CNN Covers Godless Congregation in Massachusetts

They’re popping up everywhere. Dan Merica at CNN covers Greg Epstein‘s congregation, part of the Humanist Community at Harvard University (HCH):

A longtime advocate for community building, Epstein and his group of atheists have begun to build their Cambridge community and solemnize its Sunday meetings to resemble a traditional religious service.

To Epstein, religion is not all bad, and there is no reason to reject its helpful aspects.

“My point to my fellow atheists is, why do we need to paint things with such a broad brush? We can learn from the positive while learning how to get rid of the negative,” he said.

For Epstein, who started community-building at Harvard nearly 10 years ago, the idea of a godless congregation is not an oxymoron.

“We decided recently that we want to use the word congregation more and more often because that is a word that strongly evokes a certain kind of community — a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world,” he said.

“It doesn’t require and it doesn’t even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”

Every time I’ve written about these congregations, there’s always pushback. But I can’t express my support enough for those people who find this sort of service helpful. I don’t know that I would go if one was near me, but I like the idea that these services are available for people who find value in them. Hell, this week, I’ll be meeting with folks in Chicago to see if we can plan something similar. The demand is there and I suspect it’ll only increase if we create something worth attending.

Unlike churches, the focus has to be on the people and their needs. It’s not serving some higher power and (while atheists may be just as susceptible to it as Christians are) it’s not about elevating the status of the “pastor.” It’s about providing a place for atheists to get inspired and encouraged, for their kids to get a education beyond what they get in school, and for all of them to come together to do good for their communities.

Incidentally, the HCH is currently fundraising to rebuild and restore a building that can serve as a Humanist Community Center for local atheists. If you can, consider supporting their work.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Can we please stop using the phrase atheist church? The Blaze published this story yesterday.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/06/24/can-i-get-an-amen-atheist-churches-bring-hymns-and-sermons-together-in-curious-celebration-of-non-belief/

    Click the link and read the comments and you will understand why I hate the phrase atheist church.

    • Miss_Beara

      I don’t hate myself enough to read the comments. :)

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

        Well it seems I like to hate myself because I do comment on some of the stories there. Yes, I catch a lot of flack for what I post. I was even told by someone that I’m disposal because I once held a high level DEA clearance. He truly thought the government might kill me because of it.

        • Miss_Beara

          You have more patience and a stronger stomach than I do.

          I tip my hat.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_K1Vju0r6Q

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

            Thanks for that, made me smile.

        • Tainda

          Apparently I hate myself too. Why did I read that?! I’m going to go back to my bubble now

    • allein

      Why did I do that?

      I think this is my favorite so far:

      There are many political org who have worn the same wolves in sheeps clothing for a very long time. But this org is mocking people of faith. Bet they wouldn’t dare do the same to Islam.

      Oops, I think my eyes rolled right out of my head…brb!

  • Anna

    To Epstein, religion is not all bad, and there is no reason to reject its helpful aspects. “My point to my fellow atheists is, why do we need to paint things with such a broad brush? We can learn from the positive while learning how to get rid of the negative,” he said.

    Uh, maybe because not all of us see those things as helpful or positive. I don’t think there is anything good about “church culture,” and I would prefer to see atheists fight against it instead of trying to mimic it.

    • Miss_Beara

      Exactly. Have you read his book Good Without God? I really disliked it. It had the tone of “religion is not that bad. Lets all hold hands and sing kumbaya.” I could barely finish it. The bad far outweighs the good. People that think that they can put their god on the bodies of women and on the LGBT, so yeah, the so called “helpful aspects” do not negate the bad.

      • allein

        I started that back around when it first came out I think; I think my bookmark is still in it…

      • Anna

        I read it and was similarly unimpressed. The whole Kumbaya aspect struck me as problematic, too. It’s not even so much the political stuff that bothers me. There are Christians and Jews who are pro-gay rights and pro-women’s rights, after all. But those people still think faith is a virtue. They think that believing in the supernatural is a good thing, that religious communities are beneficial to society, and that believers should be given special respect as “people of faith.” I have no desire to help prop up any of those ideas.

  • Rain

    This is actually one of the few places where atheists can say Mass., because it’s short for Massachusetts, where the congregation is.

  • WallofSleep

    “For Epstein, who started community-building at Harvard nearly 10 years
    ago, the idea of a godless congregation is not an oxymoron.”

    Um, I believe the proper term is “coven”. Just sayin’.

    Heh, I kid.

  • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

    At the risk of being in the tone police I am one atheist who dislikes anything church-like. I do enjoy my Humanist community but if it were changed to a congregation or church I would not be a member.

    Cherry picking the “good” parts of religion is like pointing out the good things a dictator does. YMMV

    • Lmaris

      We can begin the countdown to when these “congregations” begin condemning those who don’t join, or support their activities. Group-think under any guise is dangerous. Doing it under the atheist banner is just sick.

      • scott

        Slippery slope fallacy Lmaris? You aren’t criticizing what they are actually doing, but how you assume it will change in the future?

  • tdd68

    I don’t think that it’s necessary to call a group a “congregation” in order to acquire the sense of community that seems to be his goal. In fact, the community seems to have formed before he decided that he wanted/needed to call it a “congregation”. I sometimes miss the ideal of a community that seems to be inherent in religion, but I don’t miss the actual coercion that exists in religious communities.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    I agree with you, Hemant. I don’t think I’d find these sorts of congregations helpful to me at all, and I have no interest in going, but I’m glad they are starting to pop up for the people who do want them.

    I prefer to have my Friday nights free for, um, serious thought and contemplation. Yeah.

    EDIT: My Sunday mornings are for sleeping. Fuck me, I heard Sabbath services and since I was raised Jewish, that short-circuited straight to Friday night services even though the article even said Sunday mornings. Such is the power of habit.

  • EmpiricalPierce

    While I’d never been much of a church-goer even when I was an unquestioning Christian, I can see some merit to the idea of “atheist churches”, at least. I believe there’s a significant demographic of people that appreciate the church’s role in community building, and if an atheist “church” can provide a substitute that offers the community aspect without the superstitious baggage, there’s a realistic possibility it will help diminish the role of religion in the world.

    It’s not something I’m likely to personally spend energy on, but I think it will do more good than harm.

  • kelemi

    Atheists need to get together more often, if for no other reason than to fight anti-atheist laws and impositions of other religions’ views on them.

  • Tobias2772

    I am for for these kinds of community-building efforts. I think it is something that many nones would welcome and i think it helps us to counterbalance the mythologists and their hold over our society, but what is wrong with the word community. I agree with some of the people here – any connotation that connects us to religions is counterproductive. We’re a pretty smart group. Can’t we come up with our own words to describe this sense of community and comraderie that some of us are seeking ?

  • The Other Weirdo

    Shouldn’t we try to coax the religious out of their churchy bubbles rather than rushing headlong into bubbles of our own? These things are nothing but other-generators.

  • Guest

    “Atheist church”
    SMH

  • edb3803

    I think these are an excellent way to bring the atheist community together. I don’t really care what you label it — the important thing is that it is a place to meet and talk with other people that have similar beliefs and values. All people are better off when they feel that they are part of a community.

    • MV

      It would be great to have a place to meet and talk. But this isn’t it.

      You know what I hated about the Church other than their confusing guilt ridden beliefs when I was a kid? The hour long services that required me to sit with a bunch of people I didn’t know or care for and listen to things I had no particular interest in (sermon) and do things I didn’t want to do (the service). This copies that exactly.

      They have managed to copy many of the negative aspects of religion for me. Then they try to tell me it’s awesome. It’s annoying. Look, if you need to be compelled to sit through an hour long service before talking to like minded people, go for it. Otherwise, there are plenty of places to find a community, especially if the area can support something like what Epstein is proposing.

      But one thing I’ve learned over the past few years lurking in the atheist online community is that I don’t want to have anything to do with many atheists. Much less a community of them.

      • edb3803

        If you don’t like the idea, don’t go. From the turnouts, though, it looks like many people do enjoy it.

  • allein

    We decided recently that we want to use the word congregation …It doesn’t require and it doesn’t even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.

    Maybe not specific beliefs, but Merriam-Webster defines the word “congregation” as:
    a : an assembly of persons : gathering; especially : an assembly of persons met for worship and religious instruction.
    b : a religious community:

    I have never really heard the word used outside of a religious context (“congregate,” perhaps, but not “congregation”)

    That aside, I say, whatever floats your boat, but a humanist/atheist service just doesn’t appeal to me. None of my relationships in real life have anything to do with being religious or not, and I have never missed the “community” aspect of actually going to church.


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