James Croft and Greg Epstein of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy have an article in the new Free Inquiry about the creation of what are essentially atheist or humanist churches. They are structured to closely mirror churches and even usually meet on Sunday mornings.
Something interesting is happening: across the United States and increasingly even the world, atheists are coming together not to debate but to celebrate. Moving beyond discussions of the existence of God and the evils of religion, groups of nonbelievers are meeting to ask the big questions that animate human life: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? They listen, discuss, and exchange ideas. They share the joys and struggles of their lives. They deepen their relationships. They affirm existence as they listen to poetry or music; some even sing together. But most of all they seek, together, to live fuller, richer, more meaningful lives: lives informed by reason, infused with compassion, and guided by hope for the future of humankind.
These groups of atheists—these communities, assemblies, congregations (call them what you will: we use the provocative term godless congregations )—are different from standard atheist discussion groups. They are consciously designed communities based on shared humanist values that supplement discussion with a wide variety of communal activities to bring people closer to each other. They recognize that religious congregations frequently offer much of value to their members and that the needs those congregations meet are often not met by existing secular organizations. They try, mindful of potential pitfalls, to provide spaces for existential reflection, moral development, and healthy personal growth similar to those often found within religions—but to provide them for people who have left God behind.
Increasingly—and unlike most local humanist groups in recent generations—these groups call upon professional leaders who seek to make a living from their efforts. Mike Aus of the Houston Oasis and Jerry DeWitt of Joie De Vivre (Louisiana’s First Secular Service) are ex-clergy, graduates of the Clergy Project, seeking to take their community-development skills and put them to good use in the service of freethinkers. The Humanist Community at Harvard manages a full-time staff of three to five people in any given year, including a chaplain and assistant chaplain. Both leaders of The Sunday Assembly, a wildly popular monthly godless congregation in London, are self-employed professional comedians and performers who have devoted themselves to their new “godless congregation” nearly full-time since inventing it several months ago. Other humanist and atheist groups are looking to hire part-time community organizers to assist in their own growth.
As coauthors of an upcoming book, The Godless Congregation (Simon and Schuster, 2015), we are not “starting a new religion,” “turning atheism into a religion,” or attempting to “ape religion.” We strenuously reject the negative aspects of many religious faiths and would be horrified to replicate them. Yet we also understand that the human animal has a yearning for meaningful community that, for many, was satisfied to some degree in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. We recognize that just because we choose not to worship a deity does not mean everything that happens within the walls of a house of worship is irredeemably awful. Reasonably, rationally, we leaders of godless congregations are sifting the bad in religion from the good, and seeking, in a way entirely consistent with the highest humanist values, to meet real human needs.
This doesn’t really interest me much for several reasons. I have no interest in getting up early on a Sunday morning for anything. And I not only have no desire to hear inspirational music, I tend to actively dislike it (give me a good jazz band and I might venture out, but not in the morning). But I don’t much care whether I don’t have any interest in it. I still like the idea because other people might be interested in it. I think building humanist communities is important and I think there needs to be a variety of organizations and types of events to meet the varies needs and preferences of those who seek such communities.
Lectures, book clubs, casual events like Skeptics in the Pub or Drinking Skeptically, support group events like Living Without Religion, parenting groups, service committees — bring them on, all of them and more. Pick and choose the ones you enjoy and that meet your needs and let others do the same.