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“Atheist church”: one week later

So last week I posted a Monday “think piece” in which I examined the arguments against and for a community for humanists, and explained why I thought it was not a bad idea. I followed it up with a spitballed example of what I thought one could look like. My basic position, boiled down to a couple of sentences is that I think there is a positive role that a humanist organization modeled after a church can play, particularly for those who find home and community in the church environment (but may not agree with all the positions stated there). I don’t think that all components of church, including ritual, are necessarily harmful, and that we should try to take as much good as we could, while leaving behind the bad.

This issue got more responses than just about anything I’ve ever blogged about, and I’m taking this opportunity to go over them and summarize.

1. “Atheists” don’t have a shared belief structure, so a church based on atheism is self-defeating

This one is absolutely my bad. I stupidly wrote “atheist” when I should have said “humanist”. Humanists do share a set of beliefs about the world and how we should behave in it, or at least we agree on a process by which those kinds of questions can be answered. Not all atheists identify as humanists, and it was lazy writing on my part to call it “atheist church”.

2. What you describe sounds more or less like Unitarian Universalism

I’ve never been to a UU service, so it is more or less accidental that my vision of what a humanist church would look like resembles what happens in UU churches. Some people have said that UU didn’t appeal to them because it was geared explicitly to people who wished to reconcile faith with humanism. If the idea of humanist church is redundant with UU (I don’t think it is, but maybe it is), then a humanist church would indeed be unnecessary.

3. I would never go to a humanist church/churches creep me out/churches are unnecessary

Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t go to the church I described either. I have sufficient fellowship with fellow atheists here in Vancouver that the idea of getting up every Sunday morning (or whatever) and sitting in on a discussion group doesn’t really grab me. That being said, there are a lot of things that don’t appeal to me that I still think are fine ideas – cock piercings for example. I will never have a metal stud installed in my schlong. Doesn’t do it for me. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad idea for everyone, it just means I won’t accept if the offer is made.

If you left the church because of an aversion to churches per se, then yes a humanist church won’t work for you. There are many people who attend church and are non-believers, but still get something out of it. The humanist church idea appeals to those kinds of people – switching churches rather than abandoning them altogether. Churches fill many non-religious functions in communities as well, and it doesn’t seem to me that we should start from scratch when designing humanist communities when we have a model that appears to work.

4. Humanist churches won’t work because ritual will inexorably lead to dogma

I disagree. I think we should test to see if that’s true. I think if we put together groups that are founded on the principles of free inquiry and questioning authority, dogma will find very little soil in which to grow.

5. People will use this as an argument to say that atheism is ‘just another religion’

I make pretty much zero decisions in my life based on worry over what religious people will say about it. This argument (an unexpectedly popular one) fails to persuade me of anything.

6. There shouldn’t be an organization telling humanists what to think or believe

I agree. Who proposed such a thing? Point them out to me and I will join you in criticizing them. What I am proposing is a venue in which humanists can interact with each other in a way similar to believers, except based on discussion and dialogue rather than authority and dogma. Even the deaconate role I suggest endows the “freemam” (my name for a freethinking imam) with no special authority aside from being the person who is facilitating a discussion. We already have many people who fill that role in the atheist/humanist community – they don’t get worshipped as messengers from on high – why would freemams be any different

7. Humanists can just do all of this stuff without calling it ‘church’

Yup. They can also do it and call it ‘church’, since churches are a model of social organization that have succeeded over several centuries. The reasons people are leaving churches now have more to do with the terrible ideas spoken from the pulpit rather than the fact that there are occasional bake sales and clothing drives. The question before us is whether or not we can cannibalize the structure of church without having to take all the ridiculous stuff in as well. Maybe we can’t, but I think we should still try (as per #4).

I think that more or less covers the various reactions I received to the posts. If you felt that yours was misrepresented or not presented at all, please let me know in the comments and I will edit this post accordingly.

So far, the only criticisms I see as valid are my idiotic conflation of “atheist” and “humanist”, and the fact that what I am proposing sounds a lot like UU. I can understand people’s discomfiture at the idea of anything even resembling a church for those who proudly proclaim their independence from religion in all its forms. Not every non-believer is as confident or independent as those of us who frequent atheist blogs, and if we are interested in reaching out to those people then we may need to try something new – humanist fellowship of this kind may be a useful approach.