Why Not Church?

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

Often, when I try to explain the work of the Humanist Community at Harvard (or just Humanism in general), I get the question, “So why don’t you just join a Unitarian Universalist church?”

It’s actually a great question. UU churches are pretty awesome. They’re extremely politically progressive, pluralistic, and social justice-oriented. They have fantastic Sunday school programs, which are of particular interest to me. They’ve got a lot of infrastructure in place since they’ve evolved out of more traditional churches – infrastructure that would save us from having to reinvent the wheel and build these kinds of communities from the ground up. And they are full of atheists. There’s even a joke about it:

Q: What do you call an atheist with a family?
A: A Unitarian.

And UU churches aren’t the only barely-theistic religious communities around. Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism are both thriving communities in which many atheists and Humanists would feel at home.

So if all this is out there, why bother starting over?

The limitations of nontheistic forms of Judaism are obvious: if you are not ethnically and/or culturally Jewish, it’s probably not your jam. Those communities are fantastic for people who want to stay in touch with their Jewish roots, but anybody who wasn’t raised speaking Hebrew and starting everything at sundown is likely to feel a bit out of place.

As for UU churches – and other extremely liberal religious denominations that welcome atheists – I think these present a subtler but even more important limitation: they don’t really take a stand on belief. God isn’t really in, but he certainly isn’t out, either.

To be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing in itself. There is something pretty awesome about a bunch of people with different theological/philosophical beliefs coming together regularly to support each other, raise their children together, work for justice, and so on. UU is great for that. It’s not necessarily better or worse than Humanism; it’s just different.

But I do think there is value to forming that kind of community around not only shared values, but also shared beliefs. Simply put, it matters a great deal whether God does or does not exist. We are looking at a very different world in one case than in the other. Different approaches to purpose, ethics, and meaning are called for in each case. Although the outcome is often very similar – from the outside, living a good life as a theist looks a lot like living a good life as an atheist – the path and the inner experience are different in non-negligible ways.

I want to belong to a community that shares my beliefs and my values. I want to have a place where I can talk openly about my beliefs, fears, hopes, and questions, and where people with similar convictions can hash out these ideas together. I want to mourn my losses with people who will not tell me my loved ones are with God now. I want to celebrate love and commitment with people who agree that life is short and finite. I want to raise my children in an environment where they can tackle big questions early on and grow alongside like-minded peers. I want to work for justice alongside people who see ourselves and each other as our only hope for salvation.

I want a Humanist community.

If you want one too, then please donate and help us build it.

Chelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

3 comments on “Why Not Church?

  1. Oddly, I have the same problem with UU congregations but I come from the opposite side of things. As a polytheist, I’ve often found that UU congregations are filled with people believe that the number of gods is less than or equal to one and that this structures the liturgy and ceremonies that take place within and around that congregation. Despite the fact that UU congregations are often filled with Pagans or Pagan-friendly types, I often feel like it’s not quite what I’m looking for even though I do desire a spiritual community of some kind.

  2. I think it’s kick-ass that you guys want to actively build a community. Any community. Humanism. Organic Tomatoes. Whatever. Community is good. And it’s hard. And any effort towards it is something everyone should encourage. This is me jumping up and down.

    As has been commented extensively by both secular and religious voices, our generation is starved of community. So starved of it, I think we lack some of the basic skills or orientations to even build it again. Props to you for going for it.

    Even in very subtle ways, people are resistant: throw a party for a moderate-sized number of people, and see how many don’t RSVP, or flake on you at the last minute. Does anyone do a book club anymore?

    People are afraid of community. Afraid, I think, increasingly, of just being physically together for the purposes of just being social.

    FB is not community. Forgoing friends in order to sit at home and watch TV shows about friends is not community. I do not live in sufficient community. I would love to be in more community. I’m even an introvert with an awkward need to have serious conversation all the time, but I want to be in community with those hilarious extraverts to counterbalance me. All the community you succeed in building in your work is, to quote Martha Stewart, A Good Thing.

  3. I’m sorry to hear that progressive humanists do not believe that Unitarian Universalists believe anything. We do believe, but we are not bound or fenced by belief. We have a humanistic religious core that believe in this world and this life, and that what we do in both does matter, and that freedom matters, and diversity matters, even in the larger, always unfinished conversation about ultimate things. We believe that freedom does not exist separate from connection and responsibility, also in the creative and healing power of love. Yes, we leave it to each individual to discern and fill in the blanks about ultimacy for him/herself, but importantly we still believe that an ongoing conversation matters because all of us as people matter, no matter what might be ultimately true in areas of theology or cosmology. To me, that’s (small h) humanism at its very best, not carving out its own separate community or tribe but engaging the much larger one, in all of its diversity and creative interchange. http://clf.uua.org/quest/2010/09/rankin.html

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