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.