“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.


  1. Riptide says

    I actually don’t understand why PZ falls down so staunchly against this–isn’t he the one always blathering on about “there’s more than one way to advocate/spread atheism”? Especially when people keep bitching at him about his tone?

    I’ve not heard a single person say that atheists would be *forced* to attend any of these humanist churches. Hell, maybe they can get us to reclaim the initial meaning of the word “church”–a convivial gathering of peoples or a semi-official society. Hell, it can be like a localized atheist conference every week or month! What’s wrong with that?

    So, PZ et. al., what’s wrong with letting people voluntarily take this tack to help draw in different kinds of nonbelievers? There’s evidently a rather large base of support for it already, and a possibly even larger apathetic/lukewarm response (in which group I count myself). I honestly wouldn’t go to one of these things, but I’m not a social animal. If other people want to orient communities in an organized, non-governmental manner, more power to them so long as they don’t enforce attendance.

  2. says

    I love this post – it summarizes pretty much the position of the Humanist Community Project, which is what the article which started all this was about. I’d like to add my thoughts on each point for the sake of clarity:

    1. The distinction between Humanism and atheism is very important to us at the Chaplaincy, and people often miss it or simply ignore it when they comment on our ideas and practices. It’s quite annoying, because many arguments we make are predicated on the fact we are talking about Humanism. So when people say “why would atheists want to do X?” or “how do you expect to get atheists to agree on Y?”, I just bury my head in my hands and think “We’re not talking about just atheists!” It’s very frustrating.

    2. UU congregations lack a number of important value-commitments that are central to Humanism, most critically an explicit commitment to naturalism and rationalism. Also, they are explicitly a religious organization, which I don’t find hugely appealing myself. I think the closest movement to what we envisage is Ethical Culture, but Ethical Culture is very limited in scope and numbers now, sadly.

    3. We don’t talk ourselves about our community being a “church”, for one. Second, we understand that this isn’t for everybody! But we think it might be for some (actually many) people, which is why we want to offer it.

    4. I agree wholeheartedly on this. Quite how the idea of ritual captured so much attention I don’t know, because the Globe article whine sparked this discussion he didn’t mention ritual at all – AT ALL! But I do think this is essentially empirical question which we should test. We are open to the possibility that what we call “rational ritual” might be a horrible failure 😉

    5. Agreed again. Seriously, who cares what misguided people think about what we do? Do we need religious people’s approval on everything we do? It’s a strangely reactionary approach by which we allow the religious to determine what we should do. I think we should resist religio-centrism like this.

    6. Again, you’re absolutely right – no one is proposing that we tell other Humanists what to do. This is simply a complete mischaracterization of our project.

    7. Indeed we can, and we don’t actually use the term church ourselves, and the article has been changed to reflect that.

    Again, I’d like to express that we truly welcome criticism of our ideas at the Caplaincy, but we don’t want our ideas to be wholly misrepresented and misunderstood.

  3. Katalina says

    But also! At least in the US, being a “church” gives you specific and significant tax advantages (watch out, CPA hat ON!). You don’t even have to jump through the hoops that all other charitable organizations have to go through in order to reap these benefits, just because you are a church. If it would be a helpful institution to people, why not call it what the powers that be call it and take the benefits offered to other fellowship groups that coalesce around a common set of “beliefs” (or lack thereof)?

    I think in most jurisdictions, churches enjoy special privileges, as do members of the “clergy.” Why not? If the (I think he was Swiss?) guy managed to get the government to allow him to wear a pasta strainer on his head in his DL photo (Pastafarian), it might be useful to make an “atheist church,” even if just for the sake of pointing out that it’s ridiculous that religious organizations are given so many unfair concessions.

  4. Daniela says

    I totally agree with PZ Myers, no one of your arguments convinced me. What you want to create are superstructures, instead of encouraging freethought, rationalism and skepticism, will kill them because it is in the nature of these kind of structures: churches, chaplains and etc.

    Sincerely I don’t understand the need to replicate the church model, my only explaination is the demand by these people that need it for something that rassure and calm the minds.
    The churches with its rites and magic formulas have been created to numb the conscience, no to wake them up, the form has been created to satisfy and make completely effective the substance, in this case of the religious concepts.
    Why don’t think to replicate the typical models of the modern scientific world instead of ancient religious world?

  5. Crommunist says

    Well there’s nothing quite like naked assertion in the place of actual argument. I have already explained why everything you’ve said in your comment are not legitimate arguments. You’ve either decided to ignore them intentionally, or you’re so blinded by your zeal against the church that they can’t sink in.

    Sincerely I don’t understand the need to replicate the church model

    I’ve said why, explicitly, in three different places (2 of which are in the article you’re commenting on). I can explain it to you – I can’t understand it for you.

  6. mkb says

    I was with you up until your last sentence. Some self-confident, independent humanists who frequent atheist blogs also enjoy humanist fellowship (although the concept of chaplains might give us the willies ;-)).

  7. jacobfromlost says

    I think the biggest problem with an “atheist church” or “humanist church” is the fact that a very large number of atheists and humanists (I would venture to say “most”, since this negative reaction has been the rule rather than the exception in my experience) don’t like the idea at all. If the demographic the church would be for simply don’t want to go–perhaps for reasons that have to do with their personalities or temperment–then the idea might not be very successful.

    My gut feeling is that the more formal it becomes (calling it a “Church”, including leaders who are not elected, expecting everyone to gather at a certain time on a certain day mainly for the sake of the gathering itself, etc), the more atheists will dislike the idea.

    If you had an Atheist Association, a Community Center, elected leaders, reasons for specific gatherings (a lecture, organizing a volunteer effort, a book club, an election, painting the community center, a debate, etc)…then I start to see the reasons atheists and humanists might want to get involved.

    But then you wouldn’t need the word “church” for any of that. (And getting atheists or humanists to call a discussion facilitator a “freemam” would be impossible–at least in regard to the kind of atheist I am, and the kind I usually talk with.)

  8. Crommunist says

    James Croft of the Harvard Humanist Association has made it clear that they don’t refer to it as a “church”. I think that’s splitting hairs (like calling a janitor a “custodial technician”), but maybe the semantics are important enough to people that it’s worth the name change.

    You’re suggesting a specific model by which the idea could work, and I think that’s exactly what the HHA is trying to do – strike the balance between community and individuality. As far as “the kind of atheists (you) usually talk with” goes, I think you’re probably right, but it doesn’t mean that your social network is a representative sample of all atheists, and I would venture to guess that the target demographic for humanist “church” is not geared toward that group either.

  9. Daniela says

    Obviously I have not found your explanation convincing, only because the churches has worked for the religions, must they work for the humanists?
    We have so few ideas that we must plagiarize the old models and words (churches, chaplains, temple, etc) of the religions? What a pity!!!! 🙂

  10. Alice in Wonderland says

    Hi there! I’m a fellow Canadian and first-time commenter. I found your blog via Greta Christina and Pharyngula, and I’m really enjoying reading your take on things. I figured I’d jump in here because I feel like I have some insight on this particular topic, born of personal experience.

    So regarding your point #2: I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I started attending their Sunday morning services about two and a half years ago, explicitly because I was looking for a secular humanist church-replacement, and the UU church was the closest thing I could find.

    So when PZ and others have been saying, more or less, “who on earth would want to go to an atheist church?”, I’ve been sitting here thinking “well, for instance, me!”

    Once you remove the dogma and supernaturalism, the church model has a lot going for it. A community of people with more-or-less shared values get together on a regular basis to socialize, to consider interesting questions about life the universe and everything, to observe rites of passage and the passage of seasons and years, to talk about social issues and work for social justice, to sing songs and have coffee. Depending on the size of the community, it can be very handy to have a few people who are paid to work full- or part-time to fulfill central roles in the community. When someone wants to organize lecture nights or book discussion groups or some kind of social action, there’s already a community of people who know each other (to a greater or lesser extent) and share some common interests to draw upon, and also (depending on the resources of the community) maybe even a building to do it in.

    Pub-night discussion groups seem to keep coming up as a more palatable atheist alternative. Those can be a lot of fun and totally have their place, but they’re much more limited, both in demographic and scope. You won’t find me at one in probably the next decade — I have a 4-year-old kid and also I have to go to bed at about 9:30 pm to survive my long commute and my job. The Sunday morning model is more accessible to kids, teenagers, people with kids, and the elderly, too!

    I’m still not totally at ease with my membership in the UU community. If there’d been an explicitly secular humanist community meeting across the street at the same time on Sunday mornings and also offering childcare, I probably would’ve gone to that instead! As it stands, though, after two years I’m growing roots (so to speak), developing actual friendships with many members of the community, so I’m probably going to stick it out for the long haul even though at times it’s not quite secular enough for me to be fully comfortable.

  11. Crommunist says

    “If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”
    “Because we’re not descended from monkeys”
    “But then why are there still monkeys?”
    “I just explained that to you”
    “Well obviously it’s your fault for not explaining it in a convincing way.”

    We don’t know that the church model must work for humanists, and nobody is claiming otherwise. What I am suggesting is that it may work for the subgroup of humaninsts who enjoy that kind of interaction and are familiar with that structure. It’s neither a controversial nor particularly challenging statement. I get that you don’t like ritual – you’ve failed to provide anything other than bland assertion to support your contention that it is necessarily harmful.

  12. jacobfromlost says

    “I think that’s splitting hairs (like calling a janitor a “custodial technician”), but maybe the semantics are important enough to people that it’s worth the name change.”

    The word “church” has connotations that many atheists object to.

    “You’re suggesting a specific model by which the idea could work, and I think that’s exactly what the HHA is trying to do – strike the balance between community and individuality.”

    That’s what democracy does. Is there any element of periodically voting for specific leadership roles (or do certain people just assume the roles because they want to be in charge)?

    “As far as “the kind of atheists (you) usually talk with” goes, I think you’re probably right, but it doesn’t mean that your social network is a representative sample of all atheists, and I would venture to guess that the target demographic for humanist “church” is not geared toward that group either.”

    Perhaps, but humanists that wouldn’t care about the word “church”, or other vaguely religious terminology or practices…already have the UU. Maybe there is room for another similar organization, but it seems like it would be very small.

  13. says

    We’ve already responded to these points multiple times: we don’t use the term “church”, and UU churches (which DO use the terms “church” and “religion”, which we avoid), do not have the same values as many Humanists. So UU communities are to ideal for us. How many times do we have to repeat the same basic points?

  14. audiolight says

    ritual will inexorably lead to dogma

    I think the problem many of us are grappling with in these posts (myself included) is a deep seated need for ritual. As a Humanist/Atheist I certainly don’t feel this need personally, so it’s hard for me to conceive of others who would think similarly to myself, but would still want ritual in their lives.

    Admittedly, I’m also not that big on public gatherings, so the big draw of “community” is somewhat lost on me as well.

    I would personally never go, but I concede the point that there’s nothing “wrong” with society if such a thing were to be created.

  15. badandfierce says

    I have no objections to humanist church for anyone who’d be interested, but what if we instead borrowed from the aspects of religion that are actually, um, fun? I remember sitting in church. It was pretty damn dull, except for odd moments during holidays when the music was nice and the stories were acted out and such. When I was in college I actually hung out with the Pagan Society a lot. Their ideas were just as silly as any other religious group’s, but they had so much fun with it. If I’m going to borrow the forms of religion, I’m borrowing the one that dances barefoot in the athletic fields to the tune of goatskin drums and tells stories, not the one where you sit in a pew and space out for an hour.

  16. Alice in Wonderland says

    *waves* I’m an atheist/humanist and I like (some) ritual, so at least I can tell you that the set of {atheists/humanists who like ritual} is not the empty set!

    It might help if you think about rituals that people like that aren’t specifically associated with theistic religions — think of the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony, or the ritual of blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Even if they don’t appeal to you personally, you can conceive of them appealing to other people, right?

  17. Alice in Wonderland says

    Keep in mind, sitting in a lecture-hall-like room listening to someone give a 30-minute talk on a topic that you care about and are interested in is a lot more fun than sitting in a lecture-hall-like room listening to someone give a 30-minute talk on a topic that you don’t care about and aren’t interested in! (The point being, hopefully a humanist meeting would be more like the former than the latter, whereas in church you probably experienced the latter.)

    Which is not to say I’m against the dancing-and-telling-stories idea; in fact it sounds great!

  18. Crommunist says

    For me personally, the biggest thing that irks me about church services is that there’s no Q&A or opportunity to hear any dissenting opinions whatsoever. A discussion is far preferable and encourages rather than suppresses critical thought, which is why I suggested breaking into small groups in my example.

  19. Just Visiting says

    Just a couple quick comments on UUs.

    1) In the US, UUs are congregational – the “denomination” is officially known as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. UU churches differ from each other, sometimes by a lot. If you’re in New England, you can shop around to find the most Humanist of the lot. In other parts of the country, where they’re spread more thinly, it’s more difficult.

    2) UU “Theology” is not at all obout belief, but in agreeing to meet together and support each other in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In practice, this perhaps makes the UUs more accommodationist than you might like. While it keeps us from throwing out the Humanists and Atheists among us (fortunately for myself), it can also make it possible for you to encounter entirely too much woo at times within a UU gathering. See item 1.

  20. audiolight says

    I can tell you that the set of {atheists/humanists who like ritual} is not the empty set!

    I didn’t actually propose this in my comment – I said that it was difficult for me to personally conceive of a person, not that they didn’t actually exist. (i.e. I can’t personally understand the deep seated need for ritual, not that others don’t experience this need).

    What I’m saying is that there is obviously a gradient of preference in a need for ritual in the population, and it’s obviously absurd for either side to assert that the other side doesn’t exist. What I am proposing is that my guess would be that identifying atheists/humanists generally fall to the disagreeing side of the statement: “I feel a need for rituals in my life”. (Sidenote: I believe this is the type of question they ask in the Allport & Ross Religious Orientation Scale) Someone should write/find a psychology paper on this though to find out for sure… hmmm… any grad students in the house?

    ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony, or the ritual of blowing out candles on a birthday cake

    I think I tend to fall on the side of one of the earlier post commentators on this issue – for me, a “ritual” is different than a “tradition”. I think it’s traditional to say “Bless You” after someone sneezes, but I think it’s ritualistic to say “Bless You” when taking communion. Your examples above (for me) are traditions not rituals – I have no problem with (secular, sensible) traditions, but I disagree with the… sanity… of “deep seated meaning” rituals. (i.e. pretending something is more important than it really is).

    I do actually say “bless you” (or “gesundheit”, to mix it up) after someone sneezes, but more out of social expectancy/politeness rather than a deep seated belief that they’re going to die shortly and my words are all that can save them. THAT is the difference between tradition and ritual for me – I’m fine with traditions, I hate rituals.

    That’s also why I personally wouldn’t go to Ian’s proposed church – too much ritual. I’m guessing others reading this feel similarly.

  21. says


    I think I tend to fall on the side of one of the earlier post commentators on this issue – for me, a “ritual” is different than a “tradition”. I think it’s traditional to say “Bless You” after someone sneezes, but I think it’s ritualistic to say “Bless You” when taking communion.

    So out of curiosity, how exactly would you define “ritual” and “tradition”? Your own example doesn’t make this clear.

  22. Zeppelin says

    Maybe (probably?) this is due to lack of perspective from a non-USian who has never been inside a church except to admire the architecture, but…what do churches in the US *do* that’s so important?
    I see you respond to the criticism that Atheist/Humanist Churches might “not work”, but are they *necessary*?

    I read your “day at atheist church”, and it just seemed creepy and sectarian and…alien to me, I suppose. I would definitely have been intensely uncomfortable if I’d been there.

    It seems dangerous to make a single, ideologically fuelled organisation the centre of a community’s social life, no matter how well-intentioned it might be.
    What if I’m uncomfortable with crowds? What if I can’t stand speeches?
    What if I’m an atheist, but not a humanist, and 90% of the neighbourhood are and go to your church?
    What if I think I’m incredibly educated and erudite and clever and the whole “read this meaningful-sounding soundbite by a famous person and have some warm fuzzy thoughts about it” setup makes me want to claw my eyes out?

    Suddenly im not part of the in-group, and everyone else at work speculates what’s up with me while they have their water cooler conversations on the latest piece of humanist scripture picked by last week’s robeperson.

    If I want companionship with people with similar views and interests, why not join a judo club/D&D group/bestiality chatroom/debating society/book club/political party/humanist society/terrorist cell? If I want to learn about humanism, why not read a book, or visit a lecture? If I want to support a charity, why not inform myself at one of the specialised non-profits that are there for just that purpose? Why should these things be rolled into one, used to form an in-group, and sprinkled with ritual? Why not some other random combination of services?
    Why would I want to give a single organisation this much influence in my life? Even worse, why would I want to give it influence over my eight year-old children, who are too young to be critical of the ideology presented there?

    Or are they primarily supposed to appeal to people who are interested in humanism, but are currently members of some church and are reluctant to leave? A kind of placebo?

    Is US society really organised around “church communities” to such an extent that the services they provide (what are those, anyway?) can’t be found outside of them?

    Why not just raise the new generation of humanists/atheists/whatnots without that kind of archaic centralised structure in their lives in the first place?

    Seems like a much simpler solution than to come up with some sort of placebo for a quirk of US-American social organisation that loads of first-world societies (mine included, I don’t personally know anyone who’s ever been to a church event that wasn’t a funeral) seem happy to do without.

    I suppose none of this really concerns me, since it’d be an initiative by Americans for Americans, but I was baffled by the concept when I first read about it and couldn’t help but try and figure out why exactly it disturbed me as much as it did. Still not sure I have.

    …this came out rather more stream-of-consciousness than I anticipated! Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Keeps the ranting honest, or something?

  23. Crommunist says

    There is no group that will be a good fit for 100% of the population. My suspicion is that most humanists haunting the blogosphere will not really gravitate towards the church-like environment. I’m similarly an unlikely candidate. However, I hear several anecdotes of people who feel isolated because of their nonbelief, and I imagine that these people would appreciate a place where they can go, not only for fellowship, but to mark occasions and milestones. Despite what people have said, we do have non-religious rituals – we just don’t call them rituals. There are also, as you recognize in your comment, people who currently attend church for reasons that are not liturgical – this need is not currently met within the humanist community. I recognize that loads of people do fine without church. Loads of others still attend, even when they don’t believe – that should tell you that church has some value to those people, even if you and I can’t see it.

    As for “why not just join something else”, I find that an incredibly facile response. It is the same response people use when they decry any attempt for atheists to organize and form communities. Human beings are social creatures, and when one’s humanism is an important part of her/his life, it is often something that one wishes to share with others. How much “influence over (your) life” do you think is being proposed here? So far all I have suggested is a facilitated community discussion that has voluntary attendance. I’m not sure where you’re getting this paranoia about influencing your children from.

    Why not just raise the new generation of humanists/atheists/whatnots without that kind of archaic centralised structure in their lives in the first place?

    One could make the exact same argument for public schooling. Why bother funneling kids into government-controlled education factories? Because there is a value in structure, in sharing and socializing the experience, and in pooling resources for the benefit of the community. It is entirely possible to do this without mimicking churches – the point I am attempting to make is that it may not be necessary to re-invent the wheel – we might be able to take the overall structure of the church environment and pull out the pieces that don’t work/are harmful. You (and others) seem to be starting from a position that it is necessarily harmful, but have yet to demonstrate how (without invoking paranoid fantasies that are entirely ancillary to the point under discussion).

    I also responded to the question as to whether or not they are necessary, several times. I’m not sure if your reading was just selective, or if you simply do not accept my explanation.

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