Not Every Church Practice Is Useless

Crommunist agrees that there’s nothing wrong with taking the best practices of churches and applying them in secular settings:

Particularly in immigrant and black communities (and conceivably in Central American/hispanic ones as well), the church is the focal point of civil life. It is a resource not only for instrumental support like counselling and a financial safety net, but as an existential anchor. The prospect for many of “leaving the church” is not so simple as just getting to sleep in on Sundays -– it has real repercussions. Setting up a humanist church speaks directly to those people: “you don’t have to ‘leave the church’, you are simply invited to switch churches. This one doesn’t have a god in it”.

To reiterate, no one is making you participate in this stuff if you don’t want to. There are plenty of ways to build community and this is simply one option (albeit one that may be growing in popularity). The amount of pushback against people who want communities like this is astonishing, though. It’s as if taking any aspect of the church experience — a title they use (“chaplain”), the times they meet (Sunday mornings), the things they celebrate (rites of passage), the ways they connect with like-minded people (small groups) — somehow justifies religious belief.

It doesn’t.

Churches don’t own community-building and local leaders any more than they own marriage. Might as well find a way to use the best practices in a secular way while getting rid of the bullshit that usually comes attached to it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    That already exists, or pretty close anyway.  The Unitarian Universalists have all the trappings of church,  with services, sunday school, pastors, potlucks, the works.  And it’s god-optional.  Of course each congregation is different, and some are more theist or woo-ish than others.  But there are many with large atheist contingents.  My local UU is even letting me teach critical thinking to kids! 

    • ACN

      My, admittedly limited, experience with the UU is that it’s a mixed bag. I’ve encountered some churches that are basically humanist groups. I’ve met at least one that despite being “theism optional” was not at all welcoming to atheists.

      I’d glad to hear that they’re letting you teach critical thinking to kids though! In a similar vein, one of the ones near me has a REAL sexual education class for their young people!

      • Ubi Dubium

        Yes, I have my youngest in that program.  It’s called “OWL” which stands for “our whole lives” and its a full year of sex ed (for 8th graders, in this case).  The class meets in a separate building from all the other RE classes, and the class is not taught by parents of any of the kids in the class.  That means they can talk about real issues without being embarrassed or worrying about what their parents will think.  The parents were required to see a bunch of the slides they will use and sign permission slips beforehand, and I can tell you this class is nothing like the watered down stuff in public school sex ed.

        A couple of weeks ago I asked my daughter, “So what was the topic in class this morning?” and she said “Euphemisms!” and merrily told me about some of the funniest ones the class had mentioned. 

        The services at this UU are too theist for my taste, so I don’t go to those.  But I try to hit every potluck!

        • Entertaining Doubts

          The UU congregation my family attends (I still can’t quite bring myself to call it “our” congregation) starts OWL earlier — like around 6th grade — and continues through 8th. I think the full national curriculum actually has materials that start in preschool, but I’m guessing many congregations don’t have the resources to pull that off. Regardless, it’s a great program, and one of the reasons our family puts up with all the woo and theism-lite at this particular congregation.

          We constantly find ourselves doing cost-benefit analysis with regard to sticking around there (a good skeptic’s approach, I guess).  We enjoy a lot of the people, the intellectual and political leanings are to our liking (blue oasis in a very red state), and they’re great at charitable outreach stuff (including GLBT advocacy). However, the current minister is far too woo-ish for our tastes, and the congregation as a whole seems to have way too much blind respect for her authority. So, like Ubi, we hit the social gatherings and other “peripheral” stuff,”* but we only attend services when the “sermon” topic seems interesting (conveniently, they always publish the upcoming topics online and in their newsletter).

          * Of course, these “peripheral” activities are much more effective at actually getting stuff done than the “main” services, with the mindless ritual and half-hearted singing. But to each her/his own, I guess!

          • Ubi Dubium

            I think the one we are going to has mini OWL units in 1st and 6th grade, then the full year in 8th grade, and sometimes something for high schoolers as well.

            It also has a “Science and Reason” group that meets weekly, which has quite a good percentage of atheists.  I’d go, but my teaching schedule interferes.  As much as I’d enjoy the group, I think it’s more important that I talk to the kids about invisible pink unicorns and placebo bracelets.

    • Mairianna

      All kids should be taught critical thinking!  

    • Rieux

      And once again, I think it’s necessary to point out that Unitarian Universalism—in its national hierarchy and many but not every single one of its congregations—is loaded with religious privilege and atheophobia. The amount of atheist-bashing (and especially, these days, gnu atheist-bashing) that goes on in the UU halls of power is frequently staggering. As an atheist who was a UU for several years, I’ve written a rather large amount about this, for example here.

      I would hope that any atheist who supports or recommends UUism in a context like this one would be cognizant and forthright about the amount and the potency of antipathy toward our kind that exists in UUism.

      The same, of course, goes for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy and its two most prominent leaders, Greg Epstein and Chris Stedman. Epstein and Stedman have been brutally bashing innocent atheists—whining to the national press about “fundamentalist atheism,” dishonestly smearing prominent gnu atheist voices, and the like—for years. It is more difficult to be an “out” atheist in the United States as a result of those men’s advocacy.

      I’m not fundamentally opposed to the kind of atheistic “ersatz church” (as commenter Deen put it elsewhere on this thread) that is at issue here. But as long as it’s led by people who continually attack and dehumanize atheists for daring to defy religious privilege, I don’t see why any of us should support it.

    • Anonymous

      By everything I can find, UU IS a religion.  The UUA main website says it draws from Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  There are other mentions of God’s teachings, etc. on the website as well.  That, to me, is a religion that is not welcoming of a non-god viewpoint.  I so wish I could go there and enjoy, but I know I would not.

      • Rieux

        When I was a UU, I argued strenuously (shocking, right?) that UUism is not a religion, because very few UUs actually believe in anything supernatural, and certainly no such belief is required for membership. (The “God” referred to in what you’ve seen bears little if any resemblance to the “God” that billions of theists on the planet believe in.)

        By my understanding, then and now, of what “religion” is, a thoroughly naturalist organization that merely borrows community structure, language, and ritual stuff from actual supernaturalist traditions is not a religion.The general UU response I got was that that conception of “religion” is nasty stupid narrow-minded fundamentalist garbage that no sensitive and educated person could possibly accept. UUs hotly deny that they have any dogma, but in my experience “UUism is a religion” is awfully close.For whatever it’s worth, the central ideological document in UUism—the Principles and Purposes, never actually says that UUism is a religion. To the contrary, it subtly implies that it’s not a religion, because the Third Source is “Wisdom from the world’s religions”—if UUism were a religion, that should say “Wisdom from the world’s other religions” or something equivalent.Of course, the web page I linked to up there was changed in the late Oughts to declare that UUism is a “religious community”—which is an indication of how welcome people who consider themselves non-religious should expect their views to be in UU communities.

  • IHateLiars

    “The amount of pushback against people who want communities like this…”

    …is due to the obvious fact that wanting a “community” with “anchors” and “civic life” does not justify having “chaplains” or calling it a “church.” The first does not entail the second; you cannot defend your desire for the second by irrelevant references to the first.

    It’s so obvious that when you keep doing it, all you actually accomplish is reinforce the perception that you’re a liar.

    • http://www.aprilonashley.com April

      I think you’ve come really close to what I was thinking.

      For people who are religious – truly religious – there is a meaning and symbolism behind everything. Of course they’ll be offended if somebody comes and claims it for their own convenience. It’s a mockery of they believe in. It’s not nice to mock somebody’s beliefs. Disagree, fine, but not mock.

      • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

        I can’t see why someone would be offended if someone wants to emulate them. Also, mocking someone’s beliefs has its place, and can be a very effective way to show that their beliefs are not entitled to automatic respect. But that’s a whole different discussion that would be way off topic here.

    • http://disienai.tumblr.com/ Semipermeable

      I agree with this, I can see why people would form a group, but using these terms seems unnecessary and inaccurate, though that may be the biologist in me hah. But this seems like a simple theft of the skeleton of a religion, of terms and ceremony. 
      To me it’s a bit like, hmmnn, wearing a pope hat when you are not even Catholic, out of context, a bit silly, and little but insecure mimicry.

      We don’t need to borrow, we’re a creative community, why not come up with our own? On top of that there are still several secular rights of passage and ceremonies you can have if you are inventive enough.  

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    I think the point is that churches and chaplains entirely derive their authority from their gods. If you don’t have religious belief the chaplain standing at the front of the church telling you how to behave, how to live, and what to believe, is just some guy, and there’s no particular reason that you’d listen to him.

    If you’re a rational critical thinker, as opposed to ‘just’ being an atheist, then you think for yourself, you don’t need to contract your thinking out to someone else in the way that religious folks do.

    There’s also a slight undercurrent of racism in the idea that black people and immigrants are less capable than anyone else of living without these sort of intellectual crutches; if the rest of us can do it, so can they.

    • Save our souls

      I think one of the major obstacles preventing the general population from coming to terms with a realistic understanding of the world, is the sheer amount of “make-believe ” which is injected into our lives from a very young age. Just take a look at the media. We have become hooked on make believe. It has become woven into the fabric of our entertainment. Films for example. The requirement for any constructive effort of intellectual application to understand these films has been removed by the overbearing overlay of soundtracks, minimal vocal interaction and complete submission and adulation towards celebrities. It’s as if the whole thong is designed to keep the lid on intellectual developement and critical thinking

    • G*3

      > If you don’t have religious belief the chaplain standing at the front of the church telling you how to behave, how to live, and what to believe, is just some guy,
       
      What’s wrong with that? I would go to weekly lectures on philosophy, morality, and ethics.

      • Mike Williams

        Many freethought or atheist groups already have weekly or monthly lectures on philosophy, morality and ethics.  They’re just not delivered by the same person every time.  There is an organizer who brings in experts in those fields to address the topic, not a single ‘chaplain’ who acts as if she somehow has all the answers and is qualified to speak on all of these subjects.

        It’s precisely that consolidation of power and authority we need to avoid.

        • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

          I guess I see it more like how we all show up to Friendly Atheist all the time. Hemant does a majority of the writing on the site, but nobody is pretending he has all the answers. There are guest writers all the time. But Hemant is *the* Friendly Atheist and we come because we are interested in what he has to say on the subject of secular humanism. In a way, he is the chaplain of this site. But he doesn’t really have any power or authority. We’re all too skeptical to give him that. :)

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

            And curse you all for your skepticism :)

  • Josh

    The only problem I would have is that I think it’s likely
    the “churches” would fall into the old rut of religious (though not necessarily
    theist) thinking. Communities do have upsides, but they also lead to a certain
    amount of perpetual and unconscious pressure to conform. That’s why I will
    always keep my philosophy informal and I’d never fall into the habit of meeting
    to talk about it according to some schedule, regardless of what the meeting was
    called.

    Of course I’d never stop others from doing that; I just
    wouldn’t do it myself.

  • http://twitter.com/dalestaines dalestaines

    I sort of see where you’re going with this.
    Though, without the formality of a teaching – like religion, it would have to be some sort of “club” with a range of topics.

    I’m southern and from my perspective it sounds like a more acceptable choice would be on the lines of a family reunion type gathering or how it might be after church when everybody goes over to granny’s house to eat and hang out.

    Casual community versus school or club meetings.

  • BrentSTL

    In addition to the UUs, I’d also add the Ethical Culture/Humanism movement. They’re centered in what’s called Ethical Societies (I’m a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis) or Ethical Humanist Societies. All the trappings of a traditional church without the BS as well; they date back to 1876, when the flagship New York Society for Ethical Culture was founded by Felix Adler.

    • Ubi Dubium

      Yes, we looked into that as well.  I think if our local Ethical Society were a little bigger and had their own building, we’d have probably joined.

  • Nicoline

    You know what, a secular “church” would be a great idea. Not just for immigrants, although I am one, but also as a way to mark life’s milestones. I don’t miss the doctrinal BS that churches try to inculcate, but I do miss the rituals and habits. If there could be something like a secular “baptism” when you have a baby, or a funeral “service” when someone dies and stuff like that, I’d love it! Even though I’ve been an atheist for a good many years, I still like to go to church – any church will do – to hear the Christmas service, just because it doesn’t feel like Christmas without the Gospel of Luke. Call me crazy if you like….

    • Mike Williams

      There are plenty of groups already in existence for these things.  I attended a Humanist meeting at a UU church to hear Tom Flynn give an in depth talk about Easter.

      We don’t need to re-create the whole mess of church to get the rights and rituals and community.  By and large, we’ve already got those things with the groups we have.  Let’s focus on building up our own community in our own way.

      • Nicoline

        I attended a UU church a couple of times, but it wasn’t for me. Basically, what I’m looking for is something that doesn’t exist anymore: the sense of belonging to a community of faith that I thought was wonderful when I was 8. I’m not 8 anymore, and I’ve left faith behind a long time ago.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    It is a resource not only for instrumental support like counselling and a financial safety net…

    You don’t need a church for that, not even a secular ersatz church. That’s what a health care system and a social security system is for. They can provide these services without religious discrimination, or other religious strings attached, and they can usually do it better and more efficiently too. 

    Also note that the presence of these systems appears to be correlated with less religiosity. It seems likely that dependence on churches for these services does have the effect of tying people to their churches. This is why many atheists (including me) think that atheists should be liberals, and should work towards universal health care and a proper safety net. It’s also why many conservatives are so opposed to health care and social security, and call it “replacing God with government”. What they’re really saying, of course, is not so much that it reduces God’s influence, but that it reduces the influence of churches.

    • Anonymous

      While I myself am somewhat of a progressive, here’s where I think you’re mistaken. While you can fight for the long-term strengthening of the social safety net (which has the side effect or at least correlation of reducing religion), what are you going to do in the mean-time, sit on your hands? This would only be a viable long-term option and we need stop-gaps. Also, government social programs do not provide rites of passage, ceremony, or community (though we’ve got community starting to be “solved”)…these things add depth and meaning to life. Notice I said can. For some people, it just works and atheism is unappealing to those people…should we tell them “tough luck, we don’t think you should add meaning in your life this way…go be part of some other group.”

      • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

        …what are you going to do in the mean-time, sit on your hands? This would only be a viable long-term option and we need stop-gaps.

        By all means, donate to charity. I’m sure there are plenty of secular charity organizations around that can help. You don’t need to start a church for that – that would probably be a very inefficient use of charity money anyway, because you’d be paying for all sorts of non-charity related activities as well.

        Also, government social programs do not provide rites of passage,
        ceremony, or community (though we’ve got community starting to be
        “solved”)

        Of course not. However, again, there are other ways to get these things. You don’t need a church to throw a party, or have meaningful ceremonies, nor do you need someone to tell you how. For example, I’ve seen some very meaningful funeral ceremonies in secular funeral homes, with nothing like a priest in sight. And with respect to community, local governments do often sponsor local community centers, but you can also get community at your local sports club, or hobby club, or whatever.

        The thing is, I don’t think it’s desirable to concentrate all these different functions (social security, charity, community, ceremony) into one organization. We’ve seen with religion how that can lead to an undesirable sort of vendor lock-in, as well as to isolation from the rest of the community. It also fails to benefit from the advantages of specialization. It may have been necessary once to rely on the local church as a one-stop shop for all your needs, but in our modern society you should be able to shop around.

        • Anonymous

          Well, I wouldn’t mind different organizations…I’m not asking for a consolidation of resources or anything like that, but facilities are a huge problem. I run a small freethought/atheist group and there are tons of things we want to do, but simply lack facilities…like finding a meeting place that people feel comfortable at that has childcare (we have tons of members aged 25-35 with one or two toddler-aged children). I would try to work something out with the UU to use their meeting space…but the UU here is too small and are themselves renting space from a museum. We also want to start a library and/or book exchange (I’m not likely to re-read most of the atheist books in my library), but again we have no physical location. I’m not going to call it a church or anything, but not having some “home base” really limits what’s available to your group.

          • Mike Williams

            I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a dedicated meeting place.  The problem comes when you, as the leader of the group, begin to behave as if you have special knowledge and that you can solve all the problems rather than the group figuring out a solution itself.

            I’m certainly not saying that’s what would happen if you got your own building, but that’s what does tend to happen when we anoint people as ‘chaplain’ to oversee every aspect of the group.

            • Anonymous

              But this concept isn’t part of the “Humanist Chaplain” concept. And it’s not necessarily true at all. I was a member of a UU church for a time while I was losing my faith. The minister there had no authority whatsoever, and was merely an employee whose job it was to write inspirational sermons and serve his congregation in the standard role. All authority lay with an elected board. A Humanist Chaplain would work the same way. I actually see this as a good way for retired atheists to perhaps spend some of their time. The functions of a chaplain do not include authority. The functions include providing counseling, guidance, etc for those who seek it and officiating life events for those who appreciate ceremony. I don’t think a group that would have a chaplain (I’d think most of them would be volunteer chaplains) would even have chaplains running things…those would nearly always be elected positions (which a chaplain could hold, I guess).

              • Mike Williams

                I don’t get this sense from the chaplain at Harvard.  He appears to be everything to that group.

                I don’t have a problem with elected volunteers offering counseling, as long as they’re trained counselors.  And, of course, if they are, call them counselors not chaplains.

                I think just about anyone can officiate a ceremony, but even if the group has a designated person (or handful of people) to do that, why do we need to call them something other than officiant and make the position into something bigger than it is?

                I still get the feeling that we want to imbue a position with some mystical power or significance.

              • Rieux

                 I was a member of a UU church for a time while I was losing my faith. The minister there had no authority whatsoever, and was merely an employee whose job it was to write inspirational sermons and serve his congregation in the standard role. All authority lay with an elected board.

                As a UU for several years, I think that’s a naïve account of the power that ministers, including UU ones, have. The very fact that a minister has a “bully pulpit” (and UU ministers are typically high-ranking administrators within their churches as well) brings power with it. Even though UUs (such as yours truly, a few years ago) more than most people tend to be willing to challenge their ministers.

                Sure, the board has the power to pink-slip the minister. But that’s true in almost all Protestant churches (not to mention Fortune 500 companies with their CEOs), too.  Nonetheless, the minister/chief executive has a lot of power, by virtue of his/her position, in just about any organization.

        • Mike Williams

          Yes.  Exactly.  When you start to consolidate all, or most, aspects of your life into a single source, you begin to derive your meaning from that source and you begin to give undue deference to those in charge at that source. 

          We don’t need reverends.  We shouldn’t want them.  We’re supposed to be teaching people how to think for themselves, not just to look to a different authority figure for direction.

          The big problem with atheist ‘churches’ is that they continue the top-down organization that breeds reliance, just like christian churches.  It’s tough to be a free thinker when you’re taking your cues from a singular person or group.

          The fact that we’re difficult to corral is a strength.  We shouldn’t be trying to make ourselves more pliable and tractable by introducing a hierarchy that gives us our meaning.

    • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

      I agree with you.  I also think that churches are useful social supports/safety nets, but that they should be so on a much smaller, more personal scale.  They should not be the first line of defense, and they should not do the heavy lifting.

      For example, if a person gets sick with cancer, I hate the idea of a church banding together to help pay for the chemo.  That should be taken care of by a national health care system.  Nor do I think that the church should be responsible for grief counseling.  That’s a situation that calls for professionals, which should also be paid for by a national health care system.

      Support from a church should be more along the lines of, “Mr. Sick Guy is starting his treatment this week.  Let’s all bring casseroles over to Sick Guy’s family so they don’t have to worry about cooking and can concentrate on being with him.”  Or, “Let’s take turns mowing Sick Guy’s lawn so his family doesn’t have to sweat that kind of small stuff.”

  • Anonymous

    You know what I *don’t* see a lot of? People actually saying they want to attend or be a part of an ‘atheist church’ or ‘atheist religion’ or whatever. I speak not only after reading this whole online discussion but also as someone who coordinates events for CFI DC. The people who say they miss church or are looking for a secular alternative are but a tiny minority of the folks I’ve spoken with on the ground.

    Furthermore, if you are secular and want a church that is accepting of you, there are plenty of Unitarian churches as well as Ethical societies that are already home to many secular adherents and do very good work I might add.

    • Anonymous

      If you took CFI and sprinkled in some rites of passage and maybe some humanists celebrants, you wouldn’t call it a church…but it’d implement almost everything an atheist could ever want that churches now provide.

      The only thing I’d add is that I’d like some type of not-quite-counseling where people can go and talk to someone old and experienced who holds similar metaphysical outlooks for advice when it comes to difficult moral questions. Seeking professional counseling for stuff like this seems like a waste, particularly because you’d have to establish your beliefs so that the therapist could understand enough to help you reason through them.

      • Mike Williams

        That’s not a bad idea.  It would be nice to have secular minded mental health professionals that can offer assistance to the community in a less formal environment.

        The problem is when Hemant and those who agree with him want to basically anoint those people as the source of all wisdom in the community and have us look to them for guidance in all situations.

        Counselors are good.  Officiants for big life-events are good.  People to organize the group are good.  Fundraisers are good.  People with expertise and extensive technical knowledge are good.  Rarely are all those qualities going to manifest in a single person and we should actively work to keep that kind of consolidation of power from happening.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

          No one’s anointing anyone. Atheist leaders are far from infallible. They’re hopefully good organizers and they’re helpful in many situations. That’s about it.

          • Mike Williams

            Helpful in what way?  In that they’re familiar with the expertise of the members of the group and can get people in touch with other members who are uniquely equipped to assist?  Sounds good.

            The way you (and that guy from Harvard) are talking, though, makes it sound as if the ‘chaplain’ should be much more than simply a facilitator.  It sounds like you want that leader to BE the group.  All knowledge flows from the leader to the people and the group should always look to her for the answers.  That’s the problem I have with it and I think that’s the problem PZ has with it too.

            Getting someone to organize the meetings, bring in speakers, set up the chairs, and coordinate refreshments is super, but that person must not be the speaker unless she has particular expertise on the subject.  And unless she’s a trained therapist of some sort she definitely shouldn’t be the one everyone goes to with their problems.

            Building a community takes many different skill sets.  It’s nearly impossible that one person will have them all.  While someone does need to coordinate all that, no person is more important than anyone else. 

            Maybe I’m reading you wrong, but it seems like you’re advocating for that type of consolidation of power.  Our groups don’t form because someone declares himself leader.  They form because a group of people who think similarly on a subject want to get together.  Trying to install leaders into that would be a mistake, I think.

  • Andy

    Authority, as you noted, will not be derived from god but from their abilities.  Are we so full of ourselves that we cannot imagine having a sensei that leads a group through various discussions each week?  How cool would it be to hear a lecture from Neal Tyson Degrasse each week?  Unlike a Chaplin he could be debated each week, but I bet I’d learn more and be a better person for it.

    • cheron22

      Given Epstein and Stedman track record over the years of publically and forcefully attacking anyone who dares criticize religions underserved privilege I just don’t trust them to NOT create an atheist church hostile to atheists. 

      • Rieux

        Agreed. I don’t think the idea is inherently bad, but what self-repsecting atheist could trust those two?

  • Ben Belcourt

    “It’s as if taking any aspect of the church experience — a title they use (“chaplain”), the times they meet (Sunday mornings), the things they celebrate (rites of passage), the ways they connect with like-minded people (small groups) — somehow justifies religious belief.It doesn’t.”But it does. That’s just it. If you want to foster a free-thinking, atheist community then you have two ways of doing that.1. Copying the “old” way that religions have been using for years and years2. Creating something new. A new way, a new system, something that you can point to and say, “this is better than the alternative of religion and this  clearly shows why it’s a better way moving forward”.If all you’re doing is copying the work and systems of existing organized religions then to an outside observer there doesn’t appear to be much difference and, to me, it doesn’t look like you’re “free” thinking after all. You’re just trying to make yourself comfortable by following other’s established traditions.At the end of the day I do agree that “to each his own” is the only way to approach this subject but the criticism that you hear regarding this atheist church idea is not so much people saying “you shouldn’t do that” but people disappointed that you’re choosing the quasi-religious path.

    • Great American Satan

      Okay, option 2 man.  Pony up.  What do you do?  Little atheist clubs here and there aren’t quite hacking it.  They still have the drawback of copying the form of another institution (generic student group, generic special interest group, etc.).   What can YOU invent that would be wildly original and still form the centerpiece of a community?
      -

      • cheron22

         There are over 300 little atheist clubs that have sprung up in only a few short years. There is a definite surge of atheist communities all over the US that are just starting. The least you could do is give them some time to mature a little before you go off bending a knee to an atheist chaplain reading from the script of a faitheist.

      • Michael S

        I don’t know what you mean by “aren’t quite hacking it.”
        Ben’s criticism isn’t invalidated because of any lack of a better idea.

  • Ben Belcourt

    wow, sorry for the big block of text. Apparently the line breaks in the comment form don’t translate to the final display.

    • Rieux

      One of the many reasons Disqus sucks.

  • Mark F

    My problem with the way this idea is being presented is that “churches” are places people go to follow, to be led. “Chaplains” are people who lead, like shepherds. I don’t want to be led. I want to be involved in discussions on a variety of topics with a variety of veiwpoins and be able to come to my own conclusions.

    • Mike Williams

      Double like.

      We’re not sheep who need tending.  While some of us may have specialized skills or training that the others don’t, we’re all equals.  No one is more important than the other and all of us are available to offer advice or assistance.  We should discourage always looking to the same person to help with problems; better solutions are more likely to emerge from a group than an individual.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not so sure “top down” churches, top down happens even with the best intentions, is the best solution. Because of religious division, I think what we have lost or maybe never really had was just a sense of community. UU’s always think of enlarging the circle, but why is there even a need for a circle? If anything being a freethinking non-believer helps me to be more open to others and become a better listener and observer.

  • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

    And I don’t think the “church” part is really that necessary for the kind of personal support I mentioned.  My friends have organized the same kind of support via Facebook.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.chalom Adam Chalom

    Thank you, Hemant, for your support of this important option. As someone raised and now working in Humanistic Judaism (a celebration of cultural Jewish identity with a secular philosophy of life) I’m very familiar with the issues and challenges being discussed here. I’m always amused when someone calls me TOO religious, because I know what I believe and what I don’t.

    An important distinction is being missed here: there is a big difference between being an authority and being authoritarian. We SHAFBANS (secular-humanist-atheist-freethinker-bright-agnostic-nontheist-skeptic) rely on authorities all the time, unless you are simultaneously a particle physicist, molecular biologist, evolutionary psychologist and philosopher. What we object to is authoritarians. So if a group of SHAFBANS find it useful and effective to actually pay someone who is professionally trained in organizational dynamics, philosophy, fundraising, philosophic counseling, life celebrations, and that person is the right combination of self-confidence and openness to input and sharing opinions, bully for them.

    If we all refuse to join any group for fear of “groupthink”, or never find a way to train leaders who can articulate our message clearly and powerfully (and then support those leaders so they can support us as their real job and not a side interest), then we will not meet the very human needs that religious organizations have historically met across time, space and culture. What kinds of humanists would we be to deny the very reality of the human need for community?

    • Anonymous

      Bravo!

  • Anonymous

    First off: It’s pretty obvious that this sort of set-up is primarily meant to target those individuals who have probably already lost their faith, but find themselves unable or unwilling to break from the communal ties of a church.

    It’s definitely NOT for people who are lucky (dare I say ‘privileged’) enough to live a life where the decision to break from that community comes with minimal consequences.  It’s a deliberate attempt to enter those communities in such a way that people can feel secure in declaring themselves atheist, agnostic or simply humanist.

    That said, I think the biggest sticking point is going to be that word, “Chaplain”.  It does carry the connotation of authority and prestige, above and beyond being a simple facilitator and event organizer.  To the Gnu Atheist Old Gnuard, that smacks of two steps back for one step forward.

    Of course, one can also argue that some folks want an authority figure–someone they can turn to and trust and rely upon to gather the community together in a time of need.  So some sort of title might be needed.  How about Rouser?

  • Anonymous

    If anyone wants to partake in “atheist church”, I won’t say they shouldn’t, but I honestly don’t  understand the desire AT ALL. It seems bizarre to me to want to mimic the routine of churches, but without the doctrine. How is that edifying, or even fun? As I’ve said before, I’ll stay home with my internet and beer.

  • Johann

    I could see how this might look like a good idea in a society where a major number of atheists are, as someone put it, “recovering theists”.

    I didn’t grow up in one of those. To me, this looks…strange. And a little creepy. If you want to get some sense of what I mean, picture someone building their life around Alcoholics Anonymous – I’m not talking about getting treatment, but about going back there afterwards throughout your life because you liked it so much, framing the 12-step program and hanging it up in a place of honor in your house, and so on.

    • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

      Many people involved in AA *do* continue to go to meetings for a long time. Sure, it may get more sporadic as time goes on, but for many people, addiction isn’t something that is ever cured, only sent into remission. I think the same is true for a lot of formerly religious people.

  • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

    Most of the debate here seems to be summarized as: “‘Chaplain’ and ‘church’ are religious concepts. Why do secular people need to take them, to change their definition? Just make your own version and call it something else.”

    Sounds to me a lot like “‘Marriage’ is a religious concept. Why do secular/gay people need to take them and change their definition? Just make your own version and call it something else.”

    I think these concepts, chaplain and church and marriage, are more universal than previously thought, and that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on the terms. Things change and evolve. Words, concepts, populations. Evolution is good! Gradual evolution usually ends up pretty successful and makes more lasting change.

    While I don’t think traditions should be kept around for the sake of being tradition and “that’s just what was always done,” if the pieces of the traditions are dismantled, individually examined, and found to contain value, then why not retain those pieces? Perhaps they don’t contain value for everyone, but they contain value for some. I know a lot of gay people who don’t ever want to get married because they find the whole concept to be devoid of value, some even going so far as to want marriage abolished, and I know gay people who really want to get married in their own way, choosing the traditions they keep and which they chuck. I think we can do the same thing with… well, anything!

    • Michael S

      That is an interesting idea about updating our concepts of “church” or “chaplain.” The problem I see with it is that those terms are far more loaded (to my understanding, at least) than “marriage.” For example, when people consider getting married, isn’t it more about changing the personal relationship with another person than fulfilling a deistic mandate? Changing the concept associated with a word is much easier when it has already eroded so far. More worrying is the likelihood of the meaning of “Atheist Church” to move in the other direction.

      The aspects of “church” and “chaplain” I find most troubling are the ones that don’t depend on the religious beliefs involved. I’m worried about things like self-anointed people claiming to represent entire populations beyond their flock. I worry about the power and influence ceded to these people through lack of criticism, by followers preoccupied with comfort and ritual, and non-followers preoccupied with not following. This is a fundamental flaw within any church-like organization.

      Take away this liability, and what do you have? You have an organization which isn’t founded entirely on providing comfort and community. You have a template for various existing scientific clubs and organizations. In atheist churches, like other churches, we don’t really have a choice but to become involved. Those not attending will have to keep tabs on them, attempt to police how they (mis)represent the rest of the secular community, and compensate for changes made to our concepts of “Atheism,” just as you propose to change concepts of “church.”

      Maybe we’ve already lost that semantic battle. Maybe it is easier to concede “Atheism is a religion,” and retreat behind our new humanist label. The old humanists are already annoyed with us as it is. They’ll face the same problem we have here. Semantic musical chairs. Anyway, my point is that you aren’t the only one trying to play spin doctor on this, and things are stacked pretty heavily against making “church” and “chaplain” positive general things.

      • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

        I must say, I take a bit of an issue with being called “spin doctor”. I offered a differing opinion, an attempt to be moderate and see the other side of something that is entirely opinion-based and subjective.

        Don’t get me wrong, I hate church, and I don’t personally need any kind of atheist community church-like thing. But I’ve got no beef with people who do like that kinda thing. I’ve seen people take things from church beyond a belief in god or a moral code. I don’t think atheists need to be excluded from this sort of thing if they don’t want to be. The last paragraph of my previous comment essentially boiled down to some people like this, some people hate it, but neither one are right since it’s all personal. Some gays hate marriage, some love it. Some atheists hate church, some really miss it despite no longer believing in any gods.
        I know we’re in a marketing-saturated world, in which we always feel obligated to worry about our “image”, our “brand”, and how we come across to other people, but sometimes we just wanna do something that fulfills us personally. I can’t take issue with anyone looking for support in a way that is comfortable to them.

        • Michael S

          If anything, I’m calling you an amateur, well-intentioned underdog “spin doctor.” Don’t take it too hard.
          You did propose a new, interesting, moderate idea. But moderation is not always the mature, respectful position to assume. Sometimes it’s just lazy.

  • Michael S

    Churches don’t own exploitation and social manipulation any more than they own marriage, either. Conveniently, many of the criticisms applied to religious organizations also apply to these church-like organizations. We usually call them cults. Just because it’s an Atheism-themed cult doesn’t give it any immunity.


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