Can There Be a Naturalistic Replacement for the Benefits of Church Membership?

One of the many arguments for religion is that belonging to a church is beneficial (I didn’t say it was a good argument). Being part of a church means having a large support group, having options for family-friendly activities, and being a part of a community that is easily mobilized for volunteer and charity work.

I have lots of good memories from when my family belonged to a church. They had a special family service with great music, and afterwards we would socialize. The church was big enough that my siblings and I would all have people our age to hang out with while the parents chatted. One weekend I took part in the 30-hour famine with the youth group in the church basement, that was a lot of fun and it was the first time I stayed up all night so that was exciting. During “the flood of the century” here in 1997, the church organized a group of us to go out to someone’s farm and sandbag to save their home. I could go on…

Although churches often have a downside (indoctrination, hate-mongering, sexual abuse, etc.), they can be very helpful to people who are looking for a place to socialize, and to find some options for volunteer work in their community. From stories I’ve read on blogs and in books, a lot of people who belong to churches are actually non-believers, but enjoy church and the benefits they get from belonging to one.

Personally, I don’t think I could belong to a church. I sometimes watch TV preachers and I can’t really stomach their messages, which are accepted without criticism from the audience. I also wouldn’t want my money going towards and institution that spreads untruths, or towards charities that may work harder on converting people than on doing actual good.

So for people like me, is there an alternative? Can I get the sense of community and the other benefits that come with church membership without the supernatural overtones? I know there are non-believing groups out there that can replace what people get out of a church without the supernatural overtones. Do you belong to one of these groups? Do you think atheists and skeptics should try to create a naturalistic alternative to church?


10 Responses to “Can There Be a Naturalistic Replacement for the Benefits of Church Membership?”

  1. 1 timvictor May 21, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Is there an alternative? That’s a challenging question. I guess it depends on if your looking for “Christ without Christianity” or a community that may define itself as “spiritual apart from Godde,” or perhaps one that is “spiritual not religious.” Depending on the community there may be a world of difference between these or they may amount to the same thing.

    It seems that Christianity is largely based around a Sunday worship service, which includes worship and preaching. If neither work for you, it seems that options are bleak. I personally believe that we can do spirituality apart from doing church in the ever so popular way.

  2. 2 EnlightningLinZ May 21, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I’m not talking about spirituality, I’m talking about people who don’t have supernatural beliefs. If somebody wants to belong to a community that does things like volunteers, gathers for meetings on different topics, has activities for different age groups, etc, but doesn’t believe in the supernatural, do you think there’s a place for them?

    I didn’t include this in the original post, but I have heard of this place called the School of Life, it’s in London, and I got the impression from the podcast that I heard about it on that it’s kind of like a church except instead of preaching supernatural ideas it’s all about science and learning etc. I’m not sure what kind of community it is, but it sounds like something I would want to be a part of.

  3. 3 kevinbbg May 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    This is a problem long debated among atheists. I’ve always thought that the social aspects were the one place the religious have an advantage over us.

    A friend of mine belongs to the North Texas Church of Freethought, and atheist church even though that sounds like an oxymoron, and many atheists bristle at the idea of an atheist church. They even have a Wiki page:

    Down here in Southern California there is a meetup group where atheists get together for drinks and socializing once a month, I only went once. I’m not much of a joiner. I know there are meetup groups all over the country but don’t know if they are in Canada. Meetup is an interesting organization that sets up meetings on a variety of different things, pretty mcuh anything they can get enough people for in a specific area:

    But one thing I really liked was when my friend had a serious health problem she was able to get help from the other people at her atheist church, kind of like having an extended family. Something I can use since my family keeps dying off.

    I’ve also heard of atheists going to the Unity Church:

    The ones I’ve heard from say their church is about 1/3 atheists, and that is at several different churches around the country. One just told me he is going to give a talk next Sunday, I don’t know about what.

  4. 4 EnlightningLinZ May 21, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Thanks for the links kevin! I hadn’t heard of that Texas church before, I’ve been perusing their website, it looks cool!

    We do have a couple of small meetup groups here but I haven’t gone to any of their meetups yet…one hasn’t had any and the other one has only had a couple so far that I haven’t been able to make.

    Is the Unity Church like Unitarian Universalists? We have those here and I think they’re atheists for a large part…I still haven’t gone to one though, I’ll have to check it out!

  5. 6 Waltdakind May 26, 2010 at 6:27 am

    I’m inclined to think that the poster who recommended Unity Church was confusing them with Unitarian Universalism, as Unity Church specifies a belief in God as one of their core beliefs.
    If you should decide to visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation (sometimes they don’t even like to use the term church), I would recommend checking the topic beforehand as some topics lend themselves to being more interesting to atheists than others. I grew up attending Unitarian Universalist services and religious education classes, and if anything, I’d say it led me to be more of a naturalistic thinker than had I not been raised that way.

  6. 7 Scott May 31, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I have yet to come up with a good answer for this. I used to be a Mormon, which is a pretty close-knit bunch of people, very supportive when you need help and also very good at having ready-made friends and fellowshipping. I’ll admit, I miss that a lot.

    I haven’t seen a viable replacement in a non-beleiving fashion for this; a group that regularily meets together and has that sense of community. The closest thing I’ve heard of would be a Unitarian Church, though I haven’t been to one and I don’t know how community orientated they are.

  7. 8 Mr. Frisbee February 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    First, I will say what brought me to do a search for “alternatives to church for non-believers” that brought me to this post, and then I will share an experience that worked as a replacement for church.

    I did the search because I am feeling very low right now because several negative events have happened at the same time and I am struggling with being able to feel good–I need an equivalent to church. I was brought up in similar surroundings to those given by EnlightningLinZ, I am from a large family who attended a large Baptist church in the mid-west, and I went to church sometimes five times a week for various activities: two church services, a boy’s group similar to Boy Scouts, car wash fund raisers, co-ed youth group activities, and more. Talk about a sense of community!

    As alternatives to church, here on the San Francisco peninsula, I tried an atheist’s group in Palo Alto and have attended a local meditation center’s talks, but neither has fulfilled me so far because I find atheists to be too much “believers,” and that annoys me for some reason, and the meditation center is just so…calm and quiet. Maybe i haven’t given the meditation center, which seems to be based on Buddhism, so am still exploring that–thought I’d go again this morning but couldn’t get myself to go.

    Here’s the alternative I experienced in the late 1980s. While attending a university in southern Illinois, I was invited to join a small group of people (maybe 8-20) who went for a long run every Sunday morning. We’d all meet at one of the regulars’ homes (or apartments) and bring something to share for a brunch following the run–the host would even offer their shower if people couldn’t handle being sweaty or cold after the run). Because this event took place on Sunday mornings, in an area which is in the “Bible Belt,” it automatically weeded out most church goers.

    The sense of community in this group was wonderful. We’d chat with those who ran at the same speed, then we’d have this wonderful experience back at the house, high on endorphins from the run, sharing food and fellowship–just like church, without the religious overtones I had since “graduated” from. When my then wife and I moved away, they gave us a little framed certificate saying we were members of that group–I think it is “The Sunday Morning Brunch Bunch.” The MeetUp group may provide this sort of experience for you, EnlightningLinZ, in an area appropriate for your interests. It’s something I will have to give thought to myself as I search for a solution to my sense of isolation and need for community.

  8. 9 Mr. Frisbee February 5, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    It’s the same day, and I returned from attending the local Unitarian Universalist church. It was quite rewarding an experience, with families, humor, singing, and a strong sense of community. I am a cautious person so will approach going again with forethought. I just wanted to pass on my experience. Oh, and one more thing: I only heard the word “God” once, and that was when the visiting minister said, “Oh, God” or My God,” as a statement of exclamation, like “Oh, God, I can’t believe I said that!” It is this constant reference to Jesus and God and all that drives me nuts when I attend a church for unexpected reasons.

  9. 10 BWF June 26, 2012 at 11:14 am

    If I may reply to the concept of the Sunday morning worship, I’d like to suggest that worship of a deity is not all that believers get from services. It always seemed to me that the main purposes of the sermon was not so much to praise a deity as to reflect on teachings, inspire a strong ethical code to strive to be better people, and celebrate life and one another. Reflection, inspiration, and celebration do not require a deity or worship of any king. I find those three things are what non-churchgoers miss from Sunday morning semons.

    In addition to the sermon, all the social interaction, charity, and family activities mentioned above, as well as the sanctuary found in places of worship (or libraries or similar public buildings) and the joy of uniting in song seem to be truly beneficial to human well-being.

    Congrats to those who have found this in the Unitarian Universalist Church. In my experience, I have found that these vary greatly by congregation. Some are simply non-denominational Christian churches. Others seem to celebrate something like secular humanism.

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. I hope each of us finds what we long for, and that some day soon these alternatives will be more in the mainstream.

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