A congregation’s welcome statement is the first thing people who are looking for a community to join are going to look at to answer the question, "Do I belong here?" That’s why the first task for a congregation that wants to be Freethinker Friendly, or just wants to be welcoming to non-theists or the non-traditionally spiritual, is to take a look at the community's welcome statement. This statement is usually found on the congregation's What We Believe website page or the equivalent, and it may be read at the beginning of a Sunday service, or printed in brochures or other outreach material.
A congregation's welcome statement has to do a lot of heavy lifting. It will often include not just religious belief, but gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, disability, age, race, and more. It also has to be positive because it is, after all, a welcome statement, designed to draw people in to community with us.
If you take a random UU congregation from the directory, as we did, you may come across a welcome statement like the following from the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale:
“This is a warm and open community, where all who come with open minds and kind hearts are welcome. We honor the richness which diversity brings to our Fellowship, including differences in age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political opinion, and theological belief.”
This is a truly lovely and gracious statement. But what if you are someone who, when asked your theological beliefs, answer “none”? What if you are also someone who had no exposure to Unitarian Universalism history and our inclination to use a very progressive vocabulary? We doubt that you would understand “differences in…theological belief” to include lack of belief in God or a higher power.
Perhaps this welcome statement could be expanded to the following:
“This is a warm and open community, where all who come with open minds and kind hearts are welcome. We honor the richness which diversity brings to our Fellowship, including differences in age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political opinion, and theological belief, including none.” (Emphasis just to show what has been added.)
This adds a negative to an otherwise positive statement, however. We could say, “differences in…theological belief or naturalist philosophy”, but that might sound overly academic or obscure to some. Another option would be to say “differences in…spiritual belief” and then to make it clear elsewhere that spiritual beliefs can include those without a supernatural component. For instance, here is a clear statement from another congregation’s About Us page: “Our community is made up of people who believe in God, people who don’t, and people who are content to live with the mystery.” Because their congregation often uses religious language, they also add, “Sometimes we use religious words, like ‘divine’, ‘soul’, ‘prayer’, and 'sacred', and we ask those who don’t take those literally to interpret them in a metaphorical or poetic way.” This is honest for the community to alert the non-religious visitor that they likely will not relate to the language used, but that there is an intent to be inclusive. It is also a hint that the UU “language of reverence” is non-traditional.
We would like to emphasize that it is somewhat arrogant to assume that people should just know that we welcome explicit non-theism as well as humanistic (and more traditional) interpretations of religion. “But ‘Humanist teachings’ is in our Sources,” some may point out. First, very few people know the definition of Humanism (even, increasingly, those already in UU community), and second, those sources are often deep in our outreach materials. In congregations that use words like those cited above, and especially words like ‘church’, ‘minister’, ‘hymn’, ‘sermon’, ‘religious education’, and ‘faith’, why would a stranger not assume we are a liberal Protestant Christian denomination? There is nothing wrong with being liberal Protestant Christian, and many UU congregations, especially in the Northeast, explicitly are. But even those communities welcome humanistic Christians who value freethought and may reject the more miraculous parts of the Christian tradition. They may invoke Jesus in their welcome statement, and also be honest and clear that they embrace these “heresies” positively and proudly.
We would like to conclude by noting that we have changed the wording of the first Freethinker Friendly requirement. Previously, it read, “Include language in your published welcome statement that includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other non-theists explicitly,” and now it reads, “…that clearly includes atheists, agnostics, and humanists.” The elephant in the room is the word “atheist”. Many UU communities, while comfortable asking non-theists to redefine words like “faith” in generous ways, have a problem doing the same with the word “atheist”. Rather than seeing it as “lack of belief in gods”, they recognize that many people associate the term with anti-religious New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris; it is often seen as negative and unwelcoming. We recognize that this is true for some people, but we call on our UU family to not perpetuate the unjustified distrust and discrimination against atheists that is quite real (and quite deadly in some parts of the world). It is up to your congregation whether to be explicit or implicit in your Freethinker Friendly welcome statement, but we do ask that it be clear that those who do not believe in God will be embraced in your community.