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The Atheist Church?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 17, 2013


There has been a movement lately to establish a ‘church’ for the atheist community. No, these are not attempts by the Christian community to convert atheist but atheist themselves, and mainly apostate, who miss the community that comes with a church life.

Web-Banner-2A pair of well-meaning comedians setup the first British Atheist Church in an old Anglican Church in London and there are plans afoot to set up other churches in other cities across the isle. At the UK branch, there is singing…Stevie Wonder, Queen, etc…there are lectures on topics like ‘the origin of anti-matter’…public reading of works like Alice in Wonderland…and other communal activities.

Although officially called the Sunday Service, the title Atheist Church has stuck and seems to be welcomed the participants or ‘parishioners’.

There is a Calgary Secular Church, which meets in a theater once a month. Which, to quote…”allows like-minded people the chance to get together, to fellowship, to share stories, to enjoy beautiful music, to have their children get excellent ethical and rational instruction, to be enlightened, and most importantly, to know they are not alone!”

Now there are a number of interesting things about this movement. A lot of those who are members are emphasizing the community aspect of it. To quote another ‘parishioner’: “I think people need that sense of connectedness because everyone is so singular right now, and to be part of something, and to feel like you are part of something. That’s what people are craving in the world”

Now, of course I have some issues with this. First, the term ‘church’ is explicitly a Christian term from Greek meaning “belonging to the lord” and they don’t mean the Lord of Downton Abby. A better term would be Congregational.

Yes, there are religious groups who use that term but at root it just stands for a gathering of people…which is really the whole point of this movement.

Now, the term religion is perhaps worse…not in its definition, but its long-term implications.

pknn937lReligion is defined as “A particular system of faith and worship”, but as skeptical or scientific atheists, you would never adhere to a system of faith. Faith of course is believing in something without evidence.

And the idea of worshiping anything should strike, at least the skeptic, as anathema. There is an aspect to the concept of worship that implied blindly following ….always right …a surrender of will.

The irony is such ‘churches’ at least as communal support groups already exist around the world. There are the Skeptics in the Pub phenomena…and no, not all of them are in Pubs, which just goes to show how this idea has stretched its original form. It is in the processes of transforming from a drinking club into a skeptical community center.

Another worry I have about the Atheist Church, is that its members are not necessarily atheist but “no-religion’. That is, they believe in a higher power or some form of spiritualism that is not founded in reality. Why this becomes troublesome is some of these types are actively pushing to make this church a real religion in the traditional sense.

One petitioner stated: “It will become an organised religion. It’s inevitable. A belief system will set in. There will be a structure, an ethical outlook on life”

mlyn1447lTo show signs that there may be dogma in dem-der atheist pews, there are a number of “10 commandments” for atheist popping up. This set is from writer Alain de Botton’s Atheist Manifesto and the default commandments of the UK Atheist Church:

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.

7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

fullNot to be left out, the Calgary Secular Church has their own set of commandments which are taken from activist writer Adam Lee:

First Commandment: Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

Second Commandment: In all things, strive to cause no harm.

Third Commandment: Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.

Fourth Commandment: Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.

Fifth Commandment: Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.

Sixth Commandment: Always seek to be learning something new.

Seventh Commandment: Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.

Eighth Commandment: Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.

Ninth Commandment: Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.

Tenth Commandment: Question everything.

Again, Commandment is an edict that must be obeyed…skeptics do not obey, they follow the evidence.

So, I think that as a minority community in a greater society there is a longing to connect with ‘our kind’ in the same way that religious or ethnic groups form inner-communities. There have been many attempts to form these inner-communities and will be more in the future. I worry that this particular experiment carries dangerous baggage but a good skeptic believes in the experimental method, so maybe we try it out and see where it goes.

Adam Lee’s – The New Ten Commandments
Calgary Secular Church
10 new virtues for atheists: Alain de Botton unveils new manifesto
Good without God: Atheist churches offer non-believers community and ritual without faith
What happens at an atheist church?
The Sunday Assembly


3 Responses to “The Atheist Church?”

  1. Mark said

    I agree with your take on it – personally I’d prefer “humanist” church, rather than “atheist”, because the former seems more positive with actual ideas and principles attached to it. Perhaps. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I like the idea: after all many people do miss the social aspect of it. Maybe they could even have weddings, which seem to be the main reason people go to church in the first place. That said, anything normative (like commandments) seems a little out of the question. Why not just celebrate the meeting of like minds while promoting doubt and offering lectures by scientists and literates?

  3. Gary White said

    I think that an Atheist Church is kind of an oxymoron. It is not a belief system, but more of a way of scientific reasoning. If there was a gathering of Atheists it would certainly not be a church, but probably a conference. Only a religious person would say “Atheist Church”.

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