24 May 2015

Dale McGowan on Marriage Between Religious and Non-Religious People

Mixing humor and solid data in a talk from his heart and personal experience, Dale McGowan sheds some positive light on the topic of interfaith marriage. It's an increasingly relevant topic in our diverse, mobile and globalized world.

See Also:
Dale McGowan on The Humanist Hour

20 May 2015

The UUA and Its Non-Theistic Youth

As I discussed yesterday, I've been attending Fourth Universalist Society in New York regularly since this past Easter. Last Sunday the service centered on the 8th-graders (some may have been older) who have gone through this year's 'Coming of Age' program. This is a period of reflection in which the youth are mentored individually by selected members of the congregation, other than their parents, and are encouraged to formulate an idea of what they currently believe and value. It isn't intended to be a permanent declaration of faith, but more of a snapshot of where they are and a means to encourage them to think deeply about life and their place in the world. This takes the place of bar/bat mitsvahs, immersion baptism or confirmation, as found in other religious traditions. What grabbed my attention in this round of Coming of Age presentations was this:
Now, granted, these were kids plainly from liberal religious homes, else they wouldn't be in a Unitarian Universalist congregation going through a Coming of Age ceremony. And yet, most of the kids were so definite in their denial of a higher power or any specific deity that it struck me as important. Yes, a couple of the kids referenced a vague spirituality in which prayer made sense and some being might possibly hear, but they were very much in the minority.

It seems to me that the UUA would do well to consider the changing religious views, and in particular take note of what young people are saying in Religious Education classes and Coming of Age ceremonies. There is a trend away from Christianity and organized religion in the United States, and it could well be that some of the religiously disinclined could be drawn back by a positive, life-affirming stance without theism, one such as Humanism.

In recent years the UUA has gotten away from Humanism, seemingly in an attempt to be more inclusive. I've noticed that churches highlighted by the denomination as 'breakthrough' congregations are often ones that were more like cliquish Humanist lecture halls than warm, welcoming parish churches. I'm afraid that by moving away from a dry, cerebral approach to a more lively option, the baby is being thrown out with the bath water. Sunday Assembly and other similar groups demonstrate that a congregation can be both non-theistic and vibrant. It is precisely this type of community that can fare best in our increasingly secular society.

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19 May 2015

Fourth Universalist Society of New York City

When I arrived back in the United States from Brazil at the end of February this year, I simply assumed that I'd be attending an Ethical Society and also Sunday Assembly. What I've found is that I love participating in Sunday Assembly, and am pleased to now be one of the organizers for the NYC assembly, but it currently only meets one Sunday per month. As for Ethical Culture, I without a car I can't make the trip up to the Bergen County group, and the Ethical Society in Manhattan is composed of older people and the Platforms (what they call their gatherings) are a smidgen more cerebral than I'd rather have on Sunday morning. What was missing there was that warm sense of 'church' that requires a more religious tone. On Easter Sunday, out of some sense of not wanting to miss out on the tradition, I found my way to Fourth Universalist Society in New York. I felt right at home.

The architecture is inspiring, and the interior of the church is full of Christian symbolism. That first Sunday, on Easter, was somewhat atypical in that the cushioned chairs serving in the place of pews (grateful for that), were arranged into an ellipse. The senior minister had arranged some mystery boxes in the center, and during the sermon time she had different people take out items from the boxes. Stories were told from the crucifixion/resurrection narratives of the gospels, based on the items in the box. Despite the Christian architecture and the strong Christian theme of that sermon, I felt no insistence those attending were expected to embrace a traditional Christian perspective. The sermon was inspiration and encouraging, in any event.

Over the following weeks I've become a regular at Fourth Universalist, and yet I haven't formed any connections there yet. There may be two reasons for this being the case.

First, I know that when I wife and children arrive from Brazil this summer, I won't continue attending church in the city. More than likely I'll continue helping out with Sunday Assembly, but that's not as much of a challenge because the main gatherings are currently only once a month, and on Sunday afternoons. Sunday mornings, though, I want to be with my family in church. Where that will be depends on my wife and me to decide together, but it will most certainly be close to home in New Jersey. Since my time with Fourth Universalist is limited, I probably am not as compelled to socialize as I would be otherwise.

Second, while there is a fellowship hour with coffee and snacks right after the service, it feels awkward to me to stay. Not really knowing anyone, hanging around afterward leaves me feeling open to not being approached. I've been the kid sitting alone at lunch at school, and that makes me hesitate when presented with the prospect again. Note that this has everything to do with my own fears and phobias, not with this church.

If you're going to be visiting New York over a weekend any time, I recommend Fourth Universalist Society. The city is full of historic churches, and this congregation in the liberal religious tradition, meeting in a beautiful building just across the street from Central Park and a couple of blocks or so down from the Natural History Museum, is one of the better options you'll find.

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18 May 2015

Why I Don't Celebrate the Decline of Churches

This past week, Pew Research Center released a study indicated that Christianity is in numerical decline in the United States, and that there are more 'nones' than ever. This set off a flurry of tweets, blog posts and other social media noise, from all sides. This study didn't surprise me in the slightest, given the progress that's been made in disseminating scientific information in recent decades, with the advent of the Internet. Also, changing views regarding sexual orientation and other 'moral' questions could only mean that a review of religious priorities was sure to follow close along. What did annoy me, though, was the naivety of many in the atheist/agnostic/Humanist/freethought/skeptic community. They took this increase in unaffiliated people as a sign of secular progress. This isn't necessarily the case, and I for one would not celebrate the decline or even death of church communities.

First, one misunderstanding is around what it means to be unaffiliated with a church. It simply means that an organized religion has not been claimed. It does not mean that the unaffiliated person is a rationalist, let alone identify as a Humanist, freethinker or skeptic. In fact, an unaffiliated person could be even more superstitious than a regular church-goer.

During my time among evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians, I observed a certain healthy skepticism -- in the U.S. at least -- regarding supposed paranormal activity as well as astrology, among other nonsensical beliefs. At the same time, many of those very Christians unblinkingly affirmed the 6-day creation and hell for everyone who didn't believe as they did. I would argue that such people are farther into the 'rational' spectrum than New Agers rubbing crystals, albeit perhaps not by much.

As a Christian minister I was privy to a lot of what people inside and outside the church believed, and it was rare for me to encounter an 'unchurched' person who was an atheist. Most held to some vague spirituality that included belief in a god that resembled to some extend the one described by Christianity.

Second, if in fact churches are in decline, then something valuable is potentially being missed by those who opt-out. Regardless of specific beliefs, churches can provide valuable social connections that are not always available through other means. Identification with a church can provide a fictive kinship that is comforting and useful. The various phases of life (birth, parenting, youth group, weddings, births, deaths) are nurtured through church association. Special group events (camps, retreats, common cause on important issues) enhance a sense of well-being and purpose.

Often on atheists forums or blogs I'll see comments left by people in European nations saying how well they get along without church and its related functions. Frankly, I'm not impressed by that. Clearly, many people get along just fine without any church affiliation, but why diminish the value of a type of community that some find sustaining? In reality, there seems to be a need for church-like communities, as even Sunday Assembly was born in increasingly-secular London.

For church to exist and provide a healthy, worthwhile service to its members and the larger community, it does not need to insist upon faith in an unseen supernatural world. It is entirely possibly for a church to provide ethical guidance, a call to social justice and a vibrant community life without referencing deities or spirits. Such has been the case for many years within Ethical Culture, as well as among Humanist-oriented congregations within the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is now being explored in the above-mentioned Sunday Assembly, as well as the Oasis gatherings, Fellowship of Freethought and others.

For a little further reflection on the topic of the rise of the 'nones,' check out this video.

See Also:
'Church' Options for Non-Theists