I have an acquaintance who’s an Episcopalian. I know this because he frequently comments about his faith on his Facebook page. He makes no bones about his faith, but neither does he condemn people of other faiths or those who have none. I don’t recall him ever mentioning non believers so, in fact, I don’t really know what he thinks of us. But I have never felt “under attack” from him.
Today, he posted a link to a blog entitled Unapologetically Episcopalian. Always curious to know what drives people to belief and to religion (but never fully understanding), I followed the link and then read more about the site and its genesis. I found a particularly interesting bit on the site’s About page.
That page acknowledges an apparent internal conflict within the church (I think I recall reading about some such things, but to be honest I usually tune out on church news, despite my curiosity about what drives religious fervor). While acknowledging the conflict, the page directs readers to the works of the church in various places…a food pantry in Kansas, a healthy aging program in New York, and AIDS care team in North Carolina, and an arts and autism program in Alabama, among others.
While none of these programs, nor anything from the scriptures, will cause me to believe in one or more gods, they bring to mind for me, again, a haunting question: why is it that churches are so successful at creating and operating social assistance programs?
If the answer is “faith,” then I’m afraid non believers will be unable to duplicate those successes. But I don’t think that’s it. I think the lessons of morality emphasized within that faith may explain churches’ success in creating and operating social service programs. Certainly, there must be an element of “following the word,” but I can’t help but think the people who create and support those programs are doing so out of more than institutional religious coercion. They support those programs because they believe it’s the right thing to do. They act out of compassion. While their sense of morality may be reinforced by the church and their religion may claim to be the source of that morality, I think they are acting out of an almost universal, hard-wired moral code.
The success of the church, then, in marshaling support for social service programs may be its focus on what is right, what is just, and what is compassionate. (I will not stray, here, into all the horrifically ugly things “the church” has done, nor what members of the church continue to do, in the name of faith…there are ample opportunities for that another time.) Just as importantly, though, is the success of the church in building a sense of community, a feeling of affiliation, among its members. People tend to “do good” as part of a group, more so than as individuals. Affiliation, then, is a key element.
So, how can non believers collectively join the church in successfully developing and operating social service programs?
The answer, I think, may be addressed in two key ways: 1) creating a movement to enlist non believers in rallying around and promoting a code of secular morality with its attendant opportunities to “do good works” under the auspices of a new secular institution, and 2) making overtures to religious institutions about joint religious/secular social service initiatives in which both “sides” agree to focus on objectives and to avoid judgmental behaviors.
In practical terms, we need to create an institution, similar in dimension and scope to the church, to which secularists will be attracted. To generate acceptance, especially by people of faith, it is imperative that such an institution avoid being judgmental of religion and religious institutions. Rather, the institution should embrace all people who subscribe to its principles of morality (the majority of which, incidentally, would align quite well with the moral codes of most religions). As I see it, this institution and its local affiliates would serve a community of like-minded people in much the same way as a church serves its congregation.
In looking around the web and other places over the past few years, the closest “thing” I have found that resembles what I have in mind appears to be the Unitarian Universalists. The church encourages “borrowing” concepts from many religions and support social justice in various ways. In addition, it provides many social opportunities for its members, thereby offering a sense of community. Were it not for its core platform of religious belief (albeit a very, very broad one that’s subject to interpretation), I’d say it is the institution I’m describing. But that kernel of mysticism remains and there is not, to my knowledge, a truly comprehensive set of moral principles. That having been said, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUAC) promotes the following principles on its website:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
OK, so this is looking a little more interesting, though the issue of god remains a problem for me. But here is something else from the UUAC website:
What do Unitarian Universalists believe about the existence of a higher power?
Diverse beliefs about the existence of a higher power are welcome in Unitarian Universalism. Individual Unitarian Universalists may also identify as Atheists, Humanists, Christians, Pagans or with other theological and philosophical traditions. As a non-creedal faith, Unitarian Universalism does not require its members to share the same beliefs.
Alright, then, maybe this is worth a closer look. Maybe the secular institution already exists, but just doesn’t sell itself quite the way I had in mind. Maybe I will explore it personally. Or maybe not. If you return to this site in the next few months, I suspect I’ll have had more to say about this.