Do We Really Need Humanist Churches?

In this episode, Douglas discusses one of his pet peeves of organized Humanism. Some think that only way to increase our numbers is to be a church or church like and avoid any labels. Find out why Douglas thinks that’s hogwash.

Episode 74: Do We Really Need Humanist Churches?

A recent survey of people and their religion saw an increase in the number of people who picked ‘no preference’. These ‘nones’ make up over 20% of the population yet only 1 in 5 chooses to label themselves an atheist/agnostic/humanist. What can we do to help increase the number of Humanists?

One solution advocated by some in the Humanist movement is to have Humanist congregations – Humanist churches. It is believed that people are looking for rituals, meeting on Sundays, singing hymns, and other outreaches that some believe only non-dogmatic versions of church can provide.

Glass City Humanist host Douglas Berger, who has almost 30 years experience with the Humanist movement, disagrees. While some people are looking for the church experience without the supernatural dogma, many others aren’t and a vibrant Humanist movement needs to cater to the needs of many different people in different ways. Douglas believes going to church on Sunday is not only an old model it’s also dying even in the sectarian religious communities. Humanists should be more open to other opportunities to grow our numbers instead of being tethered to a building.

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Note: The webinar presenter, whose name Douglas mangled is Rev. Kevin Jagoe at BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrington, PA. If you are in the area and looking for a UU congregation please check out Rev. Jagoe and BuxMont UU. Douglas deeply apologizes for getting the name wrong.

The Nones, Second Edition: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, Second Edition by Ryan P. Burge (Amazon link)

Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They Are and What They Believe


Click Here to Read Full Transcript

[0:02] This is Glass City Humanist, a show about humanism, humanist values, by a humanist. Here is your host, Douglas Berger. In this episode, I discuss one of my pet peeves of organized humanism. Some think that the only way to increase our numbers is to be a church, or church-like, and avoid any labels. Find out why I think that’s hogwash. Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, building community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow.

[0:38] Music.

[1:00] As you may know, if you read my biography or check out the website for this show or check things out, you’ll see that I am founder and president of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie and have been since I founded the group in 2018. And one of the things that I am tasked to do is professional development is what they call it, the fancy term. And basically what I do is I participate in webinars and then I read articles and look for ideas, programming ideas, how to better expand the group and my knowledge of humanism and humanist values and how I can teach that to other people.

[1:51] You know, it takes quite a bit of my time. The other day, I participated in a webinar that was hosted by the Education Department of the American Humanist Association, which our group is a chapter of. And it was a free webinar, and I appreciate these webinars. I’m glad that they host them. I’m glad that they’re free.

[2:13] That’s always the best part, because they’re free. and they give good information and things to think about. And, you know, I have my notes and take notes and participate when they allow participation. And so they had this webinar the other day called Practicing Compassion in Community. And what interested me about this was the blurb that they wrote for it. It says, join us for a conversation about how we might create more compassionate communities within the humanist movement. Too often those drawn to our communities are dealing with unprocessed religious trauma, anger toward religion writ large, or expect others to have the same ways of expressing their humanism. How do we make space for newcomers? How do we hold ourselves to a standard of personal development that includes the ability to be more compassionate to ourselves and for one another? Not only does this type of engagement help us live more within our values, but doing so can lead to the growth of our communities as well. And I was like, that’s right up my alley. That’s things I want to know about. You know, how can I create a more welcoming environment for newcomers that show up to to our meetings and our events?

[3:31] And the speaker the person that was presenting this information was Reverend Kevin I’m going to mispronounce his last name jago jago j-a-g-o-e he is a Unitarian minister Bo the Bucksmont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and so he lives outside of Philadelphia and he went through all the steps he got his master divinity at meadville lombard and he’s working on his doctorate of divinity united lutheran seminary and he’s helped out with the humanist studies program for the aha, serves on the education committee and he’s a past board member of the unitarian universalist humanist association so he does have you know and he also has a uh ba in anthropology criminal criminal justice forensic science. So he’s got the receipts, he’s got the goods. He can talk about this information. So I had no problem with that.

[4:31] And so so how he started out in and I want to stress right now that this is not like a major criticism of this webinar. I’m just expressing my observation of this webinar and and how it does or does not fit into the way that that I operate, the way that I do my group and and things. And so I just want to, you know, like I said, like I wrote a note to the AHA. I said, I appreciate you having these webinars. He does give some great information. It’s just, to me, it just seemed a little bit off. And I’ll explain. So he starts off the presentation by showing some numbers, showing the, one of the things that the AHA and some other free thought groups, they harp on is the increase in the nuns. And the increase in the nuns are the people who when they’re asked, when they’re surveyed choose no preference or they might choose atheist or humanist or agnostic but a majority of those people that are called nuns choose no preference when they’re asked what their religion is.

[5:49] And the nuns are a very sizable portion of of people these days, even bigger than some of the mainline religions now, percentage-wise, in the United States. I’m talking about in the United States.

[6:05] And so the reason why groups like the AHA trumpet this information is because thems are people. Those are the people that we want to try to attract to humanism. them.

[6:20] And so, you know, because they don’t have a religion, they’re more than likely supporting, social justice issues and less likely to support breaking down of the wall between church and state, that sort of thing. So they’re pretty much kind of have some of our values. And those are the people that’s our demographic that we want to try to attract okay well the other numbers that he was talking about too is that the mainline religions the formal religions are losing people and they’ve lost people over the years um the numbers that people are attending church is down.

[7:09] So this Kevin Yago, I’m going to mess him up. I apologize. I probably should find out how to pronounce that name. So I’ll just skip that part. I won’t say his name. I’ll just call him the presenter. So the presenter is, you know, given these numbers. And he’s talking about how the gist of it is that atheism, agnosticism, and humanism, aren’t growing as much as the people who answer the religion surveys with no preference. And he talks about being compassionate and welcoming to people who might be interested in humanism, but maybe they are taking a different path or using different words.

[7:55] I agree with that so far, because that’s the way that I typically run our group, Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie. You know, I don’t care if you’re even a priest, you know, in the Catholic Church. You can come to my meetings or not my meetings, but you can come to the group meetings. I don’t have a problem with that. And this is what the view that I expressed during some of the participation part of this webinar was. I don’t care if you’re a priest. OK, as long as you support the values and the mission of the group, you can participate as much as you want. What you can’t do is prophylatize to the group. You know, I discourage and I don’t encourage apologetics, you know, where people talk about, well, religion has some good qualities. You know, our focus with the secular humanists of Western Lake Erie is no religion. You don’t have to be an atheist. theist. You can be an agnostic. You can be a nun. You can have no preference. But the primary function of our group is to support non-theism.

[9:17] Okay. So, you know, for this presenter, I’m on board with that. You might get somebody in, you know, and then they talk about religious trauma. You know, I’m always on the lookout for that. I’m sure that there’s some people that join because they had a bad experience in whatever religious group that they were in previously and you know I’m always trying to identify that and help with that.

[9:46] So then the conversation goes goes along. Oh, and the other thing that I mentioned, too, because they were also he also alluded to younger people not being interested in church. You know, he’s a Unitarian, so he’s talking about church being coming into Unitarians or being a humanist or they don’t like labels. That’s what he said. Younger people don’t like labels. And so i explained to you know during the i also said you know because i’ve talked to some people in their 20s about you know why don’t they come to meetings and things like that and i explained that younger people form ad hoc groups depending on what the situation is you know if they’re protesting i don’t know uh israel’s bombing of gaza they’ll form a group um if they They want to celebrate the solstice banquet, have a solstice banquet somewhere and gather at a restaurant. They’ll form an ag hoc group, usually on social media. It’s just a lot of younger people shun organized things.

[10:58] They just do. That’s just something that they avoid is organized groups. Groups, for whatever reason. You know, a lot of times it’s because we’re not meeting their needs that they think that they have. And that was something else that the presenter talked about. He said, in order to grow our groups, we need to be providing whatever is missing in a person’s life. Now, of course, him being a Unitarian minister, a lot of the stuff that he was talking about that that they’re missing in their lives, is stuff that is provided at a church. Either his church or a non-denominational church or whatever. Like Sunday services or counseling for religious trauma. And that’s when I got off the bandwagon.

[11:51] Because I personally believe you do not need a church. You do not need a minister, a professional minister who’s been certified. You don’t need to meet on Sunday. There is no hard and fast rule that if you’re having a group that you have to do certain things. And what’s kind of ironic is the presentation, the start of the presentation he was talking about, that people are gonna have different ways of thinking and using different words and we need to be welcoming.

[12:34] But then he says you got to have a church and and and what that did was that reminded me, of an argument uh i wouldn’t call an argument disagreement argument means that there was like animosity and when they uh animosity it was just a general disagreement and i believe it was with james croft who formerly was the leader at the ethical uh culture society of st louis and now Now he moved back to his native England and is a chaplain for a university there, in Southern England. But he was working with Greg Epstein, who was, I think he might be, he used to be the chaplain at Harvard. Think he might be the chaplain at MIT. I forget, it’s been hard keeping up with him because we have a lot of disagreements. But anyway, but he was working with Greg Epstein and they were going to write a book. I don’t know if they ever did or not. I should check with James. But they were going to write a book. And so what they did was they traveled to different areas of the country one time. I think it was over a summer or something like that, visiting different humanist groups. And the conclusion that they came to was that humanism needs congregations.

[13:59] I don’t agree. Um, it’s hard, it’s hard enough to getting people interested to coming to your meetings, you know, but then you put on top of that, that you got to have a building, you got to have a mortgage, you got to have maintenance, you got to hire staff, you know, that’s a lot, that’s a lot to have to take care of. And if you have people that are kind of flirty and flit in and out of your events and meetings and things like that, that’s just really hard, you know? And that’s the thing. It’s like, that’s the old way. The old way is you have a building, you have a professional staff, you collect donations and have a foundation and you support the community that way. The presenter at this webinar, Reverend Kevin, was talking about how you’ve got to have resources and deal with loss of a family member or a birth thing or things like that. He talked about rituals. You’ve got to have rituals. Rituals. Yeah, people like rituals. They’re good. I know in our group, we try to have rituals. One of them is our pre-Thanksgiving social that we have on the day before Thanksgiving.

[15:29] Hard to get people to come to it, you know, because people have other things to do. You know, that’s the thing. It’s the landscape of time sinks in people’s lives is immense. You know, people have limited time and they’re going to want to do something that makes them feel good and that they have a good time doing. One of the recent events that we had is we had a soup and salad event at one of our members houses and people brought in a soup or a salad.

[16:07] Everybody had a good time. you know um i know reverend kevin at during the webinar he was talking about that that their their church they do one-off programs and they charge money for them because you know he’s got a mortgage well i don’t know if he has a mortgage but you know he’s got to get paid he’s got a staff that needs to get paid they have maintenance on their building you know they got to have money coming in all the time you know they’re dependent on that a group like mine where we don’t have a formal place which I would like a formal place if anybody that’s anything that they want to donate just to have a singular location to have meetings at every month I would love that anyway but because the Unitarian church has all these obligations, then when they have their one-off activities, they charge for them.

[17:07] That’s an idea, but it would have to be something really, really good or maybe something that’s going to cost us money to do. I’ve been wanting to have people in an escape room, do an escape room, and that’s like $30 a person. And that’s not something that our group could finance. So if we do do that, and I’m still thinking about doing it, we would have to have people buy tickets for it. But that money wouldn’t come to us. That would pay for the event. You know, it’s not about, I kind of worry about trying to make a profit it on something because when i was in part of a columbus group 20 years ago we used to have a winter solstice banquet every year and it was a fine dining you know we had it catered white.

[18:04] Tablecloths china the whole deal and we would charge 20 or 30 dollars a plate and when we initially started to do it it was a fundraiser so we would charge you know 20 35 dollars a plate it might cost us maybe 10 to 15 dollars a plate a cost wise and so we would get the remainder of that back well as we did it and through the years the cost of providing it increased to a certain, such an extent that we couldn’t then charge people more and more money. So while the ticket stayed $20, $35, and some of them were free because, you know, we had people that donated tickets for people that couldn’t afford it.

[18:58] The profit margin shrank to where it it was no longer a fundraiser we couldn’t do it as a fundraiser we barely broke even most most years we had to pay out of our operating fund but people expected it and people thought it was a fundraiser no matter how how we advertised it so that’s why i I shy away from charging people for stuff. Like I said, it’s got to be something very special. You know, maybe if we had a speaker come in, a famous humanist speaker come in, and we rented out a hall somewhere for them to talk, we would charge admission to help defray the cost, but it wouldn’t be about making a profit. I mean, we’re a nonprofit organization.

[19:53] Hello, this is Douglas, host of the Glass City Humanist, inviting you to listen to selected segments of the Glass City Humanist on Toledo Community Radio Station WAKT, 106.1 FM, Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. If you can’t listen to us on the radio, you can live stream us on or visit our OnWAKT page on our website,, for past episodes.

[20:26] Music.

[20:35] But anyway so to get back to this this webinar uh reverend uh kevin uh talked about you know, finding out how to put fine uh fill these missing parts um the other thing is our group has on our website we have a list of resources for people from different things like mental health uh food food, social service agencies that they can contact if they’re struggling. We do that. He seemed to think that we had to have a professional celebrants to do ceremonies and things like that. And I’m telling you, you don’t. We’re humanists. We don’t need to do that. I always have this idea that some people are harping on the church model. Unitarians come from a Protestant religious background. That’s where Unitarianism started. guarded. And then they evolved into, they don’t have a creed or anything like that, or a dogma. They accept all people. And that’s basically what he was saying is that we got to drop the labels and we got to accept everybody. I disagree with that.

[22:03] You know, labels can help. You know, I have a certain set of values that I express and that I work to maintain. I have a set of values, and those values have a label, and it’s called humanism.

[22:28] When I was down in Columbus in the 90s, and we were… Had some people from the Unitarian church in our group and things like that. They were talking about building a bigger tent, how we had to accept everybody, no matter what they believed and who they were. And again, I disagree with that. And I’ll tell you why I know it makes it sound like I’m being bigoted or that I’m trying to be a gatekeeper or something like that. And the main thing is, I don’t feel that a group like mine has to be something for everybody.

[23:12] There are plenty of groups. You know, like if you want to, if your favorite thing was going to church with grandma and grandpa when you were a kid and singing hymns and having the coffee hour afterwards, but you don’t believe in God anymore, I’ve got the perfect place for you. And it’s not the secular humanist of Western Lake Erie. It is the Unitarian Church. And I’ve done that. I’ve recommended things, you know, the Unitarian Church for people that are looking for that church experience, but without the God and without the dogma. Perfect. I love Unitarians. I get them. I’m not one. one never could be one those are that’s a different story i’m not going to get into today it’s more doctrinal issues and and so that’s why i disagree with what reverend kevin was talking about his conclusions you know he was talking about being a church and that we need to have rituals and and counsel people and things like that and i was like well we kind of don’t.

[24:25] You know humanism you can be a humanist anywhere you can do it anytime however you want as long as, and as i put it during the webinar was you know we travel on different paths i i get that i agree with that there’s not you know the path that i came to humanism isn’t the same path that you you might come to humanism. I get that. However, we do have a group of shared values and we also have a shared outcome where we want to be, where we want to get to. So it doesn’t matter what path you take as long as you get to the same place. And I don’t believe, you know, like I said, the disagreement I had with James Croft and Greg Epstein is we don’t need a humanist congregation.

[25:24] That’s not going to grow humanism. These people that have the old stodgy churches, they’re losing people right and left because they’re dying off. Young people aren’t coming. They’re not coming anymore. We just had another church issue come up here in Toledo with a church that was closed by the diocese, and the people in the neighborhood want to buy it because it’s their cultural center or whatever they call it. And they don’t want it to close. The diocese is going to tear it down. They don’t want it torn down. To me, it’s just a building. It doesn’t mean anything to me. You know, it might have some historical aspects. Maybe the Pope spoke there. Or maybe it was the first Catholic church in Toledo. It wasn’t. But, you know, find a reason to keep these old stodgy churches. Oh, the other thing that this discussion reminded me of when we’re talking about doing different words and everything was 20 years ago, roughly 20 years ago, probably 23 years ago, I was in Los Angeles for the AHA conference. They were meeting at a hotel near LAX.

[26:46] And one of the agenda items was they were considering a draft of what became Humanist Manifesto 3, the aspirations, the current summary of humanist values that the AHA supports.

[27:04] That’s currently, but at this time it was a draft version. And so I signed up for that workshop. Well, it was a workshop. Yeah, it was a participatory workshop where, you know, you looked over the draft and made comments and they had the committee, the manifesto committee, and you could talk to them and everything. You think all right well I was probably the youngest person in the room and this was 23 years ago I was in my 30s or something like that yeah I was in my 30s and most of the people in that room were not in their 30s they were older much much older because that’s that’s organized humanism for you a lot of a A lot of older people, okay? Because we have a problem with getting younger people. That’s why I really appreciate the Secular Student Alliance. They do a lot of good things of getting younger people involved in free thought and humanism. Anyway, so I’m in this workshop and they’re taking comments from the audience. And a majority of the comments were people complaining about the title. Believe it or not.

[28:27] Because the draft title was Humanist Manifesto 3.

[28:34] Aspirations, blah, blah, blah, whatever the title is now. But they were going to preface it with Humanist Manifesto 3 because the original Humanist Manifesto from the 30s was called Humanist Manifesto because it was the 1930s. Look up Karl Marx and communism and stuff like that. you’ll get why they used manifesto and then the second one in 1973 was called manifesto 2. Electric boogaloo no no no i’m sorry that’s an old joke so then you know 2001 they were going to do manifesto 3. And a majority of the comments complained about the title and why do you think that they complained about the title because they were worried that people were going to think that humanism or organized humanism american humanist association was communist because we use the word manifesto now me being a 30 year old in a post cold war era because the cold war had just ended, I don’t know, three or four years ago, officially ended.

[29:50] I did not see a problem with using manifesto at all. You know, it was an inappropriate word. It didn’t have the connotations. I didn’t believe it had the connotations. You know, only somebody that lived through the Cold War and through communism would believe that it stood for communism.

[30:12] So that’s what happens when you have a group where you use different words or express your values in different ways. It can cause problems, and it did, and they ended up dropping that part. They still used it in the blurbs when they’re talking about it, that it was the third manifesto, but that was not the official title.

[30:34] Because enough of the people were old enough to complain about it that they decided to drop it. but I disagreed, but you know, I’m holding one vote. But anyway, so to get back to this webinar, I do believe that it is an issue to draw in new people into the group.

[30:56] I fully, fully believe that. And I know our group, Secular Humanists of Western Lake Area, we’re trying to do things things that are different. I’m open to new ideas. You know, if somebody is very interested in our group, but we’re not doing something that you want to do, you know, reach out to me. You know, I’m more than willing to let you host something or set something up that you want to do to that we’re not doing. Whatever it is, pretty much whatever it is. I mean, we would still have to to look at it and make sure that it fits our values and our mission and things like that. I’m open to anything. And I think that’s the takeaway that I take from practicing compassion in the community, this webinar, was you have to be open to everything. You don’t have to be so open that your brains fall out. Okay? This don’t use labels and don’t call it atheism and stuff like that, it’s hogwash.

[32:01] Um, you know, if you want to call yourself a Quaker and come to my meetings, I don’t have a problem with it. If you want to call yourself a Rastafarian, I don’t have a problem with it. Just so you know that I’m a humanist, this is a humanist group, and humanism means a certain set of values that we express and, and, and things that we support like social justice issues. If you can do that, you can be part of the group. We’d love to have you.

[32:32] Thank you for listening. For more information about the topics in this episode, please visit the episode page at Glass City Humanist is an outreach of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie. Surely can be reached at Glass City Humanist is hosted, written, and produced by Douglas Berger, and he’s solely responsible for the content. Our theme music is Glass City Jam, composed using the Amplify Studio. See you next time!

[33:16] Music.

Transcript is machine generated, lightly edited, and approximate to what was recorded. If you would like perfect transcripts, please donate to the show.


Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley

The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio

This episode by Glass City Humanist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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