As a skeptic, I steer clear of dogmatic religions that insist their congregations adhere to a strict view of spirituality and divinity. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with most churches, even the more liberal and accepting churches, such as the mega-church I visited (out of courtesy and curiosity) in Chicago. The reason is that I simply do not have faith in their god, or a desire to believe in anything supernatural.
I’m a naturalist. My personal choice is to appreciate the world for its actual inherent qualities, as proven by science, rather than how I imagine things to be, or wish them to be. I also believe that truth is provisional based on current evidence, and that truth can change depending on our collective knowledge.
But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in ritual, community, and the humanist principles of ethics and morality, all of which are understandably important to our society. So, when I was invited to attend a new Unitarian Universalist church in my area, I accepted the invitation with an open mind.
From what I can understand, Unitarians have diverse beliefs, including many who are atheists. The UU service I attended today was all about empathy, a subject that some would consider a spiritual topic, and thus outside of my science-based comfort zone. But, as anyone who has read Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness blog knows, there’s a great deal of science behind teaching kids to be empathetic to others. I felt like I was able to contribute ideas from the science-based perspective to the conversation.
The service was more of a group discussion, almost like a formal meet-up group. This particular church has no regular pastor, so the members alternate who leads the discussion each week. I enjoyed this interactive format, but the thought crossed my mind that open discussions have the potential of putting the group at risk of argument and division. There weren’t any arguments today, but I wonder how unitarians manage to stay unified when their members are so diverse in beliefs. If there’s one thing that potentially holds me back from joining, it’s the worry that beliefs for which I feel strongly (such as being pro-vaccination) will naturally put me at odds with others in the church.
Also, I personally enjoy debating subjects in which I’m passionate, and church does not seem like the appropriate place for disagreements. Perhaps attending UU church will teach me patience and understanding for the points-of-view of others, something that I sometimes lack being an outspoken advocate for science and reasoning. Everyone can learn the lesson of perspective taking, even an old rationalist curmudgeon such as myself.
Some skeptics would be bothered by the rituals of UU church. I accept their discomfort, which is probably based on their distaste for catholicism and other christian churches, but I’m not one of those people. I enjoy the symbolism of lighting a candle to represent the search for truth, and I’m pretty sure that everyone in attendance understood that the flame was just a flame and not a magical light of truth. I’d much rather be at a service that lights a flame for truth than a service where people are expected to eat a wafer that reportedly becomes the actual flesh of a sweaty bearded man as soon as you put it in your mouth.
We also went around the room and spoke about our joys and sorrows. Again, I saw this as being very therapeutic and appropriate for a church service. After we mentioned our joys and/or sorrows, we placed a rock in a bowl of water, presumably the ripples caused by the splash signify how we are all connected to each other. I don’t know exactly, but I thought it was a nice ceremony. The kids seemed to really enjoy sharing their joys and sorrows before they moved on to their own activities.
This congregation of Unitarians believe:
In the worth and dignity of every person;
That all people should be treated fairly and with kindness;
That we should accept one another and encourage spiritual growth;
In a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
that all people should have a voice in the world;
In working for a peaceful, fair, and free world;
In caring for our planet earth, the home we share with all living things.
OK, so I bolded my favorite line because it best matches my own principles, though I’m personally less interested in the meaning of truth than I am the details. I think everything else is fine, except that I personally disagree that people should be “encouraged” toward spiritual growth because I don’t personally believe in a spirit. I do, however, understand what people mean when they say the word “spiritual”, and they’re not necessarily talking about the disembodied everlasting ghost that resides inside our corporeal vessel. Sometimes “spirit” is just used as a catch-all term for the seemingly abstract areas of our mind: peace, joy, love, hope, etc. Anyway, that’s how I will choose to interpret the term.
I enjoyed the conversation and making new friends. I will go back.