Church, without God
Some local atheists attend worship services for support, social reasons
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Faith & Values podcast
Dispatch religion reporter Meredith Heagney talks to a religious atheist.
Stan Bradley likes Bible stories, admires Martin Luther and uses expressions such as 'heavens, no.'
The Lithopolis man is president of a local congregation and rarely misses a Sunday service. Occasionally, he goes to his wife's church instead.
For these and other reasons, Bradley considers himself religious.
He is also an atheist.
His house of worship is Unitarian Universalist Congregation East in Reynoldsburg. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal denomination whose members claim different identities - Christian, atheist, others - but come together for shared prayer and songs.
Like Bradley, some atheists participate in organized religion for its social and psychological benefits.
"Community is important," Bradley said, explaining why he is part of a congregation that meets weekly. "You get with people, share your concerns and joys."
Another local congregation open to atheism is the Humanist Jewish Chavurah of Columbus. Only 25 people strong, the group meets once a month in the same building as Bradley's congregation at 1789 Lancaster Ave. in Reynoldsburg.
Chavurah is a Hebrew word for a small group of people within a congregation who get together for discussion, board president Ellen Rapkin said.
She and other humanistic Jews believe it's important to maintain their cultural Judaism, even if they don't believe in God.
They meet on Sundays, rather than the Jewish Sabbath of Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. They celebrate Jewish holidays in a secular way.
On Passover, they focus more on the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe after World War II than God's role in the biblical Exodus from Egypt, Rapkin said.
"'Where was God during the Holocaust?" is a big question for humanistic Jews, she said.
Yom Kippur is still a time to think about how they've behaved and how they've treated others, just as in mainstream Judaism.
"I don't see it as being religious - I see it as more of a cultural thing," Rapkin said. "Somehow (Jews) survived. You don't want to chuck that out."
The social supports found in churches and other houses of worship are difficult to replicate elsewhere, said Lindsay Jones, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Ohio State University.
Churches are great places to find friends, support and youth education, so nonbelievers and believers alike join congregations to fill those needs, he said.
He has spoken to elderly and sick people who can no longer go to church and they say they most miss the feeling of community.
Recent research from Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin backs him up. It found that religious people tend to be happier than nonreligious people, not because of belief but because of the friendships found at church.
And being part of a group of like-minded people provides a sense of worth, Jones said. A congregation, with or without a belief system, offers a "strategy to mitigate the sense of helplessness" that can accompany life's ups and downs.
Bradley, 61, grew up Presbyterian and once believed in God. He was drawn to humanism by the late evangelist Jerry Falwell.
"I heard him complaining so much about humanists, I thought I'd look up and see what these people were about," he said.
Through reading and after a lot of thought, he decided in his 50s that God and Jesus did not exist. But, he said, he has no "burr in my saddle" with religion. His wife, Beth, believes in God and is an elder in the Bloom Presbyterian Church in Lithopolis.
People have asked him where his morality comes from if he doesn't believe in God. He tells them his values come from his parents and his country - and from reason.
"As social animals, it makes sense you don't club each other over the head, you don't steal from each other," he said.
"Helping others - it just makes sense."