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atheist church

February 16, 2009

I’ve had several conversations with people discussing the importance of community, and how we wish we had the community that comes with a church.  Yes, community can be found in other places.  Some offices are very close, and some people find it from other interests (everything from gay to ballroom dance I’ve seen serve as a good community).  Some people get it from small towns, or apartment complexes within giant cities.  But some people can’t seem to find close communities, or simply want something more structured like what one finds with a church.  Some of us also look towards the day when we’ll have children, and want a stable community to introduce our children to.  In this vein, Erik and I last night had a wonderful discussion of what our ideal "atheist church" would look like.  We both agreed without discussion that we liked the idea of a basic church model, where Sunday mornings are devoted to church, with various extracurriculars occuring throughout the week as needed.  We both agreed in no strict "theology", but more of a organized place to explore ideas and hang out with people.  Tolerance and respect (even of people with faith) would be required.  We also agreed that it wouldn’t be a place centered on political activism – that already exists.  Beyond that, we have very different visions.

Very much a church for lapsed Catholic’s and other recovering old-liners.  Services would be very much like mass in structure, just with very different content.  There would be an equivalent of the Our Father, with the whole "Peace be with you" hand shake thing afterwards.  Readings could come from both poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, all sorts of subjects, and have themes about a specific idea, question, or moral that we were focusing on that week.  The year could be divided into sections on various important church ideas (a couple months on science, a couple months on morals, etc.) with feasts and celebrations on important days.  There would be a part of mass like the whole "Lord hear our prayer" bit, where we send well wishes to the sick, people in troubled countries, etc.

Much looser.  Basically a short speech given by someone, and then time to discuss and socialize.  Basically a seminar followed by a coffee hour, where you’re encourage to meet new people and become friends with everyone.

We talked about how this church would encourage members to attend other churches/etc. and think critically about what was good and what was bad about each of those faths.  We agreed that there would be no strict theology, but because of the membership certain themes would appear.  Most of the people in this sort of church would be strong advocates for science, for instance, and that would end up a theme in the makeup of the church.  The bottome line is that it would be a place for non-religious people to come together as an organized community.  Spirituality would be a part of it, but by no means required for everyone.  Heck, you wouldn’t even have to be non-religious to attend, in my mind.  You’d just have to be willing to play nice.

What about you?  A lot of you who read this aren’t religious, or have issues with the way religion happens in this country.  What would your non-religious church be like?  Would it be a structured mass, or a time to hang out?  Would it be regular Sunday mornings, or simply a phone list of people to call when you need a hand?  Is that even something you’re interested in?  Tell me about it.  For the religious people, tell me about what sorts of community aspects you find important in your current church, and is there anything you wish existed that your church doesn’t have?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2009 1:58 am

    I actually think church is one of the worst things about religion and while I understand the concept of wanting that community I think it causes more trouble then its worth. Things that start out nice such as prayer concerns turn into bad things such as a way to find out town gossip. Or fun things like singing and music becomes a source of frustration when some people want old music and some want new and a compromise seems impossible to find. Moral issues are hard enough to find common ground on and churches at least have a book or two to tell them what is right. Although that starts as many arguments as it ends. Plus the point of a church service isn’t actually community (thats the rest of the stuff) its about worship if you have nothing to worship then whats the point of the service. Why not just have get togethers and do fun things. So I suppose I agree with Erik. Although I’d skip the short speech too. Leave it more as a round table discussion. With different rooms for discussions about literature, poetry, current events, morality, music ect… That way people could go wherever the issue they felt like discussing was that day. Sort of like Sunday school only separated by topic.

  2. February 17, 2009 2:28 am

    I would love my kids to have a community like I had growing up. My church community was great. So I really agree with this idea.
    With Yin, I know our kids won’t be able to approach religion without bias. They’ll be subject to anti-religious feelings from an early age.
    If there was a place they could go to freely discuss philosophy and the important parts of life, I would be thrilled. Maybe like UU kids meetings or something, where a community has been established and where you’re pretty much free to believe what you want.
    I really want my kids to have a community that encourages them to love, to volunteer, to give, and to care. I had that.
    Now, people my jump at that – how can any Christian church teach you to love, when they’re against so many things, like gay marriage?!
    To which I answer…
    WE DID NOT SIT AROUND BASHING GAYS ALL SUNDAY. Not even for part of Sunday. In fact, I never heard a word against homosexuality EVER in my church, and I was VERY involved growing up.
    My church taught me to love. It showed me how good it felt to help others without asking anything in return. I volunteered for all sorts of events at my church, year-round. It was awesome.
    And our religious ed classes? Fantastic. We just talked about how to be a decent human being, and how to look inside to find yourself and what you’re here for.
    Now, I’m sure there are Catholic churches that aren’t as loose as mine was. But it makes me really upset when people assume that being raised in a church makes you a bigot, or makes you a creationist, or any number of names us liberals tend to get angry about.
    My church made me a good person. Yin argues that other things can make you a good person, too. But church is one great, all-inclusive, happy feeling way to get there. I miss it.
    I do not believe in the Christian faith anymore. Yin never has. So that type of church is not an option for us.
    But I’ve heard good things about UU, and with time, maybe I can convince Yin to let our kids participate in some of their programs.
    My ideal church:
    Someplace to get together with a community. To pray for those who need strength. To give thanks for what we have. To discuss ways in which we can be better people in our daily lives. To volunteer for the needy, for the homeless, for the neighborhood, for the park, for wildlife, for anything. A place where my kids could learn how wonderful it is to give your time to help others. A place where they could make friends doing just that. A place where they can sit down with others, and talk about where our dog Fido went after he died. A place to heal. A place to rest. A place to love.
    I think gathering on a weekly basis would be nice and simple. Volunteer events can be any time during the week, then. Mass would be pretty quiet. Some nice music. Just…some time to reflect on your life and how lucky you are. Someone could do a sort of sermon about a “topic of the week”. We would then offer up prayers to those who need them. Prayers that don’t need to be directed to any sort of god. Just an acknowledgment that there are people in need of help, and a reminder to be there for them. I’d love for there to be brunch afterwards for everyone to gather and talk about the sermon, or just about what has been going on in their lives. Kids could play, parents could chat. It’d be very simple.
    Sigh. Somehow I’ll find a place like that. I can’t see how Yin could protest a community like what I’ve described. If only pantheists had regular big group meetings.

  3. February 17, 2009 6:37 pm

    Question/Clarify for me.
    I don’t understand the concept of having prayers in an athiest church. I debated about asking when I posted my last comment but since another person also said the prayer thing I thought I would. In church its because your asking God to help. But if there is no god are you just sending good vibes into the universe and hoping they get picked up? I guess I don’t see how it will help if there isn’t any god. I suppose its good to think about people in harms way but wouldn’t that 10 minutes be better spent brainstorming activities to help them?

  4. February 17, 2009 8:50 pm

    Re: Question/Clarify for me.
    A long time ago I replaced “I’ll say a prayer for you” with “I’ll think happy thoughts for you”.
    For me, it serves all the purposes of a prayer except the possibility of divine intervention. Firstly, it lets the other person know that what they are going through matters. Admittedly, this has been seen in several studies to be detrimental for some unknown reason, but I dunno. Secondly, and more important, I think it does lead to positive action, especially if you have the entire congregation thinking about it. I think if you encourage people to spend some time thinking about others, and guide them as to who needs that thought, then they are more likely to try and figure out a solution. I like the idea of encouraging community awareness, which is a lot of what prayer requests do.

  5. February 18, 2009 11:57 am

    part I
    I’ve thought a lot about my own little imaginary version of an atheist church. Or at least a “church” for those people who are still bound by their inner need for a kind of spiritual release but have such minds that think much more abstractly and thus are not bound by traditional “rules” of religion.
    Now……i’ve spent my entire life seeking answers. And i’m still looking to solve these impossible questions. But…..whenever i hear someone saying “why does an atheist pray” or “if there is no god, why are you doing this?”….i get a headache. Because it usually means that the person asking is either Religious or one of those rare self-reliant atheists (although they may not be “rare”. it’s just i don’t think that way. and neither do most atheists i’ve met) And i respond with a simple question….depending on which category i suspect they are: Why do you have sex? or Why do you masterbate? Answer…..because it’s hard wired in your brain. literally built on thousands of years of evolution. It feels good and by god it’s in your nature.
    Same thing when it comes to “church”. It’s masterbation. Just in a different way. Our brains constantly seek out ways to define reality. And by doing this it intigrates the rational side with the emotional side. And this process of defining reality often has the byproduct of a religious tendency. In fact, i just read an article about a month and a half ago that was linked from about how are brains are hard wired to be religious in nature.
    So. Our prefrontal cortexes are great. But by god, we have to realize that there is more to us than just this part of our brains. We need to embrase all aspects of our complex neurobiology. And that means masterbating….in more ways than the obvious. Because physical masterbation is also “totally pointless” and we could could get some other things accomplished instead. but….in fact, it’s not “totally pointless”. It’s just so to one part of our brains. Same thing for sleep. Why do we do it? We only have the faintest understanding. but it’s absolutly necessary. It’s just how we work.
    So…the idea of atheist spirituality does not bother me more than the idea of a pornographic magazine. We need to understand that we as a species have finally just grasped the torch of conciousness. We are leading the way into even more complex biology by giving the cell “a soul”. Not literally a “soul” but in symbolic terms. Could a flea understand the complexity of a human mind? Hells no! Same thing with us compared to our potential.

  6. February 18, 2009 12:11 pm

    part II
    I need spirituality. Some part of me thinks it’s a total waste, but the other part is being served a very real need. and it makes me sane. I myself can best be described as an agnostic mystic pagan humanist. I really dig the symbols used by neo-paganism. It celebrates gender, sexuality, the various states of matter, the sun and moon which define our realities, menstration cycles (13 a year, just like the moon), and it’s loose. There is no dogma. I’ve met christian pagans, irish pagans, atheist pagans, and everything in between. I myself have a kind of understanding of spirituality derived from Carl Jung and Teilhard De Chardin. I think that the laws of physics are layed out perfectly to tend toward the evolution of complexity. toward the creation of macromolecules and life. But we trap outselves by thinking in physical terms. I could get into a really nice philosophic discussion of whether or not the surface you are currently residing is “real”. But the truth is…it only exists within yourself. and… the evolution of matter goes…..from a trillionth of a second after the big bang to the formation of atoms to the formation of molecules and different elements and from there to the formation of even more complex molecules to the molecule of life to the various complex structures of life to multicellular organisms to animals to the formation of brains and the complexificaiton of them toward not just awareness but conciousness…..there is something there.
    Conciousness itself has it’s own virtue. And we do not know enough about the universe yet to proclaim absolute knowledge over it. We not only need to understand the physical universe, but the universe that exists within ourselves….within the doors of perception.
    I have a friend who has taken mushrooms and DMT. And if you take your complex central nervous system seriously….and your own soul seriously….you should take a little “trip” within. My friend, after one of these heavy trips…when he was coming down….said that he was more so an atheist than he was ever before. He never really understood what it meant until he saw how he defines reality first hand. and yet…he never was so more convinced of “greater mind” (god) than ever. and he was very perplexed by what he was feeling because it went against everything he had accusomed himself to. (and if you ever come to las vegas….he’d love to meet you and help you to appreciate your own biology too.) (that was not supposed to be sexual).
    As far as how this church should be conducted. No idea. A good place to start may lay in the word “humanistically”. I actually think that there already is an “atheist church”. They’re called Unitarian Universalists. And while some may be total wackjobs, a great many of them are agnostic or non-theistic. But back to the church……as long as it accepts all ideas. and is founded on the beauty of each perspective.
    as far as sermons….yeah. I think there needs to be a “figure head”. a pack leader. someone who is able to discuss the moral or ethical princibles of a given story. if it’s from the bible or even from a comic book. These issues and fundimentals behind these stories ring true for us. it doesn’t matter if these stories are “true” or complete works of fiction. what matters is the ideas represented within the stories. and someone needs to be able to wrap this idea up into a much more palatable and emotional form. And then there can be a discussion. First the sermon…then a discussion afterwords where people may bring up points of contention or points of agreement or just points that may not have been covered.
    and there needs to be ritual. Something familiar and also symbolic. Weddings are a good example of ritual. “ritual” literally means “by the numbers”. Something that is counted on….something that doesn’t change.
    as far as what those rituals are…..well…i don’t know. I myself take paganism for a giant symbolic outlook on science and human nature itself.
    But that’s just me. And there is more than one kind of spiritual atheist. Good luck…

  7. February 18, 2009 5:31 pm

    Re: part II
    You really view spirituality in a purely masturbatory sense? Don’t get me wrong, it does have a strong self-centred component, but that’s only half the story. I guess I’m ex-Catholic enough to say that you can’t get to heaven without good works – faith isn’t enough. Or to put that in non-theist terms: I believe that you can’t live a good life without good works – spirituality isn’t enough.
    The major point of an atheist church, in my mind, would be what the community leads to. Caring about the other members of the community, helping them when in need, and coming together to help people outside the community. The church, in a lot of ways, exists as an organised way to encourage that.

  8. February 18, 2009 11:03 pm

    Re: part I
    I’m neither religious or a self-reliant atheist and an honest and logical question shouldn’t give you a headache. As far as why I have sex and masturbate is to 1) to make my husband happy 2)because it excites wonderful nerves that can’t be excited anyway else. The reason I don’t think this has anything to do with prayer is that when I used to be religious I was asking someone (God) to do me a favor. This to me was no different than if a friend who was ahead of me needed help with calculus asking my dad to help them out. I also would thank God if something good happened. This to me was no different than thanking a friend who gave me a ride to school. So it only follows that if no one helped me I’d have no one to thank and if I didn’t have anyone to ask for help I wouldn’t ask for help. I currently think there is possibly a being that plays/played some role in something to do with humanity. However I don’t think he listens to prayers and therefore I don’t pray. I also don’t believe praying is hardwired in the brain. Also I don’t think I’ve ever met any really hardcore atheists who prayed. So perhaps alot of people are just more affected by growing up in a religious society than they’d like to admit.

  9. February 19, 2009 7:32 am

    Re: part II
    I was using masterbation as an analogy. We sexually stimulate ourselves because it feels good. It’s just how our brains work. Same thing for part of our brain that deals in the subject of “god” or “feeling connected to everything”. Not the logical definition of god, but…..that feeling that you might feel in a deep deep sleep if you became lucid. it’s really hard to convey it. But even atheists describe this feeling after a near death experience.
    Maybe i’m missing something lost in communication here. For me…the community aspect and the spiritual aspect are separate. But still deeply rooted in our “brain gear”. And thus they often go hand in hand. And i think i was focusing too much on the spiritual aspect. Such as….I balance my chakras. They’re not “real”….but the act of doing it really affects my brain chemistry. Same thing as masterbation. But….just different parts of the brain.
    For me, the part that is happy because of good works…while in the same emotional-part matrix of my brain…isn’t the part for spirituality. It’s possible that maybe I just have this “god gene” and other’s don’t. Maybe i should stick to dancing pagans and the crazy UU crowd. Maybe a true atheist church wouldn’t incorporate my brand of spirituality into it.
    Just goes to show the amazing and beautiful power of the human mind. We all define everything differently…but oh how much the same.
    But I would be all for that community aspect you are talking about.

  10. February 19, 2009 7:49 am

    Re: part I
    I think we both see this issue differently here. Wrong word. Our brains have defined things so differently in our young days toward this issue that i don’t think it’s possible to effectivly communicate our stances on the idea.
    For me, prayer is not about asking something. It’s more so a “meditation”. I medicate a lot. And after words i feel absolutly different. I’ve never prayed to ask a thing. Seriously. But i have had hopes. I remember climbing on a very steep “cliff” in new zealand. The branch i was using broke and i was just using grass to hold myself away from death. And I was paralyized by fear. But my mind went and searched out a “higher power” and it asked “please”. and by doing this…i focused and got my butt to safety. Not a miracle. But effective fear blocker none the less.
    Imagination is a very important tool. And to many people….this story they relate to…this god…..taps a very real need to imagine and relate to something greater than them.
    So….i guess….from my own perspective on spirituality…i don’t pray to god. Even if she is listening, i’m not so much a fool to ask her to change her plan.
    So….this prayer word i think we have different concepts of. Prayer is not hardwired…but spirituality is. That sense of “being connected to everything”. That “love is everywhere” part. If you ever are so lucky as to shatter through the “ego barrier” in your pyschology….you will “Feel the love and become one with god”.
    Anywho. I don’t think i’ve ever met too many atheists who “pray” either. But i’ve met a bunch who meditate and use their own definitions of reality (even if they are imaginary) to effectivly alter their brain chemistry.
    The emotionally-based matrix of our brains….is very different for everyone. And thus a very abstract subject. and hard to objectivly talk about.
    But…in any case. I highly recommend the south park episode “Imagination land”. I think it hits the nail right on the head. (and they even say that God lives in imagination land)

  11. February 19, 2009 2:55 pm

    Re: part I
    I think that should be your new response when people ask you why atheists pray. It makes WAY more sense than your previous one (lol) and is much less offensive. Which is sort of the key to “effectively communicating ideas even when stances are very different”.

  12. February 19, 2009 9:57 pm

    Re: part I
    yeah. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to offend with the “headache” thing. But looking back on it….i could see why if might. I get a headache because the subject matter is so vast that it makes my head explode. Not because i disagree. It’s just through the infinite spectrum of human perception…it’s really hard to relate my own perspective. and trying gives me a headache.
    Oh…and i’m going to have to admit to not reading your own post. I read it now……..and my bad. It’s just i get that “why are you doing this” from some very christian friends of mine. And i try to explain it…..and end up getting headaches.

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