Nonbelievers are growing in number. So why are they still sitting in the next pew with their kids?

Ross Harvey wedged himself into the back pew of the North Shore Unitarian Church in North Vancouver, British Columbia, as a visiting gospel choir filled the vaulted nave with soaring harmonies. Harvey, whose white T-shirt beneath a black dress shirt made him mistakable for a padre at a distance, was among the first to stand and clap and groove at the chord changes and the shared emotion. The only thing that came between him and full-on abandon was the part of himself that was irked by the words. “You know why the Baptists are so much better singers than we are?” he later joked. “It’s because Unitarian Universalists are always reading ahead to make sure that what we’re about to say we actually believe in. That slows us down.”

Unitarian Universalists are full of questions, not answers; heavily into social justice and community service; and strong on dogma-free religious education for kids. And that suits Harvey just fine. He’s an atheist. Just three years earlier he had confided to his wife that he wished there were “a church you could go to where you sang and heard inspirational talks and you didn’t have to get into all that other nonsense.” Then he found the UUs. No sooner did they join than they were asked to be in the Christmas pageant. Ross laughed, then said yes. He and Gabi were Joseph and Mary; their infant son, Jackson, was the baby Jesus.

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