Atheist Churches? Forget About It.

A number of people have asked me about the recent trend of “atheist churches” that have been popping up around the US and Great Britain. Here’s a typical example from USA Today:

It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God. … On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted more than 400 attendees, all bound by their belief in non-belief.

Personally, I find this a cringe-worthy suggestion, on par with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett’s suggestion that atheists rename ourselves “Brights.”

There’s nothing inherently unatheist about it, as long as these “churches” don’t have dogma, supernatural myths, or superstition. People in civil society will always form groups of like-minded individuals to bound by community, tradition, and ritual.

The reason it doesn’t appeal to me is because not believing in some particular idea is not a sufficient basis for forming a cohesive community. Sam Harris highlighted this point in his 2007 talk “The Problem With Atheism”:

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview — and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves. 

The desire to know what is actually going on in world is very difficult to argue with. In so far as we represent that desire, we become difficult to argue with. And this desire is not reducible to an interest group. It’s not a club or an affiliation, and I think trying to make it one diminishes its power.

For the concept of a church to even make sense, there have to be other common values and beliefs, which I may or may not share with other people who merely happen to also not believe in God. Go to any gathering of atheists and you will find more disagreement on ethics, politics, and philosophy within the group than between it and the general public. That isn’t an accident.

Atheism (absence of belief in God) does not, cannot, and should not try to offer anything more than freedom from the shackles of dogma. Atheism is just a blank slate, a starting point from which we can make our own choices and determine our own destiny, in the full light of reason and reality. (Humanism, on the other hand, actually is a philosophy, with basic values and positive beliefs, and humanist churches do exist.)

Christopher Hitchens, in his polemic god Is Not Great, put it more eloquently:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically…

Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement. … There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness.

We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man’s most useful innovations: the bound book).

Would it be just a bit too ironic for me to say “amen”?