Don’t stop believin’: Do atheists need a church?

There's song and fellowship in London's first atheist church. But are these non-believers just having it both ways?

Topics: Atheism, Atheists, Religion, Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton, Editor's Picks,

Don't stop believin': Do atheists need a church? (Credit: PerseoMedusa via Shutterstock/Salon)

One Sunday early this month, several hundred heathens gathered outside a deconsecrated church in East London. Most were twenty-something. The girls wore long, crinkled hair and silver rings: the boys, beards and last night’s suit jackets. It was uncommonly sunny, for England.

Distracted by the weather, perhaps, or by the sight of so many young things lining up for Sunday worship, a passing car rear-ended the vehicle ahead. The crowd groaned and jeered. “Don’t worry,” a young woman called out, between tender sips of Red Bull. “You’ve got, like, a hundred witnesses!” The crowd laughed and turned inwards, leaving two piqued drivers to the earthly task of exchanging insurance information.

Soon enough, the doors opened and we shuffled inside. Near the entrance to the foyer, several church ladies had set a table with biscuits and a few iced cakes.

At our final destination, the sanctuary, we were greeted by bare walls and dull paint; presumably, everything of grandeur had been stripped away when the church was rendered unsacred. (The Nave, on St. Paul’s Road, is now an “arts and performance space.”) Almost instantly, the rows of plastic chairs arranged before the altar were filled, and congregants began competing for floor space. A screen above their heads displayed the words “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” And then, our high priest arrived.

Sanderson Jones is tall and thin, with sweeping hair and a long, blond beard. He looks not unlike popular renderings of Jesus Christ — except that, on this particular Sunday, Jones wore a patterned tie and pink skinny jeans. As he stood before his beaming congregation, the band struck up a tune: “Wild World,” by Cat Stevens. Jones danced along for a while, gangly beneath the yellow lights. When the song ended, he welcomed us to the Sunday Assembly’s ‘Easter for Atheists’ service. 

The Sunday Assembly is London’s hottest (though not its first) Atheist church. Founded early this year, the Assembly markets itself as a “godless congregation,” which meets monthly “to solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a bit more whizziness into the everyday.” It is, at its most basic, a secular temple, where nonbelievers can enjoy some of the institutional benefits of a traditional church (or mosque, or synagogue) — a sense of community, a thoughtful lecture, a regular and scheduled period of respite — without the thorny incursion of God Almighty. Beyond that, the Assembly peddles wonder: a secular brand of awe with which to view our godless universe.



Already, the Sunday Assembly has earned the ire of critics. The Church’s detractors may mock congregants: accusing them of being as devout and dogmatic as their God-fearing counterparts. They may be turned off by the Assembly’s charismatic founders — and the simplified brand of theology that they dole out.

But The Sunday Assembly has Zeitgeist on its side. Emerging amidst a rash of new atheist literature — which considers the possibility of a more religious Atheism, and a more structured lack of faith — its time is intellectually ripe.

And it’s fun. The Assembly’s bonny founders, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, are stand-up comics who know how to tickle a crowd. Each gathering, they offer a meaningful sermon. (Sunday’s preacher was the novelist and literary critic Sarah Dunant, who spoke about the function of myth in earlier European societies — with a focus on perceptions of old age.) But they also pepper their services with jokes and song. (On Sunday, we sang Journey — and felt deliciously unselfconscious about it.)

It being Britain, each service ends with tea.

*

In his poem “Church Going,” Philip Larkin imagines a Britain without faith. “And what remains when disbelief has gone? / Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.”

The newest atheist philosophes have addressed this threat of spiritual wasteland head-on. As a rule, they do more than denounce theism; they also attempt to build structures that can unite and satiate the growing flock of nonbelievers. Unlike their secular forebears (with Richard Dawkins playing chief pioneer), these New Atheists speak not only of genetic codes and evolutionary impulse, but also of more elusive aspects of the human condition. Their church is both of science and of soul.

The temptation here is to use the word “spiritual,” but this would be misleading. These “New, New Atheists” (to borrow from physicist Jim Al-Khalili) are not to be confused with the followers of another growing church: that of the “spiritual but not religious.” (According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, over a third of the 46 million Americans who are not religiously affiliated identify as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Two thirds of them believe in God.) No, these are bona fide atheists. They speak to those who cannot take tales of revelation or miracle seriously; who do not believe in a spiritually transcendent; who maintain that all accounts of a divine being are, equally, gobbledygook.

But their questions are new. The New, New Atheists ask not whether God exists. (They take for granted that God is a fiction.) And their primary mission is not to prove the irrationality of religious belief. Instead, they ask why God exists — or, rather, why we have invented God and what we can learn from our inventions.

A primary branch of New, New Atheism holds that Atheists have something to learn from the structures, traditions and institutions of the devout. As Alain de Botton summarizes, in his book “Religion for Atheists,”“[It] is not that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often secularized badly—inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have unnecessarily surrendered some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faith.”

De Botton’s premise is that nonbelieving people generally strive to lead good lives, and would both benefit from and appreciate guided opportunities for self-reflection. But atheism doesn’t teach people how to live or to be — and our secular schools, while good at teaching facts, fall short in the nurturing of wisdom.

Organized religion, by contrast, is incredibly adept in the areas of ethical development and moral nudging. Its churches and mosques build community amongst otherwise strangers with shared ideals. Its daily prayers and meditations carve out moments for reverence — and suggest specific things to be revered (family, fertility, springtime, sacrifice, etc.). Its weekly confessions and days of atonement institutionalize moral and emotional catharsis. And its recantations of key texts hammer home lessons learned. In this way, the schedules of religion remind us to be grateful and to be awed. But they also remind us that we are striving to be good — and, in doing so, give us a push in the right direction.

What if, de Botton asks, we regularly held secular seders with loved ones? Better yet, what if those seders took place in restaurants where strangers were encouraged to sit together. And what if, while seated, those strangers were asked to discuss a prescribed list of questions — modeled on “the four questions” that are asked at Jewish seders? And what if posters and TV commercials reminded us to forgive and to be kind — like church billboards do? And what if neighbors agreed to gather together to revere each new moon? And what if travel agents were trained psychologists who could assess our innermost needs, and then suggest a soul-gratifying pilgrimage? And what if students were asked to read fewer books, but to read those few books deeply — like young followers read the Bible or Torah or Koran? And what if Atheists had a Church?

De Botton stresses that his goal is “not to create a ‘secular religion,’ but to create a secular society alive to needs which previously only religions catered to.” That, he furthers, can be done by unabashedly “raiding religions for their best ideas.”

But New, New Atheism is not just about building atheist structures; it is about pulling together a godless canon — with culture in the place of scripture. The writer Francis Spufford, for instance, writes of “a reconciliation of unbelief with the sprouting, curling, twining fecundity of culture.” This reconciliation would require that we engage more seriously with art and literature — and that we teach it with an eye for lessons on how to live. In other words, it requires that we read secular culture more religiously.

De Botton’s musings, however, stray deep into paternalistic waters — and the philosopher appears too admiring of religion’s moral absolutism. Who would set our secular seder questions? And who would design and fund the ethically concerned commercials? Moreover, is there anyone whom I would entrust with “the moral stewardship of [my] soul?” De Botton speaks commonly of an Atheistic “we,” but rarely elaborates on who amongst the “we” would be in charge of guiding the fold. Last year, British literary critic Terry Eagleton lashed out at de Botton in The Guardian: “What [his] book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly imprudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal.”

Indeed, the ideas have been recycled, though de Botton admits as much. On November 10, 1793, a group of Enlightenment revelers gathered in Paris to seize the Notre Dame Cathedral — which they later rechristened the Temple de la Raison. Inside the Church, they covered up the signs and symbols of Christianity. They constructed a temple “To Philosophy,” and hauled in busts of famous philosophers like Voltaire. It was an Enlightenment-inspired attempt to build a secular church, in which the Rational Word could replace the Revealed Word.

Several decades later, the French sociologist Auguste Comte designed a “Religion of Humanity.” Comte’s vision involved the construction of a massive new priesthood: thousands of sages who could attend to the needs of the secular soul. Secular churches would also be built. (In Comte’s imagination, they would be funded by bankers who, in return, would be immortalized in large busts around the churches’ exteriors.) There would be sermons and festivals and patronage of the arts. And congregants would follow a “positivist calendar,” whose days and months would pay homage to Great Men. (January, for instance, would be ‘Moses’ month. August would be ‘Dante.’) The idea, however, did not catch on. In de Botton’s estimation, Comte’s “greatest error was to label his scheme a religion.”

Looking forward, however, the greatest divide within New, New Atheism is sure to be about structure. Do Atheists need a Church?

In 2012, de Botton announced plans for a “temple for atheists” in London: a million-pound, 151-foot black building that would stand amidst skyscrapers in London’s financial district. (De Botton already reads at a secular School of Life near St. Pancras Station.) Soon after, geneticist and Atheist wise man Richard Dawkins struck back: “Atheists don’t need temples,” he avowed. “I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on… You could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, skeptical critical thinking.” Newspapers in Britain reported gleefully on the Dawkins/de Botton divide: taking it as sign of a great Atheist schism, and proof of theoretical inconsistency.

But another way to read this is that Dawkins and de Botton simply represent different Atheistic waves, with different ideas on how (and lately, where) to not believe. Sanderson Jones, the pink-pants-wearing prophet of The Sunday Assembly, takes the whole debate in stride: “Why can’t you just keep the bits you want and get rid of the stuff you’re uncomfortable with? … If your shoe had a pebble in it, you wouldn’t throw away the entire shoe. You would just take out the pebble.”

And so was written the first parable of the New, New Atheism.

*

Back at London’s deconsecrated church, Sunday Assembly congregants had to crane their necks to the see the stage — around a cameraman who was moving up and down the aisle, equipment in hand. Entering the church that morning, signs printed on flimsy white paper had warned us that a production crew would be present, to capture footage for promotional purposes.

Indeed, the word of the hour was “franchise.” There was constant talk of expansion. A young man from Essex, England was brought on stage to discuss his new Sunday Assembly branch; the man’s voice was full of earnest urgency — as if he were trying to approximate the style of a preacher. Congregants were also shown a PowerPoint slide of email messages sent from around the world, begging The Assembly’s founders to set up shop in Canada and Australia and Peru.

Near the end the service, Sanderson Jones passed around a collection plate. Somewhat nervously, he interrupted the jingling of coins with a quip: “Have you ever tried to get something trademarked in the States? Expensive, huh!?” At such moments, the marketing outweighed the message.

There were other disappointing aspects of the service. In the first minutes of his introductory address, Jones joked about his physical resemblance to Jesus — stretching his arms out and hanging his head to one side, as if being crucified. (“I get a quite a lot of lookalike work.”) The parody was low-brow and felt gratuitous.

Other bits felt intellectually confused. In the last portion of the service, Jones took the stage again — to tell the winding tale of his adulthood: his five years selling advertisements for The Economist (“[I] felt life dripping away”), his foray into stand-up comedy, and his eventual founding of the Assembly. The crux of the long, babbling address seemed to be that Jones’s advertising gig, which he loathed, actually prepared him for a successful career in stand-up comedy — by teaching him how to sell himself. The take-away, broadly applied, was that everything happens for a reason. (And perhaps that we should be better salespeople?) The former is, of course, a deeply religious message — and seemed ill suited to a gathering of atheists. The address also drew attention to the Assembly’s heavy reliance on the charisma of its top dog.

Oh, but the crowd loved it. Congregants laughed and cheered and sang and enthusiastically pondered their way through the morning. They had evidently bought in — to this more light-hearted pursuit of a secular something more.

De Botton might appeal to a more scholarly crowd — but both he and Jones are after the same target audience: soulful atheists. Similarly, both will repel other kinds of atheists: those who have little patience for moral self-improvement; or little need to pump up the “awe” of their everyday; or discomfort with the cultivation of a secular mystique.

As the Sunday Assembly service went on, my feelings of unease never quite dissipated. But I did my best to overlook them, because there was something contagiously joyful about “Easter for Atheists” — indeed a kind of “whizziness” about the room. There was also something buoying in the idea that, perhaps, other congregants were riddled with the same atheistic anxieties that I am. If this is what the devout get every Sunday, then I want in — just, without the God.

Also, it’s nice to sing. On that Sunday, we Atheist congregants threw back our heads and sang Journey like there was no tomorrow:

Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to the feelin’…

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