Posted by: Ticktock | July 18, 2010

A Skeptic Goes To Church

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 it’s 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.



  1. I enjoyed this post. We, too, have a Unitarian church in our area, and I have been thinking of going. I like the creed you posted.


  2. Every description of UU churches sounds like liberal discussion groups. I assume they’re called churches so people can feel good because they go to “church.” To me, UU keeps up the facade that churches and religion are necessary. I consider that a bad thing.

    • There’s a lot of things that aren’t necessary. Blogs aren’t necessary. The Amazing Meeting isn’t necessary. Skeptics in the Pub isn’t necessary.

      I’m not sure anyone is saying that church is necessary – certainly not the UUs. I like liberal discussion groups, so there’s no conflict of interest here. Except, I would argue that UU is a place where anyone can gather, regardless of their politics, to talk about universal humanist values. I see merit in mutually discussing making ourselves and our world a better place. If it has to happen on a sunday, so be it.

  3. I’ve had a similar experience in the past year, also joining a UU church. Ours is a bit larger congregation than yours seems to be, with two ministers on staff, but much of what you’ve written here rings true to me. I actually had a conversation with another member of the church when I encountered some anti-vax stuff in the social mission group. As you say, patience and tolerance aren’t bad virtues to cultivate, even in the face of strong disagreement.

    As our minister likes to say:
    UUs believe in life BEFORE death.

  4. @DiscordianStooge: I have mixed feelings about the need for a church-like structure for free-thinkers. While I don’t think it’s strictly necessary once you’ve reached a certain point in your thinking, it can still be useful. It is more useful for those who come from a traditional congregation-based upbringing and are venturing out for the first time. In a sense, it provides some kind of familiar setting and a ready community of people who are coming to their own understanding of the nature of the world and the search for truth and meaning.

    On the other hand, the format may promote conformity and stifle actual self-directed exploration and discovery. This is the danger of all churches, in my opinion.

    If we step back and look at it as a framework, perhaps it looks more like a school than a church, even if it has attendant rituals and spiritual language. At some point we may progress as a species beyond the need for schools, too, but for now they are necessary.

  5. Empathy doesn’t seem spiritual to me at all but a basis for humanity. Attempting to feel vicariously the lot of others gives us compassion and caring. I can remember traveling by train from Bombay to Madras in India and seeing a woman working a field by hand. I felt great empathy for her and it has never left me. It connected me to her.

    • I’d agree that we evolved empathy as a natural part of human nature, but I also think empathy needs to be taught and encouraged in our children. I see spirituality as a process of being tuned into the core essence of what makes us human, and that it doesn’t matter whether this essence is divine or natural. The golden rule of antiquity has been used by humanists and spiritualists as a universal rule of ethical morality. Certainly, it describes the essence of empathy – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or as some humanists like to rephrase it “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”

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