When the Atheist Builds a “Church”
by Douglas Groothuis
Now the new atheists want to be spiritual. Godless churches are popping up and getting attention, especially from The New York Times. These atheists are seeking fellowship and a sense of transcendence. While the first wave of the movement was anti-God and anti-religion, the second wave wants to reclaim religion, but in a godless shell. Awake is a new book by atheist Sam Harris, whose first book, The End of Faith (2004) excoriated all religions. Spirituality, for Harris, should draw on non-theistic traditions, particularly Buddhism, a religion bereft of a personal deity. Philosopher Alain de Bottom claims that religion needs nothing of God in Religion for Atheists. Community, ritual, and good works can stand on their own—and be given a sacred cast—without any aid from traditional religion.
Anthropologist of religion, T. M. Luhrman notes in The New York Times that “Atheist services have sprung up around the country, even in the Bible Belt, many of which are associated with Sunday Assembly.” This church, non-church was founded—perhaps appropriately enough—by two British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Sunday Assembly gathers number around 200. They draw “thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of hands,” according to Luhrman. Another New York Times story speaks of an atheist leader admitting that their services are still looking for “a sense of transcendence.” Ex-clergy man Jerry DeWitt presides over Community Mission Chapel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their statement of purpose says in part:
Our mission is to gather community while promoting a foundation of hope, trust, and love thus bridging tolerance through common secular values. We will bring the excitement into the hearts of freethinkers without exposing them to any supernatural aspects. We can provide all of the music, merriment, and ministry to our passionate growing secular crowd and still have it devoid of supernatural praise.
I could go on. Religion Without God, by the distinguished philosopher Ronald Dworkin (d. 2013) was his last philosophical statement. Barbara Erehfeld, the best-selling social critic, recently released a memoir of a spiritual experience she had long ago as a child. Taming a Wild God goes to great length to chase God out of this experience, lest her atheism be violated.
Atheist spirituality is a movement worth watching. This surprising and significant development merits some hard thinking…
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