“Atheist Churches” or “It’s Really Just Church…”

The Huffington Post recently had an article about an “atheist Church” that has begun to meet in the morning on Sundays.601751a-question-mark-on-stained-glass-posters

The 80 or so people that show up come seeking, as the article’s author says, “a sense of community, an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the upcoming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.”  They claim that there is no formal doctrine, dogma, operating theology, formal symbols, or identified sacred texts in this church.

Whether they are called “humanist communities,” “atheist churches,” or “nontheist gatherings,” this is not a new phenomena.  The hype is interesting and growing, for sure, but it is not new.

There have been atheists meeting in church since…churches began.

In fact, the sense of community and uplifting message that these atheists seek is probably, I would guess, what a number of people sitting in the pews seek on a regular Sunday morning.

The difference, of course, is that at this particular gathering in Houston, you don’t actually have to believe anything to show up or belong.

Wait a second…what’s the difference again?

I tell my ministry staff all the time, “People in church pews will put up with a whole bunch of crappy theology for good church programming and entertainment. They will disagree with the pastors and the theology privately as long as the people are nice and the kids programs and small groups are strong.”

I think that’s largely true.  I think at most thriving churches you have about 20% who agree doctrinally with the church, 60% that agree marginally, and 20% that like the music, the lights, the inspirational message, and that their kids feel safe and have a good time.

And I might be being generous toward the marginal percentage there.

I think atheists gather every Sunday at churches around the country, churches known as “Catholic,” “Evangelical,” “Methodist,” “Lutheran,” and even so-called “Bible” churches.  And for much the same reason the people in this article show up: they want inspiration and community.

And this has happened, I think, because churches have largely become another 7-11 for the soul.  It’s a place to get your spiritual Slurpee for the week.

And this is not necessarily bad, mind you.

But if that’s all church is, it’s a waste.

Because a church gathering, and a series of church gatherings over time, shouldn’t only be about you and your spiritual fix.  And it isn’t really only about “us,” either.

It is about a holistic reshaping of the gathered, of humanity, toward the Divine.

I think we’ve taught atheism…and continue to teach atheism…in churches through either tightening the dogma we teach or simply feeding the ego-beast that longs for the spiritual Slurpee.  We haven’t taught it through questioning the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ.  We haven’t taught it through encouraging free thinking or welcoming minority groups.

We’ve taught it by changing the shape of our gatherings to model the ego, rather than allow the shape of our gatherings to mold the ego.

And note: the remedy for this isn’t talking more about Jesus, or asking people to make a commitment to Jesus, or asking people to invite Jesus into their hearts (and really mean it this time).

That last phrase usually sends me into apoplexy.

Because more altar calls don’t mean more Christians.  I think many times it means more people assume that Jesus has become their personal talisman, or that they’re “doing the thing that will work” for their lives.

The remedy, I think, is to embrace the diversity of a gathering, and trust that God and God’s Spirit creates unity even in the midst of diversity.

This is why my faith tradition talks about God as a Trinity.  The diversity of the three-in-one.  The unity of the one-known-as-three.

In short, community is not uniformity. And instead of trying to force uniformity through the tightening of doctrine and dogma, or avoid the whole situation altogether through offering inspirational messages that only feed the ego-beast longing to believe that they and they alone are the most important thing in this world and a blessing is just around the corner, lets go back to that ancient understanding of church as a way to enact a counter-cultural gathering that forms a people into a shape more closely related to the Divine.

A shape of support and sacrifice.  A shape that fits into the pain of this world, and accentuates the beauty of God-given life.  A shape of…well…a cross.

Because I have a feeling that these “atheist churches” will soon be voting to excommunicate members who don’t agree with their proposition that “you don’t have to believe.”  This is what happens when you only gather with those who believe the same things you do.  You go solely to get a fix, and when someone seems to get in the way of that fix, you get them out of the way.

Christians do it. Religious people of all stripes do it. Atheists (also, mind-you, a belief system) do it.

Bowling leagues do it.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve become either spiritual Slurpee dispensers or a country club for insiders, unremarkable and indistinguishable from other groups who gather around a common mindset or hobby.

And if we continue to do this I think we can clearly see the outcomes: Egoism will become the predominate faith practiced in most churches formerly known as Christian (if it isn’t already), or we’ll just shuffle off into our dwindling camps of uniformity causing the other kids down the block to create their own club house with their own rules, and never the twain shall meet.

All the while the world will continue to turn and it will be worse off  because the churches of consumerism, the cathedrals of militarism, the temple of money, and the gathering of ravenous crowds who believe the new incarnation or product X will save their souls will continue to meet.

And the church, at it’s best, is the counter-cultural movement that can provide a voice against those rising mobs.

See, atheists gathering in churches isn’t really new.  And if that’s surprising to you, then you haven’t had real conversations with your fellow congregation members.

What can be different, though, is how you leave a church.

Do you leave in a different shape?

Yes, you individually.  But more-so you in the plurality.  Because being formed by ancient texts and music and meal and ritual pushes people together so much so that they have to change shape to accommodate the other in their presence, to accommodate the Other in their presence.

And it’s not a uniform shape, and it’s not about getting a spiritual Slurpee that will feed your faith indulgence.

It’s a cruciform shape that changes the way you interact in and with the world.

At least, that’s what it should do.

3 thoughts on ““Atheist Churches” or “It’s Really Just Church…”

  1. I’m an non-theist (not convinced that anyone knows for a fact that God exists, not concerned with figuring it out myself, more about living the Golden Rule) who left an organized religion and have seen no reason to go back. I’m not socially-minded enough to be willing to overlook the intolerance and the mistaking-the-starch-for-the-shirt to get the camaraderie and kid-safe events. I agree with your basic premise about what’s wrong, but I don’t think that it’s possible to have a community of any size that doesn’t default into leadership by those who want it (and ergo shouldn’t have it) and followship by those who, having been forced by dogma to accept myth as fact, gradually lose any incentive to speak out when inequality and injustice become the rules of the house. We now have churches that are political orgs and bastions of unearned male authority and power. The people who could have changed this, left the churches to the unqualified leaders and the silent followers. I *could* go back to mine and try to help reform from within, but that feels like a waste of my time and energy, to be perfectly honest. I believe the spiritual journey is a very individual one. I’d rather make my way on foot, gleaning help and inspiration from the sources that seem true and good to me, than sit on a big lumbering bus that may be heading in the general right direction but also pollutes, sometimes runs over people, has sexist employment practices, and won’t let everyone on. I don’t care how good the coffee or company is. 🙂

  2. A half-formed idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is that communities are defined as much by those they exclude than they are by those within the community. The ideal of the Kingdom of God as I understand it is that God through Christ has extended an open invitation to the world to participate, to belong in his community and that all that is asked is for some honesty and recognition of need for one another and for God. It is not compulsory.

    Of course, the human expression of the Church does not meet this ideal. Perhaps that’s what makes the metaphor of the body so potent for an organization like the Church–it’s dynamic, always growing and changing. Always striving to meet that ideal.

    I don’t know if I’m being too neo-Platonist here…if there’s a better way to express this feeling. Again, it’s half-formed.

  3. I like the idea of atheist church. I like the idea that we’re stealing all the best bits of religion while throwing away the crap. Like my local community garden for example, the garden’s really just an excuse to come together. There’s a lot more going on there than the ostensible goal of building a garden; we’re building relationships. And it’s synergistic. It’s a real-world case of loaves and fishes, by coming together we generate abundance, even of trivial things like vegetables.

    I think atheist church is innovative and good for the movement. Though I think, credit where credit’s due, the Unitarian Universalists probably invented it first.

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