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Okla. Unitarian Pastor Opens Church Services for the 'Nones'

A Unitarian Universalist minister who this fall started a church service program for atheists and non-believers has said the services meant to attract America's growing "nones" population have been successful.

"These are people who are not inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by Scripture but who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death," the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., told the Tulsa World.

The weekly non-theist Humanist gathering, called "The Point," was launched back in September, and in some ways follows the proceedings of regular church meetings – the congregation gathers on Sunday mornings, listens to sermons from the pastor, and addresses the needs of the community. But there are no invocations to God, no prayers or hymns, and the Bible is not referenced.

It is a response to the growing number of non-believers, also called "nones" in society – a recent Pew Forum poll showed that almost 1 in every 5 Americans does not identify with a religion.

"The fastest growing religious segment of our society are those who call themselves non-religious," Lavanhar said.

"If I can't make my case for loving your neighbor without reference to God and Scripture, then I am truly going to miss a huge segment of the population who may find themselves permanently outside the walls of organized religion," he added.

As to how the church program is faring, the pastor noted that on average, between 100 to 200 people attend the meetings, and has drawn as many as 280 people.

The services are not entirely without music, however. One Sunday they included a song from the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" which lampoons religion and Mormonism. Lavanhar says he used the song to point out historical prejudices against black people and women rather than to mock the Mormon tradition.

The pastor ensured that outside "The Point," he prays regularly to God and defined himself as a "theistic naturalist" who believes in God but not in miracles.

He says that many atheists who come to him do not entirely reject the concept of God, but reject the idea of Him often pushed forward by mainstream society.

"I say to them, 'Tell me what God you don't believe in, and I'll probably tell you I don't believe in that God either,'" Lavanhar said, noting that sometimes non-theists who come to him to discuss such matters move to more theistic positions.

"By trying to bring together such a wide diversity of people, we're really trying to bring harmony and unity and peace to the world, and to be an example and a model of that for the world," the pastor said of his work.

"There's always been an aspiration in humanity to see ourselves as one human family and to get along in a way that fosters peace."

All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa explains on its website that it is liberal group "open to a diversity of theological perspectives" and has no creeds. Unlike mainstream Christianity, its belief system does not rely on the Bible's authority but "values personal experience, conscience and reason in developing one's beliefs, values and ethics."

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