The New Atheist Churches: Three readings

The Phenomenon

No, it’s not a contradiction in terms. Church for Atheists is a growing movement, primarily in the Anglo world, but with the potential to spread rapidly especially in the West. I first heard about these folks in a Canadian edition of the Presbyterian Record where they earned a short note in Rev. Brad Child’s “Much to Learn” column. I’ve never been to one of their meetings, but I’m eager to go. I’ve only been able to get to know them through their website

Their motto is catchy: live better, help often, wonder more. And as a teacher of world religions I cannot help but ponder the deep congruencies between this motto and the basic precepts of so many of the world’s great religious traditions. At their best, non-Fundamentalist versions of most of the major religions could support this simple call to self-cultivation, social responsibility, and existential and intellectual curiosity. Why then does this new phenomenon strike so many of us as odd? Is it just the notion of a non-religious religion that catches us off guard or is something else going on here?

Below I offer several divergent readings of this new movement; perhaps we can gain from considering them from several different perspectives.

The Fundamentalist Reading

Don’t be drawn in, the devil can mock anything even as Satan appears as an angel of light. As true Christianity has withdrawn from the world to be replaced with watered-down versions that offer a sepia toned Jesus who asks nothing of the believer except that he or she believe, the devil has moved in to adopt, adapt and ultimately defile much that was once pure. We lost the universities decades ago, and most popular cultural outlets have been taken over by unbelievers. And now this! Even “church attendance” is becoming something that non-Christians can participate in. And why not? Liberal churches with their tolerance of gay clergy and socialist sympathies long ago ripped the evangelical core out of Christianity and now we are really reaping the whirlwind.

Perhaps that’s the one redeeming quality of these new “Churches for Atheists.” At least they’re honest. For centuries if not millennia we’ve had churches that claim the name without embracing the Gospel, so in point of fact we’ve had churches without God all this time. Finally, someone is being honest about the fact.

The Evangelical Reading

Now this is a sign of fertile soil! Recall Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13. The one in which the sower casts seed far and wide, much of which falls on soil that is rocky, weedy or just lacking in nutrients. Some of his seed finds fertile ground and there it takes deep root and flourishes. As we look around the world today and see so many signs of greed and injustice and hatred, we should take this new phenomenon, Church for Atheists, as a sign of good news, that there is still much fertile soil out there for us to cultivate.

Think about it. Here we have people who are so desperate for community and love and a relationship with something larger than themselves that they are gathering to explore these desires despite the fact that they have no name for that which they seek! Well here we are, and we know the name: it’s Jesus and it remains only for us to make that connection and to show them that the truth we know is the person they seek, even if they don’t yet see it.

The Liberal Reading

This just goes to show that homo sapiens crave community. I have nothing against religion personally so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone and so long as everyone has respect for the beliefs of others, but I think that religion has tended to confuse the means and the ends. In other words, religions tend to look at the kinds of things that bring people together – shared experiences, music, a common story – and see these things are relevant in so far as they help advance a particular agenda or encourage the worship of a particular deity. But this is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. We enjoy communal worship because it’s communal, not because it’s worship! The Church for Atheists crowd is proving that it’s the community part of “faith community” that is most important. We are inherently social creatures and encouraging us to be social in more meaningful ways should be the real work of religion – with or without God.

A Liberal Evangelical Reading

Of course to this point I’ve been somewhat caricaturing other positions based on what clich├ęs I’d expect them to use. But I’ve also tried to be honest to what I think these folks might really and truly think about a phenomenon like Church for Atheists. I have some sympathy with all of the readings above, and yet I think that as Liberal Evangelicals of a moderate bent, we must push further. We must look beyond seeing these folks as mere funhouse mirror reflections of our own desires and ourselves. All three of the above readings are, I’d suggest, not nearly radical enough because all three simply take “The Sunday Assembly” phenomenon and plug it into a prefabricated story. In other words, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and Liberals tend to have a stock story outlines with stock players like your typical RomCom: A loves B, but must first overcome C.

Fundamentalists: X is the merely the newest instantiation of the war on Christianity.

Evangelicals: X is mere the newest group of seekers to whom we need to reach out.

Liberals: X is merely the latest evidence that reason and enlightened secularism will triumph.

These stock readings of the “Church for Atheists” phenomenon aren’t interesting because the basic stories these readings reinforce aren’t interesting. Can we do better?

The basic lesson – and this is only a tentative beginning – of this phenomenon should speak to us not about what we should do to or with these other folks. Rather, it should point us toward a better understanding of ourselves and our own needs and ways of organizing. The emergence of the Sunday Assembly tells us something about ourselves and our need to form strong communal bonds and to unite around common rituals and symbols. It tells us about a universal human desire to find and sometimes to make meaning is a world where non-superficial goals and relationships are hard to come by. And it should warn us away from offering snakes and stones to a world that hungers for fish and bread. People are going to find sustenance wherever they can, and if they cannot find it in the churches and mosques and synagogues, then they’ll go out and make places where they can create their own. Are we offering real sustenance?

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