We can do better than church


Molly Worthen attended Sunday Assembly, the church for atheists, and came away with the wrong idea, and a few right ones.

Is this what secular humanism — the naturalist worldview that many nonbelievers embrace and religious conservatives fear — looks like in practice? In one sense, secular humanism is a style of fellowship intended to fill the church-shaped void, but it is also a strand of the liberal intellectual tradition that attempts to answer the canard that godlessness means immorality.

There is no “church-shaped void”. I also don’t have a Jesus-shaped hole in my heart. I don’t even believe that most Christians feel that way — people aren’t sitting around pining for an opportunity to sit on a bench and go through a boring ritual for an hour or three on Sunday morning. People like connecting with other people more generally, and church has been the opportunity and obligation for that. It’s a mistake to confuse the substance of human interaction for the trappings of a particular and peculiar institution.

I am not at all a fan of Sunday Assembly, but if some people enjoy it, I’m not going to say you shouldn’t go. We need to get to the heart of that need, though, and recognize that atheists also must satisfy the desire for community…and it doesn’t have to be the stultifyingly narrow pattern of the weekly church service.

But there are some significant parts of Worthen’s article I agree with. We need to realize that we don’t have an absence of ideas, we actually have a significant intellectual and ethical tradition — and ideas have effects.

The average nonbeliever may know even less about his tradition’s intellectual debates than the average Christian does — because its institutions, like Sunday Assembly, tend to be tiny, relatively new and allergic to anything that resembles dogma. But nonbelievers should pay attention. Atheism, like any ideological position, has political and moral consequences. As nonbelievers become a more self-conscious subculture, as they seek to elect their own to high office and refute the fear that a post-Christian America will slide into moral anarchy, they will need every idea their tradition offers them.

It’s positively painful to see how many atheists reject that sentence I emphasized. They want to simultaneously believe that atheism is a trivial idea that favors both or neither conservatives and liberals, yet also that theism is a terrible awful idea that is destroying our country. It’s utterly incoherent. Worthen, at least, takes it for granted that “modern secular humanism is also a species of 21st-century liberalism”, and that we all have a set of foundational beliefs independent and often opposed to those of most religions. I don’t have a Jesus-shaped hole in my heart, but I do think a lot of people, atheists included, have a philosophy-shaped hole in their heads.

The task in front of us is not to deny godless values, but to enunciate them clearly.

Yet the liberal notions of tolerance and freedom of conscience are not anodyne slogans; they are contentious issues. As nonbelievers tangle with traditional Christians over same-sex marriage and navigate conflicts between conservative Muslims and liberal democracy, they will need a confident humanist moral philosophy. The secular humanist liberation movement, in its zeal to win over religious America, should not encourage nonbelievers to turn away from their own intellectual heritage at the time when they will want it most.


  1. Sven says

    I compare the Sunday Assembly to nicotine gum.
    It’s a handy transitional step to ease the craving some people might have when quitting a bad habit. Just don’t lose sight of the end goal.

    As someone who doesn’t have that craving, I have no interest in it personally.

  2. jerthebarbarian says

    I think the “chuch-shaped void” that some (though not all) talk about is more about community than it is belief. Churches are more than just places where people go to worship their god – in fact in 21st century America from what I’ve seen that’s the last thing people actually go to church to do. They go to hang out with like-minded people, to have an environment where “people like them” are gathered together for a common purpose. Where they can volunteer their time and feel like people appreciate what they do. Where they can take their kids and share their traditions with them.

    I think that secular humanists might be able to get something like that, but “atheists” can’t. Much like if you throw a Baptist and a Catholic together they’re going to fight, if you throw a secular humanist and an Randian libertarian together they’re going to fight. Much like the Baptist and the Catholic have nothing in common except their belief in a deity (who they don’t agree about), the secular humanist and the Randian libertarian don’t have anything in common except their belief in the lack of a deity.

    (You will notice that the non-deity pieces of church membership sound a lot like other more secular organizations – “fan” conventions are an obvious one – comic book conventions, gaming conventions, etc but there are plenty of others. I think one of the major reasons that religion is falling by the wayside in the US is because that need to belong to a like-minded community is filled by other organizations these days. And also because the spokespeople for religion tend to be assholes, of course.)

  3. Dark Jaguar says

    Well, considering so very many atheists DO believe anti-humanist things like libertarianism and so on, atheism itself doesn’t exactly demand that all these other positions also be held. It just would sure be nice. Atheism by itself is not enough of a philosophy for a single person, true, but there are a large range of philosophies that people bundle up with it. Probably because, well, atheism, by itself, isn’t enough to make a fully fleshed out world view. It’s why I promote humanism. That there is a more fully fleshed out world view with atheism as a small part of it. Atheism is just a consequence of a world view more than the start of one, which a lot of these people don’t seem to grasp. They think “atheism, therefor I’ve got no reason not to be greedy and careless”.

  4. ChainRing says

    I was kind of lucky in that the Catholic church I attended as a child had very little on offer in the sense of ‘community’ – or maybe that was just that my mother who dragged us there didn’t have a need for that. We were just there to check off the boxes of the God requirements every week. So when as an adolescent I actually examined and discarded the beliefs, there was no other stuff to hold me into the church. Lucky escape! Now I express my need for community and good works in other ways much more meaningful and reality-based.

  5. says

    I don’t have a Jesus-shaped hole in my heart, but I do think a lot of people, atheists included, have a philosophy-shaped hole in their heads.

    Oh, how I agree. That philosophy shaped hole in the head always shows up in the contentious dictionary atheism discussions.

  6. iknklast says

    I hear a lot about how church fills the need for community, and that is why atheists are building these “churches”. I found that puzzling, because so few Christians actually attend church. Although the official poll number is 40%, the actual studies have found it’s closer to 20%. Which seems to me to suggest that either people aren’t pining for community, or they find it somewhere else (I suspect the second). This means we don’t need church to get the community we need. We don’t need to turn around and shake hands and introduce ourselves at a given moment, or sing songs together, or any of that stuff. We can find community anywhere.

    Church is creepy to me, like other ritualistic things are creepy. Doing these ritual things has a sort of brainwashing effect. I notice that at sports events, when one person starts to stand and do some sort of hand wave, and everyone follows, or when one person starts a chant and everyone follows. I also noticed it at a theatre conference I recently attended. One person would start a “wave”, and the entire group would follow in a progression. A standing ovation by one person brings most of the theatre to its feet. It’s creepy. It’s a mind fuck.

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    ummmm, the only, _verifiable_, benefit of church attendance/membership is the community (not
    “Communion”) aspect of it. It has been demonstrated [no cites, sorry] that those who live in a kind of active community setting, as opposed to isolation or passive community, live longer more fulfilling lives. I know the church leaders like to spin this as God’s intervention, but really, this is an aspect of biology. We are a community species, community life and participation is beneficial.
    The “church shaped hole in the heart” is simply a crude visualization of this concept of the beneficial role community plays on our lives.

  8. Georgia Sam says

    I have never felt that rejecting Xianity left either a “church-shaped” nor a “Jesus-shaped” hole in my life. (I speak only for myself & do not presume that my attitude is valid for anybody else.) I stopped attending church services as soon as I got away from social pressure to do so, & never felt the slightest desire to go back or participate in anything resembling a Christian ritual. Sitting through a sermon of any kind, religious or secular (including political speeches & debates), bores me to tears. I value the feeling of belonging to a community, but I find other ways to do that (one of which, BTW, is reading blogs like this one).

  9. Scientismist says

    ChainRing @ 5:

    We were just there to check off the boxes of the God requirements every week.

    slithey tove @ 9:

    ummmm, the only, _verifiable_, benefit of church attendance/membership is the community (not “Communion”) aspect of it.

    Some years ago, I accepted a challenge (as an atheist) to attend a few different church services. What impressed me about the Catholic service was what happened after everyone had lined up to receive communion. They got their wafer, and then bolted for the door. Check. Good for another week.

  10. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @11:
    oh, me to. Even though I was raised by a very Catholic mother and was dragged to Church every single Sunday (even on vacation trips we would search for a local church to attend the Sunday MASS)
    [needless to say, I went to college as far away as possible, to escape all that stuff, etc] Even so, we would remark (pejoratively) about how many Xmas/Easter Catholics there were (people that only show up for Easter and/or Christmas service), as explanation for how few Caths we saw in Church on “normal” Sundays.
    So I must clarify my previous exposition about the “benefits of church” actually being “community benefits”. I was trying to IMPLY that it only helps those who treat church AS a community, the imaginary theo is imaginary and doesn’t actually help at all. BELIEF in theo, may be individually comforting, but its medical benefits are “difficult” to actually verify.

  11. says

    I gave a talk once for — I believed it was called the Connecticut Humanist Association or something like that. They met in a Unitarian church, but on a Friday evening, and they would host visiting lecturers on various subjects of ethical importance. In my case it was health care policy. They had crackers and cheese and bad coffee. It seemed like a nice thing to do. I don’t know that it was exactly filling a church shaped void but it seems to me it was doing some of the stuff PZ wants us to do. It does at least have some superficial resemblance to a religious congregation. If there was a group like that near where I live I’d check it out.

  12. footface says

    My parents are Unitarians, and I went Sunday school at their/our church when I was growing up. The UUs do a lot of very nice things. I took a very comprehensive, very 70s sex ed class in Sunday school there. We talked extensively—extensively—about our own values. Not dogma—these were Unitarians—but about what each of us thought was important. We role-played all kinds of social situations. (“How would you act if this happened? What about if your friend did such-and-such?”) I also took a class called “The Church Across the Street.” Every week we went to a different religious service: a Catholic mass, a Bat Mitzvah, a Quaker meeting, and probably a few more. Mostly what I learned about these churches is that they were all so boring I thought I would die.

  13. says

    We need to get to the heart of that need, though, and recognize that atheists also must satisfy the desire for community…and it doesn’t have to be the stultifyingly narrow pattern of the weekly church service.


    I went to a Secular Church about last fall…it really wasn’t what I was looking for. The people all seemed wonderful, but the structure (sermons, chants, etc.) is not for me.

  14. neuroturtle says

    I think this is why explicitly atheist/secular volunteer opportunities are so important. The health benefits that come from belonging to a church community include being a member of a community, but also a sense of purpose and giving back. There’s no sense of purpose involved in going through the empty rituals of church, but there is in social activism.

  15. AMM says

    At the risk of getting tarred and feathered and run out of FreethoughtBlogs on a rail, I will admit, I do attend a Unitarian, uh, “Society” (the folks there get mad if you call it a “church.”)

    Why do I go?

    1. It gets me together with (mostly) decent people, some of whom are friendly and supportive. Most of the week, I’m slaving over a computer terminal, and I’m not good at going out and meeting people.

    2. There’s music and singing. To be honest, the music is far and away the most spiritual part of the service, or of any religious service I’ve encountered. The rest of the service is a bit too talky for my taste, though. (If discussion groups could actually change things, the Unitarians I know would have made heaven on earth already.)

    3. I get to know young people. Our congregation makes an effort to include young people in the adult activities. Also, I teach Sunday School, which so far has involved teaching bible stories (not as truth, but they _are_ a major part of Western culture) and teaching about other religions. Mainly, I get to hang out with 6th and 7th graders and hear what’s going on in their lives. They’re really neat people.

    Our congregation has a strong social action focus, but I’m afraid I’m more of a SJW in intent than in practice. The social action activities are very important to a lot of people there, though.

    FWIW, there are a fair number of atheists in our congregation.

  16. says

    @17, AMM

    Nah I don’t think anyone’s going to run you out. Unitarians are pretty much freethinkers in a lot of cases, and I’ve heard from other atheists (in person and on the internet) that attending their church or whatever is something they like. I’m sure most people at freethoughtblogs are cool with that.

    3. I get to know young people.

    One of the reasons I wanted to go to the Secular Church was to meet people of different ages too.

  17. footface says

    Oh, I remember the Unitarian minister/priest/leader guy telling my class one Sunday: “I don’t care whether you believe in god. I care how you treat other people.” I thought that was pretty radical.

  18. Scientismist says

    Notice in a UU weekly bulletin: “There will be a discussion after services next Sunday concerning the weeds in the parking lot. Meet in the parking lot. Bring gloves.”

    Also, I believe it was Vern Bullough (humanist, and American historian and sexologist) who described the Unitarian Universalist Church as a “way-station on the way to Humanism.” Or, as he once titled a talk, “Pardon me boy, is that the Chatanooga UU?”

  19. unclefrogy says

    in trying to understand our need for community we should not forget to take a look at organized sports, professional, semi-professional ( collegiate) and armature and how fandom functions as community identification. IE my team, our team,
    I heartily agree the weakness in the secular movement as it is today is in community building. I would go further I suspect that the lack of real deep level community uniting the population generally is at root of the factional conflicts here in the US, it has been intensified and emphasized for political gains.
    I wish I knew how to make things better but I do not think you can just design some form that we will all find easy to adopt really succeed I think it must grow out of our needs and that identification of we and not them and us. I do not see how it could be imposed.
    We are a social animal above all else. We make cities so we can live closer to other people. We found that agriculture makes that way easier to live in large groups. Now we have reached a time where this idea of community must grow or we are in a lot of trouble both in the secular movement and in the world generally.
    It is only we down here now there is no one else anywhere like remotely close.
    This blog is part of a beginning like a seed but only a part.
    uncle frogy

  20. says

    AMM @17:

    At the risk of getting tarred and feathered and run out of FreethoughtBlogs on a rail, I will admit, I do attend a Unitarian, uh, “Society” (the folks there get mad if you call it a “church.”)

    I hope no one tarrs and feathers you. Personally, I have no desire to attend church or anything resembling a church, but that’s me. I agree with others that the sense of community that many theists have is something of great benefit for many secular Humanists and atheists, and that community can be built in a variety of ways. One of those ways is through UU’s. They won’t be for everybody, but they will be important for some people, such as yourself.

  21. Al Dente says

    If people want to attend pseudo-churches, then they should go for it. They have my blessing. They can even attend twice, once for them and once for me, because I have more interesting things to do like clean my bellybutton of lint.

  22. Jeff says

    There’s something weirdly, disconcertingly “Abrahamic” about this whole frame of not attending some weekly service and atheists satisfying “the desire for community.” What do followers of some Eastern religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc.—which don’t have a tradition of weekly services do? Do they sit around and talk about how to satisfy their desire for community?

  23. brett says

    I’ve heard from people who attend Unitarian services while being atheists. Apparently they tend to vary, with some being more welcome to atheists and agnostics than others.

  24. says

    I’ve recently met a few people from the local Canberra Sunday Assembly. It’s once a month on a Sunday afternoon, and I’m thinking of going to check it out. Canberra’s quite a transient city, so lots of people who move here have no friends and are isolated. In that sense it could be useful.

    What got me in was the knitting group I found at a local cafe, making stuff for a local women’s refuge. I’ll probably keep up with the knitting group even if the Assembly gives me the irrits (which I do more than half expect.)

  25. says

    My older brothers and I were removed from Sunday School by our mother when I was around six or seven; she cited us being taught about Hell as the main reason (for which I grant her eternal kudos and hugs). Thankfully the brand of Christianity in our small, close-knit South Australian orchard district wasn’t the kind that would ostracise you for bailing on church; even if it were, I like to think mum would’ve extracted us anyway and to hell with what anyone else thought.

    I didn’t have a void left over after that, but my Sunday mornings certainly did. They were instantly and easily filled with pre-breakfast cartoons, go-kart construction (and de-struction) with my brothers, playing with friends, jumping my BMX over stuff, building forts, the endless adventures a kid can have when he has 40 acres of Adelaide Hills scrub to tool around in and Commodore 64 marathons, epic Lego sessions & model aircraft-building when the weather was inclement.

    Our local church was a small, freezing red brick building in which people told you gruesomely entertaining stories of battles, murder, magic and floods – behind which were hidden promises of eternal doom for misbehaviour. Our massive backyard, our imaginations, our favourite cartoons and our creative and clever parents made damn sure we never missed that cold little box full of fables and hidden threats.

    I have no problem with Sunday Assemblies if that floats people’s boats, but like the OP I have no personal need for a semi-ritualised regular weekly fellowship. I think I’d feel almost as uncomfortable in a Sunday Assembly as I do when in a church, regardless of the subject matter under discussion.

  26. says

    brett@26: I’ve heard our local UU is a bit hostile, not to atheists per se, but to activist atheism. I’m in the local SA partly because they need a guitarist, and anyway it’s only once a month — which about fills my need for this sort of thing. I don’t think I’d go to one every week (and I sure as hell wouldn’t be the music guy that often — too much work!)

    Generally: The main benefit of organized religion seems to be the supportive social group. Social groups organized around hobbies or whatever are great, but I think there’s something to be said for a self-organized community that takes mutual aid and “good works” as part of its mandate. But if it ain’t your cup of tea, by all means do your own thing.

  27. says

    I’m a founding member of the Kenmore Atheist Community. We meet monthly at a library meeting room here in Queensland Australia.
    Its aim is social. We arrange speakers from time to time. We had a libertarian once. He lasted only a couple of session till he discovered we all vocally rejected his viewpoint.
    We have also spawned an activist group. Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools.
    Some of our members went to Sunday Assembly as part of our networking with other groups. Nobody really got into it though.

  28. Ysanne says

    Hey DanDare, you seem to live just down the road from me (Indro) and I vaguely recall seeing an ad to collect for a billboard for your Community recently. :-)
    In my view, Sunday morning is sacred seeping-in-as-long-as-humanly-possible time, so Sunday Assembly is not my cup of tea, but my colleague who is more of a morning person seems to enjoy it, and their talk topics sound interesting and non-preachy enough. As far as I know he’s also a member of your activist group. Small world…

  29. leerudolph says


    Church is creepy to me, like other ritualistic things are creepy.

    I’m in churches so rarely (and only because friends will go around dying, especially friends who are my age and older, and some of them—though I’m glad to say, not all—attended church when alive and have arranged to attend one last time after death) that I don’t really have a sufficient body of recent experience to be sure that “church is creepy to me” too. But I can say that, more generally, I do find many “ritualistic things” unpleasant, if not “creepy”. (For instance, I just can. not. stand. attending graduation ceremonies.)

    The only thing I’d call into question about your post (actually, it’s not about the post, it’s just something that suddenly occurred to me while typing) is the use of the term “mind fuck”. That idiom no doubt reflects the era when it came into being (the OED dates it to the mid 1960s, which accords with my memory) in its conflation of fucking with violence. But the experience it describes really should be called a ‘mind rape’. (Note: that was NOT a rape joke. It is a dead serious proposal for changing the way we use words.)

  30. Matrim says

    people aren’t sitting around pining for an opportunity to sit on a bench and go through a boring ritual for an hour or three on Sunday morning.

    Some people most certainly are. There are people who like ritual, regardless of religious affiliation.