How to Create a Non-religious Church

In today’s lonely and socially-fragmented world, full of commercial messages but few messages of value and inclusion, there is a need for a new type of social institution which can grow strong communities. The idea presented herein is certainly not the only way for people to find and grow strong communities around themselves, but I think it would be just the ticket for many in need.

This is an article about how non-religious people (and tolerant religious believers) can create an awesome community for themselves, by adapting the most powerful and flexible social model in human history. This remarkable social model is, of course, religion- specifically, the institutions of religion- churches, mosques, temples, etc.

What I propose is that we can create non-religious alternatives to religious institutions, and that these secular alternatives can benefit many people in a way which surpasses what religious institutions are able to provide.

This can be accomplished by creating institutions which mix and match the benefits of religious institutions with the benefits of secular society.

In this post, I will call these alternative institutions “Non-religious Churches”, or “NRC” for short. I will be comparing Non-religious Churches with Christian churches, since that’s the model I’m most familiar with, and Christian churches are probably the most familiar institution to the people who will read this post. Most other religious institutions have a great deal of similarity with Christian churches, anyway, especially in “what generally works best”.

So! First, it’s important to realize that religious institutions have survived and thrived for so many centuries because they offer many, many benefits to their members, and most of these benefits *don’t require* a theology in order to be of value to the lives of their followers.

In fact, most religious believers have very little interest in the doctrines of their religions, precisely for this reason. For most people, the non-theological benefits of religion trump what they gain from the beliefs and doctrines of the religion.

The non-theological benefits to devotees usually include:
-*Regular* opportunities to visit with people they like (the most powerful factor in human happiness)
-Time-tested ideas for how to live a happy life. Sermons are food for thought, at a minimum.
-Opportunities to network, and to observe possible mates, business partners, and friends, as they interact with the shared community
-Safety in relationships. You can be confident that if you form a relationship with a fellow community member, they will be afraid of breaking one of the community’s rules and harming you, because doing so could cost them not only their relationship with you, but the loss of a substantial portion of their entire community
-Most churches offer a free or cheap meal with the service, or many meals throughout the week
-The knowledge that if you fall on hard times (illness, poverty, etc.), there will almost certainly be community support for you
-Religious institutions have *buildings*, which can be used for multiple non-religious communal needs throughout the year
-Childcare is typically provided. This is a godsend for stressed parents.
-Entertainment value is often a part of the service
-Archetypal, universal stories
-Some form of emotional uplift which often has nothing to do with the scriptures
-A feeling of belonging and solidarity
-Churches usually do a good job of giving each congregant a way to shine in some way, and be valued for it- musical skills, leading a study group, pageantry, teaching Sunday school, landscaping, volunteering, etc.
-A counterbalance to a commercialized popular culture
-One or more religious leaders, who are trained to offer counseling and comfort in a congregant’s hour of need
-Rules and social order
-A safe, community-policed space for children
-A safe social hangout space, in general. Many secular social spaces are less safe (bars, sporting events, colleges, etc.)
-Practice in being extroverted and socially graceful
-The ability to visit other “branches” of your church when you move or are traveling, so that no matter where you go, there’s a community you can slide right into
-A head start on being positively involved in the greater community, including charity work and hobby clubs
-Classes and gatherings throughout the week, usually meant to address specific personal needs
-Congregants you can trust and be open and vulnerable with- if for no other reason than because the religion instructs them to love you no matter what. (Vulnerability and intimacy have huge emotional benefits).
-For some people, a substitute (and superior) family to their biological family
-Practice in operating within hierarchical institutions. This is quite useful in working within the other institutions of life (companies, schools, governments, nonprofits, sports teams, etc.)
-Commitment to selflessness within the group. People are a lot stronger when they work together, instead of operating as “every man for himself”.
-The comforting and validating benefits of ritual (ritual is inherent to mammals)
-The emotional benefits of singing and chanting
-The family-strengthening effects of having something to do together as a family
-Perhaps the most important benefit of all: knowing that your fellow congregants share your values, and are expected to live up to them. I can’t tell you how inconvenient it was when for the first time in my life I primarily interacted with secular people, and had to figure out the values system of every single person who came my way. When I used to deal primarily with religious people, I was able to predict most of what other people would and wouldn’t do, and it made it extremely easy to start up enjoyable, constructive relationships with others. Since positive relationships with others are *the biggest difference between success and failure, and happiness versus misery* in the lives of most people, this is a huge deal.
-A hundred other possible benefits. Every devotee usually tries to make the most of their religious experience, in their own way.

I like being free of theological beliefs, but damn, does that list contain an impressive range of benefits, or what? The average believer donates 2% of his or her income to their religious institution, and maybe an average of 2 hours per week, and usually gets far more back in return.

In fact, studies show that one of the common elements in the lives of centenarians is belonging to a religious community. It is not hard to see why many people who are non-believers still go to church/synagogue/mosque/temple!

What I believe is that we can create new institutions which will combine many of the above benefits, with many of the benefits of secular society, as a resource for all the people who aren’t interested in subscribing to a theology, yet have very strong needs which would be well-served by a supportive community.

Common benefits of being non-religious include:
-Being in harmony, rather than at war, with education, science, and evidence
-An easier time adjusting to broader society and culture
-The freedom to do things which are inexplicably prohibited by religions, without facing possible ostracism from your community
-Greater tolerance and appreciation for diversity of behavior, race, culture, sexuality, etc.
-Less authoritarianism
-Better adaptation to modernity. Greater adaptability and openness to change, in general
-Not having to follow religious tenets which may actually be harmful
-Not having to spend enormous amounts of energy justifying beliefs in the unseen and unprovable
-More freedom to be your natural self; less guilt
-Being more attractive to the general public
-The freedom to associate with any type of person
-Full access to the very best of modern knowledge in:
Communication skills
Biochemistry
Psychology
Child-rearing
Self-awareness
Technology
etc.

This is a nice range of benefits, too. (And maybe I’ve missed some important benefits of not being religious- please tell me if I have!).

Many religious people find a way to experience these benefits, too, but for many people who left their former religion and became secular, it was because they could not reconcile their religious faith with their attempts to make the best of the secular world.

So, for secular people, wouldn’t it be even better if they could combine the benefits they gain from being secular, with the (also secular) benefits which are gleaned by the religious? Just re-read both lists above to see how awesome that could be.

I have frequently seen secular people talk about missing this or that about their old religion, and wishing there was something like it which existed, just so long as it was relatively free of anything which would require what the religious call “faith”.

Also, religious people, who *like* their theology, could join an NRC and gain benefits in addition to what they gain from their religion. There are maybe a few nonbelievers who would like to create a Non-religious Church which was stridently anti-religion, but most secular people I’ve known have no particular enmity towards the religious. Nearly all of us are in regular constructive contact with devotees of one sort or another, and it works out just fine.

Making a Non-religious church hospitable to the religious would be an excellent way to promote growth, not only in membership, but also by making use of the organizational and social skills which many religious people have already gained from their prior experience (be they former worship leaders, deacons, missionaries, pastors, rabbis, musicians, secretaries, priests, etc.).

—–

It’s incredibly easy to *start* an NRC and I would suggest that it’s probably a much better idea to start small and simple, than to try to create the ideal “finished product” from the very beginning.

All you need to start an NRC is:
-Some people to hang out with- and you can hang out with them anywhere (someone’s home, a bar, a park, you name it)
-As you go along, develop some kind of guidelines, principles, missions, etc., to serve all of you, which can slowly grow into a more full-fledged philosophy and practice of living (for your type of community).
-Serve each other in various ways. Not only for mutual benefit, but to develop the bonds, the tree roots, which can eventually support a long-lasting and mighty community
-The hope of permanence. Everyone involved needs to have some hope that they are investing in something which can become a wonderful part of their own life, the lives of like-minded people, and the lives of their descendants. If it’s worth it, people will make enormous commitments to their community.
-Generally try to keep growing in membership, and expanding the range, quality and efficiency of mutual services. Every new member (almost all of them, anyway) becomes a new source of potential value for existing members (a possible new friend, business partner, mate, etc.), especially as the new member makes the adaptation to the culture of your NRC.
-Revise and refine as you go along, with whatever works for you and the other people that are attending your Non-religious Church

This simple, basic model of starting things off has worked for a lot of homegrown religious churches and movements. In fact, if you’re familiar with the history of religions, and you re-read the list above, you will see that this is how all the major religions got started, way back when.

Then, slowly add more services, most of which are mentioned in the benefits list from attending churches:
A building
Childcare
Sermons, lectures, and groupwork
Entertainment
Different services for different groups within the church
etc.

—-

Yet to come:
-A general model for setting up and maintaining a solid, growth-oriented Non-religious Church.
-Examples of specific NRCs which are designed for groups of people I think would benefit the most from a niche Non-religious Church.

Comments enthusiastically welcomed! I’m using Engagement Publishing for this post.

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