airing their views, but it makes them the norm-breakers, not whoever they’re targeting).

    I’ve been noodling around with the idea of visiting some of my local UU congregations and seeing what they’re like – but some of the stuff I’ve read online connects with what you say. I’ve read that congregations sometimes talk more than they act, and that (I think someone notes this above) sometimes the effort of dealing with so many disparate views leads to inaction.

    But then I wonder whether what I’m really expecting out of them is fair – are there other congregations out there that are accomplishing significantly more? Many people do go to various churches just for the social connection, or for discussion.

    Anyway, thank you for responding to my comment – I was gearing up for angry, and had misinterpreted your statement completely.


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