In Defense of Atheist “Churches”

Godless congregations. Atheist “churches”. Humanist communities. Few topics seem so divisive among atheists. For instance, Siana Bangura of The Heresy Club describes experiments like the London Assembly as “the first step in the wrong direction”, “tasteless at best and ridiculous, if not dangerous at worst”. “This”, she confers, “sounds like a cult”.

I encounter similar sentiments frequently. As part of my work at the Humanist Community at Harvard, and as an Ethical Culture Leader in Training, I travel to a lot of Humanist and Atheist conventions, conferences, and groups to talk about the value of Humanist communities, and there is a definite charge around the idea which often results in spirited disagreement between myself and some members of the audience – and between audience members themselves.

So here I want to briefly lay out my case against the most common criticisms of the idea of atheist “churches” (I use Bangura’s critique as a starting point, but similar concerns are voiced by many). It is my conviction that such spaces are not only not a “fad”, as Bangura terms them, but mark the natural evolution of the congregational model. They are not for everybody, and of course no one should be forced to attend one if they don’t want to go – but neither should those who seek out a community of people who share their beliefs and values have to hear, again and again, the same tired, irrational arguments against the practice.

Godless Congregations are Cults

No, they’re not – at least not in the way the detractors of godless congregations seem to think they are. Such congregations share none of the negative characteristics of those groups commonly considered to be cults: they don’t use large amounts of social or psychological pressure to coerce people into joining or remaining members; they don’t ask their members for huge amounts of money for products or services of dubious value; they are not highly secretive; they do not have rigid hierarchies; they do not have dogmatic creeds filled with strange beliefs and practices. There is simply no meaningful comparison between something like the Sunday Assembly in London and something like Scientology.

Godless Congregations are a Slippery Slope to Dogmatism / Authoritarianism / Godism

No, they’re not – not necessarily. Of course, every form of social organization has a power structure, and wherever there is power there is the potential abuse of power. It is possible that a Godless Congregation could devolve into something dogmatic and hierarchical – but that possibility exists whenever people come together to achieve anything at all. A blog network, for instance, also has the potential for authoritarianism and dogmatism. Just because you get a bunch of people together in a room to do cool things doesn’t mean that, in a matter of weeks, months, or even years, said organization will be wearing robes and funny hats and chanting the name of Richard Dawkins. The solution to the potential for authoritarianism within any institution is not to avoid building institutions but to build them well, in ways which seek to prevent individuals from exerting too much power over others.

Godless Congregations are “Aping Religion”

This criticism is more understandable, because there are similarities between godless and god-filled congregations. However, I still think this criticism misapplied, for two reasons. First, because in principle there is nothing wrong with a secular organization taking ideas and practices from religious organizations which 1) are ethical and 2) work. And second, because many of the activities these critics frequently object to are human activities which are not in any sense “owned” by religion. Bangura criticizes the London Assembly for the terrible crimes of (wait for it…): singing, reading literature and scientific articles, discussing with each other and, I kid you not, thinking. And these activities are what makes her think it’s a “cult”! This is not reasoned criticism, people! If we can’t come together to sing, read, wonder, talk, and think without being “cultists” then, frankly, we’re all screwed (and we’re pretty much all cultists too).

Conclusion

I completely understand why some people are going to be wary of godless congregations, atheist “churches” and Humanist communities. Some people have had such negative experiences with organized religion that they will, understandably  want to avoid anything which looks remotely similar. Others will simply be temperamentally indisposed to membership of such a community. This is fine – people should be allowed to spend their time as they wish, and I would never argue that people have to be a member of such a community. I can see, too, that there are some dangers with organizing atheists in this way. We should be conscious of these dangers and design communities which exercise power responsibly and are responsive to their membership.

But the sort of criticism often leveled at the civic innovators who are beginning to build new forms of community for atheists is too often ill-informed and irrational. Being a freethinker needn’t mean being a rugged individualist who shuns community, and there is nothing inherently problematic in the idea of values-based communities without God. Criticize individual actions and practices of specific godless congregations – please do because it will make them better! But don’t dismiss the entire enterprise out of hand. No one has ever given me a solid set of reasons as to why pursuing fellowship, meaningful connection with others, and the power to change the world within a community is a bad idea, and until they do, I’m gonna keep on “churching”.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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