'We Make Our Own Heaven'

The Humanist Center offers a spiritual home for non-believers.


March 28, 2008— -- It is hard not to notice the bells that ring on Sunday morning. But at churches, synagogues and mosques around the globe there are some for whom that religion is lost. This group is part of America's atheist minority.

While Christians, Muslims and Jews can celebrate their beliefs, and fellowship in the company of others in churches, mosques and synagogues, where can non-believers find a spiritual home?

One answer lies in Palo Alto, Calif., if you spot the sign by the roadside. It's at the Humanist Community, where for a few hours every Sunday the humanists, as they call themselves, come together in what one might call a congregation. It even has its own Sunday school.

Without church bells, but with music, this group of humanists believe in a lot of things – but God isn't one of them.

They get together and, with lectures for the older congregants and stories and games for the younger ones, discuss not their faith, but the opposite of faith -- the idea that truth arises from reason, from science, from free thought.

"I like to think freely, but still I can really think freely whenever I want 'cause I think thinking freely is good," said eight-year-old Jane Kovak, one of the humanists' younger congregants. Jane's parents, John and Kimberly teach in the community.

"I don't believe there is a God," Jane continues, "but there is a possibility that there can be. I don't really think there is."

When Time magazine wrote up their version of the Humanist Center and called it Atheist Sunday School, some at the center took issue at the description, because humanism, they say, is so much more than atheism.

Peter Bishop is the group's intellectual guide. "People are the force for good in the world and so I believe in people that their goodness will create the goodness that we have in the world," he says.

Bishop is an MIT graduate who works now as a software writer in Silicon Valley. His parents encouraged the idea of free thought during his childhood.

What's interesting about this non-church is some of its churchlike aspects. There's a hymn book, talks that sound like homilies and, at one point, an actual collection plate passed through the aisles after one song.

And of course, there's the atheist named Bishop. The manner in which he teaches is similar to how some fired-up preachers preach. But if he's not preaching faith and he has a Sunday school, what is Bishop teaching?

"Community," he said, "a sense of community, that they get to know other kids… It's a place where, I don't know, Jane, what do you think?"

"It's cool 'cause you can, like, think freely by yourself," she said.

Some outside the church might take issue with the humanist teachings being taught to a child as young as Jane.

One congregant disagrees. "I do believe that this is important to start when they are very, very young," said Beverly Crowell, a member of the congregation. "Because our culture, especially now, is so permeated with religion views, and so in order to counteract that with children that are malleable and very impressive or impressionable, it's good to get them early and teach them that they can be individuals on their own."

But if people want to believe in God, why not?

"Oh absolutely, if they get comfort from that... more power to them, I think that's wonderful, I don't get anything from that," said Crowell. "The way they do, I'm not impressed. I believe we make our own heaven right here, or hell, and I said, I'm going to come back in an afterlife as a leaf on a tree."

As for Jane, her parents believe that her religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should be up to her.

"They have had many discussions about this, and we've had our discussions too," said her mother. "I think that we just give our view, I always tell Jane that she has to make up her own mind, she has to experience her experiences -- figure it out for herself."

And Jane is doing just that -- trying to figure out for herself the answers to life's difficult questions, like what happens when people die. "Well, usually you kind of go in the earth, but I don't believe that heaven's not really real," she says. "It would be cool if it was real. But there is a possibility that it is real, but I don't think so. "

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