Sunday Assembly (more casually known as “The Atheist Church”) has announced a campaign to spread itself into a global movement. The “Atheist Denomination”, as it were.
The criticism has been that these people are “turning atheism into its own sort of religion”.
Personally, I think the criticism is unfair. The group is simply not religious in anything like a traditional sense of the term. But, I find that there are a number of interesting things about the fact that many (even many atheists) are making this complaint.
How so? Let me run though some thoughts:
1. This Assumes Atheism is a “Thing”
Atheists have recently insisted that atheism is simply a “lack of belief”. I find it odd, then, that they think that atheists gathering to share there (non-religious) beliefs turns atheism into anything. It could be a slip of the pen (or keyboard), but the same thing happened with the Atheism Plus group. This leads me to think it is more than that.
That, and the emotional force behind some of the complaining (particularly with regard to Atheism Plus).
I suspect that part of what is going on here is that there are at least two senses in which the modern, passionate atheist uses the term “atheist”. The first is used in debates: it’s simply “a lack of belief in any gods”–so no need to prove it or offer evidence in its favor. The second is this: “the socio-political beliefs of those who adamantly oppose religion”. It is this latter sense that seems to give many atheists a sense of community. And it is this sense that “Atheist Church” is most obviously threatening to “turn atheism into a religion”.
2. This Makes the Claims of Atheists More Obviously Claims
But it is also atheism, in the first sense, that may well change if this group spreads far enough. The atheist can, of course, argue that this isn’t really an “Atheist Church” but a “Secular Church”. They are teaching things that are compatible with atheism–other beliefs that their members hold, but nothing that one needs to believe in order to be an atheist.
This is all true, but misses a key point.
The very existence of this church only makes it more obvious that atheists themselves have beliefs. All people do, of course. But the New Atheist movement has adamantly declined any invitation to defend their beliefs, insisting that the entire conversation should consist of discussing theism.
And now a group of them are meeting to proclaim the common beliefs of the New Atheist crowd.
The Sunday Assembly, then, makes it harder to deny that atheists to approach life with a set of beliefs about meaning and ethics as much as anyone else. For a group of them to be publicly admitting this will almost certainly mean that theists will start asking them to defend those beliefs in debate. Even indifferent parties will be aware that they have beliefs–rather than simply “lacking belief”.
And that, of course, will be very uncomfortable for anyone used to taking the New Atheist line of attack in debate.
3. There are Already Humanist Groups in Meeting
But no one has made this complaint of them. Of course, the label “atheism” seems to be a big deal to Dawkins and his fans (who, ironically, argue that labels create tribalism). The more significant point is that these Humanist groups aren’t so intimately connected to the popular New Atheist crowd.
My main thought here is a bit of a tangent, though: Why aren’t these people attending the Humanist meetings?
In the article, the leadership says that they are “fun”, rather than “dour”. But, I suspect that there’s something else. They are a particular subculture that has a particular way of doing things, and want to do things their way.
That’s all well and good, but part of “their way” has always been a bit anti-intellectual.
To be concerned about fun, rather than truth, rather gives the game away. Sartre, Nagel, Mackie, Nietzsche, Camus… These men cared about whether or not atheism was true. Dawkins, Krauss, Coyne, Meyers… These men seem to care much more about what feels true, and rousing the crowd.
I think it’s fitting, then, that it is the fans of the latter circle that have ended up creating something like an evangelical church. After all, this is a crowd that never expresses a shadow of doubt about their views, that likes catchy phrases that communicate their beliefs, and holds rallies and meetings (which are not unlike revivals). They even quote the late Christopher Hitchens like scripture. And let’s not forget how similar “The Quotable Atheist” is to an Evangelism Explosion booklet.
Is it really so strange that some of them want to start a church?
In any sense that “they’re turning atheism into a religion” could be seen as valid, then, the reality is that atheism has already been turned into a sort of religion by Dawkins and Co. This group is simply helping the process along.
I suspect that, if we give it long enough, someone from this group will start building shrines to their dead leaders.