Harvard Atheists Team Up to Write About Godless Congregations

James Croft and Greg Epstein, both of the Humanist Community at Harvard, just signed a book deal to write The Godless Congregation:

The past few months have demonstrated that there is an increasing desire among religious “nones” for new forms of community which fulfill the human need for fellowship, support, civic engagement, ethical inspiration, and existential exploration. The Houston Oasis, the Sunday Assembly, and the Secular Hub in Denver are three such congregations: the sign of a trend toward greater organization among the nonreligious, showing that godless congregations are possible and that people want them.

I love the idea. There’s value in community for those who want it — and I suspect a lot more of us want it than we think. Only now are we starting to see some options pop up.

Yes, people are going to complain that an “atheist church” makes no sense or that it’s too much like religion, but that’s a very narrow-minded way of looking at it. There are so many people who don’t believe in God but remain in their church because of all the benefits it offers — community, moral education, childcare, a “spiritual rejuvenation” if you will. You don’t need God for any of that, and the atheists who are starting these “congregations” are only adapting the good parts of church while leaving behind the myth. There’s potential for abuse, but it hasn’t happened yet.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anna

    Well, I’d be interested to read an objective book about one of these congregations, but unfortunately this one doesn’t sound like it fits the bill:

    Greg Epstein (Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and New York Times Bestselling author of Good Without God) I just signed a book deal with Simon and Schuster to write The Godless Congregation, a passionate call to those who do not believe in God to get together and organize. We’ll be working with editor Thomas LeBien, who has long experience of editing successful books and seems as excited about the book as we are! In the book we will argue that the congregation is a valuable form of social organization and that, despite its historic links to a deity, it can and will thrive without one.

    I’m one of those people who hates the idea of atheists promoting (instead of fighting) “church culture,” so I don’t know if I can read this without getting annoyed. Plus, I wasn’t a huge fan of Epstein’s earlier book.

    • Bad_homonym

      A mild disagreement. Not all things associated with religion are truly negative. The aspect of fellowship with like minded people is very appealing, and if a reluctant or doubting individual would have an easier transition ‘out’ of church and into reason as a result of a structured time and place meeting that was in most other respects the same as church, I am fully in favour

      Cheers!

      • Anna

        I don’t entirely disagree with that. I do think these churches may be helpful as a transitional step for people just leaving religion, but I have strong doubts about their longevity, and I do worry that they just help perpetuate “church culture.”

        • sware73

          I also do not entirely disagree with having community groups of this sort but I find it is the word that I have the biggest issue with. Church. When I was leaving the church the last thing in life I wanted to associate with or be anywhere near was anything called “church”. This is one of those instances where I feel our choice of words matter.

          • Anna

            Yes, I think “community” would be a good word to use, but “church” and “congregation” are far too loaded with religious connotations.

            Something like “The Secular Community of….” might be attractive to people (not just atheists) looking to socialize without wanting to deal with religious dogma.

    • ortcutt

      I suppose there are people out there who want quasi-church. I don’t have any problem with that. I only object when people suggest that I’m missing out on something because I don’t go to quasi-church. I’d much rather read with my wife, go for a bike ride, or go to brunch on a Sunday than attend quasi-church. For intellectual stimulation, there are more lectures at Harvard, MIT, BU, BC, Tufts, etc… and author talks at Harvard Book Store in one week than any human could possibly attend in a year. Boston already is one big godless congregation. I’m in favor of organizing in defense of secularism, but that’s a different animal from quasi-church.

      • Anna

        We’re on the same page. While I’m not unsympathetic to those who may have recently left religion and desire quasi-church as a way to replace what they feel they have lost, I also have a concern that it will just lead to another generation of people who feel that “church culture” is normal.

        What about the children raised in atheist churches? They’re being raised to see church attendance as routine and expected, so what happens when they grow up? I worry that it might make them even easier prey for evangelicals who will take advantage of their desire for weekly ritualized community. Atheist churches are few and far between. Regular churches are everywhere. I can easily see young atheist adults who miss their church (especially if they are not strong critical thinkers) falling into supernatural-based churches instead.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          i’m with you two. however, since moving to the South, i am coming to understand why “atheist church” is sometimes a good idea.

          the thing is, churches are not just for worshipping invisible silent fairies; they are also places to do business, make friends, advance a (secular) cause… they are social hubs, in many parts of this country.

          i can totally see the value in some places of having an “alternative” church like gathering. the internet is good, but it’s still not enough, in some cases, to accomplish all the things that can be done by meeting up in person.

          • Anna

            That’s the tough part. It’s horrible that there are places in this country where secular social outlets do not exist, and I feel for atheists trapped in the Bible Belt. If every single social group is comprised of extremely religious people, then I can see how atheists might be so frustrated that they would turn to an “atheist church” for comfort and support. Heck, I might do the same thing in that situation myself.

            I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think there needs to be a massive effort to secularize the South. I think it would be better to focus on creating secular groups rather than specifically atheist groups, so that atheists in those areas would have options for socialization. Secular schools, secular camps, secular sports teams, etc.

          • ortcutt

            I had a really hard time explaining to my wife that church in the US is a complete social life for many people. She’s from an Eastern Orthodox country and people there go to church for weekly services and rituals like Easter, baptisms and weddings, etc… but that’s it. There’s no church picnic or bible study group or church-run daycare. There’s no hall in the church. The church is just a liturgy space, not a complete social life. The idea that church is someone’s entire social life is a peculiarly (bad) American idea. Rather than starting atheist church to perpetuate this American mistake, we should work on alternatives.

            • Anna

              I think that’s also the case in a lot of non-Western countries. Granted, I don’t know a huge amount about Buddhism, but my impression is that temples in places like Thailand or Japan are just places to stop by and make a quick offering. As far as I know, people’s social lives don’t revolve around those temples.

    • Tobias2772

      Anna,
      How would you go about better providing for a “feast of friends” ? I understand and am empathetic about your reservations. Can you propose a better path forward to help satisfy our human desire for social interaction ??

      • ortcutt

        How about socially interacting with your friends and neighbors? There are also about one thousand hobby groups, book clubs, sports clubs, etc… out there if people want to meet new people and make new friends. I don’t understand why socializing needs to be linked to someone’s beliefs about supernatural beings. That strikes me as tunnel-vision forced upon people by “church culture”.

        • Tobias2772

          Anna & Ortcutt,
          I take your point, but I believe that we could also use some atheist/humanist groups as well. My lack of belief in supernatural beings informs many of my perspectives in other areas of my life. I ofttimes find it very difficult to deal with religious people in my other activities. With rationality being a large part of my central perception of life, it can be difficult to enjoy the company of those who openly profess to abandoning their rational thought processes at their convenience. I would like to find a way to socialize with other rationalists in any number of activities, without being exposed to mythologists.
          That said, I don’t believe it has to be anything like church. How about rational discussions of current events or philosophical schools of though. How about rational bicycle riders or music appreciation?

          • Anna

            I can see where there would be a place for things like book clubs or lectures. I once went to a book talk given by our local humanist community, thus far my only foray into anything related to organized atheism. That was about five or six years ago, and while it was interesting, the humanist community group (active though it is) is not something I feel a need to be involved with on a regular basis.

            Bicycling or music, though? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how religion is related to either of those things. Again, this is probably the difference between the Bible Belt and more secular areas, but people where I live don’t just start talking about religion out of the blue, especially if the topic is something completely secular. I have no problem interacting with or befriending people who are “normal” believers, ie: not religious fanatics. Many of my friends are liberal theists of one sort or another.

      • Anna

        Exactly what Ortcutt said. There are countries where the rate of church attendance is near zero, and going to church is seen as an odd and strange thing to do. Rather than looking at Bible Belt culture and copying that, I think atheists should look to places like secular Scandinavia and take note of the way people have their social needs fulfilled there.

      • http://profiles.google.com/smuckitelli Michael Neville

        Croft and Epstein have been pushing godless churches where the atheists could congregate, listen to uplifting sermons from atheist clergy (Epstein’s official title is ” Humanist Chaplain”), sing areligious hymns, and otherwise comport themselves just like the religious only without gods. You’d think the Universal Unitarians already fill that niche but apparently they’re not quite godless enough for Epstein & Co.

  • ggsillars

    Even some “religious” congregations are godless. The UUs have included atheists for a long time and some branches are Quakerism are now explicitly godless. And then there is the interesting case of Gretta Vosper, a minister of the United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination. She came out to her congregation as a nonbeliever and her congregation voted to keep her as their minister. The definition of “religion” may need to be revised to take account of the fact that in some cases, supernatural beliefs are not included.

    • Free

      Atheism – the next religion.

      • meekinheritance

        Without the mythology.

      • Anna

        Hardly. There have always been atheistic religions. Buddhism’s got quite a jump on Christianity in that regard.

        Atheists can certainly join a religion if they want to, but atheism itself is not a religion. I have no desire to join any kind of religion. Even if it was completely anti-supernatural, religion does not interest me.

  • Kristen White

    I attend a UU church that’s at least 50% godless, if not more, and the other 50% certainly doesn’t believe in an old-guy-in-the-sky style of deity. The book does seem like it will be a little too cheerleaderish, but I think the concept is good. There are many elements of church congregations that would be better off abandoned, but I think it’s important for many people to have some sort of structure. There’s a continuity you get from a church that’s hard to replicate in other modern institutions. I can pretty much rely on this congregation continuing to exist and continuing to stand for generally the same liberal ideas for the foreseeable future.. For me, the church is less about spirituality and more of a 19th-century-London social club. We’re all collectively paying for a space in which to meet for all kinds of activities, and a couple of people to manage said space and activities and to write interesting lectures once a week. I’m an English teacher and a debate/forensics coach, so my spare time during the school year is basically nonexistent. Being a member of the UU church helps me find like-minded friends for my son, organized service opportunities, an intellectually stimulating service with beautiful music and poetry that helps me recharge my batteries, and a weekly gaming group with childcare, all without my having to organize any of it. During the summer when I have more time, I help with the library and the community garden and generally pitch in. It’s priceless. Nowhere but a church could I get anything like it.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    UU atheist here. There are already many atheist churches.

  • Free

    Why not just be honest and realize that we are all born with an internal sense of a need for security and significance and that community provides this. We so tend to fight the “God given” reality of our nature. Fellowship is important. Scientific studies in droves reveal the detrimental effects of children growing up without proper interaction or society in general living as an island unto themselves. It is conclusive that it is not healthy. I find it ironic that Atheists would seek to copy the community built by churches as if they actually identify with their need for fellowship. Hypocritical actually.

    • r.holmgren

      @ Free: “I find it ironic . . .”

      Not only that, but in the profound failure to find a morality of their own, atheists have found that apart from Christianity, there is no morality worth having. So they’ve come full circle and simply adopted the Christian moral code and called it their own. Of course atheism is the next religion, that’s why A+ is so disappointing to the old school atheists who saw atheism as their hope for a sense of freedom. Leaving organised religion because it tells you what to do, only to find that organised atheism also telling you what to do must make one’s head spin in the hopelessness of it all.

      Organized atheism has:
      . Origin of the Universe Mythologies believed in by faith
      . Origin of life Mythologies believed in by faith
      . Growing number of Denominations
      . Infighting among Denominations
      . All other religions are considered wrong by virtue of not being atheism
      . The Atheist Ten Commandments
      . A goal of happiness and well-being
      . Abstaining from worldly desires for Lent
      . Sunday morning Church meetings of like believers
      . Summer camp for kids to learn the dogma of atheism
      . Omega Mission: 6 Week Indoctrination / Evangelism tool
      . Codified Moral Behaviours
      . TV shows where people call in to hear the “experts” explain atheism
      . Evangelizing in attempts to convert
      . Shunning of those who disagree
      . Faith required to maintain core belief
      . Donating money to advertise core beliefs
      . Atheist Leaders making appeals for donations

      • Castilliano

        Whoa, coming to an atheist website to misrepresent atheists about how they have no morality and operate on faith anyway.
        To themselves.
        Who know better.
        Great job.

        • allein

          He posted the same thing in another thread the other day. Copypasta must get tiresome after a while.

        • thesauros

          and operate on faith anyway”

          Well yes, unless you can tell be where to find the evidence that inanimate, inorganic gases really do evolve into life and that material things can begin to exist without an external cause – you know, the observed, tested and verified kind of evidence? the scientific kind of evidence?

          If you don’t have that, you believe this is a material universe only because of faith – right?

      • http://profiles.google.com/smuckitelli Michael Neville

        Like the vast majority of atheists I have a sense of morality, one based on the golden rule and altruism. If you want a discussion of atheist morality you’ll find some in every atheist website and blog, since immorality (or amorality) is a favorite accusation made by theists about atheists.

        The rest of your “Organized Atheism” gybes don’t exist either. But don’t let reality stand in the way of you arguing with the straw atheist who only lives in your head.

      • cipher

        atheists have found that apart from Christianity, there is no morality worth having

        Right, because there’s no morality to be found in any of the other world faiths, and if there is, it’s only because Jesus put it there.

        Congratulations; it takes a real talent for obliviousness to not get something this profoundly.

        • thesauros

          so would that be why in north american we find babies left to die in the fields and caning for misdeads or making sure we don’t help the poor because it will interfere with their karma, and all that other good stuff from other culture’s morality?

          • cipher

            You really should stop posting comments online. You’re embarrassing yourself – or rather, you would be, if you had the intelligence to realize it.

            • thesauros

              I’ll be alright. But thanks for your concern. I can tell right off that you’re one of those atheists who don’t need God in order to be a nice person.

              • cipher

                Well, you have him, and you’re an idiot – so it’s a tradeoff.

                • thesauros

                  :-)

          • indorri

            caning for misdeads

            You do realise that it was Christian Britain that introduced the practice to Singapore and colonised parts of Asia, no?

      • Major Nav

        According to the works of numerous theologians, there is not a single moral, aphorism, or story in the attributed to jesus in the new testament that didn’t come from the BC writings of Greek philosophers. Not one.
        So how can you say they are a christian morality?

    • Anna

      Scientific studies in droves reveal the detrimental effects of children growing up without proper interaction or society in general living as an island unto themselves.

      First off, what scientific studies are you referring to? And what does any of that have to do with churches? I was raised in a secular home, and I grew up with plenty of “proper interaction” with other people. You can have community without attending a church or trying to copy a church.

      • thesauros

        You can have community without attending a church or trying to copy a church.”

        sure you can. and that’s why this whole discussion on how can we have community without church is taking place?

        • Anna

          No, the conversation is taking place because a lot of atheists are trapped in areas like the Bible Belt, where religion permeates every aspect of social life.

          I live in an area where there is plenty of opportunity for secular socialization. There is no problem finding secular community here, nor is it a problem in most other developed countries around the world. The American Bible Belt is an extreme outlier.

    • meekinheritance

      It’s not hypocritical at all. Some atheists want to enjoy the community and fellowship aspects that the church has spent hundreds of years developing, but with people who try not to confuse mythology with reality.