Imagine getting dressed up to attend a science lecture every Sunday morning

Karl Giberson recently made an observation that startled me:

Most people think more highly of their religion than their science. Imagine trying to get 100 million Americans to dress up for a science lecture every Sunday morning — and then voluntarily pay for the privilege.


I think that a world suffused with doubting communities—as opposed to faith communities—would be a better world. I’d love to go with my family to a pretty building on a Sunday morning and hear a highly educated and rational person give a talk on science—or, for that matter, discuss the poetry of Thomas Hardy or the art of Picasso.

Wouldn’t you?

Those in the doubting community have a rich and psychologically sustaining tradition. So why are we ceding this communal get-together model to religion? Why aren’t we doing “church”?

I bet that if we started building such spaces, people would come.

Why wouldn’t they?

Afterall, they already come to such places during the week. They’re called universities.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Imagine getting dressed up to attend a science lecture every Sunday morning

  1. andrewclunn says:

    The issue here is that morality and ethics are bound to come up, as well as the demarcation problem (where does science stop and pseudo-science being? To give an example I believe that sociology is a pseudo-science.)

    Try getting secular libertarians and secular progressives to come to ‘worship’ together. By “turning off their mind” and giving authority to a “higher power” religious groups obtain cohesion fairly easily by comparison. Besides, we “free thinkers” prefer conversations to lectures anyways, which is much more conducive to small group gatherings.

  2. santitafarella says:


    You make a good point. I’ll have to think about it some more. But why not a community model for secular people that would work: silent Vipassana meditation or collective yoga stretching for half an hour (as opposed to worship), a talk by a professor on a random topic of interest (as opposed to a lecture or sermon), open debate and discussion afterward, and going out to lunch with all the families together.

    The average church in America is only about a hundred people. I bet a model like this could generate a community of a hundred people if located by a university or college. I have a couple of secular friends who teach at my own college who I bet I could get to give a Sunday morning talk under such a model. We could rotate speakers, and even make use of multimedia to show 30 minutes of something for discussion.

    I just wonder why the secular doubting community needs to feel quite so isolated from one another.

    You may be right that politics would make for a divide, or ethical divisions. But maybe a doubting community model would embrace and enjoy the debates generated among themselves after talks—and not feel any particular need to be in doctrinal lockstep. I even think it more than plausible that liberal theists would enjoy such a model and community.

    Historically, there is a rough equivelent: the Unitarians.

    What might this new thing be called? Here’s my vote: The First Church of the Doubting Community.

    And why not talk about ethical issues together—or politics? And keep the diversity in play?

    Oh, and Sunday School for the kids would be teaching them the basics of critical thinking and the stories of Enlightenment cultural tradition heroes and heroines.



  3. andrewclunn says:

    I think the only really difference here is whether you bother to found the not-for-profit and purchase / rent the building. I recall when I was younger (and still a Christian) enjoying church (partially because my father is actually a very good orator.) I even considered following in his footsteps (which led me to a more refined look at my faith, and contributed to my loosing it.) It was a very big disappointment to me to find that there’s no secular ‘church’ equivalent.

    Though I’d hope that it would be Sunday evening instead of morning (encouraging people to not go out on Sunday night before work / school on Monday, and letting them sleep in from Saturday’s festivities.) I tried the UU thing, but they’re pretty much all deists there, which is very different from being an agnostic or atheist, as it’s just emotionally founded spirituality instead of skeptical at it’s root.

  4. santitafarella says:


    I think it was Huxley who said that the Unitarian Church is a feather bed for catching Christians heading for atheism.

    But I think you are right. Why does the non-deist who is, in fact, atheist or agnostic, and skeptical—or even contemptuous—of New Age spirituality, have to hit the floor?

    Is there really no way to do the doubting community church-thing in a life-supporting and rational way? Does woo always have to intrude on human association?


  5. Gunlord says:

    Those in the doubting community have a rich and psychologically sustaining tradition. So why are we ceding this communal get-together model to religion? Why aren’t we doing “church”?

    I bet that if we started building such spaces, people would come.

    Why wouldn’t they?

    They do. A while back I remember hearing about atheist/humanist “Sunday School,” which as the name implies is a secular equivalent of sunday school, and on a visit to Philadelphia I saw an “Ethical Society” building that had meetings on a weekly basis.

    The question you want to ask is why these gatherings aren’t more popular/widespread. You could argue it’s because religion has an unfair advantage, or because secular humanism just isn’t visible enough yet, and I suppose you could make a good case, but I still wouldn’t find it particularly convincing.

  6. santitafarella says:


    It may be that those in the doubting community, consisting as they do of contrarians, are like cats, hard to gather into herds. They can’t be bothered.

    If the plant could be vigorous, why does it grow in so few places?


  7. Roger Salyer says:

    Well, the scientific lectures might make sense–to feed the material needs that we biologically feel–but the lectures on art would have to go. Because they are at root engendered upon the basis of meaning. And meaning requires transcendent belief.

    I have always been amused by the monicker “Enlightenment” because wasn’t the Englightenment really just an explicit affirmation of what we don’t know? Was it not just a turning away from the beauty–known now to be only subjective–of the cathedral to the work of the hive? To Man’s life solely as one of gathering honey?

    • andrewclunn says:

      I’d say that’s really only true of Marxist secular world view (and perhaps only at its inception, ask a neo-Marxist if it still applies.) Some have dealt with that problem by founding sort of “secular religions” based on, racism, nature worship, ego worship, nationalism, or some other such views. Of course, these are just religions without the pseudoscience. being an Objectivist myself I know that the environmentalists of the secular left look at my views as being just as cultish as I view theirs. Sadly, the comfort of “shared values” necessitates some level of group think.

    • santitafarella says:


      You don’t think that atheists and agnostics can have a spiritual life? That life, to be spiritual, must have a transcendent and eternal object in view?

      Are you defining transcendent as the ontological mystery (the “ground of being” to which reason necessarily butts up against but fails to pierce)?

      If so, then why can’t an atheist or agnostic experience this as wonder, and leave it at that? As an agnostic, I think that I can live with not knowing, and keeping spirituality in the not knowing space. You don’t agree?

      How well defined is the object of transcendence for you? And if it is too well defined, wouldn’t that be idolatry?

      What is it, exactly, that you think atheists or agnostics should be chasing, but aren’t?


  8. Roger Salyer says:

    Err… I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about. I think atheists and agnostics have spiritual lives, whether they like it or not.

    Anyway, all I meant is what I wrote. What can you preach in your church, besides a string of phenomena, some of which might be sensually gratifying?

    Grounded upon an admission of meaning or purpose, both of which imply some kind of godhead within or without creation, there is a basis for wonder. So I suppose that definitionally, anostics and atheists are incapable of wonder. And that they would no more accept the conceptual existence of wonder, than they would an affirmation of God.

    If you wonder, then I would say you are not an agnostic. Perhaps one’s doubting spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak? This is to say, I think that agnosticism is possible to affirm but impossible to practice. Atheism, on the other hand,… this is a conception of impossibility. All atheists are in reality agnostics, theists, or pantheists.

    Most agnostics have a problem with the nature of knowledge, rather than the objects of knowledge necessarily, wouldn’t you say? Maybe a church of epistemology would be a better idea than one of science?

  9. stevietheman says:

    It’s important to note that the religious are motivated by one very powerful emotion: Fear. And as congregations are like clubs, “belonging to something” and networking are secondary motivators.

    To make regular Sunday morning science lectures work, similar powerful ways to motivate people to attend will have to be found.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      S the Man:

      You’re point is taken. If we lived forever and never got sick, would we go to church? Probably not.

      But, being social animals who adopt habits, we might still want the weekly social part of church. And agnostics and atheists have curiosity, an impetus to conversation.


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