Church for Atheists
October 17, 2011 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find the community aspect of a church without any religion whatsoever?

I've been wanting to get more involved and connected with other people (and while this is to include dating, it's certainly not limited to it), and a friend suggested that I investigate going to church.

This would have been a great suggestion, but I'm an atheist. Actually I'm an antitheist--I believe that belief in a personal god means setting yourself against humanity, and as a human, I find such a posture offensive. (I was raised Catholic.)

I've been to a couple of Unitarian congregations, but it's been clear they're not what I'm looking for--songs about Higher Powers or The Great Beyond, "pastors," and stained-glass windows have been pretty much inescapable, and they've never failed to remind me of being dragged into The Ministry of Truth church as a kid. Sometimes I can't even stay through the service, because I get the impression that it's really just the childhood church services I hated so much with the serial numbers filed off.

Where can I go for a broad-based, gender-balanced, age-appropriate (early 30s, male, single, SF Bay Area) community experience without being subjected to god(s)? I've seen this, but it seems to be more church-tolerant than I am, and I haven't had good luck with my (admittedly scant) experience with service clubs.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

I think in order to find that community experience WITHOUT God, the first step is deciding what kind of community you DO want. The reason why churches have such a strong community feel is that there's a shared belief IN something.

So perhaps rather than just looking for a community "without", I'd consider what it is you want to make the center of your ideal community, and then look for that -- if you are passionate about economic injustice, OWS or similar groups may be that community. If it's literacy, then it's some other group. If it's something about your physical community, maybe there's a group that's "friends of the whatever" that works on improving that thing.

But the key to having a sense of community is that there needs to be something AT its center uniting everyone. You already know what you DON'T want at the center of that community; now you just need to figure out something you DO want. That may make your hunt easier.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:13 AM on October 17, 2011 [19 favorites]

The Bay Area Skeptics runs Skeptics in the Pub events.
posted by Wylla at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Learn a musical instrument and join bands/orchestras?
posted by TrinsicWS at 7:19 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I feel the same way. I miss what is often termed fellowship, and the joint efforts on community projects, like working together for Habitat 4 Humanity, etc. Some Unitarian /Universalist congregations have less religion, but many Unitarian /Universalist members introduce religious themes. And, honestly, I feel hypocritical in a church setting, as I have not believed in god(s) since I was in (Catholic) grade school.

I get some similar experience of community from a community chorus; I like to sing, and the group has developed many of the same characteristics of a nice church. Also from a political action group - some of the members are religious, but when they bring in their religious comments, it's still in a secular organization.

It's still not the same, but it's the best I've been able to do.
posted by theora55 at 7:19 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ultimate Frisbee.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:22 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

Look for volunteering activities directly instead of going through a service group. It would give you some of the best aspects of congregational life (community, helping others) without religious aspects. Find a cause that you do believe in and look for organizations that need volunteers. Make sure that volunteering puts you in contact with others; if you're just stuffing envelopes, then it wouldn't be worth it. I met all sorts of neat people at 826CHI, so if you like writing and kids, consider volunteering at 826Valencia.

If you're not terrified by performing, consider community theatre. At the amateur level, it's not generally gender balanced, but it's a great way to meet a lot of different types of people, and the bonding that happens over a rehearsal process is wonderful.

As far as your Unitarian Universalist experience, as a lifelong UU, how theist a church is VERY congregation specific. None might be atheist enough for you, as most congregations serve both atheist and theist members, but I've been to congregations where saying the word God would start a riot. If you want to try again (and you might have exhausted local options), look for "fellowships" or congregations without ministers. They tend to be on the more atheist side of the spectrum.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:28 AM on October 17, 2011

yes, volunteer.
posted by vastopenspaces at 7:30 AM on October 17, 2011

Mefi meetups?

From the way you've framed this question, it seems like you're specifically looking to commune with other atheists, but that seems like a recipe for the dogma that you're trying to avoid.

I'm also an ex-Catholic; I don't believe in any of it but I do miss certain elements of the Church experience. Was there anything in particular that appealed to you about your religious upbringing? You could join a (secular) choir if you liked singing, or something to that effect.
posted by modernserf at 7:30 AM on October 17, 2011

It's the wrong side of the country for you, but are you looking from something like this?
posted by benito.strauss at 7:34 AM on October 17, 2011

In most cities there are plenty of community groups, service organization, reading societies, non-profit organizations, political groups that provide the same level of social interaction as a church. If you are near a major university, there are student organizations that are open to the general public as well. It depends on your interests which way you want to go.
posted by JJ86 at 7:41 AM on October 17, 2011

How about community theater? Out of the groups I've been involved in, theater folks always seem to be the most welcoming and "community" oriented. You don't even need to act if you don't want to; most groups are usually desperate for general help building sets and sewing costumes.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2011

I just left Quakerism after almost 20 years, and I certainly found the kind of community you're talking about there. But I have also found it in the past through the lesbian community, and currently, to a lesser extent, through homeschooling. Other folks I know have it through involvement with Sacred Harp singing, a local woman's chorus, scouting, ultimate frisbee, keeping chickens, political organizations, and so on. I would say that the qualities a group needs to build meaningful community are a shared sense that what you are doing is important to the wider community in some way and/or meaningful to members (both is best); regular meetings and activities (weekly is best); a variety of meetings and activities, some of which are fun; and work that people can engage in (committee work may be denigrated by many but it is a great way for folks to feel engaged and useful, and find their way into a community).

Church-like groups are somewhat unique--I know that my Quaker meeting took its responsibilities to members very seriously, and I doubt most community groups would have, as the Quaker meeting did, a committee whose responsibility it was to mediate disputes, deal with disruptive behavior, and make sure people's needs were being met. And churches can be easier to gain entry to than some other groups, in my experience. But it is possible to have very satisfying community experiences in a bowling league or a rowing club as well as in a church, and you might as well start by following your interests.
posted by not that girl at 7:54 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you enjoy music and can even carry a tune, I nth a community chorus. Most choruses are happy to accept amateurs - you absolutely don't need any previous experience singing in a group. If you already play an instrument, community bands/orchestras are also excellent places.

Just a side note: my experience with community choruses is that they are not gender balanced - there tend to be far more women than men, which is another reason to join as most are greatly appreciative of any voices they can get to fill out the lower registers.
posted by sonika at 8:00 AM on October 17, 2011

CrossFit. Age appropriate, surprisingly gender balanced, ridiculous community aspect -- it really feels like the church community that I never got when I was raised by my agnostic parents.

The actual exercise part isn't for everyone, but gosh darn if you won't end up with 50 new friends and a significant other. Seriously.
posted by telegraph at 8:09 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

In DC we have the Ethical Society, which is on upper 16th street, exactly where all of the churches, synagogues, buddhist temples and mosques are.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:10 AM on October 17, 2011

Find a good sunday morning brunch place, or farmer's market. Get to know everyone there.
posted by gregglind at 8:22 AM on October 17, 2011

Go take an improv class. You'll meet people your age and possibly make some really good friends and be part of the local improv scene.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:42 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

If your looking for community, what about joining a fraternal order? Some require belief in a higher being (like the Masons and Elks) but here is a AskMeFi on organizations for atheists.
posted by Deflagro at 9:00 AM on October 17, 2011

Two specific recommendations: For a volunteer group, look at There are a couple MeFites involved with this organization (including myself). Because it's almost completely volunteer run, there is a lot of camaraderie that happens. Go to the event calendar (San Francisco chapter covers the city and East Bay, Silicon Valley chapter covers the peninsula and South Bay), check out a couple events, see how you like it. OneBrick makes a point of being social, so there is usually a meal after or socializing time during the event. Very little pressure, but consider joining the management team if you like it. MeMail me if you have any questions about it, I've been volunteering with them since 2003 and I'm about to hit my 100th event!

For a community chorus, check out World Harmony Chorus. They have two choruses, one in Mountain View and one in Oakland. I sang with the Mountain View chorus for 2 years several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. No singing experience necessary, everything is taught by ear. The leader (Daniel) is as anti-religion as you are, so he makes a point of not singing songs that mention a higher power. There's not a specific social aspect to it, but I found that people were quite nice and sociable during the breaks in rehearsal, etc. The music is great, too!
posted by sarahnade at 9:27 AM on October 17, 2011

I have no idea what your political leanings are, but if they're leftish at all you might try volunteering at an activist bookstore or any collectively-run project (of which there are many in the Bay Area). Pick one, obviously, which is appealing to you on some level. Believe me, you'll find that your community is almost too much with you if you're involved in running any kind of space.

A film society or other group would be a good starting point too. The other thing is that many of these spaces and projects are actually part of a whole social network - so if you start volunteering at the film society, you'll soon enough be in a social circle of people who also volunteer on arts boards, run youth arts programs, etc - a network of people who care about and believe in the positive value of the arts.

This type of thing is quite literally how I have made all my post-college friends and met all my post-college dates. I see people that I know around town all the time now.
posted by Frowner at 9:27 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might think church is bullshit from a logical or theological point of view. But it's worth looking at the psychology of a church congregation, because that psychology is important — it's the reason churches tend to give rise to such strong communities.

Here are some of the most important psychological aspects of religious life in my opinion:
  • Altered psychological states — which can range from from deep relaxation, e.g. at a meditation retreat or a silent Quaker meeting, to intense, ecstatic excitement, e.g. at a Pentecostal service.
  • Openness to unexpected experiences, even if they're frightening or uncomfortable.
  • Willingness to "play," to behave spontaneously or intuitively.
  • Joint attention on a common focus, to the exclusion of outside stresses and distractions.
  • Shared desire for self-improvement or personal change.
  • Relaxation of certain social rules. (For instance, at some churches it's socially acceptable to weep openly; or to admit to serious personal failings; or to tell near-strangers "I'm having a difficult time and I need support.")
I'm sure you know that some churchgoers don't actually try to cultivate this stuff: they're bored, they're distracted, they're closed-off, they're only faking enthusiasm. And few churches try to cultivate every item on the list. (There are plenty that don't go in for spontaneity, for instance.) But if you get enough people together who are personally invested in enough of the items on the list, that's when you get real powerful social and communal bonds.

Full-on uninhibited dancing or singing will get you most or all of these. (In my experience a good contra dance is the next best thing to church. I've heard very good things about the Bay Area contra community.) Or meditation, if that sits okay with your personal beliefs. Or improv theater. Or intensely physical group work: team sports, rock climbing, etc. Or emotionally intense group work: volunteering at a hospice or a suicide hotline, say.

I'm an atheist, but my experience is that atheist organizations don't hit the right psychological buttons. Neither do a lot of purely social or hobbyist clubs, which is why getting something like a book club to really bond and cohere as a group is a pain in the ass. Some political groups hit the right buttons (especially anarchist groups, in my experience) but many don't. Psychedelic drugs work great but can be socially and legally problematic and you probably shouldn't just go seeking that shit out out of the blue.

Of course, if you just want any sort of social contact, a book club or a political action group will work fine. But if you really want to go for the strong stuff, go dance or sail or meditate instead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:31 AM on October 17, 2011 [19 favorites]

Politics? In a metropolitan, politically active area, your local Democratic/Republican/Green/Whatever You Are committee should be a pretty large organization with regular meetings, social activities, volunteer opportunities, etc. There may also be "young people" version of the group as well (fyi, you can be a Young Democrat until you are 35 and a Young Republican until you are 40(!)). I had a couple years in my mid-20s during local Democratic committee and Young Democrat meetings and events pretty much were my social life. Some people were there to volunteer for specific political campaigns, others liked the community service opportunities, others mostly just wanted to go to lots of happy hours and/or meet potential mates, and plenty of people wanted some combination of the above. I made some friends that remain among my closest today, and at the very least it gave me something to do regularly a few nights a month.
posted by naoko at 9:58 AM on October 17, 2011

In Albuquerque there's Church of Beethoven, which has a weekly concert series and poetry readings on Sunday mornings. It is explicitly not a church. (There may be a stained glass window or two at times though, it's associated with an art gallery. I'm assuming you aren't actually offended by ALL arrangements of colored glass.)

I don't know if there would be something like it in larger cities, but it seems like larger cities would certainly be able to support something like that.
posted by yohko at 10:02 AM on October 17, 2011

I have found aspects of church at the following:

- backyard of local coffee shop. I go there at around the same time every Saturday and Sunday morning with a good book. I see the same people, make a bit of small talk, watch the kids play, sit in the sunshine. Feeds my need for community, greeting, routine.

- yoga class. Again, I go to the same class each week. I introduce myself to the people sitting next me. My class includes a bit of kirtan - communal singing - which, admittedly is quite spiritual, but doesn't bring up the same triggers that my childhood religion does. I LOVE singing together and it's one of the things I miss most about church. Feeds my need for community, singing, quiet togetherness. It's mostly women though.

- 12 step groups. Fortunately, I don't have an addiction myself, but I have gone to open meetings in support of a friend (mostly anniversary meetings) and they tend to be very close to the Bible studies of my childhood. Yes, there is some pesky "Higher Power" talk, but it depends on the meeting.

- buy season tickets to a football team and tailgate in the same spot every game. You'd be amazed at the sense of community!
posted by valeries at 10:03 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Theravardan buddhism (not Tibetan buddhism, which is often religious). The Thai style in the west is usually completely non-religious. If you go to, they have several good speakers who will give you an idea of community with no religion. (I personally like Jack Kornfield). I think you can also find zencast in the podcast directory of itunes - it's free. if it appeals, you'll be able to find a center you can go to - there are many in the west these days
posted by nickji at 10:30 AM on October 17, 2011

Spirit Rock Meditation Center - Woodacre, CA
posted by nickji at 10:50 AM on October 17, 2011

2nding Quakerism. No clergy, weekly worship is sitting quietly with the other congregants. Very inclusive, not just in theory, but in the actual makeup of people attending. The meetings I have been to downplay holidays and religious ceremonies (I don't think I have ever heard "God" or "Jesus" spoken at a meetinghouse), but are quite involved in peace activism and environmental stewardship, as well as providing the typical attentions to others in the community (ie, helping out if you're sick or lost a job, kids' trips and activities, etc.) Very nice, quiet, grounded bunch of people. FAQ here.
posted by apparently at 11:17 AM on October 17, 2011

I find that volunteering gives me the same kind of community without religion. I volunteer at one brick ( the volunteers are by and large young and single). To really get the community feeling consider joining the management team.
posted by bananafish at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2011

Well, it's hard because you haven't really said what sorts of things you ARE interested in. But personally I have been really happy since I started getting involved in my local Burning Man community. You're definitely in the right place for it, too (SF)! I think people assume Burning Man= drugs but I know plenty of people in the community who are really involved and don't do any drugs. Anyway, I've never been around such a truly diverse and accepting group of people. If you like art and music and, well, the occasional party, you might really like it. You'll meet tons of people and I think chances are very good that you'll meet people you'll want to date as well. I've certainly met plenty of attractive and interesting guys this way.

I just looked to see if there's a Facebook page and there is. All you gotta do is join, they will post events and such, just show up and start introducing yourself! And feel free to MeMail me if you want to know more about how I got into it, and what I get out of it. It's not for everyone, but like I said, I absolutely love it. (I also tried Unitarianism and found it to still be a little too churchy for my tastes.)
posted by GastrocNemesis at 1:36 PM on October 17, 2011

What I miss is a community where at the heart, no one will be left behind; compassion for every single human is an agreed on value, development of healthy and kind behaviors as part of the community is encouraged and supported-- people struggling with being who they want to be are given support rather than kicked out.

At the root, the guy christianity was supposed to be founded on, had a lot of these such values. How it got translated to church practice is another matter, and whether he existed or said anything remotely like what got written down is another nother matter.

Outside of the church, it gets more complex to think of forgiveness and second chances in the community as being ok. In the church people did get second chances but there was an entire process involving confession, prayer, self reflection, penance--- a process that I think is important for allowing people who have done harmful things to be part of the community.

The church was supposed to be a place of sanctuary where anyone could go for help. I haven't seen churches function in the way that it seemed they were espoused to function. But I actually agree with the general purposes churches claim to espouse--- not so much on a large portion of specifics.

Church is easy because in general, you just have to show up and believe in shared compassion. You don't have to be good at anything, or know anything about volunteering, you just show up and get to be part of a community, and encouraged to increase the internal resources you have to offer others and yourself.

Rather, that's how it should be. But without a framework of agreeing how people should be treated, what happens when people misbehave, how people "atone" for wrong doing, what can be worked through, what can't, what is wrong and right behavior----- it's really scary to enter a group of people because everyone thinks different things about what compassion means and how to treat people.

More non religiously associated compassionate community groups where you can be liked and accepted just for being human. I'm mostly writing this because a lot of people have offered community activities/volunteering and I just don't think that hits the same need to know people would be there for you in a crisis, in the long term, just because you are a fellow human.
posted by xarnop at 1:44 PM on October 17, 2011

(I don't think I have ever heard "God" or "Jesus" spoken at a meetinghouse)

This varies a lot. There are meetings where nobody ever says anything explicitly theist. There are meetings with UU-like vibe. There are meetings that welcome atheists but also welcome overtly Christian language. There are meetings that are explicitly Christian and not at all welcoming to atheists.

(I belong to a liberal meeting in Austin, and as an atheist I've always felt perfectly welcome there — but I still wouldn't recommend it to someone like Anonymous who finds belief in a personal god to be offensive, because some people here do hold that sort of belief and don't do anything to disguise it.)

Point is, Anonymous, there are meetings out there that you'd probably feel right at home at. But you should be prepared to shop around a bit.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:05 PM on October 17, 2011

Seconding that Unitarian Universalist churches vary widely, from talking about God to strictly avoiding all mention of God. It all depends on the congregation. So, yeah, shop around.

Otherwise, you might find it enjoyable to join one or more of the groups at a UU church. Especially in a large city, UU churches tend to have interest groups that meet in the evening or on the weekend to get together for like-minded activities. Examples: Singles group, discussion groups, going-to-see-plays group, men's drumming circle, folk-singing group. Plus, it's much easier to meet and get to know people in a group than in the congregation as a whole.
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:06 PM on October 17, 2011

Nthing Quaker meetings. I've got a dear friend in the Bay Area who gets quite a lot out of it. Let me know and I can put you in touch.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:57 PM on October 17, 2011

posted by clark at 1:37 AM on October 18, 2011

I'm an antitheist just like you. I personally have found that sense of community in my yoga studio, which doesn't just offer classes, but also a lot of community things (visits to art museums, Halloween ball to benefit a local scholarship fund, etc) that you can participate in specifically to foster that sense of community. It might be worth looking into whether there is something similar near you.

Added bonus: if you go a lot, you will get in incredibly good shape and may or may not find a deep sense of inner peace and conviction.
posted by corn_bread at 6:10 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am also an atheist.

I was "raised" (from the age of twelve) in a non-religious, non-theist, small town Unitarian Universalist church. I attended the UU church in my current location ONCE, which had two plaques over the altar: one of the Lord's prayer, one with the first two commandments. No thank you.

My husband is an ordained Buddhist, and though I have no plans to become part of his order, I like attending some events with him (community nights, meditation classes) because the people there seem like-minded in most ways and it's not pushy, and I do not feel uncomfortable or false the way I have in most other places of worship.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 8:26 AM on October 18, 2011

Rock and roll.
The Boss doesn't call it 'the Church of Rock and Roll' for nothing.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:18 PM on October 23, 2011

You're looking for the Humanists, I think.
posted by talldean at 10:08 AM on October 24, 2011

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