Church for Atheists?

Do athe­ists want to go to church too? NY Mag­a­zine writes about an 850 per­son meet­ing of the Soci­ety for Eth­i­cal Cul­ture. There’s a grow­ing con­ver­sa­tion about orga­niz­ing their “reli­gion.” Instead of athe­ists being just polit­i­cal activi­tists fight­ing for sep­a­ra­tion of church and state…

…some athe­ists are tak­ing seri­ously the idea that athe­ism needs to stand for things, like evo­lu­tion and ethics, not just against things, like God. The most suc­cess­ful move­ments in his­tory, after all — Chris­tian­ity, Islam, Hin­duism, etc. — all have creeds, cathe­drals, schools, hier­ar­chies, rit­u­als, money, cler­ics, and some ver­sion of a heav­enly after­life. Churches fill needs, goes the argu­ment — they incul­cate ethics, give mean­ing, build com­mu­ni­ties. “Sci­ence and rea­son are impor­tant,” says Greg Epstein, the human­ist chap­lain of Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. “But sci­ence and rea­son won’t visit you in the hospital.”

Essen­tially, some athe­ists want to throw out the baby and keep the bath­wa­ter. The social­iz­ing func­tions of church are desir­able, but the crux of the church — God and the Gospel — are to be laid to rest.

The move­ment to “churchify” athe­ism is in a very early stage. There is dis­agree­ment even on what to call it. To define a move­ment sim­ply by what one is against (i.e. “athe­ist” or “Anti-Theist”) is strik­ingly uncre­ative and unin­spir­ing for a move­ment that cel­e­brates human­ism and achieve­ment. More impor­tantly, to define and “can­on­ize” what a move­ment believes (as opposed to what one sim­ply stands against) will be a chal­lenge that I don’t see athe­ists over­com­ing any time soon.

To be pas­sion­ately anti-Something eas­ily gal­va­nizes move­ments. Stones thrown from any angle can all hit the tar­get. But to be pas­sion­ately for-Something takes sub­mis­sion to an author­ity greater than the com­mu­nity itself. That author­ity, in turn, shapes the com­mu­nity. Chris­tians look to the Bible. Mus­lims look to the Qur’an. The U.S. looks to the Con­sti­tu­tion. Since some of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of athe­ism is skep­ti­cism of author­ity and even the pos­si­bil­ity of know­ing any­thing for sure, I’m very inter­ested in see­ing how the move­ment tries to define itself.

I must say, as a leader in an orga­nized reli­gious move­ment, it’s hard enough keep­ing peo­ple together when God is on our side. Good luck without.

Comments (3)

  1. jules wrote::

    Speak­ing of athe­ists, I just bought the book “There Is a God: How the World’s Most Noto­ri­ous Athe­ist Changed His Mind” by Antony Flew.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:24 am #
  2. rlew wrote::

    Jules, I’ve only read short arti­cles by and about Flew. Let me know what you think about the book. Even if he’s moved away from athe­ism, I think he’s mainly in the deist camp? Is that right?

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 1:21 pm #
  3. berthan@gmail.com wrote::

    It’s inter­est­ing cause i watched a doc­u­men­tary about Zelous Athe­ists, (Dawkins included) and watched a meet­ing they had. It seemed very much like a church meet­ing, aside from begin­ning and end­ing with prayer. But there was talk about sup­port and how to con­vert the non-heathens…

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 4:19 am #