‘Atheist church’ stirs up the Internet

Church for atheists: To the average citizen, this sounds like an oxymoron or a skit from “Saturday Night Live.”

But for founders Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, the Sunday Assembly is a very real congregation of individuals gathering together for a sense of community, in lieu of worshipping a deity.

I’ll say what we’re all thinking. How can atheists go to church if atheism is, by its very definition, against organized religion?

The Internet was abuzz this week after news broke that the Sunday Assembly would be premiering in cities around the world, setting up “godless congregations” in countries including the U.K., Australia, Canada and the U.S.

While many were confused and even bewildered as to the purpose of such assemblies, the group’s main goal seems to be eliminating the stigma associated with words such as “atheism” and “godlessness.”

In her analysis of the new phenomenon, Salon’s Katie Engelhart expressed her support for the congregations.

“I don’t think religion should have a monopoly on community,” Engelhart said. “I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church … without the stinging imposition of God Almighty.”

As someone who was raised Catholic, I can relate to this feeling.

Ever since my first experience with church, I can remember asking, “Why?” Too often my questions were met with swift shushes and because I wanted so badly to fit in with my peers, I kept quiet.

It was this disconnect that accounts for why I consider myself an atheist today.

But it also seems confusion over this news can be attributed to confusion over the definition of the word. So in today’s cultural climate, what exactly is an atheist?

“Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the U.K. anyway, are not defined by their non-belief,” Evans said regarding the challenges of starting an atheist church.

Indeed, the modern-day interpretation of atheism, while still rejecting the belief in any one deity, seems to focus more on a scientific and analytical approach to life’s mysteries and the world around us.

The idea of “churches” being institutions solely devoted to religious groups is still bothersome for many. Instead of only being a movement that celebrates science and scientific thought, can atheism exist alongside religion as a uniting bond between like-minded individuals?

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the religion department for Publisher’s Weekly, says perhaps.

“Atheism cannot replace religion, though in a secular context it can often prove to be a gratifying alternative for those seeking the benison of moral choice and the comfort of a common cause,” Tickle said.

However, after reading comments by the founders themselves, perhaps all the commotion is for naught. Instead of trying to emulate religion, it seems that these atheist churches are trying to promote something for which all humans strive, regardless of religious affiliation: community.

“Sunday Assembly is not about ‘not believing in God’ — our focus is simply to create communities that support each other, go out and help the world around them and feel driven with purpose,” Evans said. “Life is what we celebrate, not a lack of God.”

 

Reach the columnist at llonghi@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @lolonghi

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