Should atheists build churches for atheism?

There’s an interesting discussion over at the NoGodBlog on the topic of “Nontheistic Churches.” Basically, the poster raises the question of whether or not atheists ought to build “churches” and hold weekly meetings, like the believers do. The goal would be to grant unbelievers the same social and legal benefits (e.g. tax exemptions) as theistic churches enjoy. Is this a compromise of atheistic principles, though?

The discussion in the comments is particularly interesting as different people weigh in with their perspectives.

My first impulse is to say, “No, atheists should not build churches to atheism.” Atheism is a religion the same way not believing in Santa is a religion, and not being Republican is a political party, and not having a job is a career. Trying to force atheism into a religious framework is not going to work; there are going to be conflicts and inconsistencies as people find that they need to define what “atheistic beliefs” are, when atheism is fundamentally a variety of unbelief. If you’ve ever gotten into a discussion over the difference between atheism and agnosticism, you’ll know what I’m talking about here.

On the other hand, I can think of a variety of religions that would be perfectly consistent with atheism, and that would be a great idea. For example, why not worship Alethea? If you want a real God, you can’t beat Alethea. She has all the real power of the gods, She exists at all times and in all places, all wisdom and knowledge reside within Her, She is greater than or equal to any other god AND—unlike so many other gods—She actually shows up in real life. Alethea is the only God you can have evidence-based faith in, and is the God who actually performs all the wondrous works attributed to other gods (or at least the works that actually happened). If you want to build a church that atheists can support, build a temple to Alethea.

The thing is, religion is fundamentally a social mechanism, a way of using natural, social instincts to compensate for the uncertainties and information overload that routinely inundate us. There are too many real-life situations where we can’t hope to think our way through all the myriad and poorly-understood variables; we need to respond based on a feel for things, an approximate, probabilistic pattern-recognition.

Religion taps into our social instincts, which have evolved to cope with the myriad, poorly-understood variables of human social interactions and are thus uniquely adapted to address this particular need. By casting the complexities of life as a metaphorical relationship with a personified “higher power,” we can apply our predictive and adaptive social habits to the problem of coming up with timely and relatively reliable solutions to real-world problems with a large number of factors that are unknown and/or out of our control. And (speaking from experience here) this approach works just as well even if you know it’s just a metaphor.

I’ve prayed to Alethea and had Alethea “answer” my prayers, and it works just as well as praying to Jesus ever did. The personal trust that used to get me through trying times with Jesus’ help still gets me through similar circumstances with Alethea’s help. In fact, Alethea is even better, because I can see Her and I know She’s real, and that I have a solid foundation of real-world experience of Her as the basis for my faith. It’s not something you can analyze or reduce to an algorithm because the whole point of having a God named Alethea is to address the circumstances that cannot be analyzed and reduced to an algorithm. But it works. It’s a myth, not in the sense of being untrue, but in the sense of being a limited approximation of an incomprehensibly greater reality, made more accessible to humans.

This is why a church that tries to build itself around some impersonal concept, like science or freethought or “the cosmos,” will never thrive. It will never be more than an exercise in believer envy, because impersonal religion misses the whole point of having a religion. Without the social approach to analytically intractable problems, the religion has no advantages over non-religious disciplines like math and engineering. What people need and want is a system that takes their natural talent (social instincts) and harnesses it to solve real-world problems, without the difficult and time-consuming calculations and research and experimental testing. To do that, you need a personal deity, even if it’s a frankly mythical one.

I can’t support an atheistic church, but I can support a church that worships reality itself. Religion in and of itself is a healthy and adaptive solution to a genuine psychological problem. (It’s the superstitions and prejudices that taint common religions and inject them with poisonous beliefs and practices.) A practical, open-eyed religion based on reality itself would be a good thing and a positive contribution to society in general and freethought in particular. But it has to have a personal God, or it will never work.

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8 Responses to “Should atheists build churches for atheism?”

  1. Mike Says:

    It is a pointless idea.

    First, it would only serve to reinforce the terrible habit of many atheists to replace God with science, humanity, pleasure, art, or any number of other things. Even, I am happy to say, “truth” is just a replacement for God.

    Rigorous atheism not only rejects God, it rejects the *place* of God. I would even make a stronger statement – that the reject of the place of God is even more important than the rejection of God him/her/itself.

    What do I mean by that? God’s function has historically been to reinforce the idea that the world is a whole, complete place, that on a fundamental level, what is and what can be are fused. Or, in other words, God has been the highest value, the value that all other values are referred back to. He isn’t only the judge of the world, he is the enabler of all sorts of dogmatism.

    Quite often, atheists simply replace God with something else. Science is the most common example; what function does science have if not to tell us that we live in a comforting, complete world of efficient cause and effect?

    No to churches.

    If atheists need organization – and they do – then lets build political organizations and artistic collectives. Let’s gather around the microscope. Let us find joy in romantic love. None of these things require God, or the God function.

  2. VorJack Says:

    There are beneficial aspects of churches that I sometimes miss. I remember my old liberal Episcopalian church as being a real engine for charity. You’d get everyone together, push a lot of the big social buttons, get a little wine into them, and then come the announcements … Such-and-such a charity needs volunteers, can we get you to donate something to the shelter, can everyone bring in can goods next week for hurricane victims, etc. I remember that it worked very well, people at the end of a church service were always more generous.

    I think there really is something to be said for many of the trappings of church. Many people like ritual and ceremony, the sacred space and language. If someone could use these trappings in the service of reason and education, we might have something.

    I kind of like the notion that Robert Price and Paul Kurtz occasionally put forward of trying to start up lyceums again. There are many atheist societies that essentially function like this, with regular speakers and debates. Why not form modern versions, rig up some formal ceremonial aspects, and invite speakers around every week to give lectures and inspirational talks.

  3. cptchaos Says:

    Although I like the metaphor of Alethea I just don’t praying don’t work for me. Did not when I was a catholic, so thats not a surprise. But it does relax me much in using phrases like “oh my god” etc.
    On my part, I know, I worship knowledge in some way. Especially as a secular humanist and scientist. A friend of mine said once, that he thinks, that we already have gigantic temples. Libraries!

  4. David D.G. Says:

    In a way, we already have a secular equivalent of churches, where people can socialize, share activities, and discuss all sorts of things without any divine agency being invoked.

    They are called “schools.”

    ~David D.G.

  5. B8ovin Says:

    I have always felt that the “sacred place” was between my ears, and the sacred text was anything I read. I can’t think of anything beneficial in a church or in a gathering that I can’t get from going to a simple party. Examining my beliefs or lack of them seems to me to be a two step process: 1) reading and 2) mentally digesting that reading. With the advent of the internet I can read sites like this and comment on some of the things I’ve read, but I don’t feel a great need to do so, and I certainly don’t feel a need to force on myself an organized communion with others. I get the distinct impression that apart from atheism and freethinking there is an understanding of the individual that celebrates the fact that we are all different. Why force social disparity for the sake of a highly individualized thought process?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Something else that I think is worth mentioning is that people’s religious needs are different, and if you’re the sort of person who would benefit from a religious approach to life (e.g. Alethea worship) then I think you’ll see the value of it, but if you’re not that sort of person then it will seem like a puzzling waste of time. And that’s fine too: there’s nothing wrong with being an irreligious atheist (though my theology is one of the very few that can admit that!). An ideal world would be one where religious people worshiped Alethea and acknowledged that irreligious atheists still experienced and related to the same Supreme Power (i.e. Reality), just in a different way. That way we can adopt whatever degree of religion suits us without making our religious differences anything more than just a matter of personal taste.

  7. cptchaos Says:

    I should not write when I’m tired. My English becomes totally broken. Anyway, I have to write to get better. Reading alone won’t help much.

    On the topic:
    Deacon Duncan I think you’re right. There is no problem with being religious or irreligious. Especially if both is seen as a perspective on – or approach to – reality. The religious approach is somewhat more inspiring I think, but due to heavy use of metaphors, easily misleading as well.
    The question when to use what approach might however not only be a matter of taste, but also of adequacy with respect to the situation. Metaphors are often much easier to communicate and understand, than an precise description of some subject. So if your addressing to a big Audience metaphors might be the better way to go.

  8. valdemar Says:

    In England we have secular churches everywhere. They are called pubs, and are open to those of all faiths and none. On Sundays they thrive, while ‘real’ churches are half empty. Admittedly getting pubs charitable status could prove tricky…