Waking up at 7 a.m. for Sunday Mass had to have been one of my least favorite activities as a child. Even more trying for my young self was remaining awake through the two-hour-long sermon and all the sitting, standing, singing, kneeling, handshaking and communion-getting involved in this tedious weekly routine. As I matured and realized my spiritual standing, I was relieved to no longer have to spend these precious weekend mornings feigning attentiveness and pretending to enjoy the company of people with whom I shared nothing in common. Since the realization of my secular humanist beliefs, I have attended several different religious services and ceremonies. From Muslim to Jewish, from Protestant to Roman Catholic, religious congregations always evoke a sense of community that encompass its members before, during and after the events. I’ve always admired this strong sense of community within these spaces. During an African Methodist Episcopalian service a few years ago, I recall feeling overwhelmed by the outbursts of love and support while over 100 people joined the choir in singing songs—it was beautiful, and although I did not share their beliefs, I felt united with those around me. I envied this aspect, as I have never felt that sense of belonging in a group unified by one common property. Instead, I have had to constantly defend my beliefs (and disbeliefs) without having a physical community to fall back on outside of my family. When I decided to become an atheist, I remember feeling lonely at times. Today, due to a common sense of loneliness among atheists, atheist “churches” are cropping up across Western Europe and the United States. As someone who holds atheism at the crux of their beliefs, I can understand the basis of this creation. However, the idea seems to be in need of improvement.
Just last week, 16 Sunday Assemblies were held across the United States and 19 other countries across the globe, inspired by an event held last January in London by two British comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Many refer to these assemblies as atheist churches, an oxymoron that assimilates atheism to the norms of a religious society. This terminology in itself is questionable—if atheism rejects the beliefs of organized religion, then why are its supporters mimicking one of organized religion’s most significant aspects? Merriam-Webster defines church as “a building that is used for Christian religious services; religious services held in a church; a particular Christian group.” This phraseology is troubling, as it suggests that the atheist congregation is based upon Christian norms.
While Christian services do provide many positive, community-oriented aspects, this suggests that other religions cannot provide these, which is entirely untrue. This excludes those atheists who have departed from other religions, such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.: Does this mean that they have to go to their own atheist Mosque, Synagogue or Temple? The term atheist church is used both by the media and by members, which is counterproductive to the values of atheism and insinuates that atheism solely rejects Christianity and therein relegates those coming from different religions or who have always been atheists to “other” status. One of atheism’s main objectives is to respect others’ beliefs even if they are opposite of one’s own, and this cannot be achieved while using the terminology of the systems that reject it and that it rejects.
A video produced by the United Kingdom paper The Guardian provides a glimpse inside of one of these congregations in Ohio. In the short clip, members of the Sunday Assembly sing songs with acoustic guitars, raise their hands in praise and share that the founders of this congregation consulted with theist pastors during planning. Again, religion is a crutch and is used as a foundation for atheism. This Assembly alienates other atheists who had distressing experiences in places of worship that brought them to this belief system. Atheism disagrees with the institution of religion—but by creating churches, it starts to become an institution of its own.
This makes atheism appear hypocritical and provides even more fodder for theist criticism and theories that atheism is not real and that atheists are just in a transitory period precluding their “rebirth” or “saving.” Community can be built by other methods that do not include waking up members early in the morning, bringing them into a house of “worship,” and talking at them and giving them orders for an hour . If atheists wish to tout that they are not followers, then why are they behaving as such?
Imitating theism is not the way to build an atheist community that is inclusive to all those who hold this belief as part of their own system. Instead, different approaches should be taken to atheist communities that are unique and safe for all. The Washington Ethical Society in Washington, D.C. seems to provide a better environment and image: its mission statement quotes Dr. Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Cultural movement, stating, “The Ethical Society’s mission is to give birth to personalities who have attained for themselves an abiding ethical faith and are aflame with it.” By focusing on humanistic beliefs in ethical, rational behavior and action, this creates a welcoming community with a positive, validating message that is not based on theology. However, it, just like the Sunday Assemblies, meets on Sundays, which smacks of theological basis. Whether or not meeting on Sundays for atheist communities is appropriate is debatable—like using the word church, it could distance those coming from other cultures whose dominant religions meet on other days, normalizing Christianity. Communities could have community centers that hold events on different days, like dinners or picnics each week.
To me, this seems less like staunch religion and more like a community of people with similar ideas. By having a flexible schedule of relaxed, casual and un-(insert house of worship here)-like gatherings, community centers can affirm members’ beliefs and assure them that they are not “buying into” anything. A community can be built sans morning assemblies filled with chanting and forced movements , and atheism and its similar belief systems must work to create these. It is evident that this cannot be accomplished in one try, but by the mobilization of the community at large, leaders can be identified and ideas attempted. As with the unification of any people, open dialogue and communication is necessary to invent an appropriate manner to build an inclusive, safe and open community. This should be seen as a call to young freethinkers and the like to engage in creating this community in their area and supporting the community at large.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is undeclared.