Atheist Church – good or bad idea?

Depiction of Atheist Church

There is clearly a need for people (all people) to belong to groups as humans are social animals.  Also, the strong urge to belong to this or that group is no doubt a psychological remnant of our tribal past.  So it is to be expected that atheists, being human after all (despite what the fundies may claim) would seek to congregate.

Like-minded people congregate in a great many ways, at concerts, football matches, bars, meet-ups, and churches.  These venues and occasions provide for a sense of community and belonging.  Attending church (synagogue, mosque, temple etc.) is an organized activity that has one central theme – the glorification of God; there are, of course, other topics and purposes covered in church but that is the main theme.

Atheists are a diverse group that represent a fairly small percentage of the population, at least in North America.  Not surprisingly atheists also want to congregate.  The internet has been a great source of interactions among atheists – google atheists + blog and you will receive in return over 45 million links.  Still, virtual interactions cannot replace physical interactions and so atheists have sought other avenues for interpersonal interactions.  Around North America there are a number of organizations with ‘meetups’ (indeed there is a website – meetup.com – that cater to these groups) where atheists can interact with each other in person.  These ‘meetups’, at least the ones I have been too, are not well organized or not organized at all, at least not in the manner that you see in churches (or synagogues, mosques, temples etc.).  There is generally no one person leading the discussion, and the discussion(s) are not organized around a topic or theme.

When I first heard that a couple of Londoners, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, were setting up an atheist church my first thought was “that’s pretty silly”.  But seeing the success of this ‘church’ there is obviously a hunger for more organized ‘meetups’.  Calling such meetups ‘church’ is not a good idea to my way of thinking.  Atheists should not co-opt the church label as it leads to confusion and false equality in purpose.  Moreover, believers often try to equate atheism and religion in order to establish that one must have faith in either believing in god or not believing in god, a false equality.  I have covered this elsewhere, but briefly, making a claim about god(s) is not equal to not believing there is a god(s).  Atheism is the null hypothesis, and those making a claim must provide sufficient (any!) evidence to dismiss the null.  The onus is on the claimant to provide support for the claim; the null does not require evidence to be the null.  I wish more outspoken atheists would use this approach explicitly in debates with believers and apologists.

I understand there is a need for atheists to come together on a regular basis under a more structured format (outside of atheist conferences).  I think we could broach a lot of useful topics such as:  how better to inform and educate the public about atheism (outside of inflammatory billboards); how best to use our collective resources (outside of erecting billboards and monuments) to combat poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to education (an educated society tends to be more secular); how best to support our colleagues in regions where being an atheist could mean imprisonment or even a death sentence; challenge our assumptions and better educate ourselves on other religions (I know atheists are probably the best educated group in this regard) and apologetics; how to encourage more political acceptance and activism; how to combat the ever-growing intrusion of religious accommodation in society and in the classroom.

We could use these organized ‘meetups’ not only to come together and galvanize our community, but also work for some real positive, tangible change in society. On the whole, I think the atheist church is good in its intent, but it perhaps needs to be tweaked with the first step being not labeling the effort a church.

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