Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thoughts on "Atheist Churches"

Ask many Unitarian Universalists what they think of Sunday Assembly -- the growing network of communities offering "all the best bits of church, but without the religion, and awesome pop songs" -- and the response will seem politely dismissive, often wondering why these folks don't just join us instead of "reinventing the wheel."

You're about to read a dissenting view.

Yes, there's much that Sunday Assembly (and another US-based movement, called the National Oasis Network) could learn from UUs. But I would contend that the relatively rapid growth of these so-called "atheist churches" also shows that UUs might learn more from them. Such as ...
  1. Keeping the message simple: The Oasis Network holds to five basic principles, beginning with "People are more important than beliefs." Sunday Assembly's philosophy is expressed even more succinctly as "Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More."
  2. Including without diluting: Both of these networks were started by committed secularists and atheists, yet they also welcome and include the full range of people who would not fit into a traditional religious communities. The emphasis is less on bashing religion (like the "New Atheists") or mimicking it, and more on building an alternative community around shared ethical concerns and psychological needs.
  3. More egalitarian: Linked to both their inclusion and freethought roots, the communities in these networks are less reliant on professionals and experts, even drawing on models from Quakers and more radical "emerging" church groups.
  4. Meeting people's needs: Atheist and Humanist groups have previously focused on intellectual needs, almost to the exclusion of emotional and aesthetic ones. Sunday Assembly and Oasis are attempting a more holistic approach.
If the rate of growth for these groups is any indication, they would appear to be doing something right. And, if they are to be accused of "reinventing the wheel," allow me to contend that there are times when that is necessary.

People will find ways to meet their needs, even if it means sidestepping "official" channels. I've seen it in my work as a medical equipment specialist, where families are willing to pay out of pocket for walkers or electric beds rather than wait for doctors to fulfill the cumbersome requirements of Medicare, or endure the waiting lists of our competitors. When you need a wheel, you find a way to get one, even if the only "legitimate" supplier tells you to fill out a form and wait for their staff to get to it. Same thing for the kind of "alternative" community offered by Sunday Assembly, Oasis Network, or UUs.

Where the efforts of these newer groups will lead, I don't know. But my impression so far is that Unitarian Universalists will not learn from what success they've garnered so far by ignoring or dismissing them.


  1. Thank you. I needed that revelation this evening. I wish there was an Oasis group in our area, but for now I will continue to go to the local UU church.

    1. The link to the Oasis Network is They helped the Greater Boston group get off the ground, and they could help you and/or other folks in your area.

    2. I checked out the link as well as their Facebook page, and I posted a link in my UU church's Adult RE page so other nonbelievers in the congregation can become informed about the Oasis group. Thank you for your help! I hope the information you provided bears fruit soon!

  2. We can expect this since UU churches often aren't sanctuaries from the overriding Christian privilege in our society. We often say that we oppose privilege, and say that we draw from all six of our sources, but in reality, we only oppose privilege in some cases, and won't speak up about Christian privilege. Our services much more often refer to Christianity than Paganism (6th source), Humanism (5th), and the wonders revealed by science (1st source). At my UU here, our RE program gives preference to Christianity, when the kids already get a lot from their friends, classes, media, (heck, the presidential candidates from both parties trip themselves showing how Christian they are), and so on. For us non-Christians, especially millennials, we'd like some part of our lives to be safe from common Christianity, and certainly aren't going to come a religious community that reinforces Christian privilege. Some UUs say "oh, but unless we have enough Christianity, we won't keep the Christians.". The fact that this is their biggest concern shows their Christian privilege. Christians can always go to a half a dozen nearby liberal Christian churches, but us non-Christians? The message is clear that we don't matter. At an Oasis, or a SA, or Sanctuary, we do. You can see that I'm having a harder and harder time justifying my pledge this year.....

    1. Increasingly, I’ve found that the various theological orientations within UU-dom (Christian, Humanist, Pagan, Buddhist) often complain of being excluded in one way or another … and not without justification. In many cases, it’s because a UU congregation and/or minister asserts a particular stance above others, and in a few cases even voicing hostility to one or more “opposing” views.

      And where has the UUA been in this? At the 2014 General Assembly, I had been hopeful that the “Humanist-Theist dialogue” which they had scheduled would begin the process of addressing the conflict and helping to find common ground. I left feeling greatly disappointed. Far from a dialogue, it was a stage-managed pair of monologues, each ending with virtually identical “I-love-you’s” from each speaker to the other.

      If Oasis or Sunday Assembly do manage to attract a significant amount of “non-nontheist” refugees, I’m hopeful that they’ll do better at addressing any tensions that might cause. But it seems the UUA has adopted a policy of avoiding conflicts of this sort rather than dealing constructively with them.

    2. The UU church I attend is trying to outreach to atheists and humanists in the area, and over half of us who joined the church during the summer identified as atheist or agnostic. However, as the Adult RE minister and I discussed this morning, the UU church has to be mindful to minister to the needs of all in its congregation, and this includes believers from several religious traditions and non-believers alike. To that end, today we had a earth based religion speaker give a message to the congregation, and last week we had an atheist speaker. This congregation, in Macon, GA, of all places, is trying and I appreciate and support their efforts, but it is still very much a work in progress. They are our only oasis in a fundamentalist fueled hell.