Biting the hand that feeds me: Why I am pro-church

One of the things I like the most about being a member of the freethought community is the fact that we, as members, prize debate and conversation above fawning civility. At least on the internet – maybe people are very different in meatspace. There are no sins in the freethoughtverse, except offering up a shitty argument. Doing that breaks the unwritten commandment of being a rational person: thou shalt not be boring. The inevitable outcome of a group of people all communicating with each other at the level of logical discourse is that oftentimes we see knock-down drag-out conflict over seemingly minor disagreements. Some people bemoan this fact – I revel in it. One of the ways we know that we are freethinking is when we disagree with each other – even those we deeply respect and whose views we otherwise share.

It is with that in mind that I say that I think PZ got this one wrong:

But freethinkers ought not to be shackled by rote and rites. And they especially should not be led by “chaplains” or whatever the hell they’re going to call them. No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests.

This was the conclusion of his post responding to an idea by Greg Epstein to create humanist ‘churches’ – secular institutions that perform the function that religious churches do, in much the same way. While I didn’t see the issue the way he did (I thought it was a nifty idea), I have been a Pharyngula reader long enough to know that I will get my ass handed to me for straw-manning or otherwise misrepresenting PZ’s position on an issue, so I waited to get a fuller explanation as to what the exact nature of his objection was. I participated briefly in the discussion on Twitter about the idea, but it quickly turned into a debate over optics and semantics, and I tuned out. Then I read this:

I wasted too much time in the #humanistcommunity debate on twitter, so I’ll briefly summarize: because I detest the church-like model of Epstein’s humanist chaplain concept, I must dislike organization, leadership, and community. It quickly became obvious that many people are incapable of recognizing anything other than chaplains and churches as a reasonable model for community.

This is annoying because we have quite a few models for godless organizations that avoid that pitfall. CFI. American Atheists. SSA. They don’t have “chaplains”! I wonder how they manage without collapsing?

Which didn’t really seem to clarify the issue much, and seemed more to be a valid criticism of the seemingly-dismissive way Dr. Epstein talks about the attempts by secular communities to do exactly what he proposes humanist churches do. What was missing, in my mind, was the argument why churches were a bad idea in the first place. Because I want to be fair to PZ (and to avoid, as best I can, the aforementioned skewering), I will try my best to lay out, from what I have seen, the source of his objections. I will then explain why I disagree.

Concern the firste – Ritualistic practices are bad

Churches are full of tasks performed symbolically and mindlessly, based on superstition and outright lies. It is antithetical to the tenets of the freethought movement to engage in mindless practices of any kind – we are supposed to be encouraging mindfulness, not its polar opposite. By importing ritual from religion, we are being self-defeating.

There is a great deal of validity to this concern; however, it ignores the existence of secular rituals that we engage in all the time. Perhaps the best example I can think of is a child’s birthday party. The kiddies are assembled around a table, the lights go down, and a flaming cake is brought into the room while everyone drones a song they all hate. It accomplishes nothing for the child or for the parents or the assembled throng, but it is a social rite of passage that is a cultural norm. It is how we recognize a milestone like a birthday. Examined rationally, it is stupid, and many people choose not to do it. Many others, however, enjoy the tradition and nostalgia of ritual.

In the same way, there are many who enjoy the ceremonial aspects of church for their own sake. Like kabuki theatre or military parades or convocation processions, there is an anthropological fascination that ties to our sense of community. Shared practices, shared experiences, shared traditions, may help cement ties within the community in ways that ad hoc practices cannot. This is particularly true of anyone who comes from another community (I, for example, like to go to Catholic mass in different countries/languages simply for the pageantry – not being able to understand the homily helps a lot too).

Concern the seconde – Priests as authority figures, or the establishment of a rigid hierarchy are bad

We have seen, on countless occasions, priests abuse their authority – an authority which they have not earned and is granted solely by social convention. Freethinkers should not have ‘exalted ones’ – respect is to be earned and not given based on title. There is nothing that an atheist priest can offer that a trained counsellor couldn’t.

When I met PZ back in July of last year, this topic came up in conversation. I stupidly asked him if he enjoyed being “a leader within the atheist community” – he politely responded that I was crazy. The whole point is to not have leaders who tell their acolytes what to think. He’s glad that people agree with him, or that he can introduce people to new ways of looking at things, but that there must never be an ‘Atheist Pope’. This perspective informed my own feelings toward the clergy.

That being said, I still think there are some models of leadership that we see in the religious community that are not inherently bad. When I was still an attendee, our church had a deacon. He was employed full-time as a landscaper or builder or something, but on weekends he worked at the church, helping with mass or other church functions. He was invited to our family functions sometimes, and was a great guy. We didn’t have any particular reverence for him, but when I was having my major crisis of faith in my mid-teen years, he was who I went to (our parish priest was an asshole). He was well-read in the scripture and apologetics, he got me to read Kierkegaard, and generally just listened while I griped.

My point is that there are ‘liturgical’ roles that may be missing from skeptical groups as they are that could be imported from religious groups. I think a deaconate approach (or perhaps even a rabbinical one) would accomplish the good while leaving off the bad. An freethinking imam (please can we call them ‘freemams’?) could be simply that – a learned person who the community can call up when times are tough to help them work through issues. If an atheist kid is having a tough time being bullied at school, the freemam could offer advice and support (instead of the kid having to go to reddit). If an atheist married to a believer is having difficulties resolving her relationship issues, she doesn’t have to go her wife’s priest for that kind of existential help – call up the freemam!

Concern the thirde – Churches are unnecessary, humanists can self-organize

We have simply to look around and see that humanists are already forming communities. We’ve figured out how to do it without a church, without priests, without the need for an Atheist High Command. At its very best (i.e., least harmful), Epstein’s idea is completely redundant and unnecessary.

Again, there is a great deal of validity to this concern. I refer, somewhat ironically, to our monthly ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ meetings as “nerd church”, because they are a community-building exercise that I engage in for more than just alcohol availability. They provide me with an opportunity to interact with a community I feel very much a part of, but can’t always find time to socialize with. I’ve made great friends at nerd church, and I certainly consider myself lucky to be welcome in that atmosphere. In fact, any and all people are welcome – skeptic or not. We may disagree with them right to their face, but we’d never tell them not to come back.

My biggest reservation with this concern is that it neglects the fact that many people derive more than just casual social interaction from their churches. Particularly in immigrant and black communities (and conceivably in Central American/hispanic ones as well), the church is the focal point of civil life. It is a resource not only for instrumental support like counselling and a financial safety net, but as an existential anchor. The prospect for many of “leaving the church” is not so simple as just getting to sleep in on Sundays – it has real repercussions. Setting up a humanist church speaks directly to those people: “you don’t have to ‘leave the church’, you are simply invited to switch churches. This one doesn’t have a god in it”.

There are also people who, for reasons ranging from social anxiety to alcoholism to age, do not like the pub atmosphere, and may not like other ‘social outings’ where they’re forced to make nice with strangers. Oftentimes, these people are the ones the least likely to speak up, so they just get left out in the cold. Or they just dismiss the idea out of hand and stay isolated from the community – being as godless as all-get-out but not identifying as ‘atheist’.

I am way over my word limit here, so I will bring this to a close. In my second post today I will offer my own thoughts on what an atheist church might look like. Maybe, through discussion, we can find a way to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in PZ’s concerns, without losing the benefits that I do see in the idea.

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  1. Ms. Crazy Pants says

    I have to agree that rituals are bad, but that’s because I see worship as a bad thing. No real nor imaginary person deserves worship.

    Atheists do need a community that has a broader range of focus. Yes, atheists all over the country are doing things, but the very small groups don’t have the ability to travel to join in. Having something a little more formal might provide them the structure needed to grow. People want to feel like they are accomplishing something rather than just be counted as a warm body that is present. But they don’t always know how to put such things together themselves. Activities need to be set up for people to do as a group. It needs to have enough people that those who are parents can join in easily. Who wants to take their young children with them to the bar?

  2. stevehonest says

    Great article, one of the best I have seen in a long time. When I read PZ’s slam on hierarchies I didn’t connect with it.. and that surprised me a bit. Thanks for elaborating another, very interesting and I suspect helpful view.

    Community is, I suspect the one of the biggest reasons why people won’t leave religion. And where else to find it?


  3. says

    I think this is the most enjoyable post I’ve read whilst following your blog. I largely think I agree with you, but I’ll reserve judgement for when you indicate what a humanist ‘church’ would look like.

    I actually spent my early college years (2005-2007) planning to organize something similar once I had my philosophy degree. The idea was to offer an alternative to church which was focused more on open discussion guided by a socratic moderator than it was on listening to the cult leader blather on about his pet topics.

  4. Crommunist says

    The people I specifically had in mind were the gang over at The Atheist Experience, but yes Richard is an excellent model as well. The reason I thought of AXP is that they have people calling in from all over the world to a public access show in Texas, USA just to talk about stuff – sometimes just to be able to talk to another atheist person and be understood. It suggests to me that there’s an unfilled niche.

  5. Crommunist says

    I think it’s the structure thing that resonates most strongly with me. Yes, atheists have demonstrated that we are capable of self-organization; however, it may not be necessary to reinvent the wheel every time we do so. Having a blueprint or rough schematic, based on a community-building tradition that has hundreds of years of demonstrated efficacy, might provide that structure with much less effort.

    Not all rituals entail worship, and yes I would come down strongly on any attempt to venerate any person or idea. That being said, there are examples of secular ritual that do not require worship and they have their uses. I don’t think we should necessary preclude ourselves from the use of ritual simply because theists ruined it first.

  6. etherial says

    I’m in the SCA, a medieval recreation group that has a lot of the pageantry and community that people look for in churches. We are ostensibly a group of hobbyist scholars, but it also has the doublethink, nonsense, appeals to authority and to tradition that I despise in churches.

    I don’t think we can underestimate the degree of danger that “being in a social club” can do to rational thought.

  7. Crommunist says

    That’s an entirely fair criticism, but I think it is an inherent consequence of people associating with each other. Groupthink, social norms, etiquette, and the kind of crowd mentality you associate with an undisciplined mob develop naturally in any group, congregated for any purpose. However, if the group is built ostensibly around the value of critical thinking and challenging authority (which is the direct opposite of a church environment), then I would expect to see a significant mitigation of these tendencies. It might also be a good idea to keep them small in terms of congregants – dissenters are less likely to be lost in the shuffle or face large social punishment for dissent.

  8. Julia says

    You make excellent points on the existence of ritual in completely secular forms and the sense of community it engenders. I am brought back to college, at the monthly dinner parties held by a musician/scientist/counter-culture group of friends, wherein before eating everyone would “say words.” Each person would have the opportunity to say a single word: profound, emotional, silly, whatever. It was our version of pre-meal prayer, and the memory has stuck with me for years.

  9. says

    A very thoughtful post. This whole discussion reminds me of the debates about civil society in America starting with Tocqueville up to Theda Skocpol and Robert Putnam. Churches have been the main form of social organizing in the United States. For the most part, this is the most basic model of social organization that we have (except for the family). In American history churches have been the engineers of social and political change from the nefarious Prohibition to the mixed-results Progressive Era. The rise of the current Religious Right is the result of harnessing the power of like-people meeting every Sunday in a specific place for a specific purpose.

    As a person interested in tapping our political potential as a nonreligious constituency, Epstein’s proposal is intriguing. Having a community of like-minded people to meet and share experiences and problems is a nice thing to do. Of course, he’s not reinventing the wheel in two fronts: (1) he’s copying a church-like structure and (2) many nonbelievers meet anyway with other nonbelievers in community.

    What I like is the political potential of a larger nonreligious community. Many Nones are loners, or at least not “joiners,” maybe a church-type group is what we need to get this growing community to achieve what we need: political clout. I don’t care much about the philosophical stuff of nonreligion, I care about how are we going to combat the theocrats out there who are very good at the practice of politics and have a community to back them up.

  10. Jessica says

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. The one thing I have never shaken after joining the community is a longing for a more closely knit community, church style. Not the mindless ritual and debasement – but rather the security and support. The scenario that always comes to mind is severe illness: in many church communities, members can draw on the organization’s structure to put babysitting, meal delivery, housecleaning and emotional support schedules into place. Even if you are not friends personally with everyone in your church, some of those members will come to your aid when crisis strikes. This is the kind of thing we really don’t get as a side effect of pub nights and lecture series – certainly we build friendships, but we don’t build the extended community of people we can call on.

    I would be very interested in taking on a deaconship type of role – that’s just the type of thing that “smells” of religion but actually could be adapted in a secular manner. I think it would be an enormous benefit to our community.

  11. says

    As I said in PZ’s post, I reject the notion that the secular community benefits from a non-religious church for the same reason I reject tofurky or vegetarian caviar. If you want to eat food that isn’t made of meat, fake meat will never satisfy. It is far better to eat a deliciously prepared piece of tofu than tofu trying to be turkey. It is better to have a delectably prepared eggplant dish than eggplant that is trying to be a t-bone. You only cheapen the food when you try to make it be something it’s not

    The same is true for those of us who don’t want to live a religious life

    Trying to take the rituals and dogma of religion and shaping them into something non-religious only suggests what many religious like to believe: that we’re all walking around with a big “god shaped hole” in our heart. I know some atheists really do miss that community and ritual of their religious past but there are a great number of us who don’t and having a group saying “we know what shape that god shaped hole is and we are here to plug it” just gives fodder to the devout that atheism is some sort of religion of its own.

    Having a ritual in our life is not the same as having a central “church” to tell us what those rituals should be. Everyone has things they like to do a certain way at certain times. My ritual, when I wake up in the morning, is different than my husbands. But that’s a far cry from an atheist church telling me how I should get married, how i should burry the deceased or how I should celebrate holidays.

    If some humanists want to proceed with a so-called “church” bully to them, but what stood out for many of us were statements like this fromt the article:

    Using his group as a sort of laboratory, Epstein plans to spend the next three years investigating how humanist groups should function.

    And that rings a lot of warning bells for some of us.

  12. Crommunist says

    If you want to eat food that isn’t made of meat, fake meat will never satisfy.

    Except for all the people who do like those things. This isn’t a trivial point, and I think it’s the one that is going completely unaddressed by the backlash against Epstein’s idea: there are many people who wish to be part of a community of humanists, but for whom the present type of organization is insufficient. This has absolutely nothing to do with plugging a “god shaped hole”, but rather providing a framework for community discussion about ethics, about existence, about how to deal with each other. There are lots of secular examples from other cultures where community elders provide this exact same role. Why not use a model that people can relate to?

    But that’s a far cry from an atheist church telling me how I should get married, how i should burry the deceased or how I should celebrate holidays.

    I find this straw man argument so frustrating. At no point does anyone say that atheists/humanists must take part in this type of fellowship. There is no compulsory component, just as there is no compulsory component to calling in to The Atheist Experience or commenting on this blog. If you’re interested, you take part. If you’re not, then you don’t. I don’t see why this is such a hurdle, but apparently a lot of people are struggling with separating the words “church” and “mandatory”. Not even religious people take church that seriously.

    When he says “how humanist groups should function”, my impression is that he means he will be able to identify pitfalls and make recommendations on approaches that succeed and ones that fail. This to me seems like a good idea – learn from the mistakes of others. I don’t hear any warning bells at all.

  13. says

    The problem for me is that being non-religious is such a tenuous relationship between people that it seems unfathomable that there could be a single organization that could come to a consensus on:

    providing a framework for community discussion about ethics, about existence, about how to deal with each other.

    I talked to a non-religious libertarian today who was explaining why she doesn’t feel anyone’s income should be taxed and said: this. Obviously, that’s an extreme example but it brings up a point that there is no common thread for the non-religious other than the fact that they aren’t religious so it’s inexplicable to then try to encapsulate the core of being non-religious in a religious institution.

    But to your point above, what you say is a straw man, I am not saying that non-religious people shouldn’t be entitled to a church, if that’s what they want, so your claim that I said it was compulsory is the straw man. What I’m saying is that someone proclaiming he is going to determine how these groups should be run is problematic. There are loads of existing non-religious groups with mentors and these groups, such as the secular student alliance or any number of meet up/meet in/whatever groups throughout the country, already serve the purpose of connecting people who are both secular and seeking some sort of community and/or support. None of them would claim that they should be held up as a model for how all subsequent groups should run nor do they feel they need to create a religious experience for non-religious people.

    It’s people who can only imagine framing a community like this as a “church” that worry me because they are people who will confuse religious people into believing that’s a necessary role in an atheist’s life.

  14. Crommunist says

    It’s people who can only imagine framing a community like this as a “church” that worry me because they are people who will confuse religious people into believing that’s a necessary role in an atheist’s life.

    Religious people are already confused. I’m not particularly worried about what their reaction is to the things I do as an atheist (unless they’re coming at me with a bat, in which case I will run away). I don’t see that as being a valid criticism of the idea of building organizations that do for atheists what churches currently do for non-believers who attend churches out of sense of community obligation. We know they’re out there.

    There are loads of existing non-religious groups with mentors and these groups, such as the secular student alliance or any number of meet up/meet in/whatever groups throughout the country, already serve the purpose of connecting people who are both secular and seeking some sort of community and/or support.

    I discussed this in my previous post.

    None of them would claim that they should be held up as a model for how all subsequent groups should run nor do they feel they need to create a religious experience for non-religious people.

    I can see, a bit, why people are hung up on this issue. I think it has its roots in a misunderstanding of the intention. This isn’t supposed to be the blueprint for all groups of atheists anywhere – it’s a test kitchen to see which recipes work and which ones are flops. That way, each franchise restaurant can mix and match whatever they want to put on their own menus, without needing to go through the same legwork every time. That was my reading of Epstein’s intent, anyway.

  15. Stacy Kennedy says

    and seemed more to be a valid criticism of the seemingly-dismissive way Dr. Epstein talks about the attempts by secular communities to do exactly what he proposes humanist churches do.

    YES, dammit. And meanwhile CFI–which does create localized communities of freethinking humanists, sans authoritarian ritual–remains seriously underfunded. I’m sure AA and SSA could use a lot of help as well. So–those of you who like the idea–help them already!

  16. stevehonest says

    And what is to keep groups small? Arbitariness or snobishness? The occupy wall street model, similar to the greek democracy model of rotating roles is one approach to avoiding group think. Surely there are many that allow growth and adaptivity. Perhaps a hybrid where people rotate thru 3 branches of gov as our constitution put forth.

  17. Simon says

    You know what I *don’t* see a lot of? People actually saying they want to attend or be a part of an ‘atheist church’ or ‘atheist religion’ or whatever. I speak not only after reading this whole online discussion but also as someone who coordinates events for CFI DC. The people who say they miss church or are looking for a secular alternative are but a tiny minority of the folks I’ve spoken with on the ground.

    Furthermore, if you are secular and want a church that is accepting of you, there are plenty of Unitarian churches as well as Ethical societies that are already home to many secular adherents and do very good work I might add.

  18. Crommunist says

    Which is entirely possible. If the issues is that there is no demand for such an organization, then this discussion is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I suspect that there are lots of people who would benefit from having network of established secular networks that aren’t explicitly geared toward science and woo debunking. Being a humanist doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily interested in cosmology or evolution – you may still be interested in fellowship with like-minded individuals. The science and reason model that CFI promotes, for example, doesn’t speak much to those people (or so I have been told).

  19. says

    We get people all the time asking for something like this. I think the mistake is simply to ask self-identified atheists and Humanists if they want this. It’s the vast swathe of other non-religious folks who I think may be looking for something like this, and who aren’t turned on by the current options…

  20. says

    I didn’t see this ’til today – good post. I want to affirm that we recognize there is legitimacy to many of PZ’s concerns at the Humanist Chaplaincy. What we reject is the idea that these concerns are overriding, and they speak against the idea of building Humanist communities at all. I appreciate your balanced take.


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