Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
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Not all of these efforts are brand-new. For instance, there's Ethical Culture, a humanist movement founded in the 1870s by the reformer Felix Adler, focusing on "deeds, not creeds." Ethical Culture Societies still exist today, most concentrated in the New York metropolitan area (including its flagship location in Manhattan), but it can be found in other large cities across the U.S. like Austin, Baltimore, Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
There's also Unitarian Universalism, a nontheistic religion that arose in 1961 from the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism, two liberal Christian denominations. But it's evolved beyond its Christian origins to become a truly creedless church. It has no official dogma or statement of faith, just seven foundational principles which relate to moral living, not belief. Surveys suggest that a plurality of UUs are atheists (although it must be said that the Unitarian Universalist Association also has at least a few highly placed anti-atheist bigots).
So what happens at these atheist churches? Like atheists themselves, these congregations are freewheeling, diverse and democratic, answering to no higher authority, so it's dangerous to generalize too narrowly. But there are some broad similarities.
Nearly all of them contain some element of moral exhortation and celebration, teaching and preaching about the ethical values that humanists practice. The Sunday Assembly hosts humanist sermons on topics like the value of gratitude, or the importance of wonder. There's also usually music—for the Sunday Assembly, it's classic rock songs with a positive, humanist theme, like "Lean on Me" or "With a Little Help From My Friends," that the audience is invited to sing and clap along to. A.J. Johnson, one of the main organizers and sponsors of the NYC Sunday Assembly, calls it "a radically inclusive, family-friendly celebration of life. We sing positive, popular songs, like 'Help!' by the Beatles. We listen to short, interesting talks. We meet new people." Most of them also organize community service and outreach projects.
The bigger question that needs to be answered—and the question that inevitably gets asked whenever these groups are discussed—is, why do atheists need these gatherings? Are they just a needless, misguided counterfeit of religion? Is it the case that " churches and ritualized worship... are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives"? Should nonbelievers be organized solely for " the purpose of repelling religious infringements on secular society" and nothing else?
The best answer to this is that the needs these congregations aim to fulfill aren't religious, but human. I grant that the term "atheist church" sounds clunky and self-contradictory, because these areas of human interaction have historically been claimed by religion and our language doesn't have good non-religious words for them.
But whether atheist or theist, all human beings benefit from belonging to a welcoming, supportive community. Through congregations like this, we can help each other in times of need or crisis: when someone dies, we can gather to comfort the mourners and share memories of their life. We can come together to celebrate important life passages: for non-religious people who want to get married, for example, we can offer a humanist celebrant to solemnize the wedding. We can also assemble to do good in the wider community, with charitable drives and volunteering (particularly important since religious organizations have a nasty habit of turning away atheists who want to help). Research has repeatedly affirmed the benefits of social connection, showing that belonging to a community contributes to leading longer, healthier, happier lives.
All this goes double for nonbelievers living in heavily religious communities. In places where there are few opportunities for friendship and social gathering outside a church, life as an atheist can be lonely and isolating. Nonreligious congregations restore this balance by offering a place where we can speak our minds freely, where we can find friends who think as we do, and where we can have invigorating conversations that don't have to begin by knocking down the same infuriating stereotypes every time. For all the benefits of online discussion, a merely virtual community can never fully substitute for that kind of joyous human contact and connection.