Guest Post: Attending Church

For some of us, attending church as a child or young adult brought a sense of community and ritual that we miss as nonbelievers. Now there are options for holding onto that tradition, even after we’ve lost our religion. Morgan share her insights and experiences as an atheist member of the UU church. I hope it will help some of you who feel a loss and were considering whether church is right for you. Thank you, Morgan, for taking the time to write this excellent guest post!

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I don’t believe in god, but I am a member of a church. I even teach Sunday School.

Now before you say that’s a contradiction, this isn’t a typical church. It’s a non-creedal Unitarian Universalist, or UU, church. The tagline is that we agree to be together, not to believe together. And my current Sunday School class isn’t typical either. I teach a comprehensive sexuality education program for teens – more on that in a bit.

We joined First UU Church when our daughter was born because we wanted to have a community that would support her and our family. However, being an atheist who goes to church can feel a little unnatural, even if it’s a church where many of the members are atheists. My partner had an especially difficult time feeling comfortable using “the c word.” While she grew up in a secular family, she experienced a lot of anti-Semitism from conservative Christians in school.

But we’ve come to the conclusion that being atheist church members can be subversive. After all, if an atheist lesbian couple can go to church and teach kids about safer sex in Sunday School, doesn’t that disrupt the very meaning of church? If you can take god out of church, and still have a meaningful experience, doesn’t that say something about church?

If you’re considering becoming a church-going atheist, you may wonder what it will be like. Since all of the humanist, UU, and other similar congregations vary extensively, I will just say what we’ve found. And that is a space to meet people who share our (secular) values. A space to find support and to provide support to others. A space where everyone is able to define his or her own beliefs.

Perhaps most important to us, we’ve found a great youth education program that is really relevant to kids’ lives. Right now, I’m teaching a sexuality education program that I know I would have benefited from so much as a kid. This is a yearlong, in-depth class that covers everything from the basics of anatomy to healthy relationships, from LGBT rights to safer sex. Other classes focus on learning about different religions, and there is a “Coming Of Age” class in which teens spend a year exploring their beliefs as they currently are.

Of course, church isn’t for every atheist. But if you’re looking for a community, I wouldn’t count it out.  For our family as least, believing in the value of our church community doesn’t have anything to do with believing in god.

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Morgan lives with her partner and almost three-year-old daughter in Columbus, Ohio. Together, they attend First Unitarian Universalist Church. If you’re interested in more information about UUs, visit www.uua.org.

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24 responses to “Guest Post: Attending Church

  1. I think this is great! I’ll have to look for the same near my home.

    Do you know anything about the new atheist churches that are springing up around the country?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eliyahu-federman/atheist-megachurches-may-_b_4278761.html

    • I don’t know of any atheist “mega churches.” The UU congregation we attend is relatively large for a UU church, and we have about 600 members, which would be relatively small for most types of churches.

      I do think there are increasingly more options for non-believers to find community if they wish. If you’re looking for one, you might try the UUA website or look for humanist organizations, secular fellowships, or similar spaces in your area.

  2. I remember, somewhere around 30 years ago, in the coffee room at work, I asked the rhetorical question “What do you call an atheist who regularly attends church?”

    Without hesitation, one of my colleagues replied “The organist.” (Need I mention that the colleague was an avid organist).

  3. Morgan, I’ve had one of my kids take the middle-school OWL class at our local UU, and I thought it was great. They also did a “neighboring faiths” course where they learned about world religions, and then went on field trips to as many different temples and churches as possible. Terrific stuff.

    I don’t feel comfortable sitting in services at our UU, they’re still too “churchy” for me, but I spent three years teaching at the Sunday School. I did the class “Riddle and Mystery” because I could work a big chunk of critical thinking into the class.

  4. We attended a UU church, got married in one, and our teenaged son completed the sexuality/world religions class and went through the Coming of Age ceremony. I thought it was great, and he seemed to benefit from it. I would recommend it. Then, he went to college and converted to Islam… The church started pushing for “offerings” too heavily and we exited.

  5. Living north of Memphis, I find the two UU Churches here (each 20 to 30 miles away from me) too churchy with all the God and hymnal talk. Personally, I think Church is way over-rated any way, I think we put way too much stock into that whole idea as Americans. Then again, I didn’t care too much for the four decades I spent as a Christian in Church. If it works for other people I think that’s absolutely wonderful. I just believe that my time is best spent with my husband, our children, parks, museums, and other fun activities. Not to mention, I love going out to eat, grocery shopping and walking through Wal-mart and Lowe’s before the Church crowd gets out and over takes those businesses. I also find Sunday a great day to rest and to prepare for the busy week ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I rarely feel lonely, but when I do, it does hit hard. The thing is, I was incredibly lonely in Churches of all sizes, no matter how many people I talked to and invited out to eat or over to my house for a party or a dinner. I no longer look at Church through rose colored glasses, I see its reality and for my family, it’s not good. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

    I’ve been on a bit of a blogging break, but I hope to somehow start connecting with people locally through my blog at the beginning of the year. I would like to eventually communicate with people who don’t fit into the local Jesus mold. I hope to meet with them out somewhere or even begin to have them over for lunch or dinner once in a while. Churches seem too forced to me, even when they utilize home groups, you had to follow some sort of study or curriculum. I think we need more mental and emotional connections with others. I just want to create a safe place for people to let their hair down for an hour or two and be themselves. I know this kind of thing that I desire won’t happen over night here in the Deep South in my little town of a few thousand. People aren’t going to tell you that they don’t believe in Jesus. Hopefully, I can build that kind of trust with others in time.

    I’m sorry if my comment might offend Morgan. I think if Church works for her family, she should CERTAINLY continue, especially with what she’s teaching its members. I think she’s fantastic and what she does benefits her Church and community in a HUGE way. I wish her all the best!

    • Thanks C – and I’m not at all offended! Church isn’t for everyone; and we’re all freethinkers – it’s up to us to decide what adds meaning to our lives. Good luck with you local efforts in your community, too!

    • CHope, I live in Chattanooga on the far east side of TN, very far from Memphis. I’d love to socialize if we were geographically closer. Just thought you would want to know that this religious state has another thinker somewhat like you.

  6. Boy did this post resonate with me! Especially now with a 10mos old son.
    Just today I was on our local uni church’s website today but still feel so hesitant because guess what? It seems to me fundamentalism is as much at home with non-religionists as religionists.
    That being said, the gathering of likeminded who wince at the church worship template is really not a faulty template – it’s what we choose to do within it that is relevant.
    I’m in Redlands CA so if anyone here lives in my neighborhood – please email me if you know of a parenting group I can meet up with 🙂
    I LOVE hearing about Morgan’s Sunday school class!

    • Thanks for your comment – and I totally understand feeling hesitant.
      We have a lot of people at our UU congregation who don’t attend service and aren’t members, but who participate in some social aspects of the church. For example, we have a First Friday potluck, a playgroup for parents and their young children, and other events. If you’re wanting to explore a little more, but don’t want to come to service, you might try calling the main office or looking to see if there is a schedule online to see if there are any events of interest.
      (Not trying to push you to consider this if it isn’t your cup of tea, but I know there are many people who don’t want to attend service, but still want a place to meet like-minded people.)

  7. I also attend a UU church as a secular humanist. I still get a twitch with the word “church” but discovered there was such a thing called a UU church after reading a couple of secular parenting books by Dale McGowan. I realized I was not teaching my 3 boys enough about religion besides what I believed–they got that down–but they needed exposure to religion without being indoctrinated. The middle school youth at the church are doing a curriculum called Neighboring Faiths and last week they took a field trip to a catholic church service. Afterwards they met with the priest and had a chance to ask him questions. They were very interested and we had a good conversation on the way home. I appreciate the added structure to what I am already trying to teach them about religion and I look at it as sort of an “immunization” against Christianity or other religions. 🙂 I think each UU church may be slightly different about how and if they talk about God. Mine luckily, is pretty liberal, and the word is rarely uttered. Which is surprising since I live in Colorado Springs. Not sure if I will continue attending once my kids are grown as I really like my relaxing Sundays, but for now it serves a purpose. By the way, the OWL class for teens on sexuality is amazing! Much more in depth than what most parents discuss with kids–sexting, sexual discrimination, visiting a hospital and interviewing new parents ,etc. Great class for any teenager.

  8. I have thought about UU church more than once. Unfortunately, the two closest to me are mostly inactive with services offered only occasionally when a visiting minister can come over. I’m friends on FB with the visiting minister that comes most often…she believes in a higher power so I’m not sure of the type of tone she would set for the services. She and I share many of the same opinions on secular issues, and I certainly like her as a person, yet I would still feel uncomfortable attending a service if god(s) are mentioned.

    I used to miss the routine of a gathering every Sunday, but not so much anymore. However, if the UU church in this area ever becomes more active, I’ll check it. I would love for my kids to attend those classes.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry to hear you don’t have a more active secular community organization near you. As far as your non-atheist minister, there is definitely a lot of diversity among UUs in terms of belief, which can sometimes be challenging. We’ve come to appreciate that, but I would also say our services rarely mention god, except occasionally in the readings.
      As a thought, you might want to try checking out the Church of the Larger Fellowship – essentially an online UU community. The website is http://www.clfuu.or/. There may be some resources that would be of interest for you or your kids. Also, there are sometimes activities for youth, such as Youth Cons (overnight “conferences” organized by jr high/high school aged kids with adult support) that are usually coordinated on a district level. Those may not be useful ideas or things that interest you, but I thought I’d share in case they are.

  9. While I recognize the basic human need of belonging to a group, I cannot comprehend why it has to have anything to do with a church. Tradition? Feeling that a church is the only meaningful way to gather a great number of people?

    The difference in the role of any church is nothing short of humongous between my country and the US. In here (as I’ve prolly told too many times) the majority (some 70%) are members of the Lutheran Church a’la Church of England. The membership only affects some 3 percent 🙂 as that is the number who attend services somewhat regularly – the rest get married in a church, have their kids baptized and then there’s the memorial service when they die.
    The utmost majority of people here have found a way of leading meaningful lives without anything religious punctuating their everyday. I kinda like that.
    I am glad for anyone who has found bits and pieces that make their lives better, be it concerts, movies, hobbies, friends, community groups or even churches 🙂

    • @saab93f I agree that atheist and UU churches are not for everyone. But I think some atheists who grew up with church miss the rituals and community of people coming together who share the same values. Some parents with little ones want to give their children the good parts of the religion they grew up with…. You mentioned that most of your countrymen baptize, marry and have their memorials in a church. So there are still rites of passages that people like to keep.

      • You are somewhat right although I’d say that the biggest reason why peeps have thoses rites of passage is because the church has had a monopoly to them.
        Our kids were not (naturally) baptized but we had a naming ceremony at home – I don’t think we or they are any worse off 🙂

        • Hi Konsta- I don’t know why your comment went to moderation that time. Sorry about that. Maybe you logged in differently. Anyway, true the church has had a monopoly, and it’s not necessary for folks like us!

  10. This is awesome. I really appreciate you sharing this. It looks like Morgan and I have similar thoughts and I of course resonate with her on a level of two mommy households with small children. I think it’s great that this ‘church’ is teaching the classes she described, it would definitely be something I think Punky should be exposed to when she’s older. I don’t know if church is for us, but I may just look into it!

    • Thanks for your comment! I didn’t mention this in the post because it wasn’t totally on topic, but one of the things that I like about our UU fellowship is the diversity of family structures. We have straight two-parent families, single parents, couples who adopted or used a surrogate, families with two moms, grandparents raising grandkids, etc. just among the folks we know. I really didn’t want our daughter to feel like she is the only one with a “different” family, and that surely isn’t the case now. I’m sure this is partly just luck and wouldn’t be true everywhere, but I’m happy that it worked out for us.
      Good luck with whatever direction you head in!

  11. We live in the Bible Belt, and when other kids started asking our daughter which church she went to (she didn’t) and what she did on Sunday (played), etc., and just generally parroting very conservative stuff they heard at home, we decided we’d better expose her to a larger group of people who believed more of the things we did, lest she become a target for conversion by the fundamentalist kids she was friends with. That’s when we started attending the local UU church, and she has attended a couple of OWL (i.e. sex ed) classes, etc. When she was 10 or 11, one day a couple of her friends at school were hurling the word “gay” as an intended insult at each other, and she told me she said, “You know, there are gay people who go to my church, and they’re really nice people,” which took the wind out of the sails of the other kids, and I thought it was well worth it to schlep to the UU church in order to give her a more tolerant viewpoint and an opportunity to actually get to know a greater variety of people than she would have in our rather white-bread little town. (I still don’t like not being able to sleep in on Sunday, but I don’t think it’s done me any real harm.)

  12. submissivecharacter

    Wow! That’s close to me…. Have to check it out.

  13. Last week, I attended a UU church vigil for the transgender day of remembrance. This was a big deal for me to actually consider, much less follow through. The event was good and there was no reference to a supreme being or christianity. While I appreciated that, I was still extremely uncomfortable being in a setting that resembled a church with hymn books and several other church-like rituals. It was hard to breathe and I wanted to leave really badly after only a few minutes. I’ve intentionally avoided churches for many years and there was a small part of me that wanted to like this one experience. However, I realized that I don’t like anything that even resembles “church.” I have a very deep negative reaction even being near a church, let alone actually entering one, or attending a church-like gathering. These things remind me of being excommunicated from family 20 years ago because I turned away from christianity. I imagine there are many who enjoy the community secular churches provide, but there are maybe a few like me who just cannot do it for one reason or another.

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