Gillian Flaccus, of Associated Press:
It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.
Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted more than 400 attendees, all bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.
The founders, British duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, are currently on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch dozens of Sunday Assemblies. They hope to raise more than $800,000 that will help atheists launch their pop-up congregations around the world.
So the story goes, Sanderson Jones came up with the idea because, well, why should Christmas carols and other fun stuff be the exclusive province of theists?
“There was so much about it that I loved, but it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in,” Jones said. “If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”
And it is true; while much of the vocal atheistic movement has dealt more overtly with the idea of the theistic religious paradim—resulting in such stupidity as demanding government endorsement of bigotry—it has been much harder to criticize the reasons so many stragglers and holiday faithful continue to spend a morning or evening in church. As one person close to me, who considers herself a “Christian”, I think, because it’s the word she always knew, reminds that it isn’t about securing her soul with God, but a sense of community. And there is a certain truth to it, regardless of what we might think of a community, like the last church I ever attended on a Christmas Eve, that teaches children to hate themselves.
And, yes, that last seems a bit harsh, so we might disclaim specifically that it refers to one idiotic church that decided to go with a really stupid explanation of what it means to be born into sin.
Still, though, they aren’t the only idiots in the corpus Christi. Indeed, we might note them for the sake of considering potential problems.
“In the U.S., there’s a little bit of a feeling that if you’re not religious, you’re not patriotic. I think a lot of secular people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We are charitable, we are good people, we’re good parents and we are just as good citizens as you and we’re going to start a church to prove it,” said [Phil] Zuckerman [of Pitzer College]. “It’s still a minority, but there’s enough of them now.”
That impulse, however, has raised the ire of those who have spent years pushing back against the idea that atheism itself is a religion.
“The idea that you’re building an entire organization based on what you don’t believe, to me, sounds like an offense against sensibility,” said Michael Luciano, a self-described atheist who was raised Roman Catholic but left when he became disillusioned.
“There’s something not OK with appropriating all of this religious language, imagery and ritual for atheism.”
Certainly, there is that. One of the fundamental questions about atheism that never really gets answered is how it fits into the rest of one’s living experience. Over the years, we might note that one way to send the atheists near you into a sputtering fit is to ask them about ethical and moral conduct. To wit, if “God” is the linchpin of a religious person’s moral structure, what replaces God when they abandon the theistic sociomoral code? The standard answer is that such considerations are not part of “atheism”, and therein lies a problem.
(In truth, we might note that it really isn’t that hard a question to answer. It’s just that when the question is put in that way, it seems to confound people. While many atheists resent the useless proposition that without God there is no morality, it is hard to find among evangelical atheists the most direct answer to that idiotic canard: How do you calculate right and wrong? Indeed, answer that question, and one answers the theistic prerequisite of morality.)
In the end, though, the idea of atheist congregations shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is easy enough to see.
There will always be atheists who are, simply living without consideration of what God might want if It exists. But a broader, community or societal perspective eventually demands at least an abstract reckoning between indentity and anti-identification. That is to say, “What are atheists, as opposed to what they are not?” We know what they’re not.
Thus the idea of atheistic orthodoxy would actually seem predictable.
One suggestion about this aspect of atheism that is, admittedly, less than complimentary, is that some of these identifying atheists aren’t rejecting religion and paradigm, per se, but simply seeking empowerment. As Emma Goldman put it, over a century ago:
Religion! How it dominates man’s mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul. God is everything, man is nothing, says religion. But out of that nothing God has created a kingdom so despotic, so tyrannical, so cruel, so terribly exacting that naught but gloom and tears and blood have ruled the world since gods began.
And that is an aspect that cannot be overlooked. Community, society, and even paradigm, sure. But some simply want to be the ones in charge. It’s not so much the orthodoxy, but, rather, its theistic linchpin.
Flaccus, Gillian. “Atheist Mega Churches Are Taking Root All Over The World”. Associated Press. November 10, 2013.
B.D. “Sieveheads”. B.D.’s Last Refuge. August 4, 2013.
Goldman, Emma. “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For”. New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1911.