Sunday School for Atheists

Chris and I have kicked around the idea of starting a secular church that would try to offer the community and values of a regular church, without the brainwashing. According to this article in Time magazine, some Palo Alto parents have actually taken action: a Sunday school for atheist children. Excerpt:

The Palo Alto Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. One Sunday this fall found a dozen children up to age 6 and several parents playing percussion instruments and singing empowering anthems like I’m Unique and Unrepeatable, set to the tune of Ten Little Indians, instead of traditional Sunday-school songs like Jesus Loves Me. Rather than listen to a Bible story, the class read Stone Soup, a secular parable of a traveler who feeds a village by making a stew using one ingredient from each home.

Makes sense. I know a bunch of atheist parents who struggle with how to transmit values and talk about morality with their children. Religion makes it easy. In particular, the reward/punishment structure around enforcing the values is absolutely brilliant.

19 comments on “Sunday School for Atheists
  • Have you ever been a to Unitarian Universalist “church”? I’ve been to a couple of services and really enjoyed them, sans the horrible singing in the beginning. It’s effectively an atheist church, although a number of people I met at them are somewhat spiritual in that they’re Taoist, Buddhist, or Pastafarian 🙂

  • One quick note–Ben may be a bit strong in implying that traditional Sunday school contains “brainwashing.” Brainwashing is a serious matter; certainly churches exist for the purpose of transmitting values, but only a few cross over the line into cult-like brainwashing.

    On the other hand, I believe that a secular church has value even for believers. Ultimately, a secular church can be a more efficient and effective transmitter of values. The drawback of a traditional faith-based church is the overhead one spends on theology and other activities that are only tangentially related to ethics and morality.

  • Surely any church, secular or not, has to be organized around some motivating principles.

    Most religions have a mythology or a received tradition that provides a framework of symbols to convey the values inherent in those principles.

    Lacking either of these, would your church have a statement of philosophy?

    Would you accept the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold path of Buddhism as a rational basis for offering “community and values”?

  • I’ve found that, in some cases, doing volunteer work provides the same benefits as going to church.

    But you have to pick the right group to do volunteer work for. Some of them are so badly mismanaged that it’s amazing that they continue to exist.

  • The thing is… churches are Christian, and so is Sunday School. If you want some kind of community center or sunday school activities without the “Sunday School” title—yes, excellent, secular, et cetera. So the idea is good and so is the promotion of society-enhancing values, but I’d avoid the title.

    When are you available for chatting purposes?

  • I like the idea of an atheist institution. Not only could it be used to convey values, but it would also be useful in improving the general public’s impression of atheism as a viable position. There’s a strong bond that can be forged in associating with fellow skeptics–it’s something I’ve found to be quite rewarding by pursuing academia; even with the Christian scholars, there’s a sense of intellectual camaraderie. I genuinely wish something like this was available in my community.

  • I second the UU recommendation. They vary from one fellowship to the other in focus and form, but you can take a peek at the Seven UU Principles to see how an organization can lay out core values without insisting on a single creed.

    And I don’t think you go too far by using the word ‘brainwashing.’ Though the methods are less extreme, the intention is to produce a child who adheres to a single set of beliefs and allegiances, in part by refusing to allow them to consider alternatives.

    Telling young children that there is only one way to be good and to be accepted by those around you is de facto brainwashing, even when done with a genuine smile and the best of intentions.

    Dale McGowan
    Editor/author, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

  • Inculcating religious beliefs in a child is hardly “brainwashing”.

    Much harmful nonsense is propagated by religions that may possibly damage the tender psyches of children, but it’s ridiculous to assert that they’re being “brainwashed”, a word which has no scientific meaning, anyway.

    If it were so, we wouldn’t see millions of Catholics contravening the ‘infallible’ authority of the pope when it comes to birth control.

  • I’ll third the UU suggestion.

    By the way, when you say:
    “offer the community and values of a regular church, without the brainwashing,” this is not entirely unlike saying, “start a club of entrepreneurs to share vision and bounce ideas, without the greed.”

    Um, there’s a wild, hardly-appropriate derogatory accusation coming out of LF. We all wear big boy pants, we can take it, but watch what connections you make.

  • Look at that. People come together and congregate. Play music, transmit secular values. Discuss belief systems – may be laissez faire. Numbers add up and you may need larger real estate. The group soon will want to have an identity and a central authority to govern. Soon one of you will write a book – and call it *Cible*? Perhaps. The aggressive amongst those will endeavor to build in a right-wrong structure that will soon gravitate to a reward-punishment plane.

    Do you think Church and Religion would’ve started differently…?

    Now don’t sow fresh seeds to harvest the same old fruit. Unwittingly though, you’re bootstrapping a venture that’s a clone in this eerily dogmatic world.

    Why add to the clutter…? I have a suggestion. Leave the religions as they are; they will disintegrate themselves

  • I would like to expect more out of someone who considers himself intelligent and tolerant. Making a blanket statement that ‘regular church’ brainwashes its members is out of line and in poor taste. Perhaps you haven’t found the right church?

    Keep searching – its worth it.

  • I’ve been attending a UU church since 2005 (and became a member in 2007): here’s what I’ve gotten to do:

    – teach Sunday School (we’re currently doing World Religions)
    – taught a 6-week course on the Enneagram
    – worked for Habitat for Humanity
    – attended Adult RE classes on the New Testament, the Artist’s Way, Building Your own Theology, the Tao Te Ching, many others
    – We had a Harry Potter ball for Halloween.

    It’s not precisely a church for atheists — it doesn’t promote atheism per se, and there are plenty there who are not atheists — atheism is rarely if ever mentioned. But there is no dogma. (There are 7 Principles, which I found extremely easy to affirm.)

    Here is a page listing the 7 Principles (and the Sources, which are below.)

    I became involved because I was having fantasies about going back to graduate school, even though I hated graduate school, and I like my current job! As soon as I started taking classes every Wednesday night, I stopped thinking about graduate school — I had just wanted to learn something. I also had always wanted to teach both adults and kids, both of which I’ve gotten to do. I think it’s very healthy to belong to a community that’s not work and not family. (And in this case, it’s a very warm community.) I also appreciate the chance to work on service projects. As the next best thing to an atheist myself, I’ve always been annoying at how being a Christian gives people the opportunity to use their energy for pro-social ends, while non-beleivers did not, and yet I do not associate being a non-believer with not having that energy to give.

    I recommend you check it out.

    Also, if you have read this far, I’d appreciate it if you would check out my two new blogs:


    where I do not discuss the UU church (or haven’t yet) but discuss lots of other things.

    Mary Beth

  • I second Blake.

    Ben, you’re well-spoken. You have an impressive vocabulary. And you know a thing or two about self promotion.

    But you look like an inexperienced, snooty, pretentious, inexperienced, self-important, intellectually lazy, in-ex-perienced kid when you make claims like the one you do here.

    What you’re suggesting is every bit as dogmatic as those religions you rebuff.

    Dude, get over yourself.

  • And I refer in particular to your blanket statement, not to your idea.

    If you want to start an atheist school, do so and have a ball with it. But also have the good sense to leave your intolerance of people with faith out of it.

  • Mary Beth’s comment reminds me of the stealth tactics of some evangelist Christians.

    She presents an informative summary of her experience with the Unitarian Universalist Church, but she couldn’t resist slipping in a pitch for her blogs at the end.

    Brian Lash certainly derives a lot of personal information about Ben from one off-hand remark.

  • Krishna hit it right off the bat.

    Being a non-American living in US, it always fascinates me how people here have a hard-time discussing religions & their faith in public. Not to mention the negative connotations; if you admit you have faith, some people will start having pity on you for being brainwashed.

    For me & my understanding, it is very natural for people to fall in love with religion & faith; as natural as birth & death. I like traditions, I like my faith values, I like to take sides (like in sports) & have something to grab on in times of chaos.

  • You have an interesting view on why people go to church. It seems Ben believes the purpose of church is to transmit values. This is certainly a part of it, but I believe you would find that the purpose of church is to meet with and to worship God as a community of shared faith. I do not go to church to learn values, to fellowship, to do good. These are all best accomplished outside of church. As a Catholic, I go to church to consume the flesh and blood of Jesus. I cannot do this at the soup kitchen or ‘in my heart’. Thus, church. There is no other place to do this: to worship the Lord as a shared community of faith, with the culmination being consuming the flesh and blood of Jesus.

    Think about it. What an extraordinary claim to make about church. “Tranmission of values” is a slap in the face.

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