The Huffington Post recently had an article about an “atheist Church” that has begun to meet in the morning on Sundays.
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.