Atheists don’t gather. Or, do they?

In the Huffington Post piece that launched my Year Without God, I said,

I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.

The pushback was immediate. Atheists don’t gather, I was told. The only thing we have in common is that we do not believe in a god or gods. What could possibly bring a group of atheists together for a gathering? Concerned readers told me that (bless my heart) I was just clinging to my theistic ways.

Every comment and response to Year Without God has helped me understand something—about the various atheisms, about myself, and about the volatile nature of religion and irreligion in America. I do not disregard any comment. Indeed it is true that the majority of atheists do not gather together. Approximately 12% of the US population are atheists or agnostics (roughly speaking, those who by their stated beliefs, do not believe or are unsure if there is a god). That’s about 37 million atheists/agnostics in the US. [1] It’s safe to say that the vast majority of them are not in a regular atheist gathering.

On the other hand it is difficult to say categorically that atheists don’t gather. I’ve been to two atheist gatherings in the past month, and these types of groups are on the rise.

Two and a half weeks ago I attended a meeting of Atheists United, which is, according to their website, “a positive atheist community for Southern California,” complete with a bookstore, printed brochures and T-shirts. I can’t say the gathering I attended was very positive. For 45 minutes the speaker derided the stupidity of the religious right. I agreed with nearly all his major points, but still, I thought, there is a better way to spend my Sunday morning. As I approached the front door of the Center for Inquiry where the Hollywood meeting of Atheists United is held, I was greeted by what could only be described as a church welcoming committee—two ladies with badges trying to sort out the members from the visitors and explain how to make a donation. I was painfully familiar with this scene and navigated quickly around it, slipping into the back of the auditorium where I hoped no one would recognize me. As I waited for the meeting to begin my mind went into consultant mode. I knew I could help them offer a less threatening welcome to their visitors without making them feel like, well…visitors. Pastors are experts at this.

This past Sunday I went to Sunday Assembly Los Angeles. I had been looking forward to this for quite some time and I invited my friend, Ryan, to join me. We arrived ridiculously early. Anyone who has ever been to church knows you should never arrive early. Ten minutes late is perfect. Unless you’re going to Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, in which case there won’t be any seats left. After waiting awkwardly in the parking lot for 20 minutes we got in just as the ushers were about the close the doors. After a brief welcome the music started. A beautiful young woman backed by three handsome men on guitar, drums and electric bass, led us in a excellent rendition of “I Can See Clearly Now,” by Johnny Nash. I immediately felt a knot in my stomach. I was back in church.

I had met a few of the founders of the Los Angeles Assembly about a month prior at Brü Coffee in Los Feliz. It was a wonderful conversation and we became instant friends. On this particular Sunday I barely had a chance to talk to my new friend Ian Dodd. He was working the room like a pastor. I know that feeling well and wanted to stay out of his way. He had work to do.

The service (I don’t know what else to call it) was just like church. Exactly. The music was excellent. The speaker was energetic and funny. I found myself wishing that the organizers would cut some of the other stuff—the icebreaker, for example, which made me want to run for the exits, and the very long announcements—and give the speaker another 30 minutes. But that’s me. Competing complaints like this are common from needy parishioners. Some love the music. Others attend for the sermon/lecture. Some want the interpersonal interaction. Others just want to be left alone.

What was most surprising was the range of my emotions about the whole thing. The more it resembled church (did I mentioned it was exactly like church?) the more I wanted to run away. One of the very best things about not being a pastor anymore and certainly one of the perks of being atheist is not having to go to church. And yet, here were 300 Angelenos—and people from as far away as Orange County and the San Fernando Valley (far, in LA terms). And they were here at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I still can’t get my head around it. As much as I was in awe of it, however, I just wasn’t feeling it. I’ll definitely be back. I will most likely participate in one of the assemblies at some point in the future. But I think I felt, maybe for the first time, what visitors to my church often felt: they were there because they heard something good about it, a friend had invited them, and about 30% of their heart was in it but the other 70% wanted to get the hell out of there.

The other thing that struck me about Sunday Assembly is what it reveals about religion in Western culture. With 15 Sunday Assemblies in the UK, 16 in the US and 6 in Australia, we are still very religious people. Perhaps it is fundamental to being human, even in late modernity. At a time when, according to researchers like Robert Putnam, associational life is at an all time low, we still have deeply embedded religious impulses.

The Sunday Assembly phenomenon calls into question the categories we use to talk about religion in America. The rise of the nones is well documented. It is, of course, important to emphasize again that the nones are not necessarily atheists, or even agnostics, with respect to the existence of God. It is very possible—indeed, likely—that the majority of the nones have a very strong belief in a God who hears them when they pray and interacts with them in the world. Atheists and agnostics, however you define those terms, are understood in the popular media, to be a subset of the nones—those who go a step further and renounce a believe in god. What is interesting about the increase in non-theistic church-like gatherings is that they are a type of religious movement. Those who attend Sunday Assembly are still nones, of course, because they cannot tick any of the other boxes, but they are hardly irreligious. In other words, the rise of the nones does not equal the decline of religion. What we are seeing, I suspect, is not the decline of religious life in America, but its transformation.

I can already hear the comments being banged out on keyboards around the world so let me hasten to say, everything I’ve said heretofore still depends on how you define words like “religion.” A.C. Grayling, for example says that, according to “religious apologists…religion is a response to a transcendent fact, the existence of that other supposed reality containing at least one supernatural being.” The view of religion’s critics, Grayling continues, is that “religions are man-made affairs, their roots in human experience.” This view of religion is about the content. [2] Ronald Dworken in his book, Religion Without God, argues for separating the concept of religion from the concept of a supernatural being. [3] In this way Dworkin also argues for a content-based definition of religion, but focused on value and wonder rather than a deity (though he also talks about religious forms). What I have said above about religion also separates religion from the supernatural or metaphysical, but goes a step further. When I say “religion” above I mean the form of religion, the structure and movements of religion: gathering, singing, encouraging one another, meditating, being inspired by a public speaker or your neighbor in the pew, to be your best self. We use religion in this way when we talk about sports being like a religion to some people or we say that someone’s devotion to fitness, for example, is religious. What we mean is that they have a structured, focused, disciplined way of going about something that adds meaning to their lives.

Which leads me to the final observation for today: I find very little difference in form between Sunday Assembly (from my vast experience of attending one gathering in one city) and many of the popular megachurches. There are even some content similarities. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, foe example, have been roundly criticized by Christians for not being very Christian, at times. The sermons are often drawn from pop psychology and the latest news headlines. Warren is more likely to talk about 5 Ways to Be a Better Husband and Father than doctrine of the Trinity or Signs of the End Times. The politics is different: my sense is that Sunday Assembly leans left, partly in response to the hegemony of the religious right in America. Rick Warren and the megachurch pastors lean decidedly to the right. None of this is to criticize. It is only an observation. I think associational life is enormously important. In fact, Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, pointed to Saddleback Community Church as a positive example of social capital. I for one am thrilled that there is a progressive, inclusive, atheist/agnostic alternative for people who would never want to attend, or be welcomed at, Saddleback Church.

As we continue to learn about new generations and their religious attitudes I am excited to see how groups like Sunday Assembly will contribute. Right now it seems to be filling an enormous need in our culture.

————–

[1] http://www.scribd.com/doc/17136871/American-Religious-Identification-Survey-ARIS-2008-Summary-Report

[2] A.C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (London: Bloombury Publishing, 2013), 15.

[3] Ronald Dworkin, Religion Without God (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). See especially chapter 1, “Religious Atheism?”

About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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