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Michael Bolen

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We Need Churches For Atheists

Posted: 08/27/2013 7:52 am

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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  • Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt

    "<a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/brad-pitt-20-percent-atheist-80-percent-agnostic-article-1.394661" target="_blank">I'm probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic</a>," Pitt said in 2009. "I don't think anyone really knows. You'll either find out or not when you get there, until then there's no point thinking about it." His prettier half, Jolie, said in 2000: "<a href="http://www.avclub.com/articles/is-there-a-god,1394/" target="_blank">There doesn't need to be a God for me.</a> There's something in people that's spiritual, that's godlike. I don't feel like doing things just because people say things, but I also don't really know if it's better to just not believe in anything, either."

  • Daniel Radcliffe

    "<a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harry-potter/5734000/Daniel-Radcliffe-a-cool-nerd.html" target="_blank">I'm an atheist, but I'm very relaxed about it</a>," the "Harry Potter" star said in 2009. "I don't preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do. Anything he does on television, I will watch."

  • Julianne Moore

    In a 2002 interview on "Inside the Actor's Studio," Moore was asked as part of the series' questionnaire, "If heaven exists, what would you like God to say at the pearly gates?" She replied: "Well, I guess you were wrong. I do exist!" (<a href="http://youtu.be/_w1WyHsFbpM" target="_blank">36:45</a>)

  • Javier Bardem

    In an interview in 2012, Bardem was quick to say "<a href="http://www.gq.com/entertainment/celebrities/201210/javier-bardem-gq-october-2012-interview" target="_blank">I've always said I don't believe in God, I believe in Al Pacino.</a>"

  • Jodie Foster

    In a 2007 interview, Foster replied to the question of whether she's religious or not by saying "<a href="http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20054140,00.html" target="_blank">I'm an atheist</a>. But I absolutely love religions and the rituals. Even though I don't believe in God. We celebrate pretty much every religion in our family with the kids. They love it, and when they say, 'Are we Jewish?' or 'Are we Catholic?' I say, 'Well, I'm not, but you can choose when you're 18. But isn't this fun that we do seders and the Advent calendar?'"

  • Morgan Freeman

    In 2012, when asked "<a href="http://www.thewrap.com/tv/article/morgan-freeman-inventing-god-aliens-eating-us-and-his-odds-surviving-dark-knight-rises-42886?page=0,1" target="_blank">Did we invent God?</a>" Freeman replied "Yes." He then elaborated: "Has anybody ever seen hard evidence? What we get is theories from our earlier prophets. Now, people who think that God invented us think that the Earth can't be more than 6,000 years old. So I guess it's a question of belief. My belief system doesn't support a creator as such, as we can call God, who created us in His/Her/Its image."

  • Keira Knightley

    "<a href="http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/bizarre/4285973/Atheist-actress-Keira-Knightley-wishes-she-believed-in-God.html" target="_blank">If only I wasn't an atheist, I could get away with anything</a>," Knightley said in 2012. "You'd just ask for forgiveness and then you'd be forgiven."

  • Emma Thompson

    "<a href="http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/acting-on-outspoken-beliefs/story-e6frg8n6-1111117752031" target="_blank">I'm an atheist</a>," Thompson said in 2008. "I suppose you can call me a sort of libertarian anarchist. I regard religion with fear and suspicion. It's not enough to say that I don't believe in God. I actually regard the system as distressing: I am offended by some of the things said in the Bible and the Koran, and I refute them."

  • Billy Joel

    In 2010, <a href="http://www.howardstern.com/howard-on-air/howard-100-101/2010-11-16" target="_blank">Joel was a guest on Howard Stern's radio show</a> and when asked if he believes in God, he replied: "No. I'm an atheist."

  • James Cameron

    In the 2010 book "<a href="http://www.randomhouse.com/book/90876/the-futurist-by-rebecca-keegan" target="_blank">The Futurist</a>," Cameron calls himself a "<a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=aoiieuxmNdUC&pg=PA8&lpg=PA8&dq=james+cameron+agnostic&source=bl&ots=kGEVvtXavy&sig=tB1ktQ6UlibIfTeExnEyWyDX_gc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tx7wUcrNDbK44AO95YCYBg&ved=0CFAQ6AEwBTgU#v=onepage&q=james%20cameron%20agnostic&f=false" target="_blank">converted agnostic</a>" and says "I've sworn off agnosticism, which I now call cowardly atheism. I've come to the position that in the complete absence of any supporting data whatsoever for the persistence of the individual in some spiritual form, it is necessary to operate under the provisional conclusion that there is no afterlife and then be ready to amend that if I find out otherwise."

  • Janeane Garofalo

    In 2010, Garofalo <a href="http://nation.foxnews.com/entertainment/2010/06/25/garofalo-bible-work-fiction-child-audience" target="_blank">compared the Bible to a Bill O'Reilly autobiography and a children’s book</a> authored by former President Bush, saying: "That's just three works of fiction targeted to a child-like audience."

  • Kathy Griffin

    During her Emmy Award acceptance speech in 2007, Griffin said: "A lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that <a href="http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0709/17/lkl.01.html" target="_blank">no one had less to do with this award than Jesus.</a> He didn't help me a bit. If it was up to him, Cesar Millan would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is suck it Jesus, this reward is my God now."

  • Hugh Hefner

    In 2012, Hefner penned an editorial that said "<a href="http://www.playboy.com/playground/view/sexual-freedom" target="_blank">when religion rather than reason dictates legislation, do not expect logic with your law</a>," and: "This is a religious nation, but it is also a secular one. For decades the American people have found a way to balance religious beliefs with secular freedoms. We have enjoyed freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. These need not be incompatible. No one should have to subjugate their religious freedom, and no one should have their personal freedoms infringed. This is America and we must protect the rights of all Americans." Earlier this year, the prestigious <a href="http://freethinker.co.uk/2013/05/23/despicable-little-monster-jessica-ahlquist-wins-prestigious-hugh-hefner-award/" target="_blank">Hugh Hefner award for those who protect the First Amendment went to a 16-year-old atheist</a> who fought to have a prayer banner at her high school removed.

  • Next: Atheist Billboards

  • In this Sept. 9, 2010 photo, a billboard erected by atheists in Oklahoma City reads " Don't believe in God? Join the club". Nick Singer, the coordinator of a local atheists' group called "Coalition of Reason," recently received $5,250 from its national counterpart to erect the billboard along Interstate 44 near the Oklahoma State Fair. Oklahoma ranks eighth in the nation for percentage of residents who self-identify as Christians (85 percent), according to an analysis of the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. (Sue Ogrocki, AP)

  • Atheist billboard on Capital Blvd. in Raleigh, North Carolina, can be seen March 29, 2011. (Chris Seward, Raleigh News & Observer / MCT)

  • A billboard sponsored by an atheist group is displayed near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in North Bergen, N.J., Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010. Now, the Catholic League has countered by putting up its own billboard near one of the tunnel's New York City entrances. (Seth Wenig, AP)

  • An atheistic billboard in Chicago. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericingrum/4038228725/" target="_hplink">Eric Ingrum</a>, Flickr)

  • A billboard sponsored by a Catholic group is displayed near an exit of the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010. Similarly, a billboard sponsored by an atheist group is displayed near the tunnel's New Jersey entrance. (Seth Wenig, AP)

  • <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/atheist-slavery-billboard-pennsylvania-raises-tempers_n_1342268.html">From RNS' Diana Fishlock</a>: A billboard erected in one of the Harrisburg, Pa.'s most racially diverse neighborhoods featured an African slave with the biblical quote, "Slaves, obey your masters." It lasted less than a day before someone tore it down.

  • An atheist group <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/07/american-atheists-myth-billboard-brooklyn-jewish-rejected_n_1327527.html">was blocked</a> from erecting a billboard in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Next: Most And Least Religious Countries

  • Ghana- 96% religious

    Ghanaian cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson attends a mass at the St Peter's basilica on March 12, 2013 at the Vatican. Cardinals moved into the Vatican today as the suspense mounted ahead of a secret papal election with no clear frontrunner to steer the Catholic world through troubled waters after Benedict XVI's historic resignation.The 115 cardinal electors who pick the next leader of 1.2 billion Catholics in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel will live inside the Vatican walls completely cut off from the outside world until they have made their choice.

  • Nigeria- 93% religious

    In this photo taken on Thursday, July 18, 2013, Hauwa Jubril, a muslim girl sit outside a shop in Obalende, Lagos, Nigeria. Nigeria’s secular and Islamic laws clashed when a senator notorious for marrying a 14-year-old filibustered a vote to amend the constitution by insisting that a girl child comes of age when she marries, not at 18. Enraged activists are demanding the senate revisit the vote, asking how a known pedophile could get away with subverting the country’s constitution.

  • Armenia- 92% religious

    This photo taken on January 5, 2013 shows a man lighting a candle during a Christmas Eve service at the Khor Virab church outside Yerevan. Millions of Armenians will celebrate Christmas on January 6.

  • Fiji- 92% religious

    Pilgrims from Fiji attend the morning Mass of Pope Benedict XVI at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney on July 20, 2008. Far fewer people than the predicted crowd of 500,000 turned out for a final World Youth Day mass led by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday, leaving one venue almost empty of worshippers, AFP photographers said.

  • Macedonia- 90% religious

    The president of Macedonia'parliament Trajko Veljanoski kisses the hand of Pope Francis during a private audience on May 24, 2013 at the Vatican.

  • Romania- 89% religious

    Visitors light up candles inside a room 'The space for Recollection and Prayer' to commemorate victims of the communist repression in Romania, in Sighetu Marmatiei on July 13, 2013. Former dissidents and political prisoners gathered in Romania on July 14, 2013 at a museum commemorating those who suffered abuses under communism, set up 20 years ago at the site of a prison where scores died.

  • Iraq- 88% religious

    Shiite Muslim worshippers light candles outside Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi shrine during the annual festival of Shabaniyah, which marks the anniversary of the birth of the ninth-century Shiite leader known as the Hidden Imam, in Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 24, 2013. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban)

  • Kenya- 88% religious

    Njemps tribemen dance in front of a statue of Buddha at the Gallmann nature conservancy near Kinamba, Laikipia, Northern Kenya on March 4, 2012. High Priest Shinso Ito and a group of Shinnyo-en priests arrived in Kenya to perform a Buddhist fire and water ceremony for the first time ever in Africa.The ceremony was attended by over 300 spiritual leaders and was streamed live on the internet to millions of viewers and devotees globally. The ceremony involved Kenyan tribal elders and members of the Njemps, Pokot Samburu, Kikuyu and Turkana communites. AFP PHOTO/Carl de Souza (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Peru- 86% religious

    A faithful holds an image of the 'The Lord of Miracles', worshipped by the majority of the Catholic Peruvians, during his main procession on October 18, 2012 in Lima.

  • Brazil- 85% religious

    Catholics touch an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ as it is taken along with the World Youth Day (WYD) Cross that in 1984 Pope John Paul II entrusted the youth of the world, across Rocinha shantytown in Rio de Janeiro on July 18, 2013. The Pope is due in Rio for the July 22-28 Catholic WYD, an event expected to attract two million people from around the globe.

  • Ireland- 10% atheist

    Roman Catholics listen to Bishop Noel Treanor during mass at St Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sunday, March, 21, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI has apologised to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. Extracts from the Popes letter were read at all masses across Ireland Sunday, in the pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, he acknowledged the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims and their families.

  • Australia- 10% atheist

    A Falun Gong Practitioner poses on the 14th anniversary of the beginning of the persecution of Falun Gong in China on July 21, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. In July of 1999, the communist Chinese government outlawed the spiritual practise of Falun Gong, declaring it illegal and forbidding citizens to practise. Followers believe thousands of practitioners have been killed, imprisoned or put in labour camps in China since 1999.

  • Iceland- 10% atheist

    Pope Benedict XVI (R) poses with Iceland president Olafur Ragnar Grinsson during a private audience at the Vatican on March 4, 2011.

  • Austria- 10% atheist

    The Russian Orthodox cathedral of St. Nicholas is seen on a clear day in Vienna on April 1, 2013.

  • Netherlands- 14% atheist

    Dozens of people queue in front of the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam on May 1, 2013. A day after the crowning of king Willem-Alexander the church has opened it's doors for those who want to see the church in the same setting as during the ceremony on April 30.

  • Germany- 15% atheist

    Eight new priests prepare for their ordination at the Freisinger Dom cathedral on June 29, 2013 in Freising, Germany. Freising Cathedral, also called Saint Mary and Corbinian Cathedral, is a romanesque basilica in Freising, Bavaria. The Freising Cathedral is also known for being the place where Pope Benedict XVI was ordained a priest. Bavaria, Germany's southern-most state, is heavily Catholic.

  • South Korea- 15% atheist

    Nuns walk on a popular shopping street in Seoul on July 6, 2013. Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed in South Korea, which is predominantly Buddhist and Christian.

  • France- 29% atheist

    A picture taken on July 12, 2013 shows a nun walking by the Sacre-Coeur basilica in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.

  • Czech Republic- 30% atheist

    Tourists enjoy a sunny day on March 25, 2010 at the traditional Eastern market in the Old Town Square in Prague.

  • Japan- 31% atheist

    Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan (R) and Galician regional president Alberto Nunez Feijoo (L) attend a concert at Cathedral on June 15, 2013 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

  • China- 47% atheist

    This photo taken on on June 27, 2013 shows a muslim Uighur walking through dusty streets in Turpan, Xinjiang Province. China's constitution proclaims the country's dozens of minority groups as integral and equal parts of the national tapestry -- but analysts say the mishandling of such distinctions is a driver of unrest in remote Xinjiang. Beijing's propaganda portrays the vast western region more than four times the size of Japan as a harmonious land of colourful, mostly Muslim Uighur natives and hard-working migrants prospering under Communist Party rule.

  • Next: Top Scientists -- Who Believes, Who Doesn't?

  • Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

    "The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for 
the existence of God." <strong>Clarification</strong>: <em>The full quote, from <a href="http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-8837" target="_hplink">one of Darwin's letters</a>, carries a different sentiment. A young admirer <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16949157" target="_hplink">asked Darwin about his religious views</a> (the original inquiry is lost), and the great naturalist answered: "It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide."</em>

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958-

    "So you're made of detritus [from exploded stars]. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?" --American astrophysicist and science commentator

  • Stephen Hawking (1942-)

    "What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary." --English physicist and cosmologist

  • Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

    "Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual...The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." --American astrophysicist

  • Francis Collins (1950-)

    "Science is...a powerful way, indeed - to study the natural world. Science is not particularly effective...in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important. They are investigated in different ways. They coexist. They illuminate each other." --American physician-geneticist and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute

  • Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

    "Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time" --American biochemist and science fiction writer


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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