Religion in a Non-Religious Church

Chalice lighting

We gather together today from all our individual lives
With all our individual concerns and desires
And we gather to be something more than individual
We gather to strengthen what is best in ourselves
We gather to grow what is best in one another
We gather together to transform and be transformed
By this signal light, may we be, together
A place of comfort in times of suffering
A place of growth toward our best selves
A place of strength to prepare ourselves for the work that must be done
And a place of commitment to make our values real in our troubled world

From 'God Revised', by Galen Guengerich

Like the Amish buggy, the belief in a supernatural God is the lingering vestige of a bygone era. This belief may be quaintly appealing at times, but it’s completely dysfunctional as the principal means of interpreting our modern world. Of course, the fact that buggies no longer make sense as our primary mode of transportation doesn’t mean that we don’t need vehicles. We have—and need—more vehicles than ever, including planes, trains, and automobiles.

In a similar way, the fact that God turns out not to be supernatural doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist or that we don’t need to participate in a religious community. In fact, our need for God and religion is greater today than it has ever been.

If God is not supernatural, then religion has a serious role to play. Religion is the process of taking everything we know about the universe into account and creating a life of meaning and purpose within it. In order to play this new role, religion must continue to evolve, and our understanding of God must continue to evolve as well. The great religious challenge of our time is adapting our faith to the reality that God is not supernatural.


The title I chose for today is ‘religion in a non-religious church.’ Words can be complicated. I know this especially well because I come from another country that purports to use the same language as this one, but I’ve got caught out in so many ways over the past decade. Fortunately, someone warned me about a few of the ones that would be the most embarrassing to get wrong. Still, we mean something different by shattered, lift, flannel, hamper, first floor, dummy, subway, sick, jumper, caravan, chemist, jelly, trainers, pants, football, vest, bog, rubber, braces, trolley, chips, coach, garden, and surgery!

The word religion is an even trickier and more complicated word. It means many many different things to different people - even to the people this room. The derivation of the English word religion is not a huge amount of help. Religion is said to be derived from a Latin word that means obligation or bond or reverence and that Latin word may have come from an earlier word - religare - which means ‘to bind.’ As I said - maybe that’s not a lot of help.

So, does the title ‘religion in a non-religious church’ mean anything or have I used a phrase that means nothing because the words are so poorly defined? Actually, it means a lot, but what it means depends on what religion and religious mean to you. What do these words suggest to you? What do you think of when you hear them or read them? What do you conclude if someone says they have a religion or are religious? What do you think of if you hear about a religious country? How do you feel if you are told we need to have more religion in our lives? What are the negative things that come up? What are the positive things?

I want to invite you to talk to someone near you for three minutes about what religion and religious mean and suggest to you. Of course, if you’d rather just think by yourself, that’s fine too.

-----3 minutes ---------

It would be great to hear some of what came up in your conversations. First - what were the negatives that came up about religion. (Please raise your hands). And now - what were the positive things that came up?

In this country, the vast majority of people don’t participate regularly in what the census defines as religious groups or communities - the fraction that do is somewhere around five percent of the population. It’s only a tiny portion of us - it may strike you as strange that you’re counted as part of that small group. I suspect, though, that most of you would not be in the 5% if there were not a place like New Unity.

Traditional religion often has a lot to do with belief in a supreme being, so - talking about religion - it makes sense to ask what people believe. In a survey from a few years ago, about a third of UK residents say they believe in God, a third say they don’t believe in anything, and the remaining third say they believe in something but that something is not God. Oh - and 70% say they’re Christian, which sort-of makes no sense except that it does because we don’t really know what we mean by religion.

Religion is not just believing in a supreme being. I’ve encountered plenty people who participate in religious communities but don’t believe in God. I’m not talking only about Buddhists, but also about Christians, Muslims, and even an Orthodox Jew.

In our reading, my colleague Galen Guengerich, suggests that the challenge of religion today is to accommodate the reality that God is not supernatural. Certainly, that is a part of what our work here is about. What comes when a foundational element of most religion crumbles? Whilst I disagree with Galen when he talks about the continuing importance or existence of God, I do agree that religion - or whatever replaces it - may be more important than ever.  

Academics struggle to define religion and come up with a variety of complicated definitions. Naturally, these academics don’t often agree with one another. They struggle with this almost as much as we do and it turns out that there is no definition that really fits what we intuitively or traditionally mean by religion. If the definition is broad, football and the Labour party are religion. If the definition is narrow, Taoism, Buddhism and more are left out.

I don’t want to get academic and I do want to talk about religion, so religion for today means what most people mean by religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Hinduism are religions. Buddhism, Baha'i, and Buddhism are religions. Football, the Labour Party, Communism, yoga, Greenpeace, and the Women’s Institute are not religions.

We sometimes describe ourselves as a non-religious church. What does that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean we are the opposite of religious. It doesn’t mean we don’t do anything that religions do or meet some of the human needs and longings that humans have. This phrase is simply a way of saying to the larger world ‘There are a lot of things you don’t like about religion. We don’t do those things.’ It’s a signal rather than a theological or ecclesiastical statement. It speaks to a notion that religion has to be patriarchal, hierarchical, misogynistic, and homophobic. It speaks to a general perception that religions hate anyone of any other religion and that they insist that everyone believe in some specific supernatural story to be part of the club.

Religion has been some of those bad things and sometimes many of those things, but religion has never been only those things. Whilst religion is not all good, it’s not all bad either. It’s as mixed as are most of our human institutions, like governments, companies, and schools.

Why does religion have bad elements? Are they particular to the very nature of religion? I don’t think so. Religion is a human enterprise that exists in the forms it does for many different reasons. Some of those reasons arise from human failings. Some humans saw in religion opportunities to control others, to amass power, and to enrich themselves. So, religion often became hierarchical and patriarchal.  Some humans found in religion a way to justify their fears and their biases, so religion often became misogynistic, homophobic, and hostile to other groups.

Religion also exists for very good reasons. It came into being partly because we human beings seek ways to make sense of our lives, we want to find meaning, and we are perplexed about how to leave truly good lives. Religion provides a means of confronting the fears that can incapacitate us. Religion also helps us satisfy our need to be together, our need to be loved, and our need to help others. When we recognise that religion is no more a single thing than any human creation, we recognise that it is built in the image of the worst and the best of human impulses.

At New Unity, non-religious church is simply shorthand for religion without the parts that exist because of our worst impulses. That leaves a great deal. We know that here we can learn from one another and from the vast array of the world’s wisdom to find ways to live well, to make meaning, to find purpose, and to come to terms with our fears. We know that here we can be together in a way that shows us we are worthwhile and of value. We can give and receive love. We can satisfy, together, our yearning to make a better world for all beings, both today and far beyond our own time. Depending on how we understand it then, religion is what we do here or it’s what we don’t do here or it’s just not a good word to use at all. Whether or not we want to discard that word, it is true that the age-old human endeavour of religion informs what we do here.

I’ve saved for last any discussion of what is central to much of the traditional religious enterprise, and that is not necessarily a supreme being, but rather a story or set of stories held in common by all adherents. The stories are usually supernatural and usually come to be recorded in a set of sacred writings. Christianity focuses on Jesus as the son of God. For Jews, it is the series of stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hindus have many stories involving Gods and avatars. Muslims turn to the life of Muhammed as described in the Qu’ran.

The stories don’t have to be supernatural or about gods. Taoism, Jainism, many forms of Buddhism, and some strands of Hinduism are godless. Even so, each of these religions has a common set of stories and teachings that all adherents will know. These stories provide inspiration and guidance. They serve as a common set of knowledge to which followers can refer.  The stories can be referred to in language, in song, and in ritual. They are a tremendous unifying factor in traditional religion.

This notion of a common set of stories is not unique to religion, of course. Go to a Star Trek convention or a Comic Con and you will find people who have studied and interrogated almost every word and story in the scriptures of their particular interest. They can talk to one another without explaining the stories and can delve quickly into the depths of their meanings. It helps to have a shared set of stories.

We at New Unity don’t have this. We don’t have the kind of mythology that we can refer to that inspires us and binds us together. To me, this raises one of the hardest questions about what we do at New Unity and the extent to which it can be a complete substitute for traditional religion. Our minds are not solely rational. Great parts of who we are relate far more to story than to facts or reason. We lack such a shared story. Of course, we create stories and rituals and we tell other stories and repurpose other rituals, but these are not part of a common, core set of understandings as would be found in a traditional religion.

At the same time, the common stories of traditional religion are not all for the good. They can lead to reactionary and fundamentalist oppressive interpretation. They can serve as barriers to keep us apart from them. They can be anti-scientific. Does the lack of common stories hold us back? Will it? It may keep us from unifying or deepening our way of being together. But this same lack may be key to our freedom and inclusion. It may be part of what keeps our minds, our hearts, and our doors open. The question remains open.

Nonetheless, I believe deeply in what we are doing here together. We are creating new, freeing, justice-seeking ways to meet our deepest human needs. We have only just begun this journey - a journey that may lead to better lives for many many more people, whether they ever come here or not. We have only just begun a journey that leads to more love and more justice in our world. Let the journey go on.

May it be so

Closing Words

What we are doing here matters
What we are building here matters
We are creating new answers to old questions
New ways to meet ancient needs
New hope of an interdependent and inclusive way of being together
There are many questions ahead
Many challenges to face
On our way to a world of greater love and justice
Let the journey continue