RE Matters: The Atheist-Family-Friendly Sunday School

By Emmalinda MacLean

Director of Religious Education


Unitarian Universalists have lots of different ideas about God. How do you offer “Religious Education” that embraces all of them?

Kids in Emerson’s Sunday morning programming will hear a lot about our values and our principles. They’ll learn about what different religions and cultures practice and believe, and we’ll explore ideas like kindness, hope, joy, courage, peace, transformation, and interconnectedness. But they don’t hear a whole lot about God. When they do, it’s framed as an idea that has deep meaning for many people, but one that they have the right to decide for themselves whether or not it speaks to them.


That’s not the typical message children get from a church, even in very liberal denominations. Being steeped in UU culture and theology my whole life, and being married to an atheist despite my own belief in God, I have long taken for granted that Church and God are not mutually necessary ideas. Many of the children and teens at Emerson have told me, in some form or another that they don’t believe in the traditional concept of “God”. Many of their parents and fellow Emersonians don’t, either. The strangeness of this church culture finally struck me recently when I was looking for a Story for All Ages for a service, and found myself ruling out stories from major world religions that didn’t seem appropriate because the moral of the story was “God is the greatest”. That doesn’t speak to everyone in our church; I needed to draw the circle wider.



Fortunately, in many enduring religious teachings passed on as stories, “God is good” because love is good, because kindness and compassion are good, because justice and equality for the oppressed are good. In almost seven years telling an almost-weekly story with an uplifting moral, I think I’ve gotten pretty adept at translating these “God’s Goodness” stories into tales about the goodness in each of us, and about the goodness of justice for all people. I’m making a habit of translating the word “God” in my mind to “greatest goodness” to see if it still holds up: “Greatest goodness is love” works. “Greatest goodness hates . . . “ nope.


To me, the signature philosophy of Unitarian Universalism is to always draw a wider circle, to continually look for who is being excluded and invite them in. There are few starker contrasts in religious philosophy than believing in God or not, and I love belonging to a religion that embraces and supports both of these points of view. If your understanding of what is greatest and most sacred includes love, kindness, hope, joy, courage, peace, transformation, and interconnectedness, you probably belong here, no matter what you call that greatness. And your children will be welcomed and encouraged to call it whatever feels right to them, too.