Tag Archives: Sunday Assembly

Church Divisions and Judgmental Exclusion: Not Just for the Religious Anymore

140103132147-sunday-assembly-founders-story-topI’d expect that any likely to be reading this post have heard of the “Atheist Church”, officially known as Sunday Assembly. The organization is very young, and many are excited to see it expand. And it is doing so quickly, with branches is several cities in Britain and the US.

But, as always seems to happen with such expansions, the group is experiencing a division.

The most obvious response, it seems to me, is how well this illustrates the fact that atheism isn’t ridding us of strife and tribalism as Hitchens’ fans proudly declared it would.

It seems that the old problems of being human are still there–and it’s a little hard not to feel that all the campaigning to rid the world of the “divisiveness” of religious belief was, at its very best, a colossal waste of time.

As to Sunday Assembly, the split essentially seems to be over whether or not to make atheism a major focus–or to make the church about self-improvement–with little to no reference to rejecting God.

Though I’m religious myself, I can see the value of the latter to many. But the only positive value I can see to the demand that the group dwell on its atheism is to those still laboring under the false belief (dare I say “dogma”?) that atheism is the answer to humanity’s social ills.

Of course, I can’t entirely resist the suspicion that this has something to do with the value of feeling smarter, cleverer, and more in touch with reality than the hated religious believers. If so, then atheism definitely isn’t the answer to divisive tribalism that Dawkins has proclaimed it to be.

Whether that’s true or not, there can’t be much genuine, productive good to come out of a focus on on what one is not–the ideas one excludes and judges to be inferior. That sounds much more like a recipe for bitterness than anything that would help a community.

Many people, theists and atheists alike, have rightly criticized the church when it becomes too fixated on exclusion and opposition. Now that atheists are forming their own church of a sort, they seem to be discovering that resisting that tendency is quite a bit harder than it seemed from the outside.

But nothing good comes from a purely negative approach. The important thing is what one is for–not what one is against.

Of course, being for something, and defending it from the countless attacks that will inevitably come, is much harder than many atheists seem to think. There are certainly those who, after mocking others for not doing a better job, will be understandably gun-shy about defending their own beliefs. They aren’t likely to do a better job than those they have mocked.

And, really, I doubt this kind of “what we’re against” atheism will be able to survive long–as more people come to realize that claiming to be atheist isn’t any more a sign of intelligence than claiming anything else.

The Religion of Atheism

atheistSunday 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.