Thursday, February 18, 2016

Apprehensions about attending a Unitarian Universalist church

This is a bit of a personal note, but I figured that I could use an outlet for my angst and that others may find these thoughts useful.

The issue starts with my wife and I considering attending services at a Unitarian Universalist church near our home.  Given that I’m an atheist and that she’s a nominal deist who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, this may seem somewhat odd, so let me explain.

Why even consider attending?

One thing my wife misses from being active in our church of 8 years is the community. We didn’t have that many close church friends, but we had some.  We also didn’t have a child when we were in the church.  I’ve alluded before that my wife and I had fertility issues that luckily we were able to break through once with our daughter (after we deconverted no less!), but due to health reasons it’s looking like our daughter may be an only child.

As such, we really want to make sure she has a lot of social interaction with other children, and a lot of our close friends either don’t have or don’t want kids.  This combined with the fact that my wife could use some adult friends who also are parents, especially ones that are also stay at home parents, is a reason that spurred interest in attending a UU style church.

For myself, I’m not missing the community as much, but I’m also not the stay at home parent in our relationship.  Given that I care about my wife and daughter’s wellbeing a whole lot more than I have personal hang-ups about attending services again, I’m pretty sure we will at least check the church out.  If it works out well for just them, I’ll still be all-in since the message appears to be a reinforcement of humanist ideals I endorse. The point of this post is to at least get some of the hang-ups off my chest.

I do admit that it would be nice to find some like-minded folks to have philosophical discussions with, so that's one personal upside for me.

My apprehensions

At this point in my life, the idea of church in general just bothers me.

I identify as much as an apostate as I do an atheist, largely because the central tenents of Christianity disgust me (designed knowing we’d fall, having original sin, substitutionary atonement, the idea of goodness being central to Yahweh of the Old/New Testaments, the concept of hell, etc).  

There’s a reason Hitchens’s book subtitle “Religion Poisons Everything” has appeal to me, even though I know it’s fundamentally wrong. Religion, or even Christianity has some good parts and some really shitty parts. As an apostate who was literally raised to believe that stuff, it’s very easy for me to focus on the bad and forget the good parts.  Mind you I don’t think any of the “good parts” are unique to Christianity, they generally overlap with the humanistic values I espouse now. The Christian basis for those values may be wrong, but we at least agree on the conclusions - the golden rule, loving your neighbor, etc.

This is where Unitarian Universalists are supposed to shine – it’s all the good parts but without the faulty philosophical/theological basis. But…I still have a lingering emotional aversion.

The buzzwords carry emotional baggage

Just hearing “church” or “religion” or “spirituality” is enough to cause a negative gut reaction in me.  It actually took a few years after leaving the church to stop getting a disgusted feeling in my stomach when I’d embark on the familiar drive to the area my old church was in when I was heading to my “Friendly Local Game Store” that was right nearby.  I suppose after dedicating 8 years to a specific church and then coming to reject the fundamental tenents as having no basis to accept them can have that affect. 

The worst part is that I know it’s silly. It’s not a rational response. I even know that when I listen to the sermons the UU church has online from the past weeks when they use the words like “spirituality” or “spiritual fulfillment” it doesn’t mean the same thing they meant in my old church.  But that doesn’t stop the immediate negative reaction I have.

Church service itself seems fucked up now

Throughout a good part of my teenage years and then most of my 20’s I was active in the production of either children’s services or the main worship services.  I helped my parents run the children’s church program as a kid, I did the puppet ministry team for years. Then as an adult I spent about 8 years being the main sound person for the church, my wife often sat next to me and worked the power point for worship songs and sermons.

As anyone who has worked in the production of services can tell you, it becomes monotonous at times. This doesn’t mean one can’t find fulfillment in it, because I did when I believed. That doesn’t take the edge off when you’re getting up at 5AM on Sunday to open the church, or giving up Tuesday nights again so the worship team can rehearse. Sacrifices are still sacrifices, even if you believe they’re worth doing because you believe god wants you to do it.

But now that I consider going back to sit in a service, it’s just…odd. I kind of know how the sausage is made, in excruciating detail. I no longer want to sing the kinds of music that will be played anyway (I like hard rock/metal), and after listening to the past weeks messages online they still just kind of sound like sermons to me.  The overall feel from what I can tell at a distance is that it’s the kind of thing I’ve left behind, and that in turn reminds me of all the bad parts of religion.  Again, this isn’t rational, but it’s there.

I worry about what they will actually teach my daughter

This is my biggest fear. The UU website is pretty clear about welcoming people of all kinds of stripes, including atheists.  That said, they still have theists there and they celebrate all the world’s religions. 

I don’t have much of a problem interacting with theists, or trusting my daughter with them. I’ve long come to accept that caring about people as friends is way more important than caring about their beliefs regarding religion.  This is a slightly different context, since a big impetus for us to seek out a community that shares our humanist values is that our daughter can interact with kids her age, and that’ll be at the children’s services.

What I don’t want to have happen is to have my daughter get lead in some kind of prayer, or to get some kind of coloring book about Jesus, Moses, or Buddha.  If there’s anything like that going on we’re nope’ing right the fuck out.   

It’s disturbing to me to see young kids some of my friends have getting belief in invisible agents normalized via those kinds of methods.  That’s what normalized belief in those kinds of things for me as a kid, and I’ve even participated it in it when I helped with children’s ministries as a teenager and adult. Knowing what I do now and seeing kids parrot this sort of thing back based on the kinds of material churches feed them is downright creepy to me.  

My daughter can learn about supernatural beliefs and agents when she’s old enough to fully grasp the concepts involved, not when she’s young and impressionable.  

My next steps

I’m going to email the local church to ask some questions about what they believe and especially about what they teach in children’s church, assuming they have a children’s church.  Based on the answers we get there, we’ll likely attend some services and I will probably document our experiences with it on here.

I honestly don’t know how it’ll all go, but as church veterans who left the fold a few years ago it seems like it will be an odd experience.


  1. Greetings!

    I don't find it very interesting or productive to try to persuade anyone toward theism or atheism, especially when an adult has clearly expressed a preference for one over the other. So I won't make attempts at that.

    I do find it important to stand for what one believes, and to live one's life accordingly; we should let our lives be our testimony. And so I am always happy to discuss what makes me tick and let others do what they will with the information.

    The one area in your post I'd like to offer some thoughts on is your "biggest fear" about what your daughter will learn in a UU church. Religious education (or religious exploration, or faith's called many things) in the context of Unitarian Universalism is an ongoing process by which our children, and all of us really, are encouraged to learn about and to explore theologies, spiritualities, practices, etc., and to determine for ourselves which of them holds meaning for us. This would include Christianity. Religious education in Unitarian Universalism is not intended to be a process of indoctrination, for children or for adults. The goal in education is not to make little mini-me's of our children, but rather to give them space to ask the questions they want to ask and to find answers that make sense TO THEM.

    Are you willing to let your child explore, and grow, on her own? Are you willing to accept choices she will make about the person she wants to be and will become? Are you willing to embrace the possibility that she, despite your best intentions, may discover that she DOES believe in "God"? Would you accept her personal choices?

    Unitarian Universalists share common values without the need to share common beliefs. This is why we can come together in community; we respect our differences, and we expect to learn from one another. I would caution you: if you want to make the effort to be part of a UU community, you should be prepared to be vulnerable, and open to the experience. You should be willing to educate others about your agnosticism and atheism, and share your story and your experience with them. But you must allow them that same opportunity, even if their stories and experiences have led them to a vastly different place, theological, than yours have led you. "We need not think alike to love alike" is a quote often repeated in our circles.

    If you go into this experience with an open mind and an open heart, it might just work out in your favor. If you go into it having already sealed yourself off to the possibility of growth and change, it may not. In other words, if you enter the community looking for offense, you will find it, because that is your intention going in. "Seek and ye shall find!"

    Jesus, Moses, and Buddha had lots of good to teach us, if we would learn from them. We don't have to believe that Jesus was God incarnate or that he rose from the dead or that he even existed to appreciate his message of love and caring for the oppressed. We don't have to believe that Moses literally saw the face of a transcendent father-god, spoke to Him, and wrote down His Law to appreciate the story of a people struggling to survive in the wilderness and to distinguish themselves as a people. We don't have to believe anything about the Buddha to appreciate his calls toward compassion and an end to suffering. The message we receive is more important that package in which we receive let your daughter have a coloring book with Jesus in it. And talk to her about it. Ask her what she things about the stories in it, and tell her what YOU think. She'll come to her own conclusions, when the time is right for her. She may thank you for your loose grip some day.

    These are my thoughts, and I offer them to you to do what you will with them. I have no children of my own, but I have taught in our Sunday School, and I can tell you it's a wonder to watch our kids discover themselves. I wish you and your family all the best in your journey.


    1. p.s. search "The Great End in Religious Instruction, Rev Kathleen Owens" on YouTube. A great sermon on UU outlook on education.