The Null Device

The Church of No Gods

Atheism is gaining popularity in the US (by some accounts, it is now more popular than bubonic plague). Now some atheists are discussing whether or not atheists should have their own church. After all, churches (particularly in America) fulfil a social function, distinct from their religious function, as centres of communities and bring people together (which, incidentally, is the literal meaning of the word "religion"), and with recent studies pointing out the health benefits of having a good sense of community, perhaps, the argument would go, it is time for a church for the godless?
Many atheist sects are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations, much like Ethical Culture. They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing. But this impulse is fueling a growing schism among atheists. Many of them see churches as part of the problem. They want to throw out the baby and the bathwater—or at least they don’t see the need for the bathwater once the baby is gone.
There are already vaguely churchlike organisations for atheists (or those with religious (non)beliefs indistinguishable from atheism): the article mentions the Society for Ethical Culture, a 19th-century "secular cathedral", and Humanist Judaism, which maintains the traditions of the Jewish faith but jettisons the faith bit. And then there are the Unitarian Universalists and other content-free quasi-religions.

Not surprisingly, there is not only no agreement on what the new atheist creed is meant to contain, but also what it should call itself.

At this point, the movement can’t even agree on a name. Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, prefers the term anti-theist because he’s entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect frightening, the spiritual equivalent of living in North Korea. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he has said, is “modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual adoption of the word gay.” (In the first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens dismisses the term as conceited.) And Sam Harris, brash young scientist that he is, triggered a minor revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term atheist, disparaging those who identify with a negation. “It reverberated in atheist circles as a sacrilege,” Harris told me. “But what’s worse is adopting language that was placed on us by religious people. We don’t feel the need to brand ourselves non-astrologers or non-racists.”
Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.” Even Richard Dawkins is not one to reject certain memes based on their churchly pedigree. He calls himself a “cultural Christian,” admitting that he likes to sing Christmas carols as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit to his tolerance of religion.
While I can understand the arguments, the idea of an atheist church seems a bit absurd. For one, atheism is a purely negative belief, by which I do not mean that it is harmful or wrong, but that it is only a statement of what one does not believe. If I tell you that someone is an atheist, I am telling you nothing about what that person actually does believe; they could be anything from a Buddhist to a Marxist to a secular humanist, to say the least; the only thing you know is that their belief system does not include a personal supreme being. As such, atheism in itself is not much of a rock on which to found a church. Granted, one could beef it up with a range of complementary beliefs or values (such as beliefs in the beneficience of science, the innate dignity of the individual, the equality of races and sexes or the humour of Monty Python), though then it ceases to be merely atheism and becomes something else.

Besides which, I doubt whether an atheist church could be remotely successful by any standard. Without the promise of eternal salvation (or some equivalent form of supernatural brownie points), going to church becomes just another activity, competing for time with a myriad possible other activities. Do you go to the Church of No God to hear a reading from Douglas Adams and then discuss it over tea and biscuits, or do you read a book or catch up with a friend or go rollerblading or see that new exhibition you've read about? Without the all-seeing gaze of the Almighty keeping tabs on His flock (or, more precisely, the common belief in such), such a church would more often than not take second place to other activities.

In fact, the whole question of whether atheists need their own church appears, to me, to be the wrong question, particularly when attendance of mainstream churches has been declining in recent years. A better question would be how the social function that churches fulfil could be best fulfilled, in today's society, without religion. (The key phrase is "in today's society"; in a world where people move around much more than they used to, don't necessarily live amongst people who share their cultural or religious outlooks, and where communications are often mediated by increasingly powerful technology, such as mobile phones and the internet.) While these changes have led to the breakdown of traditional social structures, they are also ushering in new forms of social connection (as Clay Shirky describes in Here Comes Everybody), and it is far from clear that creating an atheist church would make any more sense than designing a new high-tech buggy whip.

There are 8 comments on "The Church of No Gods":

Posted by: gusset Wed May 28 12:38:19 2008

I've thought about this before, wondering whether we need buildings that can fulfil the social function of a church in a community but without the religious baggage. Then I realised we have it already, it's called a pub.

Posted by: acb Wed May 28 16:37:47 2008

Pubs, though, are geographically located, and assume that you have something in common with the other people at your local. Which was more true in the old days when people largely stayed put within their (geographical) community.

The social functions of churches and pubs will, IMHO, increasingly be filled electronically, with things like Facebook, Meetup and Twitter.

Posted by: gjw Wed May 28 22:53:03 2008

It concerns me that the term "athiest" has, in recent years, been turned into some kind of active belief system, philosophy, complete with saints and all (like Dawkins). What if you just don't _care_ about God? What if you're just content to not believe in Him, without devoting your life to the preservation of logic and reason? I tend to avoid calling myself an athiest, these days, because it tends to suggest I'm some kind of activist with an agenda. I'm tending back towards the term "agnostic", because it feels more apathetic and relaxed.

Posted by: acb Thu May 29 09:25:21 2008

The problem with "agnostic" is that it's a bit too wishy-washy, and seems to say "well, the Bible may not be the literal truth, but we don't really know". Perhaps, it implies, YHWH is watching us, and there is a Heaven and Hell, and everything in the scriptures is true. I call myself an atheist because, IMHO, while we can (by definition) never know what if anything is outside the material universe, we can know that the world's holy books were the products of human culture and politics rather than the supernatural, and the Bible is as likely to be a factual account of the metaphysical as Alice In Wonderland or the writings of L. Ron Hubbard are.

Posted by: mark Fri May 30 00:58:38 2008

The problem with using a church to fulfill a social function is you tend to meet people whose only connection to you is religion. Think about Christians - the sort of wishy-washy, inoffensive Christians you'd see in Mass on a Sunday morning at any Catholic or Anglican church in the country. With how many of them would you like to spend significant amounts of time? Sure, I might enjoy the bonds of religious fraternity with old Mr Bloggs, who wears a blazer and tie on Sunday, believes vegetarians are just waiting for the right steak to come along, and smells faintly of old socks, but that doesn't mean I have to like the bugger.

Now, think about Atheists - the kind of strong-willed, offensive Atheists who spell it with a capital 'A' (or call themselves "brights") and combine the earnest belief that they are better than the rest of us with the unshakable suspicion that they're being cheated out of something by the "theists" of the world. Are modern humans so desperate to spend meatspace time with someone wit

Posted by: mark Fri May 30 01:30:00 2008

h whom they share a common bond that they'd be willing to meet up with the sort of person who would attend an Atheist church every damn week? And what would you do at such a church, anyway? Most of the atheists I know are bright (see what I did there?) enough that they wouldn't enjoy sitting around talking about how superior they are any more than they would a common or garden-variety service.

An atheist --- I refer of course to the bearable variety --- is just an ordinary bloke or blokette who happens not to believe in the Lord. That's nice for him (or her), but it's not something worth getting excited about, is it? The question is: are you an atheist because you don't have religious beliefs, or are you an atheist because you're a smug bastard? The answer to that question will determine how attractive the idea of a weekly atheist ceremony will seem.

Posted by: Loki Fri Jun 20 05:58:30 2008

Gotta disagree with you about agnosticism being wishy-washy - that's the common perception, but it's a perception encouraged by atheists and theists, rather than agnostics. And let's face it, both of those groups stand to gain by running down agnosticism.

To label yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic strikes me as asserting the superiority of belief (because disbelief is also a belief, and based on just as little evidence) over doubt. Conscious, searching doubt.

But that's the big problem with agnosticism - it's a large tent, and the diligent searchers for answers have to share it with those who are simply too apathetic to give a damn about even asking the questions.

Posted by: acb Fri Jun 20 07:20:48 2008

Depends on how one defines atheism, it can be about belief ("there is no god") or doubt ("we don't know what's out there, but the Bible/Koran/Bhagavad Gita/ancestral stories are not strong evidence about anything but human culture"). My belief is the latter.

And as far as doubt goes, while anything may be true, to classify questions like "the universe is governed by the Gods of the Norse pantheon" or "Jesus was the Son of God and performed miracles" alongside those like "there is a supreme being" or "consciousness is not purely physical" just seems silly, and biased towards one class of cultural products; why not doubt that, say, Alice in Wonderland is not an accurate cosmological account?