As clergy for the Ethical Societies of the American Ethical Union, we were excited to read Faith Hill’s article They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked. Ethical Societies are, in effect, churches without god. Our congregations provide their members with all the resources of traditional religious congregations–a supportive community based on shared values, inspiring presentations helping them live more fulfilled lives, ethics-based educational programs for children, pastoral care and counseling–without reference to god, scripture, or traditional religion. And we’ve been doing it for more than 140 years.
That’s why we were surprised and disheartened that our movement received not one mention, even though we have significant experience with the challenges of godless congregational development. Each of us, in our professional role as clergy for nontheistic communities, has struggled with the problems Hill’s interviewees report, from burnout among volunteers to declining numbers–and yet we have managed to sustain a network of congregations for more than a century. Indeed, some of the groups Hill profiles–including the New York Sunday Assembly, which features heavily in the piece–received concrete support and resources from our existing congregations.
We understand the need for reporters to cover the sexy and the new, and are happy to see new entrants to the marketplace of nontheistic congregations recognized for their accomplishments. At the same time, wisdom grows from experience, and we think we have some insights to offer. The central thing we’ve learned is this: a successful congregation has to be about something beyond itself. The experiences of singing together, hearing an inspiring talk, getting together with friends are important, of course. But for communities to endure across generations–as many of our Ethical Societies have done–those activities must serve a higher purpose which transcends the individual needs of any one member.
This is why Ethical Societies are founded to uphold one overriding value–the worth and dignity of every person–and all our programs are designed to honor that value. This is why Ethical Societies have consistently encouraged their members to fight for justice, playing significant roles in the civil rights struggle and the battle for LGBTQ equality. This is why our communities oppose militarism, promote environmentalism, and work for a world in which each and every person, without exception, can make the most of their lives. We understand that the creation of such a world will not be achieved in any of our lifetimes but, we hope (though do not pray) that our congregations will continue the work when we are gone.