Hello fellow Heretics,
I return from my cave. I had a long list of stuff I was going to blog about but after reading a BBC article about Atheist ‘Churches’, and reading Alain De Botton’s ‘Ten Commandments for Atheists’ I felt sharing my thoughts on this subject matter would be a good way to return.
So I’ll give you a bit of background on this new fad first – and I insist on calling it a fad.
In the last few months, non-believers have been gathering at churches to hold ‘services’ led by Atheist ‘preachers’. Described as “part foot-stomping show, part atheist church, all celebration of life” congregations of more than 300 people have crowded into the shell of a deconsecrated church to join ‘the celebration’ on Sunday mornings. One Church in North London seems to be leading the way. Instead of hymns, the non-faithful rise to their feet to sing along to Stevie Wonder and Queen songs. They listen to readings from the Alice in Wonderland story and articles about particle physics and the Big Bang. Then people bow their heads and ‘contemplate’ the ‘wonder’ of life for a minute or two. Then people discuss what it’s like for them being an atheist or leaving their religion and express their joy over now having a ‘community orientated’ way of spending their Sunday now that they have left Christianity (if they had a religion to start with).
So. My initial reaction to all of this was ‘Hold on. This sounds like a cult’.
Well, for all the arguing that we Atheists do about the irrationality of religious practice and as much as many of us condemn the organised aspect to religion, it seems that some of us are falling into that exact trap. Meeting every Sunday? In a Church? Singing ‘hymns’ (even if they are Queen and Stevie Wonder hits)? Preaching? Some even have stand up comedy. I mean c’mon. It all strikes me as tasteless at best and ridiculous, if not dangerous at worst.
As I’ve said many times before, I go to Church every Christmas because I was raised as a Christian and it makes my mum happy. It used to be the thing I least looked forward to in my diary but now I feel so far removed from religion, I use it as an observational exercise. I watch the people sing, take their communion, I look at the religious iconography and I listen very carefully to what the pastor says. As I do all of this, I sit content knowing that none of this holds glue with me. I sit amazed that so many people could sit there and lap up every irrational line of superstition and take as truth a story written thousands of years ago. As much as this tradition has become something I have to tolerate as an agreement with my mother, who never asks anything else from me but this one thing, it’s still something I do out of duty and not choice. I can’t fathom why any atheist would willingly sit through an order of service and emulate religious practice. I simply do not understand it. It might be fair to call me a hypocrite for my annual trip to Church but, as explained, I have my reasons. I don’t know if I am a cultural Christian (and I use that term very reluctantly) but I look forward to the day when I feel like I’ve paid my dues and I can skip Church on Christmas day. You wouldn’t catch me replacing one form of church for another.
Some have argued that they are celebrating non-belief by gathering and discussing. People get together and meet other like-minded sorts and discuss the difficulties they’ve had in ‘coming out’ as an atheist, etc… That’s all good and well but surely the best way to get ‘unlikely’ and ‘reluctant’ Atheists together is in a discussion group or at events such as QEDcon? Surely writing articles, blogging, being active on forums and going to the many events that happen worldwide is the best way to understand your own beliefs and refine your arguments against religion and hear what other people’s viewpoints are. That is another key difference between Atheism and religion – there isn’t supposed to be a hierarchy with ‘enlightened’ people at the top and sheep that follow at the bottom. Atheists are not supposed to build a belief system based on what a few self-appointed ‘important’ people have told them. Yes, we’re supposed to think for ourselves.
I myself have thought about a good way to get in touch with more ethnic minority Atheists and create an organisation through which to explore Atheism and Agnosticism, particularly in Britain as there is already an American organisation that does something similar. After I wrote about Black Atheism, I found a lot of black Atheists on Twitter. Many who faced the same criticisms as me. Many who felt as misunderstood at times as I do/did. I do not see how I’d be able to relate to these people any better in a ‘church’ environment, with a preacher (even if what he is preaching is based in Science) and a hierarchical structure. Irrationality is deep-set in human nature and believing in the supernatural is something we’ve done since the first man and woman. In Derren Brown’s ‘Fear and Faith’ series this theory is put to the test and somehow, a hardcore Atheist woman finds herself believing in ‘a higher being’ and a ‘greater love’, almost ‘godlike’ in nature. It’s hard, but intellectual evolution demands that we shake ourselves from the shackles of supernatural belief. I like reading my daily horoscopes as much as the next guy, but just for fun. Sure, once in a while I find myself surprised by how ‘accurate’ the readings seem but I remind myself that it’s not real and any ‘truth’ is simply coincidental. Astrology is one of many methods that have been used to understand the world and the universe and explain our place in it, explain the unexplainable. For a time, even religion served a groundbreaking purpose and explained what could not previously be explained. Then natural philosophy (science) offered answers to the many questions that people had.
I’m rambling, but my point is that it is easy to get carried away and swept along with the tide. So we start with Atheist churches and meetings just once a week, every Sunday. Then a new moral code of conduct is dictated and ‘charismatic preachers’ emerge. Before you know it anti-religion become a new form of religion. What seems like a bit of harmless fun, or an educational exercise may well ‘lead you to god’ – a god we don’t even believe in.
Bishop Harrison, a Christian preacher for over thirty years, was quoted in the article, saying that he does not see this new cultural phenomenon as a threat. In fact he praises the move towards organising atheists and ‘confidently’ predicts that their spiritual journey will eventually lead them to God.
“They have got to start from somewhere,” he says.
A ‘spiritual journey’?
I think if you want to be ‘spiritual’ then that is fine but how then can you call yourself an atheist? I feel calling yourself a Theist would be more appropriate. I’m against organised religion and I, unlike religious people, feel no ‘greater force’ working in the world. I feel no relationship to something I can’t see. Sure, I can’t see my internal organs but I could if I booked myself an X-ray. The people who go to these ‘Atheist Churches’ strike me as people looking to replace a void that religion once filled with something else. Some of them have only recently rejected religion. Many are hesitant to even call themselves Atheists, just as I was a long time ago. We all ‘practice’ Atheism differently and have our reasons for choosing that path, but that is EXACTLY why we do not need to congregate in such ways. It’s too close to everything we are trying to fight against. It sends out the wrong message. It begs for an ‘I told you so’ response from religious communities. Even the word ‘Church’ finds its roots in religious meaning – ‘pertaining to the lord’. An ‘Atheist Church’ simply cannot be! Not in a rational world!
Here are a few extracts from the article:
‘There is a concern among some non-believers that atheism is developing into a religion in its own right, with its own code of ethics and self-appointed high priests.’
‘It will become an organised religion. It’s inevitable. A belief system will set in. There will be a structure, an ethical outlook on life.’
‘There is a difficulty that it might become cultish and it might become about one person. You could set yourself up as a charismatic preacher, that’s the danger.’
Bishop Harrison is right though. This is the ‘somewhere’. This is the first step in the wrong direction. I really hope that in five or ten years time I don’t see articles about Atheist cults and cult practices, which started in a seemingly harmless ‘church’ in North London. Or even worse, it may not be so clear what it means to be an Atheist. Things are rarely black and white, but that is exactly why we should not create grey areas where they just don’t need to be.
If I’m looking at this all wrong then I urge people to share their thoughts and enlighten me.