Ask Richard: Is Joining the Unitarian Universalist Church a Betrayal of My Atheist Beliefs?


June 02, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I have been an atheist for several years now. I have three young children, all under the age of 10. I grew up a fundamentalist Christian and everyone I have ever known was a Christian. I live in a small town and the closest atheist social group is an hour's drive (my attempts to create an atheist social group in my area have failed.) However, there is a Unitarian Universalist church in the next town over that seems to be accepting of atheists.

My family and I are suffering socially with little to no one who believes as we do or even accepts us for our beliefs. Our kids cannot play with the neighbors because they hate us and tell my kids they will burn in hell. (My kids didn't even know what hell was!) My kids need other kids to play with who are accepting–or at least have parents who are accepting. I need social interaction with people whom I don't have to censor my own speech around for fear of further alienation. My wife also needs to be around others for social interaction, as she cannot work due to severe arthritis.

I want to try and visit the Unitarian church, mainly for some positive social interaction, but also because I want my children to be religiously literate (without my disdain and ill feelings toward most religions.) However, my own feelings about religion are getting in the way as I feel I am betraying myself by going to a church at all. Am I? How can I make myself do what I feel is right and set aside these feelings about organized religion?

–Socially Deprived

Dear Socially Deprived,

To answer your letter, I decided that I needed to visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation and see for myself. There's one that meets at a community center right here in my home town, and I went there last Sunday. I tried to imagine that I was you, struggling with a strong loathing for organized religion in general (which wasn't that hard because I share it).

Many readers who comment on the letters I publish have recommended that those writing in should investigate UU as a social outlet, as an accommodation for a religious spouse, as a means of having some kind of "church" to point to for their neighbors' sake, and as a way to meet some of their children's educational and social needs.

I cannot know how typical the UU group I attended is compared to others around the US or the world, but I had a very positive impression. I felt welcomed, but not pressured. Everything was offered, but nothing was obligated or expected. The general feeling was very inclusive, and not at all exclusive. The service had a variety of activities that were enjoyable, positive, affirming and reflected humanist values. Someone played good jazz on a saxophone, the singing was fun and the lyrics were thoroughly humanist. There was very little ritual and a great deal of basic people-to-people warmth.

But they really had me when I learned that at any time during the service I can get a cup of coffee and sip it in my chair.

The theme of the minister's talk was joy and sorrow. The emphasis was on people caring about each other and taking real action to help, rather than just having detached sympathy. God was only mentioned once near the end of the service, and that was only as part of a brief description of the story of Job (also the only Biblical reference) as an example of the challenges of life. Neither naïve nor saccharine, it was a positive attitude mixed with a realistic outlook. The only things I was asked to believe in were the value and dignity of human life and my own best qualities. I felt very comfortable through the service and the socializing afterward.

I spoke with a few members, two of whom identified as having humanist viewpoints without my prompting. Certainly there were several there who believe in God and Jesus, but it was clear that conformity was not a requirement to be there. I sensed no agenda to get me to think, believe or do anything.

I spoke with the minister and mentioned in the conversation that I'm an atheist. She had no problem with that and said that several others in the congregation would easily identify with my viewpoint. I described some of the social problems that my fellow atheists face and she said that she well understood, having come originally from Arkansas. She wants the group to be a refuge and a resource for anyone who can benefit from it–both believers and nonbelievers.

I asked her about the several children I had seen, who at the beginning of the service came through the crowd collecting cans and jars of food for the local homeless shelter. It was an adorable and heartwarming thing to see. (Afterwards they left to have some kind of fun treasure hunt.) The minister told me that they introduce the kids to the world religions so that they can be literate about them and make informed decisions about religion for themselves. They teach the kids skills for making ethical choices without formulaic or legalistic dogma, and encourage them to help others in need.

The UU church I visited is also active in supporting social and environmental justice. They work for local charitable causes, including a food pantry, a homeless shelter, adopting needy families during the holidays, finding placement for homeless pets, supporting the families of gay and lesbian children, and many more. In a more global arena, they organize fundraising events for AIDS research, support gay and lesbian civil rights, and promote fair trade coffee and chocolate industries, among several other things. From what I could tell, these are all seen as opportunities to help rather than opportunities to proselytize.

Socially Deprived, if I had the needs that you have described, I would be very comfortable coming to this group to fulfill those needs and being completely up front with them about my motives. I think they would consider those motives entirely understandable and legitimate and would continue to welcome and accept me just as I am, including my coffee addiction.

You are worried that you might be "betraying" yourself. Certainly you will be going against your initial emotional revulsion to something that you associate with unhappy personal experiences and/or with religious organizations that you oppose. But getting past our aversions is an important way in which we grow. Seeing past our blanket associations can open up opportunities to enrich our lives and broaden our perspectives. Ask yourself if there is some principle by which you live that you would be betraying. If not, if it's just your acquired distaste for all things even vaguely churchy, and you should feel comfortable visiting that UU congregation in the next town over and giving it a try.

I hope it will have some resemblance to the one I visited. Of course, all groups have their "warts" that you will notice after a time. But if that openhearted acceptance is there, it might rub off on you and you'll focus on the benefits instead of the flaws. Beyond the activities of the meeting itself, you might find like-minded friends who live relatively close to you.

The congregation may fit your needs or not, it may be to your liking or not, but either way at the very least I think you'll emerge with your rationalism undamaged and your values uncompromised. And you just might get over your repulsion of church and find a valuable asset for you, your wife and your children.


P.S. Here is a link to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, which is apparently an umbrella group for UU congregations and fellowships around the world. There is information about their principles and activities, as well locations of congregations around the US and the world. There are also more congregations under another organization called the Church of the Larger Fellowship.


Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.