No, Atheist ‘Churches’ Aren’t Making Us Look Ridiculous


I saw this article by Drew Miller, entitled “Why ‘Atheist Churches’ Are Making Us Atheists Look Ridiculous,” and rolled my eyes at it. I was going to write a full response to it, but Rebecca Watson already said a fair amount of what I would have said. The original article asks several questions that pretend to be deep but are really just silly.

But atheist Drew Miller isn’t happy with other atheists hanging out every week. He writes:

But it raises an important question: do non-believing assemblies differ from theistic congregations in any meaningful way?

Well gee, I’m just spitballing here, but I guess I would say that maybe theistic congregations are focused on worshipping an all-powerful supernatural deity, while non-believing assemblies have nothing to do with that. Maybe?

And this is the primary problem with Miller’s ruminations. He really does seem to think that building communities and having a dialogue with one another somehow undermines our claim to have left religious dogma behind.

But why are these atheists still gathering on Sundays?

There are a few likely answers to this question. Perhaps former churchgoers are simply too conditioned to seek guidance on Sundays. It’s also entirely possible that many of the congregants simply see church-like communities as a good way to empower atheism. This is quite a stretch.

Another possibility, though, is that those who have been told all their lives that they’re incapable of being good without a god have internalized that message. Consciously or not, those who have joined the Sunday Assembly likely still yearn to look outward for moral guidance. Any atheist will defend his or her potential to be a good without a god, but truly personalizing your morality and living like it can be more difficult.

In other words, it’s one thing to conceptually reject a top-down, dogmatic morality and the herd mentality that goes with it, but it’s another thing altogether to remember that every human being can lead a fulfilled, moral life without a weekly appointment.

Or maybe they just like the regularity. And maybe Sunday just makes sense for a lot of people because they aren’t working that day. And maybe they’re seeking out a community to replace the one they lost when they left religion. And maybe they like group singalongs (though I personally despise them). And maybe they’re just looking to meet interesting, like minded people. All of these are normal human behaviors that religion often provides the opportunity for, but the fact that one leaves a religion doesn’t mean that they leave the need for community behind.

I really wish all this absurd hand-wringing would stop. Secular-minded people are forming all kinds of different types of communities because people have different needs and interests. I have zero interest in going to an “atheist church.” So guess what? I’m not going to go to any of them. Everyone else is also welcome not to go to them. But please stop this inane faux-concern about how it’s making “us” look bad. That pearl clutching is making you look bad.

Comments

  1. Synfandel says

    Or maybe they just like the regularity. And maybe Sunday just makes sense for a lot of people because they aren’t working that day. And maybe they’re seeking out a community to replace the one they lost when they left religion. And maybe they like group singalongs (though I personally despise them). And maybe they’re just looking to meet interesting, like minded people.

    That atheists do all these things is just peachy. That they call these activities “atheist churches” is, to put it more mildly than Mr. Miller does, a bit silly. It’s like calling your bridge club a football league because it meets on Monday nights.

  2. carlie says

    That they call these activities “atheist churches” is, to put it more mildly than Mr. Miller does, a bit silly

    Do they call them “church”, or do just their critics call them churches? I’ve only ever seen the groups described by themselves as “assemblies”.

  3. mobius says

    Personally, I am all in favor of atheist meetings where there can be speakers, questions and discussions. I am also in favor of atheist social gatherings. In the past, I have attended both sorts and enjoyed them. And in no way were they associated with any sort of dogmatism.

    Well, one group imploded when the founder insisted it had to all be done HIS way. And, like a herd of cats, everyone left. Most found their way to the local humanist group, who were much more accepting of differing viewpoints. And the humanist group also liked to have their weekly meeting and social gathering.

    I will agree with you also the if something were actually called an “atheist church”, I would almost certainly avoid it. The word “church” just carries too much baggage with it. However, if some atheist want to form an atheist church, more power to them.

  4. Sastra says

    Ironically, it’s Drew Miller who seems to have internalized the religious message that “atheism is just another religion.” In his haste to disagree with this he’s gleefully throwing the baby out with the bathwater and playing right into the hands of the religious. “Why, yes — communities and songs and meeting on Sundays BELONGS to Christianity. They own it. So we can’t do that stuff.” I do not know but suspect that Miller is equally incensed at atheists who celebrate Christmas. “Keep the Christ in Christmas,” the atheist purists intone, unaware that they’re granting territory to Christians in order to tell the other atheists not to grant them territory.

    Yes, I could make an argument against using the term “church” — but since Miller has extended beyond this reasonable point and apparently condemned weekly meetings per se, I’ll not focus there.

  5. matty1 says

    I think finding a group that meets on Sunday and claiming they are trying to be just like Christian churches is a bit silly. Is every Friday event really a mosque, every Saturday social club a synagogue?

    Yes there are similarities, probably intentional, because there is demand for those things like communal singing but when Sunday Assembly doesn’t even call itself a church why insist that it is one?

  6. roggg says

    I’m of two minds about it really. I think assembling and forming a community around some shared value is a great idea, but atheism qua atheism is not a shared value. For me, the idea of a secular humanist church makes a lot of sense, whereas an atheist one makes very little. Or a skeptic church, or a naturalist church or some such.

    Muddying the waters is the fact that there is a huge overlap between atheism and these other isms, so it’s easy to conflate the two.

    So yeah, I think atheist churches make us look a little silly (if they really do exist), but I think people should seek out non-theistic communities with shared values to engage with, whatever those shared values may be.

  7. jamessweet says

    Yep, there’s been a lot of this “hand-wringing” on both sides, unfortunately, and it’s all very silly. Different strokes, people — it’s not that hard. I’ve seen people who share my proclivities (like Miller) say “Atheist church? That’s terrible!” when what they really mean is “That sure doesn’t sound like something that *I* would choose to take part in…” And I’ve seen people on the other side (like Alain de Botton) breathlessly scream, “Society will collapse and individuals will be miserable unless we can perfectly and seamlessly replace church!!1!!”, when what they really mean is “Gee, I really like church-minus-theism, I’d like to start something like that.”

    There’s a teensy bit of truth on both sides: On the Miller side, I do sometimes worry about an “atheist church” someday becoming the same self-reinforcing top-down patriarchal power structure that it seeks to replace (after all, theism may be the WORST thing about church, but it isn’t the ONLY bad thing). And on the de Botton side, it’s true that long-term, this sort of thing will probably become necessary — on the other hand, haranguing people who actually don’t like church-like events into participating in church-like events is not going to improve life for anybody, so….

    Really, both sides need to react to the other with a shrug. I frankly don’t get the appeal, but I know I don’t get the appeal, and I don’t care.

  8. Abby Normal says

    I suspect his criticism has more to do with stroking his ego than anything. By looking down on these atheists he gets to elevates himself above them. They’re still trapped in religious thinking while he’s truly a free thinker. A recent xkcd comic springs to mind.

  9. rumleech says

    It’s like he’s forgotten what I though was one of the primary things about atheism which is that aside from the whole no-god thing you don’t really get to say how people should ‘athe’, THAT’s religious thinking. If people want to meet up in draughty meeting halls and celebrate being atheist then good for them. And if they’re going to plot the proletarian revolution and play some cool board games too then I might come along!

  10. gmacs says

    I told my fiancee (who is a moderate Christian) about these the other week. Her response was essentially: “So people who aren’t religious just want to meet and commune like religious people, but without the religion part? What’s so weird about that?”

    I don’t see why people have a problem with them, even though I don’t think I’d ever attend one. It’s just not my thing, and I’d rather not restrict my social circles to just the atheists, and my personal experiences with atheist groups in the past have been only what I can describe as “meh”. But why should I expect my personal preference to sway other people’s thinking? Isn’t THAT what we often criticize religious people for doing?

    Oddly enough, the place I am most surrounded by atheists is one I go to on weekdays. It’s called “work”.

  11. Al Dente says

    If some people want to get together every Sunday and celebrate the non-existence of gods then so what? It’s not my cup of cyanide but if that’s what makes them happy I’m not going to say anything about it. I couldn’t care less about NASCAR racing or golf but I don’t sneer at people who enjoy either or both.

  12. magistramarla says

    I’m with Mobius @4
    Thanks to things that Ed has mentioned here, I looked for and found FACT (Freethinkers’ Association of Central Texas). We meet for speakers, questions and discussions, as well as for social gatherings.
    My husband calls those get-togethers his mental health days. He’s surrounded by a bunch of fundis at work and I’m stuck in the house all week. One or two Saturdays a month, we can be among others who think like us, enjoy some stimulating conversation and just have fun.
    I’ve met one lady at one of those discussions who has become a good friend. We enjoy getting together to shop and have lunch occasionally. It’s good to find others in the community who have similar values.
    Also, as a group, we are able to do some things that we couldn’t do individually, such as pay to bring in good speakers or pool our donations to help a cause that we all support.

  13. leonardschneider says

    “And maybe they like group singalongs (though I personally despise them).”

    Great. For some reason, I now have the sound of a large group of people performing an a capella version of “Banned In D.C.” by the Bad Brains playing in my head. Or maybe “Religious Vomit” by the Dead Kennedys?

    … But what do I know. Being raised Unitarian in the ’70s, I was amazed to learn later in life that “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds is not, in fact, a standard church hymn. (I swear if I never hear that song again in my life it’ll still be too soon.)

  14. says

    So Penn Jillette having a Sunday morning podcast called Sunday School means he’s really a Christian? Or a wannabe Christian?

    I’d like to hear Drew Miller explain that to him.

  15. davideriksen says

    RE: MagistraMarla @13

    Thanks for the info about FACT. Now I’ll have to try and remember my log in information for MeetUp. I’ve planned on attending a few events here in SA or up in Austin but it’s never worked out.

  16. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    But why are these atheists still gathering on Sundays?

    Because there’s fuck-all else to do on a Sunday? Particularly in those states where alcohol can’t be sold on the Sabbath.

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