Monday, November 11, 2013

What to Think About the Atheist Church Movement?

The intriguing headline read "Atheist 'Mega-Churches' Take Root across Us, World." Following was an AP story describing how the Sunday Assembly, a weekly congregation of atheists that began in the UK, has just launched new congregations in several major cities across the United States. Their vision, according to their web site is to give the godless person a communal experience, allowing them to "celebrate life" and to "be a force for good" with the mutual support of other atheists. Their motto proclaimed clearly on their web site is to "live better, help often, wonder more."

The story attracted a lot of attention online; social media and the blogosphere were immediately inundated with links to variations of the story from the Huffington Post, CBS News, or other outlets. Of course, some of it was more hype than help. For example using the term 'mega-church' in both the lede and the story copy was terribly misleading. A mega-church is defined by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research as a protestant congregation of 2000 or more persons in attendance at weekly worship ." The kickoff Sunday Assembly meeting in Los Angeles attracted "several hundred" attendees according to the story. Given that Sunday Assembly founder Sanderson Jones was the special guest, it remains to be seen what the actual average weekly attendance will prove to be, but they were far from mega-church numbers.

Bigger questions than the AP's misleading hyperbole come to mind, though. One is just why those that ascribe to no higher authority could have any objective calling to "be a force for the good." Just what is "the good" when there is nothing to ground your moral understanding? What does it mean to "live better?" Does one live better by honestly acquiring wealth or by living in meager conditions so he can give more of his wealth away? Is one being a force for good if she helps advance the race by promoting the best and the brightest or by trying to give equal time to the unlearned so that all people have an equal chance to be heard? Perhaps being a force for good is following Richard Dawkins' concept that teaching children religious ideas is worse than sexual abuse. They should therefore seek to extract all children from those homes, as anyone would properly do with the children of a pedophile.

The fundamental problem with the Sunday Assembly is the fact that there is no grounding at all for such gatherings, other that the subjective feelings of the participants. Without a transcendent authority, that is without an objective God that provides meaning to life and morality, you are only left with a false shell of what church is all about. Such hollow actions may make the adherents feel good, but I think they're doomed to failure as any counterfeit would be. Los Angeles Sunday Assembly organizer Ian Dodd said it explicitly to Salon Magazine: "What we're trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus."

Yes, and anyone who thinks the bathwater is valuable when you've lost the baby has their priorities upside down.

Jones is not hiding the fact that he is trying to duplicate much of what he likes about the Christian church experience. In the AP article he says, "If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people - and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"  Nothing, except the glue that holds the church together and allows all those incredibly different people to be one body is Jesus Himself. Christians are called to be conformed into Jesus' image. We have an objective idea of what love and what self-sacrifice is because He modeled it for us. And we, as followers of Christ, have a reason to love our enemies and forgive one another. Without Jesus, it would all be about who likes what, but with no compelling motivation to follow the teachings that you really don't like. It's doing those hard things that provide so much more meaning to life than simply singing catchy songs or hearing an interesting speaker.

When I was a kid, I used to take a piece of spearmint gum from the pack, carefully remove the stick from the aluminum wrapper, then refold the wrapper and slip it back into the paper sleeve and back into the pack. The whole point of this deception was to offer a stick of gum to my friends and watch the hilarity of them grabbing an empty package. It was silly and it was kid stuff that we laughed at because we were childish in our outlook. Atheist churches offer a promise of real satisfaction, but I fear the only thing they can deliver is a package that holds nothing more than an aroma of what living better actually means.


  1. RE: "The whole point of this deception was to offer a stick of gum to my friends and watch the hilarity of them grabbing an empty package."

    Lenny, your church is a type of empty package, because as you say, God is at the center of it all... problem is, he only exists in your imagination.

  2. So Buddhists and Humanists cannot have a moral compass since neither believes in your version of a god? I know from both experience and knowledge that I am a moral, ethical being. I know when I do wrong and right. I also work to improve daily, without calling on anyone or anything outside of myself. I consider those who require a belief in a god to be uneducated and unenlightened, similar to little children. I have compassion for them and am grateful that I have grown beyond that point in my life.

  3. Why do you take such a a sour attitude? You should be glad. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Speaking of sincerity, you sound really cynical when you ask "What does it mean to live better?" I know you're trying to make a philosophical point, but it sounds kind of sick, actually. Do you really not know in your heart what better living might look like?

    Same thing when you claim that without Jesus you'd have "no compelling motivation" for doing what's right. That sounds borderline socio-pathic. Please get a grip on yourself.

  4. Bernie, you are like a blind man who denies the existence of "blue" or "green". Of course, you do not know God. But just like telling the sighted there are no colors you will never convince those of us who know God that he does not exist.

    And thebeard88, where do you get your definition of morality? If you are an accident of time and chance, then your definition of morality is as valid as any other persons. I am certain you realize that there are cultures who have quite different "moral" standards from you. Some of which believe that forcing women to do anything a man wishes is moral, and marrying small girls is moral.

    And John Moore...knowing that what you have is devoid of the promises of God is extremely sad. How do you know that your version of "living better" is the best. Same question as asked of thebeard88. There are a couple of guys who wrote a book all about their version of "living better". It involves getting as much for nothing as possible, i.e. sitting as close to the door as possible in a restaurant, eating and drinking expensively and then slipping out the door before paying the bill. They think it is great! Hitler thought that killing off all the "unfit" was morally good for the success of the human race.

    Where on earth did you fellows find a "moral compass"? Certainly not from the random firing of neurons in a brain that developed randomly.