A church where an atheist can feel at home

Church ceiling Kythnos Greece#5. 101 things in 1001 days: Attend a UU church meeting.

As someone who has lost her religion, I still seek the community that a church can provide. Over the past few years, I have occasionally attended church services, but I’ve been an imposter.

I was curious to attend a church service where I could feel at home. The Unitarian Universalist church, while based upon a legacy of Judeo-Christian beliefs, doesn’t emphasize belief in a certain creed.

I felt welcome and enjoyed all the accoutrements of a church visit that I usually enjoy–flowers, candles, music–as well as the message I usually enjoy–love, compassion, justice–without the aspects that unfortunately can come along with organized religion–intolerance, judgment, superstition–not to mention all that kneeling every couple of minutes.

During the UU service, the happy, supportive atmosphere was enhanced by hand clapping to a crowd-pleasing, secular song:

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on”
— “Lean On Me,” Bill Withers

The lyrics fit perfectly with what I long for from religion, the sense of a community of people who care for and support each other.

While the minister delivered her welcoming message, I reflected on my tangled religious history. I was raised a Catholic, but for most of my life, my thoughts on religion have been rife with uncertainty, summed up by this scene from an old Woody Allen movie:

(Video link)

“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”

During the last decade or so, though, I have moved from the uncertainty that placed me in the agnostic camp over to that other “A” word, atheism, which is treated as a dirty word in America.

I don’t advertise it, but if people ask me my beliefs, I tell them. They sometimes will whisper, “Yeah, I don’t believe either,” like we’ve admitted something shameful.

History, though, is full of shame, centuries of outrageous horror caused by organized religion. And when something like the Newtown school shooting happens and someone like Mike Huckabee says it happened because God has been removed from public schools, that’s where some more shame belongs. What must people around the world think of my country when they hear these idiots? I know in my heart that if there were a God, even he could never love a person like that, let alone create him.

Parthenon closeupDespite my lack of belief, I love the world’s religions the way I love any good story. The ancient Greeks couldn’t understand the science behind the crops withering and dying each winter. They imagined their harvest goddess, Demeter, in the depths of despair at her innocent daughter Persephone taken away by the god of the underworld. I picture an ancient Greek mother trying to come up with an explanation for why the seasons change. She couldn’t, of course, any more than she could explain the death of a child. So Demeter mourned while Persephone sat with Hades on the throne.

A great story. I just don’t believe in it.

Toward the end of the UU service, the minister shared a thought-provoking sermon about pity being the near-enemy of compassion. It was inspired by a mystery novel, The Cruelest Month, which had been the reading earlier in the service. I enjoyed the sermon, and I felt relief that I didn’t have to pretend to believe in stories that I don’t think are true.

For those of you who find comfort in your faith, I sometimes envy you and wish I still believed, but I also wish that we could grow beyond religion. Let’s face our fears of the unknown, and let’s make this life worth living.

Now if only I could understand how the can opener works.

Link: The Unitarian Society of New Haven
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#5 Attend a UU church meeting

About Marcy

I blog about trying to get out of my comfort zone, completing 101 things in 1001 days (and beyond), and writing my memoirs. My book: Timid No More.

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29 Responses to A church where an atheist can feel at home

  1. Rahmath says:

    Such a thought provoking post Marcy. I could identify with you when you say “For those of you who find comfort in your faith, I sometimes envy you and wish I still believed”. I am glad you found a community which gives your heart what she wants. I hope I will find one here too in India.
    I do believe in a supreme power but i think i believe in God so that i can derive strength from some source. I don’t think its different in India either. Atheism is not at all accepted though thankfully I think the trend is changing.

    i think this is my Fav post.

  2. The Dose of Reality says:

    Love this post. My oldest went to a UU preschool and it was just so refreshing. I love the way that you describe your desire for a community like being a member of a church provides. I hope the UU church you attended can be that for you.

    I’m Christian, more much more often than not, I’m horrified by the things that are said and done in the name of my religion. Seriously horrified.

  3. This is a wonderful, thought-provoking post. And perhaps your bravest. I too find it very difficult to say that I am an atheist because of the backlash in this country. Otherwise, it’s nobody’s business. I’m not impressed by folks who talk about their belief in a god and then act in hateful ways. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Belief is something we can struggle with all of our lives – and also something we change our minds about during our lives. I have been through so many stages in my life. Fifteen years ago, I would never have believed I’d be sitting in any church pew every Sunday and liking it. There were times when I wasn’t even sure I believed in God or I believed, but wasn’t sure whether it was God or just “something.”

    Of course, now I am comfortable (and comforted) by my position of faith, but only because I had my own personal touch that I felt came only from God and have seen God work in my life.

    When I saw the title of your post before I went to church today, I couldn’t wait to get home and read it. I think it’s great that you have still been open-minded enough to attend any church services and keep an open mind to whatever is out there. But then, just knowing you from your blogging, I would kind of expect that of you.

    Thanks for sharing your insights. I’m glad you had a good time!

  5. Excellent post. I believe atheism is just another path on the search to the greater truth within and about all things. As Carl Jung once said, “a great deal of institutionalized religion seems designed to prevent the faithful from having a spiritual experience.”

  6. Marcy says:

    Thank you so much to all of you for your thoughtful and supportive comments. Talking about faith and beliefs is so personal, and I love hearing the variety of viewpoints and what religion means to you.

  7. Ginny Marie says:

    Even those of us who still believe sometimes can’t find comfort in our religion. There are things in our world that are hard to explain, just as the seasons were impossible for the Greeks to understand. But we keep on trying. 🙂

  8. Mayor Gia says:

    Wow, sounds like a really good church! I’m a lapsed catholic too, so I hear you.

  9. Katie says:

    I was waiting for your “review” of this experience. I could’ve written the same thing…raised Catholic, went to Catholic school all except one grade, totally estranged from the church…Glad you felt comfortable. I may give UU a try myself.

  10. YES! I am a UU and write about my faith conversion from an inherited faith (Catholicism) to an authentic faith (UU) in my book “Swimming Upstream: A Seeker’s Guide to an Authentic Faith” Journey. I am eager to learn ways to reach people like yourself – religious seekers, atheists, agnostics, etc. who yearn for religious community without the theology. I’d love to discuss this with you if you’re interested.

  11. irishcait02 says:

    So happy that you liked your UU service as much as I liked mine!

  12. beverlydiehl says:

    I’m kind of an agnostic pagan – when I do think about a Higher Power, I am most comfortable with a female one. Sometimes I think there is a real purpose to the Universe and everything in it, living beings and rocks and sand and water, too, and other times, I’m not so sure. Some churches I am happy to visit, and others creep me out.

  13. Cumulus says:

    I’ve hiked with Trish Herr (up Mt. Marcy, as is happens), and found this site through hers.

    I’m not sure what part of Connecticut you’re in, but there are several Atheist groups in Connecticut which provide the kind of community you might like. There’s Conn. Valley Atheists, which meets in Manchester (in a UU church), and the Atheists Society of Conn. and R.I., which meets at the Groton Library. They both participate in a number of purely social events as well. Check out their meetup pages at http://atheists.meetup.com/727/ and http://www.meetup.com/Atheist-Humanist-Society-of-CT-and-RI/.

    There’s also the Tenth Annual Connecticut American Atheists Summer Solstice Party, at my house in Vernon on the 22nd of June. Every Atheist in the world is invited. Atheists from all over the state will be there.

  14. Heidi says:

    I was reading through your 101 list (for ideas) when I saw this posting and had to read it. I feel much the same way as you described: wanting the community feeling of a church without the dogma….and I loved the UU alternative. I live two hours (in all directions) from the nearest UU Churches so am not able to go on a regular basis; however, I hope to change that next summer when we move. (I am finishing an MS degree in Counseling and should be fully licensed by March 2014.)
    In any case, thanks for this post, I appreciated reading your thoughts.

  15. Alice says:

    I was raised Lutheran and loved my church growing up. It was a great support system and I had a really great Sunday School program that really encouraged us to question our faith. As time went on after I went to college I realized that I started to disagree with a lot of the things that the church taught and I started to see really how negatively Christianity has affected some people. I think most of my life I have actually felt in the minority as far as being Christian (even though this is not statistically true overall). When I would admit to friends that I was Christian they would get upset and assume that I was a bigot or that I was going to try to convert them or tell them they were going to hell (none of those were true). I loved reading your post because I feel very much the same way about the positive and negative aspects to church. Love and compassion are things that I try to strive for as person (and as a Christian) and judgement and intolerance are things that I try to avoid (though this was not always the case). Through my high school and college years I tried to be a good example to my friends and show them that you could be Christian and still be a good person and still be fun and just like them. I sometimes call myself a “surprise Christian” because people are surprised when I tell them I’m a Christian (“but you seems so normal”). It’s weird because I know this is the opposite of how it typically goes. Usually it’s the Atheists trying to convince people that they don’t need the threat of hell to make them be a good person.
    So while I do still believe in what you might call the superstitious aspects (things like Jesus dying for my sins or rising from the dead) I do feel that the main message should really be more about “love thy neighbor” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” because for me, what I find is the biggest message of my religion is forgiveness. As I have grown older I have become more and more frustrated with how churches choose to focus on other things, especially when they are things that hurt people. I have become fed up with internal church politics, and all of the pretentiousness of fancy churches and sitting and standing and kneeling and chanting back and forth. I am kind of irritated with how much we talk about God (haha) and how much we talk about loving God and how great God is while focusing so little on what we can do to show God’s love to the world and forgive people and show kindness to each other.
    I don’t know if this makes me a good or a bad Christian. I suppose only God will decide that (if there is a God). And while I still believe that the stories are true, I can’t say that it is certain. Of course it is not certain. Nobody can prove (or disprove) that God exists at all. The stories are definitely not easy to believe. It is impossible to be certain about religious belief, but the point is not to be certain at all. The point I think is to believe it even though it is not certain.
    I think the greater point though is the lessons of truth and kindness and respect and I find it hard to believe that if a supreme good being exists that it would punish anyone who tries to lead a truthful, kind, loving, compassionate life regardless of whether he or she believes in said being.
    I am glad that you are an Atheist! I have been reading your blog and you seem like you are a really fun and good person and I hope that you are that good example to your friends and neighbors of other faiths that I try to be to my friends. Perhaps one day people will realize that atheists are not amoral jerks or any of the other negative stereotypes. Maybe someday we can all get along regardless of what we believe in at that moment.
    Anyway I hope I have not rambled too much or offended anyone, that was not my intent.

    • Marcy says:

      Hi Alice,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. It sounds like we have a lot in common in terms of what we love about religion and what troubles us. I was interested to hear about your experiences of people assuming negative things about you because you are a Christian. I have usually experienced the opposite type of thing. Thanks for adding your voice to the post!

  16. J. Milburn says:

    Very brave post. I’m glad you found a sense of community in the UU. I’m interested in how “pity is the near-enemy of compassion.” Have you expanded on that in another post you could direct me to? Or is there somewhere else where I might look to see the connection? Great post and thank you!
    J. Milburn recently posted..Picture It & Write: No PeaceMy Profile

  17. I think we are all seeking something larger than ourselves, even if it’s community, as you say. I’ve been searching for community for several years now, and haven’t found one precisely because Christianity (the faith I came from) as it is today does not resemble what I really believe or want to be associated with. The patriarchal, intolerant, dogmatic stuff. It’s funny, the way you talk about admitting you’re an atheist is the way I sometimes feel about admitting I am a Christian – mostly because I DO NOT want to be associated with the likes of Mike Huckabee, lol.
    Truthfully, I am searching. My belief in God is much larger than the theological limitations of religion. Ultimately, my belief system lately is “love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, be open to learning.”
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post, and for your openness. I also like the part about appreciating a good story – that’s why learning about all religions fascinates me. I love a good story. 😉
    Natalie – The Cat Lady Sings recently posted..The Event of a LifetimeMy Profile

  18. I think this UU church is a good bet. A church “should be” a source of community and support. Many churches provide this, but with some nasty side-effects. If you’re getting what you need from UU, run with it and be happy. Contrary to what may religions say, you have a choice, and are free to pick what works best for you.
    E.A. Wicklund recently posted..The Perfect Assassin – The Moonshine GridMy Profile

  19. Karen says:

    Marcy, I really enjoyed this post. Like other readers, I appreciate the honest way you approach the subjects of faith in God vs Atheism . I consider myself to be a *seeker*. I have shelves of books dedicated to religion and spirituality, and I am fascinated by the concept of “faith”, and what inspires people to have faith. I don’t believe in God. I consider myself to be a Buddhist because the tenets are congruent with how I want to lead my life. No supreme being. Cultivation of wisdom, compassion, awareness, kindness. Focus on ending suffering of all sentient beings, etc.

    When my daughter was little, I went to a UU church fairly regularly. I enjoyed the sermons and the discussions a lot. The people at the church I attended were very open and welcoming. They also did lots of good things for the community, especially with regard to assisting homeless families.
    Karen recently posted..A Lesbian Love StoryMy Profile

  20. nikkiana says:

    I really appreciated reading this post. One of the things I’ve been finding myself missing lately is having a church-like community.

    I didn’t grow up with church, but there was a brief period of time between my late teens and early 20s where I identified as Christian and went to church on a regular basis… It was a period of time in my life that I’m fairly conflicted about. I had some good times and learned some positive things, but at the same time there was quite a bit of stuff that happened that I’d file under the category of “Negative and Damaging”… and after four churched years, I walked away.

    These days, my spirituality is fairly fluid. I’m not really sure what to call myself because I don’t really identify with one specific traditional path… I tend to operate like the world is my spiritual buffet table… I tend to approach spirituality and faith more like a student practicing her lessons. I don’t believe in any traditional religious stories literally, but I often find truth and nuggets of wisdom in them… and sometimes I disagree, too.

    Checking out a UU church is something I’ve considered doing for awhile…. It’s just that whole getting out of bed on a Sunday morning thing that kills me!
    nikkiana recently posted..Writing, These DaysMy Profile

  21. Stacie says:

    I was not raised religiously at all so I find it all hard to believe for the reasons you say. I do wish I could believe in the afterlife. That would be comforting.
    Stacie recently posted..Comment on My Awesome 50th Birthday Celebration by KianwiMy Profile

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