About two weeks ago I was making my way through my daily news readings when I came across the Atheist ‘mega-churches’ take root across US, world article from the Associated Press. I thought it ironic at first glance that the words Atheist and mega-church were being used congruently in the same sentence. When a friend posted the same article making the same observation the next day, I decided that this would make for a good blog post.
Considering the theological founding of the United States of America, it is interesting to think about the place that religion plays in today’s society. The earliest immigrants to this country came for numerous reasons: The promise of freedom from the rule of tyranny, a chance to escape a society without the freedom to move up or down the social ladder and to establish a life where all are granted equal standing in society, and a chance to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience rather than according to whatever religion was being endorsed by the monarch of the day.
So, on their ships, these religious refugees sailed the Atlantic in the 1600’s and came to America to fulfill the promise of freedom. Fast forward approximately 100 years to the mid-late 1700’s. The King of England was exercising a greater degree of control on the American colonies than they were comfortable with. A war was fought and, surprisingly, the colonists emerged victorious. Among the founding documents, the founders created a country with a Bill of Rights that established first the freedom of religion and the free exercise thereof without the ability of government to infringe on that right. Never again, the founders hoped, would the people of America be subject to worshiping according to the beliefs of anybody but themselves. The founders were also careful to make sure that people had the right to worship as they saw fit without any infringement from government.
While it will be and has been argued greatly that the United States was founded on Christian tenants, what is indisputable is that the Constitution of the United States is very careful not to show any religious favoritism. The language of the First Amendment protects both from the establishment of a national religion as well as the free exercise of religion. So why is it that the free practice of religion is becoming more and more politically incorrect to the point that there is now a case before the Supreme Court regarding prayer in municipal meetings?
I know there are those that would cry that atheism is not a religion. More than that, atheism is freedom from religion. Let’s look at the article that I referenced at the beginning of the post and see if these churches don’t pass the ‘if it looks/sounds/walks like a duck’ test.
“It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Several hundred people, including families with small children, packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational talk and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.”
Okay, I’ll grant them that. Religion usually deals in some kind of belief in some form of a supernatural being/universal force. But then again, atheists make the assertion that there is simply no god whatsoever. So by expressing this sentiment, there is still some belief in the supernatural, only that there is no supernatural being.
The primary tenant of any religious institution is an attitude toward the divine, whatever form the divine might take. Atheism quite simply takes the attitude that the divine is not. There is no God, there is no Jehovah, there is no Allah, there is simply nothing. There is no cosmic force that actively or passively takes part in the role of humanity. We, as a human race, are nothing more than the product of aeons of evolution and pure chance. Those who pray speak only to the walls with which they are surrounded.
Fine, the atheist may believe that all those who claim to be religious are simply deluding themselves with false hope in something beyond the realm of our day-to-day existence; but I still submit that even the attitude that there is no god is an attitude toward the divine.
“The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.”
What is any religious movement without some kind of leadership behind it. What would Islam be without the prophet, Muhammad; Christianity without Jesus Christ; or Judaism without Moses? These two comedians may not become such titular figures within the atheistic movement, but they are spearheading a significant movement. At least it is a movement that has caught the attention of the international press. While everyone is looking for their 15 minutes of fame, these two individuals have garnered quite a bit of attention. Time will testify to the virility of the movement.
Moreover, the proselytizing efforts of the believers; or rather, nonbelievers, helps to expand the base of membership. These atheistic churches are popping up in more locations, which is indicative of some kind of proselytizing behavior. I cant’ speak the exact efforts of ‘spreading the message’ of atheism that is involved here; but the article does mention how more people are becoming involved in this organized brand of atheism. They may not be exercising the fervor of the missionaries from the LDS (Mormon) church or the Jehovah’s Witnesses by going and knocking door-to-door, but something besides passive existence is creating a growing movement.
Perhaps there is no active efforts to persuade others to join their lack of faith, and these churches do nothing more than provide a forum for the like minded to commune with each other. That only dovetails into the next point.
“On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted several hundred people . . . other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.”
One of the premier draws of religion in the past has been a chance to be involved in a community of like-minded people. If these meetings are held weekly with a consistent program of song, speaking, and socializing, it sounds at least slightly ritualistic. These people aren’t getting together to discuss books, movies, or politics. They are gathering with the specific intention of sharing their lack of belief in any deity. Again, this is a purely religious motivation no matter how hard they might try to deny it.
“They hope to raise more than $800,000 that will help atheists launch their pop-up congregations around the world.”
A short trip to the Book of Malachi the end of the Old Testament illuminates the practice of tithes. While the atheistic churches may not denote a specific monetary percentage for donation, they are still asking for contributions in order to continue spreading the message of atheism just as many Christian churches collect tithes for the work of spreading the gospel of Christ.
“They don’t bash believers but want to find a new way to meet likeminded [sic] people, engage in the community and make their presence more visible in a landscape dominated by faith.”
I have heard it said that there are two things that should never be discussed in the infancy of a relationship: religion and politics. The reason is because these two areas cut right to the roots of a person’s moral and ethical beliefs, which contributes the core of how they see the world, the people in it, and the situations they encounter. To lay that core to somebody you’ve only just met is very risky. The other person could very easily not share those beliefs and may even become hostile if they found out what you believe. So one of the purposes of a religion and, more specifically, a church is to provide a place where those with similar beliefs can express and share those beliefs without fear of rejection or ridicule. In the case of the atheist, these mega-churches are providing a haven to share their lack of belief without fear of reprisal.
“During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” “Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs.”
Does this not sound like a meeting of those who have been ‘caught up by the Holy Spirit?’ The singing of hymns accompanied by applause and shouts of “Hallelujah,” are practically trademarks of some Christian congregations. Singing provides solidarity to a congregation and imparts a message that bolsters one’s resolve in some area or another. What does the song, “Lean on Me” say if it doesn’t communicate a message of relying on your fellow men through the challenges of life?
The point of a church is to provide a chance for people to come together to share in their beliefs, to have those beliefs reinforced by seeing those who share in those beliefs, to receive messages of inspiration to stay strong in the faith, to praise their deity in word and song, and to exit back into the world at large a stronger person in the faith than when they entered. If that isn’t what these ‘churches’ are all about, then what are they about?
We’ve gone through a lot, so let’s sum up the findings from this article:
- An attitude toward a deity / supernatural force or being: check!
- A leader of the congregation/movement: check!
- Proselytizing behavior: check!
- Regular congregational meetings of the like-minded: check!
- The acceptance of offerings: check!
- A community of like minded: check!
- The singing of songs and communication of inspirational messages: check!
For all intents and purposes, these atheistic congregations are exhibiting all the characteristics and behaviors of all organized religions. If you walk down the street of Los Angeles or New York, you may not only see Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim buildings of worship. The new kid on the block is the Assembly of Atheists.