Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A church for atheists...

The title of this post is taken from a sign outside one of our congregation’s buildings, where it is followed by the words ‘and everyone else.’ I have found people staring at that sign. I have even caught two people snapping photos of it. Apparently, the idea of a church where you don’t have to believe in god is a bit surprising to many.

I am the minister of New Unity - a Unitarian congregation with one site on Newington Green (the Newington Green Unitarian Church) and a second on Upper Street in Islington (Unity Church).

To me, including atheists in a church community doesn’t seem strange at all, but then, Unitarians do religion rather differently. We come from a long line of people who stubbornly refused to check their brain at the door when it came to religion. Some of them were burnt at the stake or subjected to other rather less than hospitable treatment as a result. Unitarians started out nearly 500 years ago as Christians who rejected the doctrines of the Trinity and original sin. They arrived at these heresies (a word derived from the Greek for ‘to choose’ - a label I wear with pride!) by studying the Bible and applying their own reason. 

In time, the successors to these early Unitarian heretics put aside the notion that the bible is the only book that includes wisdom and inspiration. They opened themselves up to Hinduism, Pagan traditions, Buddhism, Humanism, and more.

This may seem like a ridiculous kind of religion to some - but that’s only if you think that religion has to be defined by the arcane structures that most religions build up over time. Instead, I evaluate beliefs by their effects. If a belief makes people more loving, compassionate, and justice-seeking, I welcome it. If a belief makes one a selfish, oppressive jerk, it’s a belief I can’t support.

My goal is to create and nourish communities where people are loved, accepted, and encouraged in their growth and where people are empowered to work for a world where everyone can experience such an embrace. 

My own beliefs are very simple: Every person is sacred. We are all connected one to another. 

Is this literally true? I don’t know and I don’t care. It is not meant to be a statement of scientific fact, and I’m sure it would be untenable by those standards (with a Ph.D. in biology, I should know that better than most). In the religious sphere, we choose what to believe and my beliefs impel me to see all others as valuable and worthy beyond measure. These beliefs force me to work to see and treat others and brothers and sisters. They lead me to understand that gay and lesbian people are sacred. That transgender and bisexual people are sacred. That disabled people and people of all ages and colours are sacred. And because we are all connected, I’m certainly not going to put up with any of my sacred brothers and sisters being treated unjustly.
So, let’s not wait for the world to change. Let’s work together against oppression and injustice and - if you’re an atheist (or not) - you might just want to consider coming to church!


  1. Yes, yes, yes and more yes.

    If only there *were* more churches like that!

  2. "My goal is to create and nourish communities where people are loved, accepted, and encouraged in their growth and where people are empowered to work for a world where everyone can experience such an embrace."

    Somewhat playing devil's advocate - but what about this is religious?

  3. Stephen - everything. What could be more 'religious' than love, justice, and growth?

  4. I was having this discussion with someone the other day, who asked whether Quakerism is a religion. One Quaker said it wasn't, and several looked a bit surprised, to say the least. I said to the questioner that it all depends on what you mean by religion.

    Oxford English Dictionary: ... re- prefix + a second element of uncertain origin; ...(especially by early Christian writers) with religāre religate v., ‘religion’ being taken as ‘that which ties believers to God’. Each view finds supporters among modern scholars.

    Folk etymology (which I take as a form of mythology, i.e. a way of making sense of the world): re-ligare, that which ties us to each other.

  5. Wonderful. Churches must be a place where all are welcome, or they are not church.

  6. "We are all connected"


  7. Or you could look at Jesus' challenge when he identified himself with those who are sick, disabled, starving, in prison, etc. - seeing them literally as God is pretty challenging. So is the Quaker advice to see that of God in everyone. Try it for just a day and see how it changes things.

  8. re-ligio - to reconnect - one definition of which could be to "create and nourish communities where people are loved, accepted, and encouraged in their growth and where people are empowered to work for a world where everyone can experience such an embrace."

  9. Your third-to-last paragraph (My goal is to...) clarifies for me Peter B's concern that UU could become (or be perceived as) institutionalized narcissism. Creating a community where people are loved, accepted, and encouraged requires that somebody somewhere do something. In a world of universal narcissism we'd each sit around waiting for somebody else to make us feel loved, accepted, and encouraged. And then of course it would never happen.

  10. Thanks Will. I appreciate your comment very much!

  11. I agree - completely, Every church is built on a truth, that pure truth is sometimes diluted, changed or adjusted for political or other reasons. We should search for the truth and embrace it from every religion.
    Spirituality is everything and dogma is rubbish - we are all connected,we are all part of the source, even if we happen to be an atheist. Importantly for your work, man is both animalistic and spiritual,in modern society technology and consumerism can overshadow spirituality - or even drown it! The spiritual element is massively important, we cannot be complete without it - your unity church would seem to perform this important function for all!