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A Place to Call Church

A beautiful chapel

A beautiful chapel

In a recent post, I tackled guns- so I thought heck, why not talk religion?! Though, it’s really not religion I want to talk about- as someone who doesn’t believe in a “god”, I may not have much to say. What I’d really like to talk about is church and its role in a community. A few weeks back, I attended a friend’s choral concert- it was held on a Sunday evening in a pretty little church a few miles away. As you can imagine, being a “humanist”, (I don’t like the word atheist- it sounds too aggressive with a lot of negative associations), I don’t have a lot of opportunities to be in churches anymore.

As I child I went regularly for a time, and in my travels, I have had the privilege of visiting some of the most magnificent in Europe and some of the most humble in rural Africa. I have enjoyed them all. Beyond that, it’s just weddings and funerals that bring me to these sacred spaces. Frankly, I miss church.

A small church in Kenya

A small church in Kenya

Now, returning to my friend’s choral performance- as I entered the white clapboard church, with its open, light-filled nave made of varnished wood planks, I felt a sense of peace and reverence well up in me. Now, make no mistake- it was not God, but the physical space I was responding to. I feel that same sense of peace when coming upon a vista in the mountains or staring out across the ocean.

Further, as I slipped into a pew and greeted people joining me in the row and settling in around me, I felt a wonderful sense of community- that again, was not God, but the anticipation of a shared experience and purpose- we were there to hear friends or family sing beautiful music together. The concert was lovely, lasting about 45 minutes, and afterward I felt refreshed and happy to have spent my time just sitting, not checking my phone, or thinking about running to a meeting, or what I was going to do for dinner. Instead, I was still– present in the moment, together with my fellow audience members, in this beautiful place that opened us to reflection, and the sights and music surrounding us.

I have often felt like there is a void in the secular world, that we humanists, have foolishly ceded to the religious community. Greeks and Romans had forums and basilicas for just this type of gathering- in fact, the term basilica evolved over time to mean an important church, but its origin was far more humble. As religions developed, their leadership recognized and adopted the intrinsic power that shared experiences, the sense of belonging, and even specific architecture, have to inspire and strengthen their message. Over time, there has become a sense that the message itself is the progenitor of these feelings and the value that they generate. Similar to how the Christmas tree was adopted from an older cultural tradition, until it overshadowed and subsumed the long history of the symbol.

I don’t begrudge religion for doing this. Rather, I think humanists need to get back into the game. Now, the closest modern manifestation that I can find- is TED talks, a sort of gathering for people of any affiliation to listen, talk, share, and be inspired. But these events are exclusive and limited- despite being available online for anyone to watch- the act of watching them alone, on a monitor or a phone, denies the viewer the transformative power of experiencing them as part of group.

A community food bank

A community food bank

Church provides a tremendous value and service to a community. Beyond providing a regular opportunity for reflecting, listening, and learning about the existential issues that we human beings grapple with, they provide innumerable benefits to the community: food banks, meeting space, care for people through grief, crisis, or transition; just to name a few. As part of a church, a person is encouraged and inspired to think about their place within their community- what we can do for our fellow humans, our neighbors, and those less fortunate than we are. The message is often, “How do we lift each other up?”, “How do we behave better as parents, friends, colleagues, partners?”, “How do we listen to our hearts?” These noble messages deserve to be heard and spread amongst everyone- they are an integral part of a strong community and connect us.

It’s my belief, and I feel confident that science and history back me up here- that these impulses are part of who we are as humans, not who we are as worshippers of a specific god. I want to reclaim my access to these shared experiences and a shared community, without needing to subjugate myself to a dogma that I don’t believe in. I want a secular humanist church for my community. I want to maintain the concept of church, but peel away the veneer of religion- I refuse to believe that I have accept that as part of participating in a community that wants to congregate, learn, help each other, and grow.

This Humanist congregation should be a patchwork of people from the community that are interested in exploring questions of philosophy, science, morality, service, charity, and growth- both spiritual and emotional. I want a place to bring my family on Sundays, a place where we can listen to lectures on philosophy, the nature of good and evil, compassion, kindness, perseverance, the mysteries of our universe and human nature; and then afterwards, gather to eat slightly stale cookies, drink coffee and lemonade, discuss the lecture of the day, and enjoy the fellowship of people interested in the same things. I want a place where my children can learn these lessons amongst their peers, in their own Sunday School, where they are encouraged to think about these questions in a supportive, fun environment. I don’t want to continue to do this as a one or two person show.

A common misperception

A common misperception

It’s been my experience that Atheists often sound as ugly and obnoxious as any proselytizing bible-thumper that they are so derisive of. I have many, many friends- whether Christian, Muslim, or any other religious group- that have been subject to hateful or condescending comments from “enlightened” nonbelievers. That is not a community that I want to be part of either. That kind of intolerance is just as unacceptable to me as someone telling my children that they are headed for Hell. It’s true, I’m not losing any sleep over that threat, but I am committed to acting with the grace and courtesy that I expect of others. There is nothing as universally well regarded as the golden rule- “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Amen!

Rejecting god does not mean rejecting the beauty of the universe, or marginalizing the awe we feel for our incredible good fortune to be residents of this amazing planet and community called humanity. It is a great disservice to those of us who don’t believe in a god or gods, to allow ourselves to be marginalized by accepting the status quo of “no god, no church”.

I am saying, “Enough!” I do not accept the status quo! It’s time to join together as humans, as humanists, as humble seekers of truth, as lovers of peace, harmony, nature, and beauty. It’s time to redefine ourselves and claim our due as people who want to be better in our daily lives, who want to leave a better world for our children, who believe in compassion, acceptance, service, charity- these values are not the property of religion, they are\the tenets of humanity that have a duty to live by, pass on to our children, and hold others accountable to. I want to embrace our church going neighbors and say, “thank you” for evolving and keeping this tradition alive! We may not attend the same church, but we can embrace many of the same values- and in the process learn that we are more similar than we are different. What a wonderful contribution to this planet it would be for each of us to see ourselves reflected in the eyes of people we think of as so different. As Shakespeare wrote, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” There is more that connects us than separates us.

Mmmm... cookies!

Mmmm… cookies!

Let’s go! Who will join me? Who wants to come watch a TED talk next Sunday? I’ll bring the cookies.

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