Are We a Church or a Religious Group?

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 7

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

We just got back from the 1000 Lights Water Lantern Festival and were perplexed by one question that came up a few times. “Are you a church?” In this episode, I will answer that question so that all of you out there may have a better idea of the place the Free Thought Forum has in our society.

This program is brought to you by the members of the Free Thought Initiative.

We help those in need of an inclusive, supportive, and free-thinking community by hosting public discussions on moral philosophy, healthy living, and science, to improve the cohesion, health, and scientific literacy of our society.

Everyone is welcome, (regardless of personal religious belief, political leanings, etc.) to participate (in-person) in these open and civil discussions.

To find a Free Thought Forum meeting near you, to start your own local group, or to become a member and support this program through monthly donations – please visit freethoughtforum.org.

There is nothing like meeting people and answering questions at fairs and festivals. I was impressed, at this last event, with how many people really get it! They instantly understood how important our group was and the kind of positive impact we could have. At first, they’d casually ask who we were, and when we explained that we were a group that invites religious people, non-religious people, conservatives, liberals, college educated people, non-college educated people, and so forth, to talk about big ideas, their eyes lit up! They get it!

We value every single person’s perspective and want to hear what they have to say. Our organization exists to give you the opportunity to really speak your mind.

More than once, someone would ask whether or not our organization was a church.

No, we are not a church.

We are not a church, or any other kind of faith-based group, religion, or religious institution. We do strive to be a non-profit that can meet many social needs such as funeral and wedding officiation and the need for a supportive community. Yes, we do host community events and volunteer projects. It’s true that our groups meet once a week and that we can talk about philosophical things, morality, history, and even religion itself. But that is where our similarities with religious organizations begin to break down.

Here is one way to think about it. For people with a faith-based religious group, our organization is supplemental to that group. For people who don’t have a faith-based religious group, our organization can stand in as a replacement for such a group. We are more of a “church alternative.” In many ways, we can even be considered to be the opposite of a church group.

There is no real historical or academic definition of what is and is not a religion. In many ways, multi-level marketing groups, political parties, and even fan conferences and conventions can share many traits that we would usually call “religious.” But we strive to set ourselves apart from those organizational models because we feel that we can do more good if we fit a different niche in society. Here are five things that I hope will make that distinction more clear:

1. We Don’t Claim any Divine or Spiritual Authority

I find it funny when religious leaders say things like “Well, I think you should be free to believe what you want, but I think God cares a lot more about that decision.” If you think that you have to make a choice between heaven and hell, then you don’t really have a choice, do you?

What makes a preacher, bishop, imam, priest, guru, shaman, witch-doctor, or prophet different from any other person? Not much. But to many, their title denotes a certain authority. When a regular Joe stands up and says what he think people should do, that is just his opinion. But when religious leaders do the same, many people believe they represent something greater than a person’s perspective. Sometimes these leaders claim some hidden knowledge, that they better understand the will of god, or the gods, or that they are scholars of some holy scripture, and are poised to help others better understand the text. They present themselves as experts in things that no one can know for sure. Often, they assert that they were chosen or compelled by a greater power, and you will just have to take their word for it.

The Free Thought Forum claims no such authority. Our leaders are regular people. Some of us are college educated, some are not. Some of us have professional titles, some do not. We do, however, strive to be open to see which arguments are better than others. We can read scientific journals and studies, but so can almost anyone else. In short, we don’t pretend to have any special training, talents, or insider knowledge. Rather, we offer our programs to our members and guests who we consider equals in the sincere search for truth.

With that said, we do value logic, reason, science, and rationality as extremely valuable tools in this search. Their value is apparent given how reliable science is, and how fundamental it is to every part of our modern civilization. (In fact, I invite anyone to debate me on the validity of science if you think I’m wrong to give it such a distinction.) Wherever possible, we will ask our members to back up any claims they have to spiritual knowledge with logic, reason, evidence, experiment, and so forth.

More to the point, we do not ask any of our members or guests to believe in any supernatural thing, whatsoever. That fact alone pulls us apart from most religious organizations.

2. We Don’t Tell People What They Should or Shouldn’t Believe

Once when I was teaching 6th graders, I was asked “Do you believe in evolution?” I considered the tremendous impact of what my answer can have on the child. His parents were religious and would probably complain to the school if my answer was, “yes.” If I said “no,” then I could dramatically injure this child’s trust in science. I answered, “That is a good question, but what I believe doesn’t really matter. What matters is what is true. What matters is where the evidence leads.”

There is an underlying problem with dogma. Put simply, dogma represents unjustified ideas that are established as something that must be believed, no matter what. Dogma is a cornerstone to most religious institutions. In them, you are asked to “just believe” or have faith. You are told that something is true, and that you are not supposed to question it.

That approach is in stark contrast with our own. We encourage you to question, contemplate, test, and pick-apart the most important things you believe. If they are indeed accurate, then they will hold up to any kind of scrutiny or test, and will prove worthy of your belief. If they do not hold up, then you are now free to abandon false beliefs.

What is true? For me, that is a question that deserves a lifetime of dedicated and sincere study, exploration, and a certain willingness to modify your findings in light of better information. In my opinion, it cheapens the truth if we try to stamp an easy answer on top of it. This organization does not claim to know the truth. Rather, we are here to walk by your side as we look for it together.

Our group treats belief as a deeply personal matter. If you believe in god, gods, spirits, angels, demons, past lives, spiritual abilities, chi, the afterlife, and so on, then you are welcome to continue believing in those things. That is your personal choice, and we don’t see that it is our business to tell you want you can and can’t believe.

Even when it comes to secular things such as scientific fact or history, we don’t require anyone to agree with any idea or argument. Rather, we encourage our members and guests to take an academic approach and at least be willing to consider the various ethical and scientific claims made in our presentations.

Our focus is not on the conclusions, but rather, in the process. We want to discuss what is real, and how we can know it. We want to discuss what is moral, and how we can know that. The discussion is what is key. All in attendance are welcome to draw their own conclusions, week after week.

3. We Don’t Demand Exclusive Devotion, Membership, or Worship

Many religious or political groups will discourage you from considering the other side of the argument. You may be seen as an outcast for trying out other groups. They may even call considering what other faiths have to say as a sin or shameful. They claim to know the one and only truth, and will do what they can to limit the exposure to every other approach.

We encourage our members to be open minded and willing to see things from multiple angles. So if you would like to visit a forum and then visit your spiritual leader the next day, that poses no problem to us. If you are an atheist who belongs to ours and several other atheistic groups, then those groups are all the better to have you. We sincerely do hope to see all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds at our meetings, and invite you to come as often as you like. There is no cost to attend, and there is no penalty for leaving our groups. Put another way, if you visit three parties before ours, we don’t mind at all. We are just happy that you could make it to our party.

The Free Thought Forum is a place where anyone can belong, and we mean it when we say “anyone.”

4. There are No Off-Limit Topics, Taboo Subjects, or Unwelcomed Ideas.

If you have ever been banned from a group, ex-communicated from a church, blocked on social media, or unjustly kicked-out of an organization, you know full well how painful it can be when you are not allowed to be yourself. Of course, in certain circles, it makes sense that your ability to express yourself is limited. For example, if you volunteer at a children’s hospital, it is completely reasonable that you refrain from expressing your opinions on abortion with the parents of sick children.

But, as silly as that example might be, some of us find ourselves in a similar situation, no matter where we go. So what are we to do? Just not talk about important issues? Should we just keep our ideas to ourselves, indefinitely?

No. The Free Thought Forum is here to give you that place where you can talk about literally anything without the fear of being silenced or kicked out. There are precious few opportunities where people can discuss complicated, serious, or important topics without fear of offending others or of severe judgement. We want to give you such an opportunity.

We are not based on left-leaning politics or right-leaning politics. We are not anti-religious, anti-spirituality, or anti-atheist. As much as possible, we try not to be ideologically-tied to a “team” that limits our exploration of philosophy, history, science, health, or current events.

Another major difference between our groups and religious or political groups, is that we have no “sacred cows.” We have no rules against “blasphemy” or “wrong think.” In other words, we are not offended if someone wants to share a perspective that is in conflict with the opinions of the majority of the group. Your perspective is valued. Plain and simple.

You can, of course, be 100% wrong about something, but how would you know if you are never able to express the idea in the first place? This is part of why our group is both inclusive and supportive. Disagreement is encouraged, and if you are mistaken about something, it is your idea that is criticized, not you.

As long as all participants in an open discussion follow our “Five Rules for Civil Discourse,” any question or comment is “fair game.” This approach is at the core of who we are and what we do. Do you disagree with what the group leader presents? Are you unconvinced that science really is the best tool for discovering the facts of reality? Do you disagree with us when it comes to first amendment rights or model citizenship? Speak your mind, and be ready to explain why you have that opinion.

At the end of the day, as long as the shared goal is to follow what is actually real and what is actually right, no matter what, then any group of people can have a civil discussion on important ideas.

5. We are Free to Admit That we are Mistaken About Something, and Adjust as Needed.

One major problem with religious and political groups is that they are often forced to conform to a certain narrative. Their “side” must always be right in the eyes of their own history. After all, if your group is being led by heaven, how can you justify getting something like fundamental physics wrong in your holy books? I hope I don’t have to explain that this can lead to all sorts of problems of bias, doctoring the facts, cover-ups, corrupting historical evidence, scandal, and so forth.

The Free Thought Forum exists to help our members become better people while also improving our society. Our services are centered on public discussions. Our members and guests are not required to meet any kind of consensus or conclusion. It is the journey, not the destination, which matters most to us.

Having been organized with those priorities, we are completely free to announce that we were wrong about some scientific fact, or feel that a certain moral principle we promoted in the past should be revised. We claim no special authority, so it follows that we accept our inevitable fallibility. This is part of the reason that we don’t feel compelled to demand that our proposed systems of healthy living or philosophy be followed with any kind of enforced fidelity.

We are a philosophical discussion group, a volunteer group, a science advocacy group, and a friendly community. We may be many things, but the one thing we are not, is a church.

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative

Free Thought Forum