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Oct 24 2011

My day at atheist church

So unlike others at Freethought Blogs, I am not a writer of fiction. I used to be, once upon a time, but gradually migrated toward polemic. The nature of what I want to talk about today lends itself well to fiction though, so I am going to give it a go. This is my offering for what an “atheist church service” could look like.

My day at atheist church

I’ll confess to you that I was a bit nervous going to the new atheist church in Phoenix. Circumstances had forced me to uproot my job and relocate to Arizona – not exactly my idea of ideal living conditions. Luckily, my freemam from back in Vancouver called ahead to Leslie, the freemam of the parish closest to my new apartment to let her know I was coming. While I hadn’t gone to church much in Vancouver, Jacob (my old freemam) suggested to me that it would be a good chance for me to get my foot in the door, maybe make some friends. Shortly after I arrived, Leslie had stopped by after work to welcome me to the area.

So, it was with mixed feelings that I showed up at the library that morning, and headed into the back room where the service was happening. Unlike how we ran things in Vancouver, there was a greeter at the door offering me a nametag – I thought it was a nice touch. “You don’t have to take one,” he said “but it helps people know who’s new. If you’re not a fan of being hugged, I’d suggest writing your name in red pen – yeah it seems like a weird rule but we’ve had problems in the past. Curtis has boundary issues and some people were uncomfortable so we figured this system was easiest.”

I chuckled. My old parish had a “Curtis” too – an overbearing French woman named Amelie who reeked of cigarettes and decided that everyone was her best friend. I opted for the blue pen anyway – what are the odds, right?

Leslie saw me come into the room and choose a seat at the back. She briefly turned away from the conversation she was having to smile and wink at me. I smiled back and fiddled with my phone, waiting for the meeting to start. I caught eyes with a kid who was staring at me over the back of his seat. I pulled a funny face and he grinned before popping his head down behind the seat again. While children weren’t usually present at church until they were 8 or 9, they weren’t forbidden either.

After a few minutes passed, Leslie stood up behind the podium and asked for our attention. I put my phone away and turned my eyes toward the front. “This is different,” I thought “she’s got a Powerpoint slide.” It made sense though, given the number of Spanish speakers in Phoenix, that there would need to be a translation for some of the stuff going on.

The meeting began, as it usually did, with a reading from some piece of literature. This week’s was a stirring passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

Superstitions, bigotries, hypocrisies, prejudices, these phantoms, phantoms though they be, cling to life; they have teeth and nails in their shadowy substance, and we must grapple with them individually and make war on them without truce; for it is one of humanity’s inevitabilities to be condemned to eternal struggle with phantoms.

Leslie encouraged us to think about whether or not the passage was relevant to anything in our lives. What were the phantoms we struggled with? What tools could we use to ‘grapple’ with them? Had we ever heard a similar sentiment expressed in other literature we’d read? I saw a few heads incline toward each other and exchange some soft murmurs – I sat quietly and thought.

Next, Leslie launched into her reflective homily. She told us a personal story about a falling out she’d had with a classmate in graduate school. While completing her Master’s degree in philosophy, she and another classmate had fought over the implications of an obscure Hegel treatise. The answer, to Leslie, had seemed perfectly obvious, but the classmate insisted on running to an absurd conclusion. Leslie eventually had lost her temper and said something unkind about her colleague to someone else. The gossip, of course, came full circle and ended up causing a bigger problem. Failing to understand her classmate’s perspective had been Leslie’s “phantom”, she said, and by failing to grapple with it, she had driven a wedge between herself and someone who could have been a friend.

As we sat quietly and thought about the story, a member of the congregation stepped up to the podium and began reading the traditional news item from the newspaper – an op-ed about legalizing prostitution in Arizona (I was happy to see that the little kid was happily playing with toys in the corner). We were then invited to split into groups and discuss it. I ended up in a group of 5 people, one of whom I quickly determined to be the aforementioned Curtis. A big, showy blowhard, Curtis tried to derail the conversation into a fight about “John’s rights”. Leslie, seeing my discomfiture, stepped in and quietly steered the conversation back to the topic at hand.

After a 15-minute discussion, we returned to the pew seating and Leslie invited anyone who wanted to to come up and share what was on their mind. She didn’t look at me, but I could tell she was hoping I would come up and introduce myself. A man around my age stood up and talked about problems he was having with his boss, a very religious Catholic, constantly making disparaging comments about atheists around the office. He said that knowing there were friends who had his back made it a lot easier to deal with. Someone jokingly offered to pretend to be a customer and go on an anti-Catholic rant in the store, but the guy at the front laughed it off, saying that he didn’t want to start anything at his job. He thanked us, and we offered the reflexive “we’re here for you.”

A middle-aged woman stood up next and told us that she was struggling with her father’s progressive colon cancer, and was hoping to find some social and financial support from the community. While I was unaccustomed to this kind of confession so openly, the sympathetic looks and understanding nods from the rest of the assembled heads led me to believe that this wasn’t an unusual request. The woman concluded her short address by telling us that her e-mail address was in the weekly bulletin, and she would be on hand afterward if anyone wanted to get more information. Once again, we offered the “we’re here for you” response – this time it seemed more heartfelt (although that might have just been confirmation bias on my part).

After a few more people went up (including me – I’m not shy), Leslie gave us the bulletin update on some of the charitable activities the parish had been involved in. There was a children’s literacy clinic that really appealed to me, and I made a mental note to ask her about it later.

Leslie looked at her watch, “okay folks,” she said “there’s about 10 minutes left in the meeting. I suggest we use it as fellowship time – meet someone new, or reconnect with someone you haven’t talked to in a while. We’ll be having lunch at Keegan’s Grill start at 12:30. Thanks for coming today, and be good to each other.” “Be good to each other,” we murmured back to each other, almost reflexively.

*****************

This is just one idea of a model that I think could work without getting overly, for lack of a better word, religious about it. Freemams could act as organizers and facilitators, helping reach out to community members and encouraging rather than discouraging independent thought. The reliance on ritual could be minimal, without losing some of the aspects that are helpful in participation and community building.

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62 comments

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  1. 1
    LS

    Unfortunately I’m on a limited amount of time for lunch here at work, so I wasn’t able to the entire post. However, I did run into a number of things which deeply trouble me. Much of the terminology used is obvious replacements for religious terminology. “Freeman” (which sounds too sexist for freethinkers, by the way) is on obvious sub-in for “pastor,” etc. And the ritual of the leader saying something and the followers responding is simply chilling.

    Maybe it’s simply because I had a different experience with religion. I left it because it harmed me all throughout my childhood. Others leave it later in life because of a rational disconnect between religion and reality, but have no strong feelings of ill will towards the church.

    Maybe this would work for them, but it seems like a crutch to me. There’s a difference between creating a community for people, and re-creating the harmful community they left.

  2. 2
    Charles Sullivan

    Did you use the word “freemam” with an M at the end? I’ve never encountered that word before, and couldn’t find it on line. Is it a designation for a freethought woman? Free ma’am? I thought it might be a typo, but you used it 4 times.

    Would you be so kind as to tell us about this word?

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    Freethinking imam = freemam. I like wordplay. It is a placeholder for whatever word we decide to end up using to describe this role. I was going to try “freeacon” (freethinking deacon) but decided against it for reasons I think are freakin’ obvious.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    It’s “Freemam”, not “Freeman” – I was trying to make a stupid joke. And yeah, not everyone is going to like the call/answer thing – I grew up in the Catholic church so I was trying to think of any rituals that aren’t necessarily deity-centered; that was the best I could come up with.

    What part of this community do you find harmful (besides the call/answer bit)? Is it simply the resemblance to the tradition you left? Because if that’s the case then there is by definition no formula of a humanist “church” that could work for you.

  5. 5
    aspidoscelis

    I really liked “freemam” until you mentioned “freeacon”, which is even better. :-)

  6. 6
    Gwynnyd

    Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather sleep in. This is far too much like any other freakin’ church for my taste.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    Fair enough. I probably wouldn’t go either.

  8. 8
    Ms. Crazy Pants

    This sounds a little bit like group therapy. I would find more practical discussions on science, issues, and learning new things to be more helpful. Maybe a “reflection” time could happen once in a while or be just a small part of the time spent. If it takes a leader to force people to reflect on past actions and issues, then the people are not thinking for themselves.

    This is a model to consider though. I think maybe a tiny piece of this could be incorporated into our local group. Definitely not the leading in responses though. Ritualistic actions have no meaning.

  9. 9
    screechy monkey

    Your description is pretty much what I assumed people like Epstein are talking about, and basically confirms its lack of appeal to me.

    What’s so great about this Leslie that I’m supposed to be eager to spend my free time listening to her pontificate (word chosen advisedly) on whatever topic she wants? Leslie’s lecture and homily seem very contentless to me. Basically, it’s “we have flaws, and we struggle with them.” Not exactly something I would listen to rapturously or need to devote a lot of time to mulling over. (And I realize this was just an example and that given time you might come up with something better, but I think it highlights the central problem I’ll come to later.)

    And now I’m having a group discussion on a topic I didn’t have any say in, and may not have had any interest in. And in doing so I get to deal with a blowhard like Curtis, who sounds a bit like a Men’s Rights Activist.

    I’m also being hit up for money by someone I don’t even know, essentially on the basis that neither of us believes in a god.

    And that’s what I think is the basic lack of appeal for me. Atheism just isn’t enough common ground for me to want to seek out a community. That tag line — “Be good to each other” — sort of sums it up, doesn’t it? In an effort to come up with something that an atheist community could agree on, you have to make it so banal as to be worthless. You might as well have changed “good” to “excellent” so that it would be a quote from those renowned philosophers Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan.

    I just don’t understand why your protagonist wouldn’t have been better off joining a book club, volunteering at a secular charity, and visiting his neighborhood pub — all good ways to meet people with whom he’ll have more in common. Obviously, whatever floats your boat, etc., but then that’s the point: people like me and PZ are explaining why this doesn’t float our boats.

    I suspect there’s a bit of a Catch-22 at work here as well. The geographic areas where there are actually enough atheists to build a community (and preferably, multiple communities, so that you can actually choose the one that appeals to you) are the kinds of places where you don’t need one, because religion isn’t the center of social activity.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    And now I’m having a group discussion on a topic I didn’t have any say in, and may not have had any interest in. And in doing so I get to deal with a blowhard like Curtis, who sounds a bit like a Men’s Rights Activist. I’m also being hit up for money by someone I don’t even know, essentially on the basis that neither of us believes in a god.

    If you’ve ever been to an atheist or secularist conference, then you’ve put yourself in the exact same position. Despite the fact that you may have not personally attended, there are many who have (and many who speak at them), and find them valuable. As far as ‘being hit up for money’ goes, walk down the street in a major city. I guarantee you’ll get far more appeals by people you have even less connection to.

    Saying “I am not interested in this” isn’t the same as saying “this is a bad idea”, which was PZ’s claim. Chances are you wouldn’t catch me inside a humanist church either – I don’t personally have the need for it. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that there are a number of people who would benefit from something like this, and I fail to see the harm in making it available. I tried my best to spell that out as clearly as possible in my previous post.

    As far as joining a book club, volunteering at a charity or going to the pub, is it really so inconceivable to you that a) he might not be interested in those things, or b) he doesn’t know anyone, having just moved to a new city? That’s the position I found myself in when I first moved to Vancouver – I basically had to Google “Vancouver atheists” and show up, by myself, to a lecture about physics and creationism (a topic I don’t care about at all). Not everyone is willing to do that, and if we want to reach out and expand beyond the group of people we are currently attracting to the community, then we have to try new things.

    The geographic areas where there are actually enough atheists to build a community (and preferably, multiple communities, so that you can actually choose the one that appeals to you) are the kinds of places where you don’t need one, because religion isn’t the center of social activity.

    This isn’t even close to being true. Unless your contention is that every major city in the United States, particularly areas with large black, Latin and immigrant populations, don’t have any atheists in them, galling at being surrounded by believers. Even cursory scrutiny of the discussion of being “in the closet” as an atheist is up to the task of refuting that claim.

    Unless your position is that there should be no fellowship among humanists or atheists, in which case I thank you for sharing your opinion.

  11. 11
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    I suggest you link “freemam” to your last post, then you wouldn’t have to explain it.

  12. 12
    Crommunist

    Good idea.

  13. 13
    screechy monkey

    If you’ve ever been to an atheist or secularist conference, then you’ve put yourself in the exact same position. Despite the fact that you may have not personally attended, there are many who have (and many who speak at them), and find them valuable.

    Well, a few nitpicks here. It’s not really the same, because usually the list of speakers and topics is circulated beforehand. People can and do walk in and out of the lecture theater, in a way that would probably be taken as rude in a smaller “church” setting. And I’ve never encountered a “break into groups for discussion” thing.

    But sure, I grant you that some people will find all of these things valuable. Some atheists find UU churches valuable. Hell, some of them like Christian church services. So if your point is “some people will like this and find it useful,” well, sure, I agree, but that’s a rather trivial point I think.

    As far as ‘being hit up for money’ goes, walk down the street in a major city. I guarantee you’ll get far more appeals by people you have even less connection to.

    Yes, but those people on the street can’t claim that they’re part of some special “community” with me. They’re part of the geographic community, but that’s it. Whereas it’s a little awkward to show up at a meeting for the express purpose of “fellowship and community” and then turn down someone asking for your help.

    Saying “I am not interested in this” isn’t the same as saying “this is a bad idea”, which was PZ’s claim. Chances are you wouldn’t catch me inside a humanist church either – I don’t personally have the need for it. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that there are a number of people who would benefit from something like this, and I fail to see the harm in making it available. I tried my best to spell that out as clearly as possible in my previous post.

    I think it’s a bad idea because it supports the claims that atheism is “just another religion,” encourages atheists to separate themselves from the rest of the community, and shows an image of atheism that I find distasteful. Basically, I dislike it for the same reason that faitheists and accomodationists dislike the Gnu Atheists: “you’re making me look bad by association!” Unlike the Mooneys of the world, I’m not going to write books and op-eds demanding that atheist churches close, but when the subject comes up, yes, my opinion is they’re bad.

    As far as joining a book club, volunteering at a charity or going to the pub, is it really so inconceivable to you that a) he might not be interested in those things, or b) he doesn’t know anyone, having just moved to a new city?

    Is it really so inconceivable to you that those were just examples? (I picked them because they loosely corresponded to the things in your example: discussing Victor Hugo’s writing, the childhood literacy program, the after-service get-together.)

    The point is that there are plenty of activities and interests that someone in a new city can use to meet people with whom he has something in common.

    And come on, if you can Google “Vancouver atheists,” you can also Google “Vancouver [stuff I'm interested in]”

    Unless your contention is that every major city in the United States, particularly areas with large black, Latin and immigrant populations, don’t have any atheists in them, galling at being surrounded by believers. Even cursory scrutiny of the discussion of being “in the closet” as an atheist is up to the task of refuting that claim.

    No, my contention is that every major city in the United States has plenty of activities that don’t revolve around religion, such that an atheist can find friends and community without going to a church, atheist or otherwise. If it’s really true that in every city except Los Angeles (where I can personally attest this isn’t the case) you can’t join a kickball league or wine tasting or cycling club (or whatever — again, just examples!) without being bashed over the head with religion, well, that’s a rather extraordinary claim.

    Unless your position is that there should be no fellowship among humanists or atheists, in which case I thank you for sharing your opinion.

    My opinion is that generic gatherings of “humanists” and “atheists” are a pretty thin reed on which to base fellowship. We should work together on issues and activities where we really do have a common interest — although note that even there, plenty of atheists don’t care about church/state issues or creationism or combating the religious right — and inevitably some friendships will arise out of that, just as they do out of any other interest or hobby.

  14. 14
    thelatinone

    I think these groups have a role in the secular movement. You mention the vast Spanish-speaking community in Phoenix. One of the biggest modern stereotypes about Latinos is that we are becoming a bunch of Pentecostals and leaving Catholicism. In fact, we’re also becoming increasingly secular as I never get tired of pointing out. But there’s some truth to the fact that many Hispanics find a sense of community in these churches and even as we make fun of their hierarchical structure, it is still more egalitarian than the Catholic Church.

    I consider religion utter bullshit, but when I moved to the States from Puerto Rico and didn’t know anyone I could have easily gone to a church and join in to find a community.

    Of course, I could join an atheist or secular group but I’m not a philosopher or a scientist, I’m a political scientist. I’m not interested in debating the existence of “god” and I can’t keep up with biologists or physicists. A community of normal secular people who just happened to abandon religion and not necessarily because they’re deeply philosophical or scientific geniuses is something I would’ve been drawn to in those days. I think this type of churchy-like organization has a secular purpose and a potential market.

  15. 15
    khms

    I’ve been thinking about what it is that seems so wrong about this scenario to me. It sure feels creepy, much like religion (and even more what I hear about the usual trappings of same in the US, as opposed to here in Germany).

    Maybe one of the basic problems is that this is a kind of event I try to avoid – it’s like school, with more ritual, and institutional embarrassment (“My name is Paul …”). And of course I really dislike organized ritual. And other people accepting these things increase the likelihood of me having to endure them in one context or another, which means this actually feels threatening. I’m not sure.

    The concrete content – “here is a piece of text, meditate on it” – also feels much too close to classical woo.

    Oh, and as for

    As far as ‘being hit up for money’ goes, walk down the street in a major city. I guarantee you’ll get far more appeals by people you have even less connection to.

    – that’s certainly not my been experience. (Of course, you might argue that 279,803 people is not a major enough city. Though while I’ve not been in larger ones often, my memory doesn’t suggest that they’re all that much worse in this respect.) I think this may be the result of differing-strength social nets.

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    But sure, I grant you that some people will find all of these things valuable. Some atheists find UU churches valuable. Hell, some of them like Christian church services. So if your point is “some people will like this and find it useful,” well, sure, I agree

    If we agree about that, then the rest of this discussion is unimportant. I don’t think it’s trivial at all to suggest that people will find value in this approach, especially those who are looking to transition away from religious belief, but aren’t willing to go it alone (as you seem to be suggesting).

    Basically, I dislike it for the same reason that faitheists and accomodationists dislike the Gnu Atheists: “you’re making me look bad by association!”

    And if that’s your argument, I dismiss it for the same reason I dismiss Chris Mooney. The fact that you don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea for other people to do it. You’re welcome to withhold participation, and I won’t begrudge you for it. But simply saying “It’s bad because I don’t like it” is not a sensible argument – it’s simply a statement of your preference. The “it makes atheism look like just another religion” argument is similarly empty – there are very few things I do (or avoid doing) in my life because I think religious people will not look kindly upon it. If that’s the substance of the major criticism, you’ll have to excuse me for not paying it much mind.

    No, my contention is that every major city in the United States has plenty of activities that don’t revolve around religion, such that an atheist can find friends and community without going to a church, atheist or otherwise.

    There are lots of ways to find friendship and community without being on a softball team. That is not an argument against softball, or using softball to do achieve those goals. In those cases where your community is formed around the church (as is the case many places, particularly in the South, or the western provinces in Canada), then anything organized through those things will be religious. I’m glad this isn’t the case for you. It’s not the case for me either. It is, however, the case for my cousins who live less than an hour from where I am.

    My opinion is that generic gatherings of “humanists” and “atheists” are a pretty thin reed on which to base fellowship.

    I disagree, as do most of the people who contributed to Damon Fowler’s education fund, and those who are standing up for Jessica Ahlquist, and those atheists who call into The Atheist Experience, and those who post on r/atheism, and those who are active in secular organizations… the list goes on. If being an atheist isn’t important to you personally, at least in terms of self-identity, then that’s totally fine. It doesn’t mean, however, that it’s therefore not important to anyone else.

  17. 17
    Crommunist

    The concrete content – “here is a piece of text, meditate on it” – also feels much too close to classical woo.

    Or a book club, many of which do the exact same thing.

    – that’s certainly not my been experience.

    Fair enough. My point is simply that in any group of humans, you will get asked for things that you might not want to do. I volunteered at a lecture this Saturday – I didn’t want to be there, but I knew that my help was needed, and I value my relationship with the people asking for my help. If you work in an office, you learn to dread certain months of the year when people’s kids are doing school fundraising, because people start hitting you up for money even though you’re only trivially connected to them. It’s par for the course, and is not a criticism of the idea of a humanist church specifically.

    I recognize that the idea of a church-like group doesn’t appeal to everyone. I don’t think that’s the goal (I certainly hope it isn’t). The question I have is, does the idea have inherent harm for those that do wish to participate?

  18. 18
    momof3

    I agree and would add that I could see where this might be especially helpful for families with young children – a realm that at least to me seems to be solely the purview of churches these days.

  19. 19
    screechy monkey

    We clearly are not communicating well. At this point, I have no idea what your point is, and I don’t think you seem to understand mine, given that I don’t recognize the positions you seem to be attributing to me. So I’m going to bow out and leave the discussion to the other commenters.

  20. 20
    thztds

    The question I have is, does the idea have inherent harm for those that do wish to participate?

    What you described is definitely something I would never want to participate in – it feels too much like church. Or an AA meeting. But the answer to this question of yours is (in my opinion): possibly.

    One main area that I would worry about is: Does this run the danger of evolving into something where the rituals performed become more important that the substance that the “atheist church” is trying to impart? By setting up the rituals, saying the homily, having the testimonials, I worry that it may slip into something that encourages shallow thinking. Not that it has to, but I find rituals can short-circuit cognition. They can give the illusion of profoundness without the substance.

  21. 21
    aspidoscelis

    I’m in about the same boat. Church-like social settings creep me out. Even if you drained every bit of religion out of the Catholic church I went to when I was young, it would absolutely not be a place I want to spend time. It was all about reinforcing group identity, the local status hierarchy, communal standards of conduct, etc. Take religion out of church and you’ve got… secular narrow-mindedness, conformity, sanctimony. Take those out and you’ve excised not just religion but church.

    Of course, I know that this is not everyone’s experience of “church”. But it’s mine, so I have the same opinion of atheist church as I do of theist church–I’m sure some people would/do enjoy it, and so long as they leave me out of it, that’s fine with me.

  22. 22
    Aaron

    Have you gone to a Unitarian Universalist church/meeting house/center? My understanding is that UUers have an increasingly strong aversion to the word “church.” Some of your description sounds quite familiar.

    I’m an atheist raised in a Roman Catholic household. I had a good experience in Church, except for the theology and the politics. :P Always liked going to church- I quite like ritual, singing, standing and sitting, shaking hands, community, and chit-chat.

    I’ve only been to 8-9 services, and the contents have been the same: a few hymns, a time where people come up to share their “Joys and Concerns,” a sermon/homily, and possibly a reading of some sort. I’ve kept a running tally of anything that stood out as possibly offensive to an atheist:

    - One reading from the Tanakh
    - Reading of the Lament of Hermes, a Hermetic/gnostic text
    - Two sermons that mentioned God in a monotheistic sense.
    - One sermon that mentioned chakras (bah)

    There’s usually a “Children’s Time” where a parable or story is told. Once there was a simple play put on by a bunch of the older folks about the founding of the congregation. Lots of jokes about UUs, like:

    Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
    A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

    Dear God, if there is a god, if you can, save my soul, if I have a soul. And so to whom it may concern, these thoughts, prayers, good vibes, karmic or cosmic forces or whatever we offer to you. If there is a you. Or not.
    (one of the two mentions of God so far)

    That’s the total, after having been to 8 or so services. Hymns were all about humanist values- love of ones neighbor, etc. No praise or worship ditties. All traditional accompaniment rather than the saccharine cheer of displayed by contemporary Christian “worship” music.

    There has been an offertory at the UU services, but in a tasteful way, IMHO. They always pass around two baskets. The contents of one goes to the congregation and is used as any other church; the other goes to a specifically stated organization or cause (a local community non-profit, food shelf, etc).

    IMHO, the idea shouldn’t be creating an “atheist church,” but some other kind of “church” which espouses an atheistic system of positive thought. Secular humanism, epicurean philosophy, or some other sort of materialist system of thought. Something like Ethical Culture. I think you’ll continue to bump up against many of the objections in the comments. As atheists, the only unifying factor is the lack of belief in gods.

  23. 23
    Tisha Irwin

    Everything about this story made me shudder. Maybe I’m just weird but being told to use a special color to avoid hugs from strangers would send me running for the door. That is just uber creepy.

  24. 24
    Crommunist

    It was loosely based on an idea that Jen McCreight had for mitigating some of the social awkwardness with people who aren’t comfortable with physical contact. It was intended to be a joke, but I guess not everyone reads BlagHag. Everyone should.

  25. 25
    Tisha Irwin

    I do read Blag Hag, and I remember her name tag thing, but I could see uninvited hugs actually being an issue at a pseudo church like this. It certainly was during my brief stint in Southern Baptist hell.

    I never had to wear anti-hug protection at transfusion medicine conferences.

  26. 26
    Crommunist

    I guess you’d have to ask Greg Epstein whether or not his humanist chaplaincy at Harvard has a hug issue. I’d be inclined to think they don’t. However, I know that some people have said that it’s an issue for them, and so I threw the example in to illustrate that we can learn from ideas that have been developed in the community already. I thought it was a funny tongue-in-cheek thing rather than an issue of significant creepiness, but I’m not surprised to learn I’m wrong.

  27. 27
    thedudediogenes

    #3 Gwynnyd said what I was going to say. Sounds freaking boring. I’d rather stay home with my internet and beer.

  28. 28
    Aaron

    That’s exactly what my wife would say. Different strokes for different folks. I suspect that I’d be religious in a pre-scientific age, for the same reasons Dawkins gives.

  29. 29
    LS

    My mistake on the Freemam thing. As I mentioned, I was in something of a rush.

    I think my primary objection is rooted in a fundamental difference opinion on what an atheist church (not a word I would use, but convenient for the discussion) would be.

    My thoughts were closer to a weekly Sunday morning meeting of perhaps an hour in length. During which time a moderator would pose a question. Something broad, such as “how can we determine what is ethical and what isn’t?” He or she would then moderate an open discussion amongst the group. Ideally the moderator would be well educated, and in a position to ask challenging questions after people’s statements (without necessarily requiring an answer.)

  30. 30
    Mark Erickson

    I think you messed up the hyperlinks. Can you repost?

  31. 31
    Mark Erickson

    I see no reason to be offended at your list of possibilities. The texts were written by humans, and people who use G-d to be a deity, metaphor, or a joke should still be able to co-exist in community. But chakras? That’s a bridge too far! Kidding.

    Two general things, and I’m a UU btw. 1) Group singing is a big part of attending services for me. It’s instant community, sometimes shallow, but often meaningful. As far as ritual goes, it’s right up there with a bris. Kidding again. 2) Religion, to bind together, is a good word for me, while spiritual, the supernatural, is a dirty one.

  32. 32
    Clare

    Why a ‘church’ and why special titles implying superior knowledge, as opposed to a secular community group with a rotating chair that organises community events? Are we assuming a shared set of moral and political values for this group with the freemam as the arbitor of disagreements? Are you discussing legalising prostitution to come up with a combined ‘church view’ to present to the state and if so what happens if there is no combined view (no reason why there should be – a lack of belief in gods doesn’t lead to any position on prostitution)?

    Epstein seems to see shared values for his humanist groups but that means his humanism is not simply defined by lack of belief in gods but has a political element coupled with a desire for ritual. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to ascribe lots of shared values to atheists. Is someone a ‘better’ atheist because they go to a progressive humanist church that gives out energy efficient lightbulbs or are they a ‘better’ atheist because their ‘atheist church’ lobbies in favour of the US-Canada oil pipeline because it’s good for jobs? Their atheism is actually irrelevant and this makes it very difficult to decide what an ‘atheist church’ is for.

    I also thought that bit about children not usually being there was strange and would like you to explain that (unless you think it’s only because it would be amazingly dull, in which case it hardly gives secular families a place to go in areas where religious churches organize most sport and social events!) .

  33. 33
    Lauren Ipsum

    I was so incredibly creeped out by this that I feel like I need to go get a shower. (So, well-written, and on-topic for Halloween, anyway. :) ) I am actually scrubbing my hands on my pants trying to wipe off the yecch.

    In all seriousness, if the structure is something which would appeal to people, go forth and enjoy. For me, this feels… like aping something? like trying too hard? Taking each individual piece of someone else’s rituals and changing one item to make it “ours”?

    I find the structure of worship itself to be viscerally repulsive, so substituting Hugo or Ingersoll for some “holy” book doesn’t make Today’s Reading any more palatable.

    Maybe I’m an asocial grouch, or maybe it’s because I never participated in any kind of “parish” community, but the thought of revealing my intimate problems to other folks who are in a room with me at least 75% because of propinquity, rather than the organic development of a friendship, gives me the heebie-jeebies. This entire piece was just… brrr! Mindless following of rules!

    I reject ritual, because “ritual” for me always has “meaningless” as part of the definition. You can have a “tradition” or even a “habit” without it becoming “ritual.” Traditions are flexible — you can celebrate someone’s birthday on the Saturday before if nobody’s available on Tuesday, your actual birthday — but rituals have rigid rules which must be followed, or You Aren’t Doing It Right. Fuck that.

    (I do really like the idea of red pen on the name tag, however!)

  34. 34
    consciousness razor

    So unlike others at Freethought Blogs, I am not a writer of fiction. I used to be, once upon a time, but gradually migrated toward polemic. The nature of what I want to talk about today lends itself well to fiction though, so I am going to give it a go. This is my offering for what an “atheist church service” could look like.

    Hmm, I don’t like it when already-nebulous arguments are put in the form of fiction; but for what it’s worth, this was a successful little sci-fi psychological-thriller. It left me on the edge of my seat, without needing even a hint of blood and gore. The scariest stuff is what you can’t see, lurking right around the corner.

    Sarcasm aside, since you appear not to be interested in defending most or all of the details of the story, there’s little to say about it. And it still isn’t clear to me what your argument actually is. You claim some people would like it. I agree, but that isn’t enough to conclude it doesn’t cause harm: some people like crack, which generally isn’t good for them. Yes, now that you mention it, some people like religion too and think there’s nothing wrong with it. If they say it works for them, should I assume it isn’t harmful? Where is that written in my critical thinking catechism? Oh right, I don’t have one.

    You also say you don’t think you’d want to go. Why wouldn’t you want to go? If you’re actually willing to criticize the idea (if you do have good reasons why you wouldn’t go), then you should make that case just as well, not find some comfortable middle-position in which you barely have to claim anything at all. Do you think PZ and others went too far with their criticisms, or that all their concerns can somehow be mitigated?

    ——
    In the interest of keeping all my thoughts in order, I’ll respond briefly to your previous article.

    Mainly, it seems like you’re willing to give something branded as “secular” the benefit of the doubt. It’s wishful thinking at best. We have no right to assume secular rituals and authorities would be all lollipops and candy-canes, just because we want them to be. We can only assume that, all else being equal, they have the same potential for harm.

    Besides, focusing on ritualistic nonsense and authoritarian hierarchies doesn’t get us anywhere closer to having a better society. You might argue they could avoid being bad, like religious rituals and hierarchies. At best, though, they’re a distracting waste of time, if our intention is to encourage humanism, secularism, critical thinking, skepticism, science, education, progressive politics or anything vaguely related to our common interests. It’s apparently about nothing more than making some people feel comfortable, and those on both sides of this issue recognize that it’s at the expense of making others feel uncomfortable. How does that promote any cause we might have in common or create a sense of community?

    You also implied a church-like organizational model is the only conceivable way to provide something “more than just casual social interaction,” as well as being an “existential anchor” (whatever that is). That certainly isn’t the only way to organize a group of people. What exactly is the primary purpose of such an organization? That should give us a good idea of how it ought to be structured. Is it supposed to be a place to worship the lack of a deity? Would it be a “family-friendly” place to meet nonbelievers and attend secular rituals? A local support network for atheists? A community educational center? A secular charity? A political organization? A floor wax? A dessert topping?

    If it’s supposed to do it all, then I’ll ask you what I asked on Pharyngula which was never addressed: Why on Earth would anyone think a single organization would be good at doing all of that?

  35. 35
    Crommunist

    The problem is perhaps that I used the word “atheist church” when I should have used “humanist church”, which is what Epstein is arguing for. Humanists do have shared values, and my idea was simply to have a place where people could get together and discuss them. This isn’t to become a better atheist, but to have practice discussing ideas and exploring concepts that one might not otherwise spend time on. CFI Vancouver does something similar once a month in our Cafe Inquiry series. I promise there’s nothing creepy about it.

    The thing about kids was simply that it creeps me out to see children in church. Indoctrination of the young is something we jump up and down on the religious for – I think the criticism should apply to us as well.

  36. 36
    Crommunist

    I take it you’ve never been to a book club, or any meeting that used parliamentary rules? Because nothing I suggest in my fictitious account is any more keyed to “worship” than a board meeting or literary analysis. You’ll also notice that I specified that speaking in front of the group is voluntary rather than compulsory. There are people who share their problems with anonymous strangers on the internet every day because that’s the closest thing to a community they can find. Some people would rather deal with human beings and feel supported directly. Not your cup of tea, I take it.

  37. 37
    Crommunist

    You claim some people would like it. I agree, but that isn’t enough to conclude it doesn’t cause harm

    Nobody has demonstrated that the idea would cause harm, and my contention is that it is possible for humanists to take concepts and structure from religious groups without involving the central harms of religion, which would be doctrinal acceptance of faith-based dogma. I see you’re decided to ascribe the position of humanist dogma to my idea, and I gotta tell you there’s nothing finer than having someone just invent your position for you. Please, tell me more things that I didn’t say but are easy for you to mock.

    I wouldn’t go because, as it stands, my needs for connection with other humanists are satisfied. However, if I moved to a new city or a new country, it would be incredibly helpful and reassuring for me to be able to go to somewhere that I knew was welcoming to new people, and was a familiar environment.

    You also implied a church-like organizational model is the only conceivable way to provide something “more than just casual social interaction,”

    Only? Yeah, I implied no such thing. What I said is that it is a model that has demonstrated efficacy. By existential anchor, I mean a structure devoted to understanding one’s place in the world, and providing a focal point within the community. Talk to anyone who regularly attends church – it’s more than just a place to go and be bored for an hour on a Sunday morning.

    t’s apparently about nothing more than making some people feel comfortable, and those on both sides of this issue recognize that it’s at the expense of making others feel uncomfortable.

    If you feel uncomfortable going to a humanist church service, you have the option of continuing to not go. You don’t see the need anyway, so you can tell them to go stuff themselves. If someone wants this kind of interaction, they have no options (short of starting one themselves). The fact that it might make you uncomfortable is therefore not a barrier to them, but the inverse is definitely a barrier. Clearly neither you nor I are the target market of such an endeavour.

    Would it be a “family-friendly” place to meet nonbelievers and attend secular rituals? A local support network for atheists? A community educational center? A secular charity? A political organization? … Why on Earth would anyone think a single organization would be good at doing all of that?

    Because theist churches already accomplish all of these things. The question before the class is “can we create humanist organizations that do all of these things without being focussed on a deity?” I think that it’s a decent experimental idea to subtract the harmful aspects from the model that currently works to do all of these things and see if we can make it work. Maybe we can’t. Maybe the model itself is flawed and leads irretrievably to religious behaviour. If that’s the case then we have to abandon it. However, I can certainly envision such an approach working, provided it be based on teaching critical thinking and abandoning of dogma.

  38. 38
    Lauren Ipsum

    >>I take it you’ve never been to a book club, or any meeting that used parliamentary rules? Because nothing I suggest in my fictitious account is any more keyed to “worship” than a board meeting or literary analysis.

    I didn’t know that book clubs used parliamentary procedures. That would put me off. I’ve only been to one or two board meetings, and while the motions were tedious to go through, they did serve an organizational purpose.

    This just seemed… it felt fake. It felt awkward. Like people were going through the motions of obeisance around an empty center. Maybe it was just the religious words you used — passage, homily, bulletin, fellowship, pew.

    >>There are people who share their problems with anonymous strangers on the internet every day because that’s the closest thing to a community they can find. Some people would rather deal with human beings and feel supported directly. Not your cup of tea, I take it.

    I probably didn’t make my point clearly. I think there is a difference between a community of like-minded people — people who choose to spend time together because they have similar ideas, likes, dislikes, hobbies — and a community of random neighbors.

    There’s a difference, for me, between going to TAM or a Trek convention and going to a “freethought church” with people who live on my street. People who happen to live on my street are there, to some extent, by accident: that’s the house which was available to buy when they wanted a house, this is the right school district, this is the neighborhood they could afford. People who go to a Trek convention can come from anywhere but have similar tastes and mindsets. I am simply more comfortable opening up to people whom I can guess are already a bit more like me than people who just happen to share my zip code. There’s nothing about geography to recommend someone for trustworthiness; if you admire Janeway and lament how the Borg were defanged, I know we have something in common.

    And again, this is just my personal reaction. I’m not making this a blanket judgment. As Honest Abe is purported to have said, for the people who like this sort of thing, it’s just the sort of thing that they would like. So it’s not my cup of tea, but anyone who wants it is welcome to it.

  39. 39
    consciousness razor

    Nobody has demonstrated that the idea would cause harm, and my contention is that it is possible for humanists to take concepts and structure from religious groups without involving the central harms of religion, which would be doctrinal acceptance of faith-based dogma.

    It isn’t just any old “concepts and structure.” You seem fine with or at least indifferent toward specific religious concepts and structures, which I think are harmful. Those harms aren’t all including under the heading of “faith-based dogma.”

    Take just one example: there are very real problems with the use of non-professional counselors. I can tell you I know a great number of people, including myself as a child, who sought advice and support from priests, lay youth ministers and the like, and it did not do me or them any good. We needed professional help and didn’t get it, but the culture pushed me (and others) in that direction because of this same sort of assumption that “our kind” knows how to do it right (only for me then it was Catholic, not humanist). The assumption is that we can trust these special folk, they know what they’re talking about, blah, blah, blah, but that was all based on nothing substantial. Now you could argue, “then we should direct them to professional counselors if they need it,” but it’s still a central problem for an “atheist church” if it will have the sort of leadership you’ve been talking about.

    I see you’re decided to ascribe the position of humanist dogma to my idea, and I gotta tell you there’s nothing finer than having someone just invent your position for you.

    Indeed, irony is also a fine thing. I never said a word about “humanist dogma,” so I have no idea what you’re talking about or how it relates to what I said.

    Yeah, I implied no such thing. What I said is that it is a model that has demonstrated efficacy.

    Efficacy at what? And do you know of other models which have also demonstrated efficacy? Why not mention them?

    Clearly neither you nor I are the target market of such an endeavour.

    Clearly, but then I don’t understand the claims about this bringing about a greater sense of community, among other claims. How exactly is this a “humanist” endeavor if not all humanists are in the “target market” for it? And since there already are very similar endeavors, what’s the point in doing it again and fracturing the humanist community even further?

    Because theist churches already accomplish all of these things.

    Hardly, they do. Considering how well they’ve done, churches ought to put up a G.W. Bush-style “Mission Accomplished” banner and call it a day. They’re fail miserably at managing all of that. Sure, they sometimes manage to attract new people, so they’re accomplishing something, but that says nothing about how effective they are at actually accomplishing their stated goals (other than “saving” people for Jebus).

  40. 40
    Johnny Vector

    I’m with Aaron; this sounds eerily similar to a UU service. I had a UU girlfriend a decade ago, so I went to services with her. They had a co-pastorship (if that’s the word they use; I forget) of a married couple, one of whom was an atheist and the other believed in some vague Taoist kind of spirit-god.

    I enjoyed it; the building and grounds are beautiful, they had a beautiful old piano and a fantastic pianist, who was sometimes joined by a flautist whose day job is with the National Symphony Orchestra. The “sermons” covered subjects like ethics, and were extremely well written and delivered. Always very humanist and progressive. The people were intelligent and fun, and they held gay weddings (not legally binding (still!), but beautiful all the same). There was never any talk of gods or any of the usual religious supernaturalism.

    In the end, it wasn’t anything I needed, but I can understand some people do. However, my point is this: It already exists. AFAIK, other UU congregations are very similar, and if someone wants to start a new one I’m sure the national organization is happy to help.

  41. 41
    Crommunist

    I never said a word about “humanist dogma,” so I have no idea what you’re talking about or how it relates to what I said.

    Where is that written in my critical thinking catechism? Oh right, I don’t have one.

    There.

    Take just one example: there are very real problems with the use of non-professional counselors

    Yup. And there are problems with people going to the internet for their problems, or going to their friends or family instead of a professional counselor. This issue is not unique to churches. Assuming there is some qualification required to be a freemam, perhaps some training, the need for professional referral might be something that should be part of that. If that’s the most salient type of harm that comes from having a person in the community who is trusted for having sage advice, you’ll have to forgive me for not losing any sleep over that.

    And do you know of other models which have also demonstrated efficacy? Why not mention them?

    Because I’m not defending other models? I’m discussing this particular one and saying that it’s not necessarily a bad idea.

    How exactly is this a “humanist” endeavor if not all humanists are in the “target market” for it? And since there already are very similar endeavors, what’s the point in doing it again and fracturing the humanist community even further?

    Oh my stars and garters! Whatever shall we do about the fracturing community? I do believe I am getting the vapours! Is it inconceivable to you that no one organization can claim to represent every single member of its community? Not every black person supports the NAACP – better go tell them to disband! Not every member of the teacher’s union agrees with their policies – of course anything less than 100% agreement invalidates the entire enterprise!

    The point is that not every humanist is being included in the current crop of endeavours. There is a niche that has yet to be filled – people who are non-believers who still enjoy the shared practice and sense of community found in a church. Epstein thinks that there are enough of these people to justify creating a parallel system that caters to them, and I’m inclined to agree.

    They’re fail miserably at managing all of that.

    If you’re saying that churches do not organize politically, socially, charitably and educationally, then I am not sure what world you live in. The reasons most people leave churches are about dogma and intolerant attitudes, not the fact that they have barbecues and book drives.

  42. 42
    Crommunist

    If UU is sufficient to the task, then I’ve wasted your time and mine in defense of an idea that already exists. I don’t know much about it, but if it is as you describe then I’m not contributing a unique idea.

  43. 43
    audiolight

    CFI Vancouver does something similar once a month in our Cafe Inquiry series.

    This was the thought that went through my head as I was reading this entry: doesn’t CFI / the Secular Humanist organization already offer up a community of like-minded ‘atheist’/’humanist’ people and organize events/outreach/meetings for them to participate in?

    Also, I’m sure if you went to talk to any of those groups about a difficult issue, they could put you into touch with professional psychological/counselling services – who are the real people you want listening to your *major* life issues (so, scratch ‘freemams’).

    If the CFI/Secular Humanism group isn’t already operating in your (local geographical) area, you could always just advertise to start a local meetup group on the Internet and ask the CFI for resources to help direct conversations. (Secular Humanism actually puts out a ‘quick start guide‘ )

  44. 44
    Johnny Vector

    Or… You’ve independently hit on an idea that obviously appeals to lots of people!

  45. 45
    Clare

    So this is a ‘humanist church’ (if you mean humanist then say humanist) guided by a trained leader that offers a space for humanists to come and discuss ideas, offers support and provides a ready made, easily accessable community for humanists who have moved into a new town. Oh, and people are discouraged from bringing their kids because that’s indoctrination of the young which is creepy…. What happens to kids then? If it’s creepy to bring the to the humanist church and we certainly aren’t going to take them to a religious church then what do we do?

    No churches, no freemams but secular community groups perhaps?

  46. 46
    Crommunist

    If it’s creepy to bring the to the humanist church and we certainly aren’t going to take them to a religious church then what do we do?

    What do you currently do? I would say do that. Or, bring your kid. Or, set up a babysitting group. Alternate with your partner. Drop them off with your parents. You do realize this is a fictitious story, right? I’m not setting up rules for everyone to follow – I was just offering one example of how this idea could possibly look.

  47. 47
    Allienne Goddard

    Based on a quick scan of thelatinone’s blog, I think this is probably the article on declining religious identification amongst Latinos and Latinas in the United States.

  48. 48
    Allienne Goddard

    Yes, it certainly would have been best to specify that it was a humanist church, since atheism does not imply any shared values at all. I’m an atheist, but not a humanist, and therefore don’t have any interest in how humanists want to organize and act. I would be disturbed by an atheist church because it dilutes the simple definition of atheism. All atheists have in common is that we don’t believe in gods.

    Unlike many atheists, I do think that accepting the absence of god(s) does undermine the traditional foundations of morality, and that many will need help developing a new way of thinking about life and death, good and evil, and other meaningful issues and experiences. Those who have relied on their churches for community will need help finding a replacement for that. Those who have used church as a forum for intellectual discussion and contemplation will need a replacement for that as well. I don’t think that these needs must necessarily be served by a single organization, but I’m not against anyone trying to set one up. I’d rather see it done separately, because it would allow people to find groups whose function was precisely what was desired without having to sit through something they weren’t interested in, but since I wouldn’t be participating anyway, it really isn’t up to me to say.

    I do get the sense that this is a solution in search of a problem, and that UU and humanist groups already provide the functions that are being discussed. It would be useful if someone who actually would be interested in attending some group like this would post an explanation of what they feel is missing from the groups that already exist.

  49. 49
    thelatinone

    My bad, I’ve been grading and writing the last day and a half and didn’t realize that the links didn’t work. Allienne Goddard did point out correctly to one of the links, but the study, which I coauthored is here in our Trinity College website.

    U.S Latino Religious Identification 1990-2008

  50. 50
    Allienne Goddard

    Thank you, it is an interesting article. The response rates from Latinos and Latinas in both studies was less than half what it ought to have been, however. This, to me, raises serious questions about how representative the samples were for this ethnicity. The link in the paper for more detail on the methodology used was inactive, do you have a current link? I wasn’t able to discover the information on my own.

    The decline in the proportion of Protestants was indeed surprising to me, as I hadn’t seen any good data and had absorbed the hearsay. I have an interest in the correlation of economic security and lacking religion, and wonder if you might suggest any additional sources of data. Your notion that the relatively low income levels of the “Nones” is likely due to their youth seems sound, but it would be interesting to know if these young “Nones” come disproportionally from more well-off families.

    Anyway, thanks again for your links.

  51. 51
    thelatinone

    Thanks for the comments. Actually what you refer is not the response rate. I can’t recall the exact response rate, I have that documentation in the office but was much larger than 5%. That 5% is the total number of Latinos in the overall sample. Thanks for pointing out that the link doesn’t work, this report dates from when we had the old ISSSC and ARIS website but Trinity College changed the servers. Here’s the 2001 methodology, which is exactly the same that we used in 2008.

  52. 52
    RW Ahrens

    I agree about how these groups can be helpful.

    I remember a 60 minutes segment a few years ago, or perhaps it was the evening news, about a community group in California that held weekly meetings that was completely secular.

    It had a similar layout to many churches – a “service” where, like in the OP’s example, quotations from literature were read and was generally discussed. Yes, there was also the inevitable “housekeeping” stuff too! It also boasted “Sunday School” type classes for the kids – sciency stuff, ethics, and so forth, all aimed at age appropriate levels meant to bring the kids up in a secular lifestyle as opposed to a religious one.

    It was self financed with the equivalent of “tithes” and weekly donations, just like a church or other community organization would be. They held pot luck dinners, picnics, bake sales, and all of the other stuff many churches do that builds a social community based upon family, neighbors and similar lifestyles and beliefs.

    It has been my contention for some years now that religion in the US won’t begin to fade until the secular community has begun to replace the church social community with a secular one that serves the same function, just without religion. A LOT of people would go – Sunday or whatever day the local community likes best and works for most. And I’d bet that many people would switch from one Sunday to the next – because now they go to church just for the community support and the social fun, not because god really means anything to them.

  53. 53
    Allienne Goddard

    Yes, my point of course is that given the percentages of this ethnicity who live in the United States, the proportion of the sample identifying as Latino/Latina should be double what it is. This could be because Latinos/Latinas are less likely to complete the survey (i.e., they have a lower response rate), or they are less likely to be contacted, or both. The link to your methodology states that almost 4% of the potential residential respondents were ineligible because they did not speak English. This appears to me to be a serious problem given the group being studied. In any case, it appears that the persons being contacted may well not be representative for that ethnicity.

    I understand the difficulties of social research, and am not trying to undermine your analysis. It just happens to overlap with my interests, and so I’m digging. This has also sailed way off topic, thanks to me. I suck. If for some strange reason you want to contact me, you can email me at fingwild at that hotmail dot com dealie.

  54. 54
    martha

    I swore off reading blogs on weekdays, so didn’t see this until last night. I hope you come back to this theme someday- it makes perfect sense for atheists to discuss what kind of institutions we need in order to have community and staying power. So far the discussion seems to have established that calling such an institution “church” is out and that UU ism isn’t quite what most people are looking for. I agree there. I belong to a UU church where the minister is everything you could wish for- learned, wise about life, never mentions god- and I still hardly ever go. But if there were Skeptic Pubs nearby, I would so go to those.

    I sympathize with the desire to replace catholic rituals with something compatible with reason, but I’m not sure it can be done- at least not in a churchy way. I was a half-baked, pantheistic pagan for a while, mostly because I was interested in the artistic creation of ritual, but those rituals always felt false and inflated by someone’s ego (sometimes mine). I like your birthday party model, though- perhaps genuine rituals are created at need by the people who use them and repeated if they seem to work? Of course homemade rituals might lack some of the ‘oomph’ of traditional church celebrations, but perhaps where secular people find that ‘oomph’ is at the theatre? Atheist theatre group anyone?

    I wonder whether another time you might try crowdsourcing models for institutions and traditions that could support an ongoing community? It could be fascinating.

  55. 55
    James Croft

    We don’t have a “hug issue” – AT ALL! Sometimes I wish we’d be a bit more touchy-feely =P

  56. 56
    James Croft

    You’re right to distinguish between “atheist” and “Humanist” – we see that distinction as being quite important – but it’s not correct to say we are arguing for a “church”. We call our space the “Humanist Community Center” and we build “Humanist Community”. We never use the term “church” to describe our own community.

  57. 57
    James Croft

    Oh, and in response to Allienne, the challenge is that such groups that do exist are often not connected to other similar groups, are frequently very small, tend to struggle to find funding for their efforts, often are not diverse demographically, struggle with maintaining membership and enthusiasm among members etc. That’s why we’re suggesting providing some resources for such groups to better achieve their goals.

  58. 58
    James Croft

    Lauren, don’t Humanist all share the values and principles of Humanism? The people who choose to come to the Humanist Center in Cambridge are most-often self-identified Humanists. We have that in common. I suppose I’m not seeing where you get the idea that just random people from a given locality would turn up. It’s rather like having a weekly local TAM…

  59. 59
    James Croft

    I think Crommunist does a good job in responding to your points, consciousness razor. An important thing for us to stress here is that we aren’t offering a one-size-fis-all model of Humanist community. We are doing our own thing, and documenting what works, while visiting other communities and asking them what works for them. We have no interest in making them into carbon-copies of our own organization.

    What we’re opposed to is what seems to be something of an instinctive dislike for the idea of any community that looks to take the best organizing ideas from religious communities. We see it as a matter of fact that Humanist communities have certain things in common with religious communities (primarily that they are communities of people drawn together through a shared value-set and worldview), and we therefore thing that some of the things religious communities do well might serve us as well (notice the qualifiers “some of” and “might”).

    We are very conscious that much of what happens in religious communities will be inappropriate for our uses, which of course includes all those aspects which are harmful to human dignity and flourishing. We are working very consciously to avoid incorporating any such aspects.

    Now I can see a potential argument which would say that no such institution can possibly exist: that all communities of any type will inevitably become authoritarian, dogmatic etc. But I think that’s a case that hasn’t been demonstrated yet by any poster I’ve read.

    In the absence of such an argument we’re going to continue to provide the services which are of significance to our community and thinking about how we can help other communities animated by similar values.

  60. 60
    James Croft

    UU is clearly OK for many people, but the lack of an explicit commitment to rationalism is a problem for many of our members. Since that’s a key part of the Humanistic outlook, it’s a big gap many, myself included, can’t bridge…

  61. 61
    James Croft

    martha: we are instituting a crowdsourcing model for Humanist communities at the Humanist Community Project! It’s one of our major innovations – we want to turn the problem of community design over to the Humanist community at large and see what they come up with. Stay tuned and I’ll post the URL as soon as it goes live!

  62. 62
    Aaron

    @James Croft
    From what I hear, the UU had a phase during the 70s and 80s when services were almost like a weekly mini-TAM. At least, that’s what I’ve heard about my local UU church- the sermons used to be a lecture and discussion on some scientific, ethical, or philosophical topic. Sounds like heaven to me, intellectual and emotional nourishment. Comments by Robert M Price indicate that the UUs had a hard swing towards rationalism during that time, so it seems to have been a general trend rather than just my local UU church.

    As far as mini-TAMs, there may be other groups that provide that. I’ve not made it to a meeting yet, but we’ve a local chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation which is more or less a monthly mini-TAM. They have a speaker, some social/discussion time, and a brunch.

    @martha
    I know where you’re coming from with the ritualism. I went through a similar phase, Jungian western hermeticism (Golden Dawn, John Dee) rather than neo-paganism. I quite enjoyed creation and performance of rituals, but going at it all alone just isn’t the same as sharing it with a group of other people.

    I think you need some sort of emotional/ideological/philosophical aspect to really put the ‘oomph’ into ritual. Celebrating the beauty of life on earth, exhorting the rational mind, presenting morality plays or histories. I get pretty choked up listening to the Symphony of Science, especially when I explain the lyrics and ideas to my 3 year old son. It’s just so damned awesome to be alive and conscious in this world.

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