25 November 2007

"Sunday School for Atheists" and UU Religious Education - Similar and Different??

For anyone who is interested in Unitarian Universalist religious education, this article from Time Magazine is worth reading:

Sunday School for Atheists

Here are two quotes from this article:
"An estimated 14% of Americans profess to have no religion, and among 18-to-25-year-olds, the proportion rises to 20%, according to the Institute for Humanist Studies. The lives of these young people would be much easier, adult nonbelievers say, if they learned at an early age how to respond to the God-fearing majority in the U.S. 'It's important for kids not to look weird,' says Peter Bishop, who leads the preteen class at the Humanist center in Palo Alto. Others say the weekly instruction supports their position that it's O.K. to not believe in God and gives them a place to reinforce the morals and values they want their children to have."

"The Palo Alto [Humanist Community Center] Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. One Sunday this fall found a dozen children up to age 6 and several parents playing percussion instruments and singing empowering anthems like 'I'm Unique and Unrepeatable,' set to the tune of 'Ten Little Indians,' instead of traditional Sunday-school songs like 'Jesus Loves Me.' Rather than listen to a Bible story, the class read "Stone Soup," a secular parable of a traveler who feeds a village by making a stew using one ingredient from each home."
This sounds a lot like what we would present in a Unitarian Universalist religious education program for our children.

I'm curious why a group would need to create a Sunday School program that sounds so much like a Unitarian Universalist one in a community where a Unitarian Universalist congregation already exists.

Given that the "Atheist - Agnostic - Unchurched" demographic is a growing in North America and Christianity is shrinking in North America, does it make sense for Unitarian Universalists to package ourselves as a "church"?

Does the use of traditional language of reverence in our congregations drive off this growing demographic group?

Does the use of the word "church" in the name of many of our congregations drive off this growing demographic group?

This growing demographic is a natural one for us and it was our "market niche" in the past. What will Unitarian Universalism look like if we forfeit this portion of the religious marketplace?


Peter said...

I'm curious why a group would need to create a Sunday School program that sounds so much like a Unitarian Universalist one in a community where a Unitarian Universalist congregation already exists.

i would not go to a UU church, or any other church (a church being an organization that believes in a supernatural power). i suspect that is the answer to your question.

Steve Caldwell said...


Thanks for confirming one of my guesses here about the frequent use of the "church" label for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

UU congregations are non-creedal.

We have no creedal tests for congregational membership and this is a mandatory requirement in our denominational bylaws.

There is no organizational "belief" in anything supernatural.

Yes -- there are individuals in UU congregations who believe things that one may consider supernatural (e.g. Theism, Deism, Paganism, Christianity, etc). But these are not "organizational" beliefs.

These various beliefs are held by individuals and we do not reject the individuals who hold them because we place a very high value on freedom of belief.

If we required (as a creedal test) a rejection of all things supernatural by our members, we would be violating our values with respect to freedom of belief.

I suspect the perception that "church" = "belief in supernatural" doesn't help UU congregations in some instances.

For the Atheist or Agnostic, the word "church" implies belief in the supernatural.

For those who are not Christian (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc), the word "church" implies Christianity.

Thanks for the feedback on one of my guesses.

Philocrites said...

On the other hand, Steve, one of the top three search terms that brings people to UUA.org and uuworld.org is "unitarian church." The fact that people who don't like religious institutions might hold some of our beliefs doesn't mean that they're likely candidates to join us. If we eliminated "church" from our name or our identity, that wouldn't necessarily draw lots of atheists -- but it sure would make it harder for the people who are already looking for us to find us!

Peter said...

i would not go to a UU church

i guess i should say 'i would not, in general, of my own volition, show up at a UU church or any other church'. :)

i've actually heard very good things about the UU church(es) (??) in palo alto. and there are probably members of both the Humanist Community and the local UUs.

but yeah - the word 'church' is pretty powerful i guess.

when i try to describe what Humanism is or the Humanist Community (the palo alto group), i say it is 'like church, without the church', or 'like church, without the god stuff'. i actually have no idea if that makes sense to people or not.

fausto said...

Steve, you said:

There is no organizational "belief" in anything supernatural.

Yes -- there are individuals in UU congregations who believe things that one may consider supernatural (e.g. Theism, Deism, Paganism, Christianity, etc). But these are not "organizational" beliefs.

I think that's the essential reason why some atheists would not choose to join us, though. We affirm freedom of belief, not conformity of belief. We don't require anyone to believe those things, but we do expect everyone to accept that at least some of our members will believe those things, and we do expect everyone to accept that our varying personal understandings are equally valued and encouraged by the congregation as a whole.

Kristin said...

I attend a UU congregation, and I find it hard to use the term "church". Ours happens to be a Fellowship in charter, which makes it easier for me. Interestingly though, a few friends of mine with a familial background of strong Christian religion (almost fundie) find the term "fellowship" sounding more strict Christian than others.

So, what would the best terminology be? Group seems too bland, gathering too informal (I mean, there is a structure to it), community seems too broad ....

Peter said...

So, what would the best terminology be?

not sure what the best would be, but 'fellowship' sounds very 'churchy' to me, too.

end of the day, i'm not sure how much the terminology really matters.

for example, in my case, i'm not particularly interested in hanging out at a UU church/congregation/fellowship/group/etc because I got the impression that the UU is more about religion/supernaturalism than I'd be comfortable with (anything more than zero, really) - and so far that seems correct.

similarly, i expected that as an atheist i'd be welcome in any Humanist setting, and that's turned out to be the case - at least so far, in my very limited experience with Humanism. it does seem there is quite a bit of variability even under the formal definition of 'Humanism' - in terms of belief in the supernatural, etc. I noticed some places in texas that were 'Humanist', but that i wouldn't go to because according to their websites they're really more UU in that they pray, talk about God, etc.

so, whether a UU org called itself a fellowship or a church or a group, or a Humanist org called itself a church or group or whatever, it seems i ended up in the right place - and i don't think that's an accident. the name is secondary - it gives a hint what some org is about, but a good website spells out any details very clearly.

so for any of us, whether we're trying to grow UU or Humanism, the question is 'what can we do to attract new people to our group?'.

check out this list of some of the ways Humanist orgs name themselves - this is from the AHA page, and contains at least a couple of UU-type orgs, it seems - and this is not a complete list ->

Humanists Association of the Tennessee Valley
Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix
Humanist Community in Silicon Valley
The Humanist Society: Humanist Fellowship of San Diego
Humanists of the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno area)
Humanism Applied
Fellowship of Humanity
Atheists and Other Freethinkers
Central Colorado Humanists
Humanist Action League
Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH)
Association of Freethinkers & Humanists of Palm Coast
Gulf Coast Humanist Association
Humanist Club at Barefoot Bay
Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago
Lucent Humanist League
Congregation Beth Or
Dupage Unitarian Universalist Church
Humanist Group of Southern Illinois
Iowa Secularists
Heartland Humanists
Humanist Forum of Central Kentucky
Free Inquiry Group, Inc. of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky
Humanist Affinity Group
Humanist Chaplaincy of Harvard University
Humanist Study Group of the UU Church of Worcester
Universal Life Church of Kalamazoo

at the moment, i attend 'The Humanist Community in Silicon Valley' org, and i think they/we just call ourselves 'The Humanist Community'.

I have to say, of all the different terms I see in the list above (association, group, study group, affinity group, forum, club, league, church), i prefer 'community'.

The term 'community' is really what i'm after, personally, and it just so happens that i think it'll be one of the easiest things to sell. it's a bit ambiguous, like, what does 'build community' really mean, anyways? but that can be taken care of when your organization actually does something.

i've heard just a little bit about the different ways The Humanity Community (my particular group) is involved with different members, and i'm only surprised that more people don't know about us or don't want to get involved. we're making specific efforts to get the word out better - starting a blog, getting videos up on Google and the local cable channels, so that will be a start, but at the end of the day the question will be are we delivering value to members?

i think and hope that answer will be a resounding 'yes'. if that is the case, i've no doubt that we'll grow and prosper, as will any org that delivers real value to its members.

Francis said...

To Whom It May Concern,

I would deeply appreciate it if you would be so kind as to post the following notice on your bulletin board or even publish it in your news bulletin since it provides excellent opportunities for the secular university students. Thank you. Francis G. Johann, Official DUFFFR Organizer. fjohann21@gmail.com
Important Opportunities for the Secular University Students
It is a sad fact that we secularists are wasting our votes in the national presidential elections. Although secularists, which include atheists, freethinkers and other variants, and even uncommitted nonbelievers who write "none" under "religious affiliation," now comprise 15% of the total votes, they are wasted by being dispersed among the Democrats 47%, Republicans 27%, and Independents 26%. Frankly, I don't understand how secularists and their variants can possibly vote for the Republican Party together with the Christian Far Right for a man like George W. Bush. And the Independents like the Greens are simply wasted votes. But the promising data is that 47%, almost half of the 15% are Democrats. So, it is logical that we unite under the aegis of our own Democratic Party, independently, but as loyal Democrats. It is interesting to note that 15% percent of university students are atheists, secularists or the other variants which corresponds exactly to the15% of voters mentioned above.
There are openings available for president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer of your local chapter of the DUFFFR, also for volunteer members to canvass on the campus, and for those with a tightly- crammed study schedule just to sign up as members now for the head-count, to keep up with events, and for opportunities awaiting upon graduation. For further information and the DUFFFR platform, write to Francis G. Johann, Official DUFFFR Organizer, fjohann21@gmail.com
Democrats United For Freedom From Religion
Founded by Secular University Students in the Year 2010

The Secular Platform

We advocate freedom from religion and absolute separation of church and state.
We support the LGBT Stonewall Democrats, Asians, Blacks, Women’s Liberation and all those who are oppressed, discriminated, and marginalized. We are anti-war and pro-choice. We defend the planet’s environment and its plant and animal life. We support the platform of the Green Party and we will contribute to its achievement. We urge all secularists, atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, and nonbelievers to overcome their individualistic mind-sets and interests in order to unite forces under the DUFFFR banner. As Abraham Lincoln said so wisely, “A house divided cannot stand.”