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We Need Churches For Atheists

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I never really believed in God.

I went to church, to Sunday school, but I just never bought it.

I was the kid who asked questions like "who made God?" And "why did people stop living for hundreds of years?"

The looks of frustration, anger and, most of all, repressed doubt on the faces of my priests and teachers struck me as proof of my rightness. I started to believe that even the most ardent acolytes, deep down, didn't fully believe either.

But I could see why they wanted to.

Eternal life, the answers (albeit unconvincing) to life's mysteries and the self assurance that comes with knowing right from wrong are tempting fruit.

But science offers the same benefits minus the self deceit. Our atoms live forever, the universe is 13.77 billion years old and being nice is a matter of evolutionary advantage. Apples of knowledge, now with less calories. No guilt required.

Many have already adopted the inductive diet. One in four Canadians now report that they have no religious affiliation. But science hasn't been able to replicate everything religion has to offer.

My grandparents lived their lives at church. It's where my father's parents met and courted, where my mother's celebrated their friends and families. Church provided them with a sense of community that has been almost entirely lacking from my life.

I want all that, but without the sins. And I'm not alone. A growing movement of those estranged from religion embrace its rituals to help keep sane. You can find them gathered in atheist churches.

These services make sense because it seems doing religion, rather than being religious, is what really makes for a happier life. A recent study from the University of Saskatchewan found simply attending church, not holding religious beliefs, to be linked with a lower risk of depression.

Maclean's columnist Colby Cosh mused that the results beg for a new study in which "a bunch of atheists turn up in person someplace every seven days, to perform various non-believing rituals and maybe have some coffee."

The experiment is already underway.

In London, U.K., atheists now gather for "The Sunday Assembly," where a
congregation of cool kids listen to lectures on the wonders of the universe, hang out and sing and dance to Cat Stevens songs (ironically, now technically Yusuf Islam songs).

The services even end with tea.

But churches for non-believers aren't even a new idea. As Katie Engelhart notes in Salon, there were a number of attempts in Enlightenment France to raise temples to reason. Even then, champions of logic understood that the death of organized religion would leave behind a gaping hole.

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Human beings and our great ape cousins are inherently social animals. Remove us from the group and our physical and mental health deteriorates.

But while most of humanity now lives in tightly-packed cities, we find ourselves more isolated than ever. Loneliness has doubled, with 40 per cent of adults in two recent American surveys reporting the emotion compared to 20 per cent in the 1980s.

We live alone in small apartments, nary a smile to the neighbour in the elevator. Alone in McMansions, the nearest friend miles away.

At work we communicate by instant message and email, often cubicled-off from real conversation with our colleagues.

Our friends from school or elsewhere end up scattered -- across the city, the country, the globe -- available for a drink here, a dinner there, but not as part of a true community.

Social media is a poor substitute. We think Facebook keeps us connected, but a recent study found the more time people spent on their Newsfeeds the worse they felt. On the other hand, those who talked with friends on the phone or met them in person experienced an uptick in happiness.

The loneliness of our modern lives may literally be killing us. A 2010 study found social isolation to be as great an influence on mortality as smoking and alcohol and more important than physical activity or obesity.

The community void has led us to hipster choirs, book clubs, yoga groups, charities and, finally to atheist churches.

The movement is active In Canada. In Calgary, Korey Peters started an atheist church after a stint in the U.K. because he missed the sense of community that came with being part of a congregation.

Some atheists even practice something akin to prayer. A June Washington Post story described how atheist Sigfriend Gold credits praying to a goddess he invented, and knows isn't real, with helping him lose weight, overcome depression and rekindle his love for family.

As stridently anti-religious as I've often been, I have to admit I've caught myself praying in the shower before. Simple pleas to no god in particular for strength or luck or rest that always made me feel a little bit like a fraud. Now that I know ritual trumps belief, maybe I can take my prayer to church without feeling like a heretic to science.

Soon I may be able to visit a particularly pretty one.

High-profile atheist Alain de Bottom is intent on building a temple for atheists in the heart of London as an antidote to what he calls the aggressive "new atheism" of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

De Bottom thinks atheists deserve to have architecture that inspires awe and wonder too. Dawkins thinks it's a waste of money.

I think the sides in this schism between these non-believers miss the most important potential benefit of atheist churches: Awe and wonder are nice, and the universe provides plenty, but the hunger for human connection is greater than the desire to commune with the divine.

As a child, I was struck by the majesty of my grandparents' church -- light streaming through stained-glass saints, the meticulously crafted Stations of the Cross, Christ ascending to heaven on the wings of angels.

Today, I'm struck by what it must have took for the community to pay for all that magnificent art. How they must have come together for fundraisers and dances, picnics and parties.

We need more of that sort of community in our lonely modern lives. Just without the Christ.

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