When Jackie Simms overheard a conversation her young daughter was having with friends years ago, it changed the course of both their lives. “One of her friends told the others that she was Jewish and asked the other girls what they were,” Simms recalls. “Another little girl said, ‘I’m Catholic. What are you?’ Another girl said, ‘I’m Baptist. What are you?’ and then I heard my daughter, Charis, say, ‘I’m nothing.’ Well, I don’t care what the question is, my child is never nothing!”
Simms had been raised Methodist, but as an adult she found she didn’t subscribe to the church’s teachings, particularly belief in a supernatural deity. And she could not, in good conscience, take her daughter to a religious institution she didn’t believe in. “Hypocrisy is close to one of the seven original sins to me, and I did not want to appear in my daughter’s eyes to believe in something I did not believe.”
Meanwhile, a conversation with a friend who’d grown up in the Ethical Society of St. Louis and had a daughter Charis’ age pointed Simms in a different direction. “Ginger told me she’d be teaching the first grade Sunday school class there and invited Charis. I was very comfortable with the class and what she was teaching, and in 1978 I became a member.”
The Ethical Culture movement dates back to May 15,1876, when Felix Adler delivered the founding address in New York City. Adler had studied to be a rabbi like his father, a German immigrant who led the city’s largest synagogue, but he wound up following a decidedly different path. In his inaugural address, Adler spoke of a “new religion of morality, whose God was the good, whose church was the universe, whose heaven was on earth and not in the clouds.” The American Ethical Union, an umbrella organization for the movement, is still headquartered in New York.
Fast forward to 1990, when Simms moved here. She first explored the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, which left her feeling comfortable but not fulfilled. So in 2001, she teamed up with Don Johnson to launch the Ethical Humanist Society of Asheville, a nontheist alternative to traditional religion for people seeking to live an ethical, responsible and joyful life and to cultivate ethical behavior in their community. Johnson, the former head of the New York Society for Ethical Culture (the group founded by Adler) had retired here.
Not the right fit
The American Ethical Union let Simms know when people with an Ethical Culture background relocated here so she could reach out to them. Jim Tobin, a retired pediatrician who moved to Asheville in 2003, is the local group’s current president. He found out about it through the Building Bridges program, where Simms’ husband, Fred, was a facilitator. “I was raised secular Baptist, and I learned a lot of good things there, but there were many things I was skeptical about,” says Tobin. “I tried UUA, but it wasn’t quite the right fit.”
The Ethical Humanist Society, which has grown from about eight to 35 members, meets twice a month at the Asheville Friends Meeting House. First Sundays feature a “colloquy” — a guided discussion with time for reflection — as well as music and readings. These are usually conducted by Joy McConnell, a certified Ethical Humanist leader. On the third Sunday of the month there’s a platform presentation by one or more speakers; past topics include “Good Without God,” “Growing Up African American in Segregated Asheville” and “Sustainability Through Mindfulness.”
“First-timers are typically drawn to a platform meeting, and then they might come back for colloquy,” notes Tobin. “If they feel comfortable, they may decide to join. We are open to everyone: We have a member who is Roman Catholic, another from the secular Judaism group here, and members of UUA.”
The Rev. Mark Ward, lead minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, says his tradition welcomes everyone. “There is no central theology and no central affirmation of deity or not.”
Unitarian Universalism was born when two separate denominations dating back to the late 18th and early 19th century, respectively, consolidated in 1961. Both, notes Ward, began as essentially Christian churches, though they were considered liberal offshoots and eventually moved away from what he calls Christian consensus.
“It is our understanding that religious truth evolves, changes over time, and we each have our own unique experiences that guide what brings us to religion.” That spiritual impulse, he continues, is what “makes us ask the big questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? How am I related to the rest of the universe?” But in Ward’s tradition, “We don’t have a doctrine that says there is God or there isn’t God. There is a diversity of religious expression here, and we embrace that. We have people here who grew up in other denominations; we have people who are agnostic and people who are atheist. The key thing here is working from your own sense of authenticity and integrity.”
To a visitor, however, the Asheville congregation, which counts about 500 members, looks and feels much like more mainstream places of worship: a sanctuary furnished with pews; a fellowship hall and classrooms; an order of service that includes readings, music, a sermon, meditation and an offering; classes for children, youths and adults; outreach within the church, in the community and in the larger world.
“We came from the Christian tradition,” says Ward. “We have our Seven Principles and we have our Six Sources, and one of our sources is Jewish and Christian teachings. I use Scripture at times but not every week. We may bring in the Bible, but we don’t privilege it. … If I’m using the word God, I’m more likely to connect it with love: I’m not thinking of a white man in the clouds.”
A hunger to belong
Stan Binder was raised “essentially in the Orthodox Jewish tradition” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but as an adult, he found the God-focused prayers had no meaning for him. Unable to pray to a God he didn’t believe in, Binder walked away from the religion, though he remained immersed in New York Jewish culture. When a friend who had a house in Asheville urged him to consider retiring here, Binder was skeptical. But after doing some research, he decided “I could live in a place that has a HardLox Festival!”
In Asheville, Binder met like-minded Jews: emigrants from bigger cities who were seeking community. “I think the majority of us sampled the synagogues here but, for various reasons, they didn’t appeal,” he says. At the same time, however, “We missed the culture, the traditions, the holidays and the food: We are Jewish to the core.”
About seven years ago, Binder became a founding member of the Jewish Secular Community of Asheville, one of about 25 such groups across the country. “We concentrate more on helping each other, being friends to the world and having a humanistic core, versus praying to a higher being or supernatural authority,” says Binder, who currently serves as president of the Executive Committee.
There is no rabbi; instead, the Ritual Committee takes responsibility for services, which are led by a layperson. The group’s 125 members are mostly retired, and at least half attend the monthly Shabbat service held at the Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fairview. They gather for Jewish holidays such as Hanukkah and Rosh Hashana, often use the Jewish Community Center on Charlotte Street for meetings, and have very active social justice groups and outreach efforts.
“We are a community that loves to come together,” he says, adding, “We all want to belong to something.”
Finding a home
For many years, Dan Collins wasn’t sure where he belonged when it came to his personal faith. “I grew up going to Catholic schools and was a good little altar boy,” he says. “But early on I realized I could not sustain those beliefs and was left with a void.”
As a boy, Collins found solace in nature, spending a lot of solitary time in the woods. He later studied Eastern spirituality and explored what he calls natural spirituality. Attempts at traditional meditation were frustrated by his inability to quiet his mind. But when he took up trail running, Collins found a space and a pace where he could shut down his mind and get into a meditative place. “It was in being active that I could achieve meditation,” he explains. As Collins got older, however, he began seeking ways to reach that place that were easier on the body, such as drumming and kayaking.
Earlier this year, that same impulse prompted him to create LivingPulse as a way to find kindred souls in Asheville. “It’s a spiritual organization and a completely different way of thinking of God,” Collins explains. “In the simplest terms, God should not be thought of as the creator but the creation. How do we understand how we are one with all of creation, feel it and experience it?”
To that end, Collins recruited an assortment of “guides” — including his drum instructor, a movement leader, a painter, a trail runner, a musician and a yoga instructor — to assist at LivingPulse’s inaugural event, held Sept. 29 at Timber Hall in Leicester. Nearly 90 people came to experience what he calls a “tasting menu.”
“Let’s have a taste of each activity and, in between, discussion of spirituality and science. People were very engaged and stayed after for further discussion, so now I am looking at future events and how to gather and support a community of people who have a need for spirituality but are unable to sustain a belief in traditional practices and faiths,” Collins reports.
That kind of wide-ranging ecumenicalism seems to underlie these various attempts to find a nondogmatic, nontheistic approach to the quest for community, core values and deep connection.
Unitarian Universalists, notes Ward, “don’t say this is the only truth.” His parishioners typically see Jesus not “as the son of God but as a precious teacher. But there are people here who do have a personal sense of God and even pray to that.” In the end, he continues, “Some people will find a home here, and others won’t.”
And if some folks find it hard to understand why people who reject mainstream religion might still end up finding religion, Simms puts it this way: “One of the definitions of religion is something central to your life: the central values you live by. Ethical Humanism is so central to my life and my values, it is my religion.”