Sunday, August 3, 2008

An Atheist at Church

I am not, and have never been, a church-goer. Growing up, my parents never required or encouraged it, and the only times I found myself going was at the usually polite behest of occasional friends who only wanted the best for my everlasting soul. So it was rather odd to find myself willfully attending the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Gray, TN for the first time. One of my motives was curiosity, as the HVUUC's website ( proclaimed to welcome people of all religious affiliations or lack thereof - I wondered what the hell they did at the church, if atheists were just as welcome as believers. Another motive, perhaps stronger than the first, was hope. As a feminist and a peace-lover, I have a passion for social justice and for just helping other people in general. But as an atheist, it's often difficult for me to find a group that organizes community activism beyond the scope of women's issues, and that also lacks any religious affiliation. So I had hopes that this church might provide me with an opportunity to meet like-minded people who want to help others in the absence of exhortation.

Before attending, I had hoped that afterward I would either resent the place, or be swept off my feet by it. Not too surprisingly, neither happened, and I'm now inclined to go again in order to get a better feel for it. The woman who spoke the most and organized the day's service - Beth Calvert - was very welcoming to newcomers and introduced a number of communicative activities. One - the Candles of Community - involved inviting anyone who had experienced an "intense" week, possessing an abundance of either joy or sorrow, to approach the microphone and express their feelings to the other church members. A tea candle was lit for each person who spoke, and the intent seemed to be to elicit the empathy and emotion of the other members and to communally experience the speakers' moments of emotional intensity. I found that interesting.

They had the notorious church collection plate halfway through the service, the idea of which had not occurred to me beforehand, but which also did not surprise me. And they had a specific envelope in each plate (really it was a wooden bowl) which was intended for donations to the Unitarian church in Knoxville that was shot up last Sunday.

As an academic who's been in college for five years now, I was thrown off by the number of children who were there also. I guess when I think of a collection of progressive and open-minded people collecting together for any activity, I usually don't picture children in the collection. There was a storytelling session where all the kids gathered around this elderly woman while she told a story with an interesting moral about communication and understanding, and then the kids were expected to leave the service room and go to one of the back rooms. I found myself more comfortable after they left, but I guess if I want to go to any church regularly, I should get used to them. Harrumph.

The only thing that made me slightly uncomfortable was when that same elderly woman, who happened to identify as an Episcopalian, gave a brief sermon later on and referenced "God" and "Lord" numerous times. I guess that makes sense, if the church is inviting speakers from all religious sects or lack thereof to participate... but I couldn't help but feel slightly preached to (how strange, it was a sermon).

There's a lot more that happened that I wouldn't be able to give any interesting details about, but I feel inclined to type out a few of the church's affirmations and promotions that appealed to me:

* the inherent worth and dignity of every person
* justice, equity and compassion in human relations
* the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and society at large
* respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

There are a few other things about spirituality and truth and stuff, which I'm willing to concede, but nothing about any strict creed or dogma. And one quote from their paragraph about church membership which appealed to me is as follows: Each person is encouraged to develop a personal theology based on experience, reason and gained insight.
So the theology part seems like a bit much (perhaps spirituality or even consciousness might work better), but I was delighted to see the "reason" in there. Any church encouraging that sets itself higher than most others, I would think.

So there you have it.


Microbiologychick said...

Sounds pretty cool. I'll go with you next time. I was out sinning until the wee hours of the morning. :)

Philosophychick said...

Ah yes, Microbiologychick and I had planned to attend together (she actually did all the research to figure out what the church was, where it was, when they had service, etc). But at 10.15 or so in the morning, she wasn't to be found. I figured she was asleep, but I didn't realize it was because of her extensive partying the night before until she called me around 2.30p and told me she'd just woken up. :)

Can you imagine such sin? Missing church after partying at a lewd club and drinking until you pass out...
I'm envious.

Baconeater said...

I went to a Baptist Church last year. Thinking was not required.

Going Churching said...

If/when you attend church again, you should download a "church report form" from the following link and submit a review of the church!

I'll then post your review on my site!

Going Churching said...


PhillyChief said...

The unitarians hold a unique place in this country. Most have no idea what they are, and those who do, who are christian, tend not to like them. My wife performed at a recital sponsored by a methodist church not long ago. At the reception afterwards I heard some people talking about another couple:
- So where do they attend?
Oh, I think they're unitarians
- OOHEeew

That last response was like the other woman had said, "oh, I believe they shove pineapples up their asses".

So for the average christian in the know, I think the view of unitarians ranges from cult to modest curiosity but as always, at least they aren't atheists. God forbid! LOL

Humanist Mama said...

I've been curious about my local Unitarian church....but haven't worked up the nerve to go yet :) I always seem to find something better to going to the beach with my kids. Maybe someday I'll make it there, but until then, thanks for the review.

Karen said...

I live in an urban area with three UU churches within reasonable driving distance (though one is a very small congregation that meets in the chapel of a large-ish liberal Christian church). I attended each of them for half-a-dozen visits or so. The people were welcoming, and the service projects were worthwhile, the after-church coffee gathering enjoyable... but the services were uniformly boring as hell.

Actually, that describes nearly every service in every church I've ever attended. I remember, growing up Catholic, attending a couple of holiday services with fantastic music, worth sitting through the rest of the service to listen to. But ordinary Masses, Protestant services, and even UU services are exercises in boredom.

So I felt really, really uncomfortable hanging out in a church, any church, where the major collective activity turned my brain to mush. And stopped going to church. And am still (sort of) wishing for an atheist group to hang with.

The UUs had the right idea, but I'd run with it by skipping the service, hauling the coffee urns down to the local park, and organizing the service projects while the kids played on the swings and the adults swapped stories about the highs and lows of their week.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

A dear friend of mine who was brought up in a mixed Catholic/Jewish household finally found her place in a UU church. They seem really cool.

I'm an American atheist (rasied Catholic) living in England and about to marry a CofE Christian. I wonder if there are any UU churches in England? Maybe that's a place where we can both enjoy going to church together, an idea which, before reading this post, I would have thought impossible. Things that make you go "Hmmm."

Anonymous said...

My only experience with "church" in the last 40 years or so (was raised Catholic, became atheist when I was 15) was my sister's funeral three years ago. I know it will sound disingenuous, but when they started in with the liturgy, I just couldn't believe PEOPLE STILL BELIEVE THIS SHIT. My husband and I sat in the front row of a church full of people (extended family, most of whom I hadn't seen in years) and were the only ones who didn't respond to the verbal cues, kneel, pray, sing, or take communion. It was a bizarre experience.

Amplexus said...

Try "People for the American way"

Doug said...

Not to go on a rant, but I had a conversation with a fellow atheist over use of the word 'spiritual', I had used it in the "human spirit" sense to support the positive role of a congregation (like UU) in building community & supporting personal progress. My friend countered that the predominant connotation of 'spiritual' was like in "holy spirit", i.e., supernatural, and thus no self-respecting atheist should ever allow the word to go unchallenged, let alone use it themselves. At first I thought him extreme, but I soon conceded his point: atheism is not just a rejection of the judeo-christian god but of all appeals to the supernatural. To turn it around, atheism is a commitment to rationality & the scientific method in all aspects of life. I have begun to realize that in everyday interactions, when I implore people to argue from evidence & to use reason, I am effectively evangelizing for atheism, even when I am not 'in their face' about their religious beliefs.

PhillyChief said...

Don't confuse critical thinking and atheism. Critical thinking leads one to atheism generally, but to implore people to think critically is not atheism evangelizing.

joker_of_the_universe said...

So I follow a series of links from Pharyngula, and end up with post about local athiests going to a church 10 minutes from my house. Very odd.

I attended the UU Church in Gray, but only a couple of times. The times that I went it seemed too "granola" for my taste. It seemed like a good group of people, but I don't get the whole worshipping together thing from people who are coming from such diverse perspectives.

I spend most of my Sunday's at FBS United Methodist in the city north of you gals. I am an atheist, but my wife isn't and she wants the kids raised in the faith. I don't have a big problem with that, but luckily we were able to compromise on Methodism as opposed to my wife's background which is Southern Baptist.

I will continue to follow your adventures at the local UU church. Who knows, if it sounds enticing enough, it might actually get me to give it a try again.

Oh, and if you decide the UU church isn't for you then you can try what some friends of mine do; Cracker Barrel Church. Mmmmm, tasty. In fact, one of them is a researcher at your university. :)

Simple Sam said...

The UU church in Gray IS pretty cool. I was raised in a strict Southern Baptist home/church and I too turned from it at age 15, believing I was an atheist, which was to say, that belief gave me a perfect excuse not to go to church. Magically, when I turned 50, I wasn't looking but I found the UU church and have spent the last 6 years since truly investigating just what my beliefs ARE. This church has been 100% instrumental in encouraging my search for truth and has become my beloved community. If anyone on this discussion list wants to try a visit, I'd love to meet you there and perhaps make your visit comfortable. I hate walking into a roomful of people where I know no one. The UU's are friendly if nothing else and truly open to all beliefs.
This coming Sunday, Feb. 14th, the sermon is being given by Dr Bill Kirkwood, titled "Is gossip really SO bad?" He is a long-time HVUUC friend and one of our favorite outside speakers. Each of his talks -- wise and often
humorous -- is a discovery, and reminds us of our common
and uncommon humanity. Find your way to this service!