Atheist Church

Yet more weirdness about the Atheist Church being a mainstream atheist idea in the Irish Times. It rather puzzles me that such a weirdly minor part of atheism has captured the public in such an impressive way.

I’m not conventionally religious, but I do like to think of myself as a spiritual person. Only joking. Of course, I don’t. I do not have a “spiritual side”. There is no “spiritual dimension” to my life. It has, in fact, never been clear to me what that overused statement means. One has some notion what a practising Jew, Hindu or Roman Catholic believes. By way of contrast, the “spiritual person” seems to walk through life as an empty bucket, eager to collect the splattered cast-offs from any passing moral philosophy.

There is a flaw with this line of thinking.

I like the idea of helping the poor in Islam, of the social obligation to help those who need it.

I do not like the fundamentalism and violence associated with it, nor do I like the entrenched rules that make it easier to discriminate against women.

To adopt a moral idea and eschew ideas that do not work, it not the splattered cast offs but a refining of ideas.

Such thoughts are triggered by the unwelcome news that 2013 has seen the emergence of an “atheist megachurch”. It’s hard to know quite how serious Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones are about this enterprise. Last January, the two English comedians launched the first “Sunday Assembly” in an unprepossessing London church. People leapt about, sang songs and testified to their lack of belief in a stubborn superstition.

I don’t think a couple of hundred people is a “mega-church”. And it’s unwelcome because of the stupid name. It’s not a church, it is a social club.

By November, the Assembly had become a movement. An event took place in Los Angeles and, as you read, a “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour is snaking its way across Australia and the United States. The aim is to raise $800,000 (€579,000) for the setting-up of atheist churches across the world.

Sigh… this is why I think it was a bad idea. It’s no different a concept to Skeptics in the Pub but with less emphasis on pubs and more on kumbayah. It’s a social club.

‘Awesome songs’

“If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad,” Jones said recently. “It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people.”

On the contrary Mr. Jones is quite incorrect. The “awesome” songs to me have always had a tinge of cultural destruction. Christianity has rarely been spread by benign adoption but by brutal enforcement and cultural desolation of colonial victims. The Church may no longer smash idols but denominations treat non-Christians as bedevilled savages. A remnant of the days when it was acceptable to replace one set of gods and idols with another and claim it was civilised solely because one of those religions was believed by white people.

And you can do everything on the list as an atheist without a silly church. I am afraid the people who set up the “Atheist Church” have a rather skewed look at what the Church has done across the world that has stood in the way of progress.

There is quite a bit to unpick here. Mr Jones’s remarks about hearing good music and attractive language in church set one pondering certain alterations in religious practices over the past century or so. The average Christian would be entirely within his or her rights – indeed, would be obliged – to scowl at any non-believer who frowned upon such innovations as lessons from the “Good News” Bible and drippy acoustic folk that hasn’t been fashionable since Bob Dylan released Bringing it all Back Home. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a zealot to observe that Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion and the King James Bible wipe the floor with “God is my forever buddy” and the 23rd psalm rewritten as the instruction manual for a Korean washing machine.

And is St. Matthew’s Passion a superior piece to Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones? I would say that the second is a more powerful song, a song that didn’t merely parrot the ethos of non-existent gods to shore up the establishment but fought against it.

Remember in context St. Matthew’s Passion is a piece of propaganda. A piece of art that existed to maintain the status quo of Christian dominion often at the cost of non-western music trends. By contrast Gimme Shelter builds on the Beatles utilisation of Eastern Music structure and is a protest song against war.

As a piece it’s got more global appeal and probably did more to change the world.

There are songs like this, songs that mean something that do not come from 200 years ago and do not require a thorough knowledge of Christianity.

And to think there are no secular words of value is no more arrogant than the people who once said that the value of the Libraries of India is not worth that of a single Book from a western author.

No, the really troubling issue here is the apparent assumption that atheism is some sort of belief system that binds its “followers” together in a shared set of values. To be fair, Evans and Jones maintain that more or less everybody is welcome (they acknowledge the “spiritual side” referenced above, you see). But if that is so then any equivalence with a religious service wastes into dust. You may as well call the event a social club or a self-help group. Whatever the founders’ intentions, however, the Sunday Assembly is, in its American incarnation, being treated as some sort of atheist rite.

Hardly, a few hundred atheists does not make it an atheist rite. It is overhyping a social club.

A gift is thus being handed to those militant deists in the United States who so often describe atheism as a religion. It is not that. The word merely describes a person who – when he or she bothers to consider such things – comes to the conclusion that no governing deity exists. No moral teaching flows from this attitude. How could it? No moral code springs from one’s certainty that water flows downhill or that horses have tongues. Whereas belief in the traditional Christian God should colour virtually every one of the believer’s daily actions, lack of belief in God is no more helpful in coping with commonplace challenges than lack of belief in the Westmeath panther.

No moral attitude flows from a religious viewpoint either. Many of the religious viewpoints espoused by religion are not moral. They are objectively bad, we can listen to eye witness accounts in order to find out how horrible ideas like slavery and rape are.

A lack of belief in a god is an understanding that the world is purely natural and that our moral stance must be to care for our fellow man rather than to simply follow the teachings of 2000 year old book as a hard and fast moral source.

From time to time, circumstances arise under which atheists may reasonably unite: fighting for secular education; resisting lunatic theories such as creationism; keeping religious doctrine out of hospitals. But holding a rational attitude to certain irrational beliefs does not admit you into any sort of secular sect. Atheism should be of so little importance to the proper non-believer that he or she will feel slightly perturbed that the absence even has a name. After all, we don’t gather together on Sundays to celebrate the possession of elbows.

Except for all the secular faiths out there such as the Unitarians and the Ba’hai. As I said, it’s hardly a sect. It’s a meet up. Maybe some atheists need it, maybe it’s helpful for them.

But it’s not for me.

That being said? I wouldn’t mind going and seeing the atheist church at least once in order to find out what it actually is about. Because it sounds daft but I fear that it may be due to the way it’s portrayed in the media.



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