Seeking faith as an atheist.
July 2, 2014 8:39 AM   Subscribe

I've been an atheist for most of my life. I've never been to a formal church service outside of a wedding or a funeral. Recently I've realized that I politically agree with the leftist interpretation of the teachings of Christ. I still don't believe in the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith. Would it be wrong for me to seek out a left leaning sect like Unitarians? I'm worried that this is, at the very least, intellectually dishonest to my own beliefs, and more likely, selfish for the church I'd pursue. I'm looking for guidance on how to proceed. I apologize if I've offended the faithful with a misunderstanding of their beliefs. Part of my desire for this is that of community and connection with fellow left leaning folks.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Nope, you'll fit right into the Unitarians.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:41 AM on July 2, 2014 [27 favorites]

There are definitely atheist unitarians, and they will welcome you heartily. The UU church is great for this stuff, and if you don't like the first one you go to, try a few, they can be pretty different.
posted by ldthomps at 8:41 AM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

You may be interested in researching some Humanist groups.
posted by beccaj at 8:42 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not intellectually dishonest at all! In fact, you might seek out a local Quaker meeting, which sounds it might closely align with where you are.
posted by jbickers at 8:42 AM on July 2, 2014

Part of my desire for this is that of community and connection with fellow left leaning folks.

You don't need a church to do this.
posted by Big_B at 8:43 AM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Unitarians would love to have you. Go for it!
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:43 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Would it be wrong for me to seek out a left leaning sect like Unitarians?

It really depends on the specific Unitarian congregation that you're looking at, but my mom's UU church is chock-full of atheists/agnostics. I just go to the Christmas Eve service, and it's kind of weird singing carols that have had the lyrics altered to remove any notion of Jesus being "Lord" from them. A UU church is probably the last place you'll need to worry about being intellectually dishonest about being an atheist.
posted by LionIndex at 8:44 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is a distinction between Unitarian theology (the rejection of the Trinity), and Unitarian Universalism - people interested in the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". You will be welcomed by a Unitarian universalist congregation.
posted by Think_Long at 8:44 AM on July 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Unitarian Universalists explicitly welcome atheists into their congregations. I grew up in the United Church of Christ tradition, which is Christian but about as left as you can get within those bounds. As an adult atheist/agnostic, I've always felt that the Unitarians would be somewhere I'd be able to someday find a community similar to my UCC roots, but where I could be honest about my disbelief in most of the explicitly Christian theology I grew up on.
posted by augustimagination at 8:48 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

A Unitarian once told me something that has stuck with me, "I love Jesus. I think Jesus is a great guy. it's too bad they went and made him a god."

I've been atheist my whole life (raised in a religious household, just never felt the spark). I attended a lot of church. I went to a lot of services by other faiths. I studied religion in college and it was a passion of mine. I too miss the community, and the theater, and support.

I don't spend much time thinking about the divine anymore, but I do think a lot about the buildings and the people. I'm a House atheist these days, "Only on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the year it doesn't matter."

For what it's worth, few religions would make atheists unwelcome (I speak from experience). As long as you are respectful and make the modicum of effort you're welcome to hang out.

If someone came to me with your story (without the question) I would have recommended Unitarians or Buddhism.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:54 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

You don't need a church to do this.

Perhaps not, but I have been politically active for decades, and the most active, dedicated, organized activists I have met are generally associated with left-leaning church groups. I've never joined one, because while I have mad respect for them, it's not my thing. But I can certainly see advantages in being part of a like-minded community that has institutional support and longstanding roots. It really has been a boon to American progressivism, and one that I think generally goes unacknowledged in the discussion of American religions.

If it's your thing, I say go for it. You can also be atheist and Jewish, by the way -- sometimes it seems to me that the most Jewish thing you can do is be an atheist or a Buddhist.
posted by maxsparber at 8:56 AM on July 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Not wrong at all. This is virtually exactly where I was when I sought entrance into the UCC, which is MUCH more explicitly Christian than the Unitarians. I told them "I don't believe in the divinity of Jesus, I don't believe he was the son of God in any meaningful sense, I don't believe in an anthropomorphic interventionist god in the first place" and they not only welcomed me with open arms, they baptized me.
posted by KathrynT at 8:56 AM on July 2, 2014 [15 favorites]

Seconding trying Quaker meeting. I'm a lifelong agnostic with very little patience for magical thinking, and ended up attending a Quaker college as a result of my positive experiences going to meeting with friends in high school.

Among both Quakers and Unitarians, though, you're going to encounter people who believe in an afterlife, direct communication with God and with spirits, divine intervention, etc. There's a lot of "spiritual but not religious" New Age type-thinking in both camps, IMO. I know quite a few folks who have found long-standing left/radical community through volunteer and community work, so this is also worth considering if you find the traditional religious aspects of these faiths offputting.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:57 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You will LOVE the UU church. We had a ball at ours in Ft. Lauderdale and ours had a HUGE contingent of athiests.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:59 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

From my limited experience with UU's, it sounds like you'd fit in perfectly.

As a side note, a couple of excerpts from a collection sent to me long ago by a UU friend:

Q: Why are there no Unitarian Universalists in Heaven?
A: When you die, you come to a fork in the road. The sign in one direction says "Heaven". The sign in the other direction says "Discussion About Heaven".

Q: What does the KKK do when they want to chase a UU family out of town?
A: Burn a giant question mark on their lawn.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 9:02 AM on July 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

i'd like to second beccaj's suggestion that you look in to humanist groups. Depending upon your location something may or may not be available, but an increasing number of humanist organizations are recognizing the need for this sort of regular social/community aspect that church provides many, without offending the sensibilities of rationalists by having them partake in superstition, and setting up regular "humanist services" to provide such a thing.

I've been looking in to just such a thing in my area, and am encouraged by what I'm finding. It might be worth some investigation from you too.
posted by jammer at 9:09 AM on July 2, 2014

I grew up attending a Unitarian Universalist fellowship because it was the option my atheist parent and my non-atheist parent could agree on. My parents have continued to attend and to be very involved in the community there, and both are very happy wih it (the non-atheist is getting agnostic as time passes, but I'm not sure if that's UU-related.)

There are big differences between congregations, so I agree that you should try another if you are not comfortable with the first one you attend. I also think that you will find people with a variety of political beliefs--many will be left-leaning, but not all. Unitarian Universalists are not at all uniform.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:09 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Toast has this fun read about the history of the UU church, for some context and more jokes.

(I was raised UU. I agree with everyone upthread that it's very possible a UU church will be what you want.)
posted by clavicle at 9:12 AM on July 2, 2014

I'm worried that this is, at the very least, intellectually dishonest to my own beliefs, and more likely, selfish for the church I'd pursue.

These worries are very familiar to me as an anxious person. I emphatically believe certain things, and recoil from contact with certain other ideas, and I tend to get overly concerned about doing enough, pulling my weight, doing things right, avoiding hypocrisy. My experience with a couple of different religions, including one Unitarian Universalist congregation, is that it took a lot of time and effort before I felt like I belonged, and even then I couldn't do much more than treat it as a lighthearted fun thing, like a movie club or a hiking group.

For me, taking it seriously and personalizing it (which maybe one is "supposed" to do with religion?) meant that if I was in an anxious place, attending church would add to my anxiety because there were so many people begging for support for their causes, committees, volunteer opportunities, requests for donations, etc.; shrill people calling each other out for not being sensitive enough to various oppressed groups I was only vaguely aware of; theological jargon words in the hymns that I needed to think through before I could sing them in good conscience... it was sometimes just too much.

Quakers and some types of Buddhists tend to have quieter (as in, silent) services, and just as much community-building.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:15 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, one of my best friends is a UU minister. I asked her once to estimate the percentage of UU ministers that believe in God. "About a third," she replied.
posted by carmicha at 9:16 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Addressing the intellectual honesty portion of your question:

An acquaintance of mine is an ordained minister in the Church of England, in the faculty of divinity at a major university, and agnostic. Paraphrasing a conversation we had about it, he believes that the essence of being Christian is being a disciple of Christ -- one who follows Jesus' teachings and takes him as a role model on which to base ones own life. The supernatural stuff is minor compared to that. So at least one religious scholar would likely tell you your approach isn't intellectually dishonest or offensive at all.

(Note, not recommending the Anglican church in general as a fit for you here, this is simply one scholar's opinion.)
posted by penguinicity at 9:19 AM on July 2, 2014 [10 favorites]

It might be helpful to you to give some thought to godforms, deities, religious stories in terms of myths and archetypes--aspects of the natural world and the human experience that have particularly strong resonance with human emotion and psychology. All this by way of saying that you don't have to believe in a literal sense to "get it" about religion and God.
posted by Sublimity at 9:19 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest Quaker meeting. It's a community that encourages people to think about there own beliefs. It's a quiet, non-proselytizing sort of service.
posted by 26.2 at 9:51 AM on July 2, 2014

I've gone to the UU churches near me at various times in my life and various points of belief, and I have always felt welcome and wanted. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:58 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

My experience with the UCC mirrors almost exactly what KathrynT said earlier. You may want to check them out as well.
posted by maurice at 10:00 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of atheists who attend UU services, you should fit it fine.
posted by hworth at 10:01 AM on July 2, 2014

If you're into learning about religion, and potentially into the ideology of Christ as expressed in the New Testament, yeah, you want a Unitarian congregation.

I grew up in a liberal Mainline Christian denomination, probably the "best" as American left/progressives would define it, short of Unitarianism or the Quakers. And yet, yeah, believing in God and the whole Nicene Creed thing (Jesus was the son of God and died for our sins) is definitely very central to it. I've met a few people who are not believers but who still attend Anglican/Episcopal services out of habit or for family reasons or for the community aspect of it, but I've never heard of someone who is explicitly atheist joining for reasons not connected to actually believing in the God/Jesus stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 10:23 AM on July 2, 2014

I'm pretty sure a lot of religious people are religious for very selfish reasons, so I don't see why shouldn't attend a meeting or two to see if you like it. Who are you hurting?
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:30 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found the Unitarians to be a disappointment - lots of infighting and tired, entrenched "leadership" (everything done by committee so nothing ever done).

I too am an atheist and I found my community in a meditation group that follows the buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Since you say the lefty Jesus appeals to you, you might want to look for "red-letter Christians" in your area. They're not atheist, of course, but they live according to the "red letters" in the bible - the ones believers attribute directly to Jesus. So they're anti-hate, pro-love, social justice-focused. Good people.
posted by headnsouth at 10:31 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have enjoyed listening to the Progressive Faith Sermons of Dr. Roger Ray, of the Community Christian Church of Springfield via podcast. It is a church that de-emphasized or questions the supernatural aspects of Christianity, and instead focuses on its social justice aspects. Not exactly a physical community, but I have felt a virtual kinship to this group.
posted by nanook at 10:55 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The church that I attend posts all the sermons and Bible studies online. I like it because it is an educated understanding of the Bible. The preacher puts everything in context. He talks about the history of the time and so on. It might help you to get an intellectual view of Christianity before deciding on a church.
posted by myselfasme at 11:00 AM on July 2, 2014

To add to my previous answer, my experience growing up attending a UCC church was very similar to what KathrynT describes. I attended confirmation classes in eighth grade and was active in the youth group and choir all through high school, and the ministry and adult leaders of those groups actively encouraged us to explore feelings of doubt and questions if we had them. At the end of our confirmation year, we each had to write our own statement of faith and a summary of mine would pretty much be a milder version of cjorgenson's quote, "I love Jesus. I think Jesus is a great guy. it's too bad they went and made him a god". I always felt respected by my confirmation leader, one of the ministers, and had a number of interesting discussions with him about my questions regarding faith.

Looking back, I very much appreciate my experiences there, especially the strong feeling of a community bond and the adult mentors whose discussions and support were an important part of my high school experience. It's that community spirit I'd want to preserve most if I do end up attending church again as an adult. While I wouldn't hesitate at all if attending a UCC church was the best option, I think that the Unitarians would really be the best fit for my beliefs where I am right now.
posted by augustimagination at 11:23 AM on July 2, 2014

Nthing Quakers. (What a fun sentence.) I think you'd find they don't even agree internally on very many, as you say, "supernatural" ideas. For many, the service/activist aspect is the faith; they are one and the same. (I remember realizing that some of the ones I knew would probably describe themselves as Christians, some would not, some would ask what you meant by "Christian," and they'd all be sincere and legitimately part of the same faith community.)
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:46 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm another long-term atheist who spent a few years going to UU congregation, with a family I was connected with by marriage at the time. There's tons of atheists/agnostics there, and I agree from what you said here that you would fit right in.
posted by matildaben at 12:30 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

If one UU church doesn't work for you, try another. Some are basically Episcopalian, while others are much more free wheeling.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:54 PM on July 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Another atheist UU checking in! can help you find a nearby congregation. As others have mentioned, there is great variety between UU congregations. While some are explicitly Humanist, virtually all will be welcoming!

You might find the HUUmanists interesting.
posted by andythebean at 3:52 PM on July 2, 2014

We went to a bunch of UU services when I was a kid, and I still remember one starting out with, "To whom it may concern…"

I think there was more of a dustup in the congregation over what strain of post-Marxist economics should be favored than the fairly obvious notion that about half of them were flatly atheist.

Good people; we left because my folks wanted more supernatural stuff, and honestly I wanted to sleep in on Sundays.
posted by klangklangston at 3:58 PM on July 2, 2014

You sound like a unitarian already.
posted by jpe at 5:16 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unitarianism is church for people who like church but don't like religion. You'll fit right in.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:09 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm an atheist and i attend a UU church and love it. It's the one place me and my (spiritual) wife could agree to take our kids. I definitely concur with trying a couple because of the 4 or so that i've attended here in san diego we definitely like some more than others.
posted by escher at 9:59 AM on July 3, 2014

I'm an atheist-leaning agnostic who was raised in a Southern Baptist household. I hold a lot of beliefs about the world, our place in it and the meaning of life, which I'd always believed I'd come up with all on my own. Imagine my surprise when I started studying yogic philosophy and realized how closely it aligned with my own self-developed belief system. Specifically, the Yoga Sutras.
posted by Brittanie at 9:21 PM on July 3, 2014

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