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Clergy Without A God, Humanist Churches On The Rise

Humanist clergy meeting at the Washington Ethical Society
Humanist clergy meeting at the Washington Ethical Society
Julie Zauzmer

WASHINGTON — The name of the gathering almost sounded like an oxymoron: the "Humanist Clergy Collaboratory."

A meeting to organize religious leaders — for people who don't believe in organized religion?

"Well," Amanda Poppei joked, "some people would say we're not that organized."

But the humanist clergy — spiritual leaders for people who don't like to talk about God but do like to gather for a moral purpose — are trying to get a lot more organized. The "collaboratory," which Poppei hosted at Washington Ethical Society, the 73-year-old humanist congregation that she leads in Northwest Washington, brought together about 40 of them for a first-of-its-kind gathering of non-religious clergy.

These clergy without a God say that their movement is poised to grow dramatically right now, as American young adults report a lack of religious belief in higher numbers than ever before, but also yearn for communal ties and a sense of mission in a tumultuous time.

"Even more since the election, we have folks say, "I'm really looking for a way either to feel hope or to do justice,"" Poppei said. The Sunday after the presidential election, dozens of distressed liberal Washingtonians showed up at her service, and many have gotten involved in the congregation. Now, Poppei sees an opportunity for not just her community but humanists nationwide. "To me it's just about, how can we maximize what we're doing to allow us to take advantage of the moment right now? I believe really strongly that being a person in a community makes you a better person. America needs it."

A belief in the power of humanity and the human spirit, without supernatural intervention.

Fueled especially by the millennial generation, the portion of Americans who say they don't ascribe to any particular religion has increased dramatically, from 5% in 1972 to 25% today. A small portion of those 25% identify as atheist or agnostic. The rest tend to describe themselves using terms like "spiritual but not religious' or just "nothing in particular."

These nonreligious people, of course, tend not to join religious congregations. But the clergy who gathered at Washington Ethical Society this week offer them just that.

Almost all of these clergy hold services, often on Sunday mornings like a church. Members of their congregations sing together, listen to sermons and often celebrate God-free holidays. As an alternative to theism, these groups proffer humanism — a belief in the power of humanity and the human spirit, without supernatural intervention.

"We need spaces for secular moral stories, to raise up ideals, as a hub for service. We can't do service as individuals," said James Croft, who is involved in the 400-member Ethical Society of St. Louis. "Congregations help people make sense of terrible events. Congregations do memorials, weddings, baby namings."

Croft and Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein are working on a book for Simon and Schuster called "Godless Congregations." He thinks the young activists who have been newly inspired since the 2016 election to get involved in the political process will turn to congregational membership too.

"That needs some sort of institutional home. That's what I think these communities can be. Resistance is a hashtag. Where do you go to resist?" he said. "We are primed for a regeneration of traditional civic ideals."

Humanists looking for gatherings have more options than they might think. At this week's meeting, Susann Heap of the United Coalition of Reason showed off a new app for finding hundreds of humanist meetings in dozens of cities, with activities ranging from secular meditation to charitable volunteering to God-free addiction recovery.

Heap, who was in training to become a minister in the Church of England before reading non-canonical gospels and other materials that led to a change of heart, explained the motivation for the app: "Why should a person who doesn't believe in a deity feel alone?"

Most of the clergy at this summit, who came from as far away as the United Kingdom and Saskatchewan, belong to one of various humanists movements: the Ethical Culture movement; the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which keeps Jewish culture but strips God out of it; the Unitarian Universalist church, which welcomes members to believe in God or not. Other humanist clergy lead unaffiliated congregations that have popped up across the United States and Europe, including Sunday Assembly and Oasis meeting groups.

Each of these denominations holds meetings for its own members. Poppei, who trained as a Unitarian Universalist minister and now leads a congregation in the Ethical Culture movement, worked with humanist Rabbi Jeffrey Fallick and Unitarian minister Rev. David Breeden to convene a broader range of humanists at Poppei's congregation for a two-day meeting this week. They think the last such meeting was in 1984 — and before that, in the 1870s.

Some of the topics of discussion sessions during the meeting: how humanists should counsel people who are dying or grieving; how people who don't have faith can still participate in interfaith programs; what should go into humanist liturgy or humanist clergy education; what "spirituality" means and whether humanists can or should lay claim to it.

We are primed for a regeneration of traditional civic ideals.

"Sometimes atheists, in my experience, they cede too much linguistic ground to theists, when it comes to spirituality," Sincere Kirabo, an organizer at the American Humanist Association, said in one of the discussion groups.

Barry Swan, the leader of a Rochester, N.Y., humanistic synagogue, agreed. "I have a faith in humanity. I can have faith also. I am also not a nonbeliever."

"I like to say I'm a believer in the potential of human goodness," chimed in Randall Best, the leader of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society.

The clergy discussed ways they could work together on future projects, like serving more humanist patients in hospitals, sharing scripts for faith-free weddings and baby naming ceremonies, and getting involved in social justice movements. The keynote speakers, Kirabo and Kansas City activist Diane Burkholder, spoke about the humanist community's need to do more to include people of color and address racism.

But for all the grand plans, Poppei boiled the explanation for what these non-religious congregations can do down to very simple terms. A new member came to her service recently, she said. The woman was in her 30s, had been an atheist all her life, and had never much thought she was missing anything by not belonging to a religious community. Except one thing.

"I didn't know, when I got sick someday, who was going to bring me a casserole," the woman told Poppei.

Now that she's in an Ethical Culture society, she knows where that supportive casserole will come from, Poppei said. "I think that's what people are looking for."

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