The Church of the non-believer

Members of an atheist congregation at Harvard listen to music during a recent gathering. Image courtesy CNN

Members of an atheist congregation at Harvard listen to music during a recent gathering. Image courtesy CNN

What it means to be human can be surprisingly difficult to define. But many aspects of being human are easy to spot. One of those is we like singing familiar songs, hearing traditional stories, maybe some special, secret ritual stuff thrown in, feasting or sacrificing, while celebrating our individual and collective successes and comforting those in pain, and we like to do this as a group, a tribe. It’s part of who we are.

Anthropologists theorize with good reason that this informal dynamic has been at work stretching back at least to the domestication of fire, or even the divvying up of the meal, or more accurately, the social circles we formed around those activities. Some think religion has a lock on it today, but one former pentecostal pastor disagrees in a big way, he now holds services for the godless:

The Advocate — There was singing, clapping, preaching, even an “Amen!” at Sunday afternoon’s church-like service — but no offering baskets, no prayers and, most importantly, no supernatural presence, according to Jerry DeWitt, the former Pentecostal pastor-turned-non-believer who led the event. A group of about 50 people gathered high above the Mississippi River on the 10th floor of the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center to attend the service, titled “Joie De Vivre,” which DeWitt dubbed the “first secular service in Louisiana.”

“We’re going to learn how to delight in being alive,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt, who served as an “old-line Pentecostal” preacher in DeRidder and DeQuincy for about 25 years, beginning when he was 17, said he slowly lost his faith over a period of about five years in the late 2000s and eventually left the church. He said he fully realized that he no longer believed in God and has been working in secular service ever since.

DeWitt, who dressed in all-black Sunday, sporting dark-rimmed glasses, a dark beard and dark, slicked and parted hair, encouraged audience members to spread his message of recognizing the joys in everyday life, even if it meant tweeting during his sermon.

DeWitt also announced Sunday that he’s forming a “secular community” in Lake Charles called the Community Mission Chapel.

I’m curious. Would you consider going to such a service, and if so what would you like to see? What would you want to get out of it?


  1. says

    On a serious note: I don’t think I would.
    It seems somehow false and contrived.

    I did, however, used to be part of a group of musicians who performed mediæval, usually religious, stuff: often in churches, though not in services. I got a lot of pleasure from that.

  2. machintelligence says

    If I were in the area I would certainly attend to hear Jerry speak. I have seen some of his videos and he certainly is an entertaining and inspirational orator. I wouldn’t make a regular habit of it, though, since ceremony does little for me.

  3. says

    I understand the need to feel “connected” to a group of like-minded people.

    But no, I won’t be participating. There are UU churches in my neck of the woods if ever I develop a pot-luck-supper deficiency.

    But I do sing regularly, and direct a secular singing group. So, maybe I’m feeding my Jones that way.

  4. says

    As a former humanist celebrant, I think it is a great idea. The template Protestant service — singing, readings, a lecture, more singing, fellowship afterwards — is a well honed set of rituals that has been attracting “joiners” for centuries. It provides a sense of community lacking in most secular and atheist organizations and a context for ceremonies of passage such as entering adulthood, marriage and funerals.

    So it will not be for everyone; that’s perfectly fine. I like singing, and I love a good lecture as long as the speaker is engaging. I have even thought of starting something similar, with weekly talks ranging from the value community involvement to why everyone should get tested for STDs to the importance of fighting racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

    As for UU, even the best of them are wrapped up in supernaturalism. A truly secular “church”… that I could support.

  5. says

    What all would it take to give it a whirl I wonder Greg? You’d need a place to meet, so a room with chairs, you’d need a speaker[s] and material to cover, maybe a goal or two, and you’d have to make sure knew people knew about it. So a large city or a large progressive city would help. I live in Austin, a solid candidate, but I have no idea how to handle some of the rest of that.

  6. Scr... Archivist says

    There was a long discussion about this sort of thing at Pharyngula in 2011. PZ was against it, but he got some pushback in the comments.

    Gregory in Seattle, you may already know that Sanderson Jones of The Sunday Assembly will be in your neck of the woods tomorrow evening.

    Apparently, Jones and Pippa Evans are touring various U.S. cities this week. Here is the itinerary:

    This follows a recent visit to Australia, where Kylie Sturgess interviewed Jones:

  7. grumpyoldfart says

    What is De Witt up to? I think he’s just trying to convince himself that his life in religion wasn’t totally wasted. If he can get unbelievers to attend an imitation church service, he can tell himself, “See, I was right all the time, even atheists agree this sort of stuff serves a useful purpose.”

    I think the idea of atheists attending an imitation church service is bloody ridiculous. It just lends credence to the god-botherers who claim that “atheism is a religion.”

  8. says

    @Stephen #7 – If I were to start something like this, I’d start with assembling a core group of family and friends willing to make this work. You can take turns choosing the readings and giving the talk, or you can pick someone from among your number, or check with the local secular community to find someone willing to speak on secular topics for free or for a pass of the hat.

    For venue, there are several options. Maybe someone in your core lives in an apartment building with a rec room. Or you could get a conference room at your public library, or the back room of a friendly bookstore. These places would almost certainly already have chairs and a lectern, possibly even an area where you can follow up with coffee, cookies and conversation (the 3Cs that bring many people to church.) It may be necessary to wander a bit at first, but as long as people know where and when, you’re good. You can put together a basic website for very cheap nowadays, which would let you give the current dates, times and topics. Social media would also help get your message out.

    Music might be a bit of a challenge. Then again, most Protestant hymnals are built around simple, well known melodies, and it wouldn’t take much to adapt these songs with non-religious lyrics.

    It would take work and some investment of resources, but I don’t think it would be difficult once you got a core group together.

  9. Karen Locke says

    Tea. Donuts. An interesting reading. Singing: lots of singing, preferably with a good band to accompany it. A sermon that fires me up and makes me want to go out there and DO stuff for my fellow humans.

    Back in the days of castles and dragons (1976 to 1979 or so) I attended Catholic services at the Newman Center in Davis, CA. (Newman Centers are Catholic churches specifically designed to serve college students.) We had the best musical group, all students, 5 or 6 people, who played both to accompany hymns sung by the congregation and performances for the congregation. With a group like that playing secular music, I would go for the music alone.

  10. mildlymagnificent says

    I think the idea of atheists attending an imitation church service is bloody ridiculous. It just lends credence to the god-botherers who claim that “atheism is a religion.”

    Not sure I agree. One of the things that churches actually do is provide a community.

    I do think the Sunday Assembly focus “Live better, Help often, Wonder more” is a good, ready-made start for people who might feel a bit aimless without a highly structured or carefully thought through set of principles of their own. Recent refugees from religious households often eschew such communal activities, but just as many feel that they’ve lost the baby as well as the bathwater.

    There are plenty of ways to be an atheist. This is not a bad one, and it might do a lot of good for some people.

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