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Jack: When I read the above column, it all came back to me. I felt such LOVE in that church. No, it didn’t make me want to go back to being a Catholic. But it did make me realize how important a sense of community is when you are hurting. My question. How do atheists get this sense?

From time to time, this board gets itself wrapped around the axle over a related question: In what sense is atheism a religion? My answer to the latter question is distinctly a minority opinion, but it has a strong bearing on your questions.

If we set aside all questions about the supernatural, a church is clearly an institution for social support. It focuses help on those in need, provides a strong sense of community, and communicates social values across the generations. ALL of those functions are just as important for atheists as they are for anyone else -- they are part of the human condition.

Not all churches and congregations have a belief in supernatural forces. Nowhere is it written that a church must have a set of beliefs in anything that is supernatural or "spiritual" (whatever that overloaded word means). I have a close association with two churches which try successfully to be friendly and even welcoming to atheists: Unitarians and Quakers. Also in my neighborhood are various kinds of Buddhist groups -- most of these are not organized as churches at all, yet manage to fulfill many of the social functions of a church while remaining rigorously non-supernatural. Some versions of Reform Judaism and Jewish Renewal are mostly atheist, and celebrate their emancipation from traditional expressions of piety.

In short, it is possible to create a social institution that fulfills all of the social functions of a church, but which is not permeated with antique ideas of supernatural beings and forces. Not merely possible: it is happening right now, and likely in your own neighborhood. If it isn't, you can make it happen -- just reach out to similarly-minded individuals, and it will grow out of the shared need.

Speaking for myself, I treasure these non-traditional churches. I am not a member of any one congregation, but I take great pleasure in making the rounds of free-thinking churches, synagogues, and spiritual groups. I track their progress, their successes and defeats, and their unique attempts to find a fulfilling pathway while remaining embedded in a theistic culture. These are the modern explorers, and I have the greatest respect and admiration for them.

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