The Calgary Secular Church
Editor’s Note: Please welcome Korey Peters, who’s written a guest post about an atheist organization he’s founded that he’s calling the Calgary Secular Church. In this post, he’ll explain what motivated him to do it and what he’s hoping to achieve.
My name is Korey Peters, and I’m one of the founding members of the Calgary Secular Church (CSC). In this article, I’d like to do three things: 1. Describe why I think a secular church is important. 2. Describe what the CSC is about. 3. Present my opening remarks from our inaugural meeting (which go in-depth into what we hope to accomplish). There will be some overlap, although I’ve tried to keep it to a minimum. I’ll be happy to field questions in the comment section.
In the process of de-converting from fundamentalist Christianity, I stopped going to church. I had no intention of ever going back. However, I once rashly promised my wife that if we ever moved to the UK, I would sing in a choir with her. Well, much to my surprise, we did this in 2006. Within a week of landing my wife reminded me of my promise, so off we went to find an Anglican church with a good choir.
And find one we did. We were quickly integrated into the most lovely group of people you’d ever want to meet. The music was wonderful, the services light on insanity and heavy on social issues, the ale English (as it should be). That choir became our instant community for the 2 years we lived in England, and to this day I miss them all.
I’d never had such an enjoyable time at church! When we returned home, we began attending a local Anglican church and singing in the choir there. Here I was, a recent atheist now attending church more than I had when I was a Christian.
All of this got me thinking: Why couldn’t atheists start a church, full of all the good things that church can bring, but absent the horror, ignorance, and superstition? I began to talk the idea over with some friends, but it remained an abstraction.
Several weeks ago I had a conversation with a co-worker that spurred me to finally take action. His wife was recently pregnant, and they discussed the many changes in their lives that a baby would bring. One change that was proposed was going back to church so that their child would learn right and wrong. I almost spit my coffee across the room. What a preposterous idea! Here were two college-educated, non-religious people who had just proposed taking their child into the church to learn the very thing Christian churches are least capable of teaching. The realization hit home that they have nowhere else to take their child. There were no viable alternative. No place that fostered community, that was safe to take children and young families to, that would help people live right and teach their children to live right.
They needed the atheist church I had been planning.
That night I emailed a co-conspirator and we met a week later to found The Calgary Secular Church. I wanted to call it The Calgary Atheist Church, which my friend considered too off-putting. She wanted The Calgary Humanist Church, which I thought was too wishy-washy. We settled on Secular, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. “The Un-Church Church”. Perfect. She created a Facebook group for us, and we were away.
What is The Calgary Secular Church?
The Calgary Secular Church is the good parts of the Christian church, without the bad. We are a small group of a-religious or atheist people who want the community and celebration we used to have in our Christian (or Mormon) churches, but reject the superstition and faith espoused by our former haunts.
We have no dogma, but we do have an ethical and moral framework (based largely on Adam’s writings) that is robust but open to challenge. This is a subtle but powerful advantage over non-churched atheists. While free thought is recommended, some people have no interest in completely re-analyzing their moral framework every time they leave the house. That’s fine. The CSC provides a place where people who want to be ethical can benefit from the work of others in this area, where every little thing doesn’t become an ordeal of self-analysis. Let us stand on the shoulders of giants.
How We Operate
The CSC meets the first Sunday of every month. As we grow this may change. We are rather informal (our first meeting was in an Italian bakery), but not unstructured. Meetings will have an orderly and predictable progression.
What We Aspire To
The following remarks are taken from a speech I gave at our inaugural meeting. They reflect my own intentions for the church, and are subject to change or modification by the other participants as we get going. However, I hope they will play a large role in the CSC’s future.
Today we are going to save the world.
Welcome to the inaugural meeting of the Calgary Secular Church. Over the last 2000 years, the Christian church has come to be the center of much of the richness of human experience. However, the shortcomings of the Bible and Christianity are too serious to continue to ignore. Our purpose, therefore, is to take the good parts of church, the parts that are so beneficial to human society, and that have been proven effective over the last several millenia: the community, the music, and throw out the bad parts of church, the parts that threaten to make this planet inhospitable for human life: the systematic ignorance, the immorality, the bronze-age baggage. We are going to do church better than the Christians, better than anyone else. This is the Calgary Secular Church.
I’d like to start by giving a few ideas for the CSC that I think are of critical importance. Then I’d like to discuss a few ideas that I think would be nice to have. Finally, I’ll throw it open to the floor for everyone else to comment about what they’d like out of the CSC.
Okay. Some things I think are critical. Without these, I’m not interested in belonging.
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles by which we agree to be governed. When presented with two courses of action, a constitution allows us to choose the path that best fits our identity. It allows us to know what to do, even when we encounter completely new situations. With this in mind, I have a simple constitution which I’d like to propose for the CSC. Right now it’s just for discussion, but I would like to codify it within the next few weeks. If you have suggestions or critiques, please let me know (and I’ll post this on our Facebook page ASAP).
First Article: As much as possible, minimize real and potential suffering. As much as possible, maximize real and potential happiness.
This is our fundamental outlook on the world. All activity can be measured against this ethical framework. You can read more here.
Second Article: Sustainability.
The CSC is the ten thousand year church. We have no apocalypse to save us. We’re on this planet for the long-haul, and we should plan for that from the beginning. If we are undertaking a course of action that we cannot sustain for the next ten thousand years, it’s the wrong course of action.
Third Article: Build a durable local culture.
We should help create a culture that is inclusive, just, ethical, and wonderful. Humans need community, and I want the CSC to provide that community. I want to be the local church, the place people go to celebrate or mourn, for safety and support, to ease their cares and laugh.
Fourth Article: Build a durable global culture.
Like it or not, we are all in this together. With the advent of nuclear power, the Earth suddenly became very interconnected. We can no longer afford to believe bronze-age myths about the end of the world when we now have the power to bring that end about. Therefore, my final article is that we must work towards making this world into a global culture of people who look at themselves firstly as humans, then as earthlings, and only then a sense of belonging to any other group.
These four articles are tentatively listed in order of priority. We can measure our intentions against them, and the higher articles trump the lower ones. For example, if we have a plan that will grow global culture, but is not sustainable, that plan needs to be re-evaluated.
Okay, moving on. I want the CSC to be an ethical heavy-weight. I think the First Article is a great moral precept, but others have come up with a new 10 Commandments that I think is very valuable. They can be read here: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/new10c.html Imagine how useful they would be to your children in making the world a better place if they had these memorized, instead of the rubbish that’s in the Biblical 10 commandments.
My final “must have” is ceremony and celebration. I want the CSC to be at the forefront of helping people celebrate their lives, both the good times and the bad. I propose we craft ceremonies around the key landmarks in a human life: birth, education, marriage, death. I’d also like us to think about some festival days: days when we get together as a community and celebrate the sheer joy of being alive. The universe is full of mystery and wonder, and I’d like to celebrate that together with my friends. As a basic starting point, I’d like to propose we get together for special feasts on the equinoxes, winter and summer solstices. If we want to do other things, that’s great. But I think that’s a good start.
Okay. That’s all my “must haves”. Here are a bunch of other things that I’ve been thinking about, and we can take them or leave them, although I think each of them is important in their own way, and if we decide to “leave them”, we should propose replacement policies for each of these areas. This is less the “theoretical” stuff, and more the “nuts-and-bolts” stuff.
I see the CSC having a massive and critically important children’s ministry. In western culture, the Christian church has been the place where parents take their children to learn right and wrong. Well, needless to say, I think we can do almost infinitely better in this area for reasons I’d be happy to bang on about ad nauseam after the meeting, and I want to position the CSC to be the first choice in where parents take their children to learn how to be good people.
There are several ways I think we should do this.
Firstly, Sunday School. What kid doesn’t like making a little sheep out of cotton balls? What parent doesn’t like one hour of free child care? It’s a match made in heaven. It is my intention to run the best Sunday school in the city. We can teach children critical thinking, the scientific method, ethics, and we can do it while enjoying juice and cookies, and we can do it without having to skirt around “Is my daddy going to hell?” questions.
Secondly, a children’s choir. I intend to run the best children’s choir in the city, and to organize it in such a way that each one of our sibling churches can do the same. I want to be a parent’s first choice for teaching their kids the joy of music, and the gift of being able to sing. As a wonderful side-effect, our church services can be full of beautiful music. I am fully not joking about doing this, and have begun making plans already.
Thirdly, summer camps. I spent almost every summer of my youth at camp, and it was wonderful. There is a secular camping movement in the US already, and I don’t know why we can’t do it too. It’s great for the kids. It’s great for the teens who work there. It’s great for the parents who get a week-long holiday.
Okay, next is money. I’d like us to plan for the future in this area, and envision a system where donations are put into a fixed-interest account. The principal is never spent, meaning your donations help humanity forever.
Confession. What? Confession? Yes! I think it’s valuable to be able to go to someone safe when you screw up and tell them about it. I envision having qualified staff on hand that you can talk to when you do wrong, not to absolve you of your “sins”, but to help you make restitution, to help you ask for forgiveness, and to help you forgive yourself. Like I said at the beginning, we can do this way better than the Christian church.
Growth. I want to grow. I tossed around the idea of advocating for the word “Missionary” in our title, but decided not to. But I do want to grow. I want to grow like a franchise, which has been proven effective in the business world. As we go along, I’d like us to keep track of our progress and our processes so that the work we do now makes it easier for others who want to start secular churches. I’m fine with charging money to other sibling churches for our resources, but I don’t care if we do or not. I’m fine with having a hierarchy, just to make getting the work done easier, but I don’t care if we have one or not. I’m fine with starting other franchises ourselves in other places, but I don’t care if we do or not. I’m fine with having many other churches under our legal/corporate umbrella, but I don’t care if we do or not.
All I really want is to make this easier for others to do as well, so that the good things we create can spread and grow. But what that growth looks like, I don’t really care. I just think franchising might be the best way.
I’d like to sing in a choir myself. I hope we have one for adults. I want a rich tradition of music.
We might consider starting an anti-defamation league. Atheists are one of the most reviled groups on the planet, and many blatantly false things are said about us with complete immunity. I’d like that to stop. I’m not saying we should sue everyone into oblivion who says atheists are stupid. I am saying it might be valuable to create some language around some of the most common accusations and stand ready to defend ourselves from being called baby-eaters or Nazis or whatever other stupidness that people cook up. It’s illegal discrimination, and we need to fight it.
I think it might be valuable to offer de-conversion support. Losing your faith is terrifying, and many of the people who are losing it stand also to lose their families, their jobs, their entire communities, and they feel like they’re the only people in the world who this is happening to. It doesn’t need to be that way. We can offer counseling, confidential contact, legal advice, and even places to stay (there are a surprising number of teens who get kicked out of their homes every day for saying they don’t believe in God anymore). I’m not saying we should run a half-way house, I’m just saying the need is there and we should help if we can. I don’t know what that help would or should look like. I’m open to ideas.
The Calgary Secular Church has just recently had its inaugural meeting, and we will continue to meet on the first Sunday of the month. If you live in the Calgary, Alberta, Canada area, please feel free to join us at our next meeting. Please check our Facebook page for details as to times and locations.
Image credit: Cheryl DeWolfe, released under CC BY 3.0 license