Atheist Churches! Oh My God, No!

By Lara Apps

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Today’s post might offend a few people, but I don’t care. I’m pissed off. And very, very disappointed in my fellow free thinkers. I like to think of myself as pretty accepting, but I have a massive problem with the “atheist church” trend. As in, I want to slap the founders and anyone who joins one of these travesties. In case you haven’t heard, atheist and secular churches are a thing now. You can go to an assembly, receive services such as weddings and funerals, and do all the church stuff without having to believe in God or read any sacred texts. Unless you’re a member of the London-based Sunday Assembly, in which case you can be part of the church even if you do believe in God. The Calgary Secular Church even has 10 Commandments.

What the fuck is going on? Is atheism, as some commenters have suggested, turning into a religion? It sure as hell looks like it, although cult might be a better label.

The justification given for these atheist churches is that people want to feel that they are part of a supportive community of like-minded people, and to have some structure in their non-believing lives. Fine. I get that. So join a running group, or a scrapbooking club. Start a book club. Whatever floats your boat. Learn to be friends with people who don’t think exactly the same way you do — your life will be richer for it. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy into some homogenizing “structured godlessness” scheme. Don’t believe the hype! There is no way that a large, organized group of people can maintain an all-beliefs-are-OK stance in reality for very long. Sooner or later, you get things like, say, 10 commandments and conflicts over who really belongs in your church. Sunday Assembly’s co-founder, Sanderson Jones, has already mused that this atheist church doesn’t really have to be all that atheist (see the Salon article linked below). What this means is that “hard core” atheists don’t belong. The exclusion is already happening, and this church is barely off the ground.

Jones has also said that he doesn’t think established religions will have a problem with atheists adopting their methods and forms (why would they? this is a path back to “real” church), and that the only people who will have a problem with atheist church are “aggressive atheists.” Well, I’m not an aggressive atheist, and this enterprise sounds limiting, exclusionary, and exploitative. Not to mention boring as hell. Kind of like real church, only worse because at least real churches don’t pretend to be fostering free thought.

7 thoughts on “Atheist Churches! Oh My God, No!

  1. alecbrady

    It’s kind of odd that you say “whatever floats your boat” and then quietly imply “as long as I agree with it”. Why on earth should having an atheist church imply (1) that we expect all atheists to agree with it, (2) that it has to be “all-beliefs-are-ok”? The church we’re trying to start in my home town explicitly rejects both of those. Not all beliefs are ok if you want to be in our club, and many atheists won’t want to be.

    Sure, if what you call “hard-core atheists” don’t feel they belong to a club, then they don’t belong. Why is that a bad thing? If someone wants to set up a club dedicated to preaching hard-core atheism, well, fine. Whatever floats their boat. I wouldn’t feel like I belonged there, but that’s not a reason for them not to do it.

    Reply
    1. lapps2013 Post author

      Hi Alec,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s good to see some different opinions. You’re quite right to point out that there’s an inconsistency in my saying people can do whatever they want, and then arguing against a particular choice. Here’s the thing. I wouldn’t stop an atheist or secular group from starting a church in my neighbourhood (an unlikely event, but you never know), nor would I stop anyone from joining it. No pickets, no anti-atheist-church campaign. I also don’t imagine that atheist churches expect all atheists to agree with them; I’d very surprised if they thought that was going to happen. But I have to be honest: the phrase “atheist church” makes me want to throw up. To borrow some religious terminology, I think it’s blasphemous — against atheism, which I associate strongly with independent thinking. I have no interest in atheist clubs at this point in my life but no problem with them either. When I was a teenager, I might have been glad for the opportunity to join one, provided it didn’t turn into a preachy sing-song, at which point I’d have bolted for the door.

      I’m deeply suspicious of this Sunday Assembly and its “franchising”. I hope I’m wrong, but it strikes me as a cynical attempt to cash in on people’s vulnerabilities by mimicking traditional church worship and simultaneously mocking it to seem cool and fun and thus draw people in. Someone, I suspect, is laughing all the way to the bank.

      As for the idea that all beliefs should be OK in a church, I don’t actually think that they should be — that kind of defeats the purpose of a church. My point was that if an “atheist” church is suggesting certain kinds of atheism aren’t welcome, then they are already practicing the kind of exclusion that leads to dogmatism, which is something that many atheists criticize about religion.

      I’m curious about why you call your club a church? (You use both terms in your comment.) I’m not trying to pick a fight about it — I’m genuinely puzzled about why a group of atheists (if that’s what you’re talking about) want to call themselves a church.

      Lara

      Reply
  2. southernhon

    I’d love something like that here. We do have the Unitarian Universalist church, which, IMO, borders on this concept. I think it would be great if this succeeds.

    Reply
  3. alecbrady

    Hi Lara

    I was amused by your use of the word “blasphemous”. At least you didn’t say “heretical”!

    My attitude to free thought is that it shouldn’t be a wandering in the wilderness but a journey of discovery. And if, on that journey, I discover somewhere that I’d like to live, then I’m free to set up house and live there. And invite people to join me, if they also like what they see. That is not a betrayal of freethinking, but its fruit.

    Two main points:
    (1) We’re promoting a particular vision so, necessarily, that doesn’t include other visions. Like, if we were creating a football club, that would preclude having baseball bats on the field. But we don’t want to exclude any people. As long as they want to play football, this is somewhere for them to come. But if what they want is baseball (or poker, or chess) we’re delighted to acknowledge that we’re not what they want, and we’ll happily point them to where they’ll find what they’re looking for. They can even do both, if that’s their thing.

    (2) Why do we call it a church? Because nothing else describes so well what kind of institution we’re aiming for. It’s a community of people who want to work together to change themselves to make themselves happier and more fulfilled. They will want to meet together often, so they can create activities and festivals, support networks, mentoring, celebration, study and all the other stuff that churches do. It’s not a single-issue thing like a discussion forum or a choir or a self-help meeting, it’s a family that can support people from cradle to grave.

    Have a look at our site, EpicureanChurch.org.uk, and tell me if there’s anything there you find objectionable.

    Best wishes.

    Reply
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  5. Diana

    My objection to calling it a church is that it will confuse others into believing it is an actual church – with religious believers. Any time it’s referred to without the “atheist” in front of it, it seems like it’s believers getting together. I had this problem when we belonged to a humanist synagogue. I didn’t like it being called a synagogue because when we did a charity outing like Habitat for Humanity, others thought we were Jewish believers. And it reinforced their belief that only “people of faith” do altruistic things. I want people to know that groups that are independent of religion go out and do nice things for others!

    Reply
    1. alecbrady

      I think you’re confusing two different issues here. Of course groups that are independent of religion go out and do nice things for others, and we absolutely should be shouting that fact from the rooftops. But there are also religiously-affiliated groups that go out and do nice things. That doesn’t make them “churches” or “synagogues” or “gurdwaras” (Cafod is not a church). “Doing nice things” and “being a church” are entirely separate activities, and I’m not going to stop doing my church-type things (and calling them by the appropriate name) just in case someone doesn’t get that.

      As long as atheists shun words like “church” and “religion” – even while doing things that deserve those labels – the labels will continue to be the property of theists. If there is a religion without gods or supernatural content, and a church of people committed to following that religion, what other words should we be using?

      Reply

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