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.