Looking for a church surrogate
May 8, 2010 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Are there communities of people similar to religious communities but without the baggage?

I was raised as a Christian but lost my faith some years ago. For some years I was angry and defiant, but now I now feel that faith is a human yearning which should not be resisted. I also feel that faith is the foundation of ethics and I am tired of being surrounded by people who cut corners. If you object to these notions then please keep your objections to yourself; take these as my starting point.

I want to live in a community with shared ideals and an eye on the transcendent. I am dissatisfied with a culture that organizes itself only around secular, material, and legal principles, both because these communities seem to be comparatively dysfunctional and because I feel a spiritual hole in my life. I also find it harder and harder to hold opinions on things, as I don't really stand for anything, and this is sapping my agency.

I am however wary of any community which constructs elaborate systems of thought using philosophy, theology, and politics. These seem to obfuscate more than enlighten.

I am also coming around to the idea that homogeneity really is necessary for a community. Diversity is healthy at the macro level, but in my day-to-day life I desire to be around people who are like me. I have experienced such communities to varying degrees in the past, with my church when I was young and in the college dorms.

Are there any communities out there like this? Organized around a creed but without the malignant tendencies of organized religion? Also relatively free of corruption, hypocrisy, and "mission-bloat", to use a horrible, wonky made-up term?
posted by Triumvirate to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to look into co-housing communities. People live in tight knit communities, often with a Christian bent but people don't HAVE to be Christian...just good neighbors. As far as finding a place free of corruption, hypocrisy, etc. I think you will find those things in any community--they arise from the human condition, not necessarily religion.
posted by MsKim at 3:18 PM on May 8, 2010

I think you'll find that any intentional community will have some kind of baggage.
posted by box at 3:25 PM on May 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by Pants! at 3:28 PM on May 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

People are people. People have baggage. Trying to find a community of people without baggage is trying to find something that doesn't exist.

By the way, your belief that faith is the foundation of ethics and I am tired of being surrounded by people who cut corners (and the implication that people without faith have no ethics)? That's baggage. You might spend some time thinking about motes, beams, and eyes.
posted by Lexica at 3:32 PM on May 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you MsKim. I had never heard of cohousing.

box you are right. I think "baggage" as I'm using it is only absent in a completely atomized society. I'm looking to put myself somewhere on the gradient between where I am (anonymous city) and a church.

Pants! how strong is UU community? Is there a "there" there? That's the criticism I've heard.
posted by Triumvirate at 3:35 PM on May 8, 2010

Response by poster: Lexica that's my starting point. If you disagree with me that's fine but please don't make assumptions about me. I'm looking for happiness not truth.
posted by Triumvirate at 3:43 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "there's no there there" criticism of the UUs is generally from members of other religious communities. The UUs are big on community and togetherness and all that, but as long as your beliefs are generally compatible with the UU values, you're fine. There's Christian UUs, pagan UUs, atheist UUs, and so on.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:12 PM on May 8, 2010

As a devout Unitarian Universalist, I'd like to share some of my impressions on this, because UU was what I immediately thought of when I read your question, particularly the "eye on the transcendent". The Transcendentalists are as close to Saints as the UUs have.

Lots of UUs that I know like to paraphrase and repurpose Will Rogers' Joke about the Democratic Party. "I am not a member of any Organized Religion", they will say, "I am a Unitarian Universalist!" and we all chuckle into our fair-trade shade-grown gluten-free soy-latte.

But the sick part of the joke is: It's the opposite of the point Rogers was making about the Democrats. UU's are highly organized. It's the religion that we're often light on. I am part of a 200 member congregation in the Southeast. I have served as the Campus Ministry Coordinator, and as a member of several different committees. I teach Sunday School and have helped coordinate Shelter Meals and CROP Walks. If "organized" is your thing, the UU's might be a good fit for you. Our congregation has a board of directors, a constitution and by-laws. We have an annually updated Manual of Policies and Procedures.

What we lack (and for many this is a point of pride) is the "creed" that you are looking for. We do have a list of Seven Principles, as well as a Mission Statement (hammered out by the Mission Statement Committee, of which I was a part, over a series of monthly meetings that lasted most of a year) and a Vision Statement. But many members will state that we are a "creedless" religion.

As far as a sense of community, we are chock full of it. All of this working together on various committees and projects has brought us all closer together. We love each other and support each other and when someone is sick in the hospital we make damn sure that they are visited, and when someone is down on their luck we let them know we are there to help. I love my church, and don't have to pretend to love Jesus or anything else I don't believe in to be accepted.
posted by Cookiebastard at 4:24 PM on May 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

The Farm seems to be going strong.
posted by jayder at 4:32 PM on May 8, 2010

I'm a Unitarian Universalist.

I highly recommend that you check out a congregation near you and see if the community fits what you're looking for. I've been a member of three congregations now, and each had a vastly different feel from the other. There's no creed, but a covenant to abide by seven principles. It's been a religion that has kept me spiritually challenged and constantly learning. I truly think I'm a better person because of my experiences within the religion. I'm becoming very active within the movement, both on a district level and via the internet. (There's a lot of really awesome Unitarian Universalist twitter/blog conversation going on.)

That said, if you're looking for a community completely free of baggage, I'd be very wary of which congregation you consider joining. I just left my congregation because they had so much baggage that it was choking their ability to provide any sort of coherent ministry now. This congregation was so focused on getting a building that they stopped caring about the community they were supposedly ministering. There was infighting, passive agressiveness, and active agressiveness. It became so toxic that I left.

That congregation was the third congregation that I've belonged to. I left the previous two due to cross-country moves. Those two were lovely congregations. Not all congregations are toxic. But since you're exploring this option as a religion "free from baggage," I'd warn you to choose your congregation carefully.

Another option if you're looking more for faith development than a physical community is to join the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online UU congregation. I'm currently a member, and I'm excited about the classes I can take.

As far as the "there isn't much there there" comments, I think that stems from a couple of places. Many UUs have no idea how to articulate what they believe, which doesn't help. And there are some who simply come to church to "be with people who think like them." That isn't why I go to church and it doesn't interest me much, as it is not a place of spiritual growth, but it's a prevalent thought process (and one you seem to agree with).

In short, I'd highly recommend Unitarian Universalism, with the strong caveat that you look deep into a congregation before becoming a member.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 4:39 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Unitarian Universalism is a congregationalist denomination: that means each particular community makes its own bylaws and runs itself how it sees fit. There are congregations that are stultifyingly dry and intellectual and congregations that are very loosy-goosey woo-woo and everything in between. If you don't find a congregation that's a good fit for you, you might look into the Ethical Culture Society or Buddhism ...
posted by rikschell at 4:46 PM on May 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you Cookiebastard and JustKeepSwimming for your thoughtful contributions about UU. I will definitely look into it.

Your opinions of me are correct. I am more interested in community than a personal journey. I would like a creed as a unifying thing (maybe I would consider the seven principles a creed) as long as it is benign to me and my community.
posted by Triumvirate at 4:47 PM on May 8, 2010

This is an interesting question. I am theorizing that the answer to your question is probably 'No', but I could be wrong.

Transcendent Spirituality appears to reflect to myself as an individual process.

I think it would be an elusive project to try to build a community of such individuals without some sort of dogma creeping in.

As mentioned, you cannot have more than one human being in the same space without some form of conflict at some time (actually, perhaps you cannot have one human being exist oneself without some form of self-conflict, but that is for another discussion). But there are acceptable levels of conflict which are dealt with in a functional society. Perfect 'Harmony' may be an impossible thing to impose upon a community without some form of authoritarianism and/or stagnation.

Walden Two is a speculative novel by B.F. Skinner which explores a perfect community such as is imagined. Personally, I am skeptical of his vision, as I think that he idealizes and over-simplifies human complexity in his story.
posted by ovvl at 5:03 PM on May 8, 2010

My mother-in-law visited an 'Intentional Community' in the mountains of Northern British Columbia. The weekend that she was there, everyone had left to attend a music festival in the valley below. She and her friend were left alone in an abandoned small village, except for the pets.

It was the summer solstice. They went on a long walk in the midnight twilight, watching the sun dip below a mountain and then re-appear, accompanied by the dogs and cats of the community, who flushed grouse from out of the underbrush.

They left soon after their hosts returned, and they had little to report about the communal dynamics.
posted by ovvl at 5:33 PM on May 8, 2010

Quakers, like UUs, are diverse--liberal unprogrammed Friends are not necessarily Christian or theist. No creed; we'll match your seven principles with our testimonies. You will also find us to be, in general, liberal, free-range-latte-quaffing, educated, and mostly caucasian.

There's baggage, though. Of course. A lot of Quakers are "convinced," meaning they weren't raised Friends. They bring baggage from their religious upbringings. Sometimes you have baggage just because people have been around so long; something happened between them 30 years ago and you don't know what and you'll never find out but boy in every business meeting you can see it's still there between them. But Quakerism is a great place to explore faith, belief, ethics, social action.
posted by not that girl at 6:37 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing checking out a UU church. Also, if you're a man you might be interested in Freemasonry -- "a community with shared ideals and an eye on the transcendent" describes a good lodge pretty much perfectly. The symbols of the order are taught through the system of degrees, but the degree rituals are not to be confused with any kind of dogma.

If you are a woman, there is Co-masonry, although it is not as widely spread as "mainstream" Freemasonry. There are also the Odd Fellows, who admit men and women and have a similar system of initiation and symbolic teaching, and similarly pragmatic approach to the transcendent; both require a "belief in a supreme being" to join, but beyond that you are generally not asked to elaborate.

Relatively free of corruption, hypocrisy, and mission-bloat? I can't speak to the Odd Fellow experience, but Masons are generally a really good bunch of people. There are unfortunate exceptions, and their contrast to the tenets of the fraternity make them all the more upsetting... but I've met more good people since joining two years ago than I had for years before that.
posted by usonian at 6:42 PM on May 8, 2010

Freemasons and their spinoffs? Theosophical Society?
posted by rodgerd at 7:56 PM on May 8, 2010

You might also want to check out Secular Humanism.

I was raised in a church by parents that I only learned as an adult were not really at all religious. They wanted my brother and me to grow up in a community with a similar value system and sense of ethics, and the only platform they were really familiar with was the church. They never really talked about the religious aspects at all, and when I grew up and asked them about it, they were just sort of like "oh, yeah. Church is good for you, and we wanted you kids to be around people who believed in something bigger than themselves, but we don't really care what anyone believes in a theological context so long as it doesn't hurt others. That's up to you."

It was a united Methodist church, and there were people all across the religious spectrum in the congregation. The minister's wife occasionally even gave talks on what she called "a studious agnosticism," and recommended to the youth that we explore different religious and ethical texts and ways of belief.

I hated the shit out of it when I was a kid, but now I feel really lucky to have had that opportunity. I don't have any personal experience with secular humanism, but if I ever had kids, I think I'd try some things along those lines. If they didn't work out for me, I could even see raising my kids in a church, although it would have to be high on the community involvement and low on the Jesus factor.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:28 PM on May 8, 2010

I echo suggestions to check out Unitarian Universalism (non-denominational denomination), secular humanism, and Masonic lodges (fellowship) as potential communal homes.

A consideration for what you're looking for might be how leadership is structured (or not structured). Because of this, I might echo an earlier suggestion for Quakers. There are both Christian Quakers and Liberal Quakers. What I find appealing about the Quakers is their lack of hierarchy (tiered leadership). Transcendent spirituality in the Quaker tradition seems to be based upon a circle where all are equals in what they bring to share. Some groups seem to fall victim to the belief that some are more equal and more enlightened than others. This distinction might be worth considering as you investigate groups in your community.

You might look at how Alcoholics Anonymous is organized. They seem to model many of the virtues you're looking for, but are centered on a struggle against alcoholism and addiction.
posted by SocialArgonaut at 5:24 PM on May 18, 2010

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