The Rise of Atheist Megachurches

shutterstock_144206770 (1)Atheist mega-churches take Western world by storm”! Or so I am informed, by a November 11 dispatch from the occasionally-reliable propaganda outlet Russia Today.

“Taking by storm” is a wild exaggeration, and I’m not sure how “mega” these groups are. But the core of the headline is true: the Sunday Assembly – a “godless congregation” founded in Britain – has come to the U.S., where its co-founders Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones just finished a promotional tour.

This means that a few hundred people apiece, in major U.S. cities, have been gathering to sing songs, hear inspirational talks, and fellowship in the name of secular humanism. Perhaps the editors at Russia Today want me to think the sky is falling, civilizationally-speaking, on this account. They’ll have to try harder.

As a Catholic convert from atheism, I am not alarmed by the Sunday Assembly. I am amused, and more to the point, intrigued – not out of any desire to join in the non-worship, but because I know God’s sense of humor. And I know what happens when you strain to put God out of your mind.

Jesus Christ brings people to faith through hilariously ironic means. He leads us to Himself by routes that seem to lead the other way. Zen Buddhism, Death Metal, the writings of Nietzsche – God uses such things. I won’t go into detail about how I know this. Just trust me.

Of course Christ can make use of an Atheist Church – and I expect he will. Don’t expect the press to notice, but I predict some Sunday Assembly members will be drawn toward faith by their involvement with the godless congregation. I say this, in part, because the whole endeavor is “Christ-haunted.”

A picture is worth many words, in that regard. The aforementioned Russia Today article features a shot of the Sunday Assembly’s cofounders, standing in a “converted” church where services are held.

On closer inspection, however, the church building is not-so-converted after all. In the background, by Pippa’s head, is the monogram “IHS”: the Holy Name of Jesus, signified by its first three Greek letters.

The Lord still looms in the background of the Sunday Assembly – and he always will. For atheism is defined by what it is not. The Assembly, in particular, will always be a “godless version” of church – a secular-humanist riff on something essentially Christian.

God remains present, in many ways, even when we try to exclude him. In fact, he may loom all the larger, the harder we try to be rid of him.

To go to a “godless church” each week, is to put the question of God constantly before your mind – unintentionally, of course, and perhaps subconsciously. Yet the preoccupation is there, below the surface. And that is precisely where God is always at work among us.

“Try not to think of a polar bear,” Dostoevsky once wrote, “and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” The Sunday Assembly has embarked on the grand effort of “trying not to think of God.” I expect, for many of them, that it will backfire similarly.

*

Granted: on the surface, the Assemblyites don’t seem preoccupied with the object of their non-belief. This is not the combative atheism of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. They are trying, almost sycophantically, to be the Nice and Positive Atheists.

Evans and Jones state their “No Deity” rule up front, and they envision “a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” But they are “radically inclusive”: “We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.” You can smoke outside, in other words.

Personally, what I find most galling about the Sunday Assembly’s worldview is not the exclusion of God, but the vacuum of banality left in His absence. The Evans-Jones vision of human life is basically bland undergraduate relativism – Whatever Works For You – with some shiny motivational decals applied.

If you haven’t been in a Carthusian monastery for the last 45 years, you’ve already heard this tune. “We won’t won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can.” “Have fun, be nice and join in.” “Help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be.”

This message is already everywhere. Why turn it into a church?

Maybe because relativism and individualism make people lonely and depressed. Life becomes an empty quest to satisfy one’s private preferences. In a social atmosphere of disconnection and indifference, you feel the loss of things like the Church.

And so you try to compensate – by forming the Church of Relativism and Individualism. Because, well, what else is there?

It’s kind of poignant, actually. So is this line, from the Public Charter: “We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.”

*

I don’t know whether they intended it, but that line in the Public Charter – about coming from nothing, and returning to nothing – reminded me of a lyric sung in the second half of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony.”

That symphony – a favorite of Pope John Paul II – depicts a great struggle between despair and hope, faith and doubt. In the fourth movement, the affirmation emerges, sung by a lone female voice: “I am from God and will return to God!”

I would be surprised if Evans and Jones had intended their annihilationist creed to contrast with Mahler’s cry of faith and hope. Nevertheless, the contrast is there.

And the contrast – in a larger sense – will always be there, inherent in the very notion of the “godless congregation.” The Sunday Assembly exists, inescapably, in the shadow of Christ and His Church. It does not even pretend otherwise, but trades on the transgressive thrill of being The Church Without God.

But it is partly this unavoidable contrast – between Christian faith, and organized faithlessness – that I expect will bring some of the Sunday Assemblers to faith in the end.

This is partly because The Church Without God keeps the issue of God constantly on the table, even when it tries to change the subject. Here, Dostoevsky’s “polar bear” principle obtains. “Try not to think of God” – and you will certainly fail. The harder you try not to think of God, the less you succeed.

If you examine life’s questions, with constant explicit reference to God’s non-existence, you find you are actually thinking about Him quite a bit: “Ethics Without God” – “Being Good Without God” – “Facing Death Without God.” The Lord is not absent from all of this: indeed, He haunts the whole project.

So the Sunday Assembly plays the game of “trying not to think of a polar bear” – and that is futile enough. But there is a deeper problem with this venture, which makes God loom still larger in the background.

If God leads people to faith through the Sunday Assembly, I believe it will be largely through the cultivation of wonder – both in the spiritual sense of being “filled with wonder,” and the philosophical sense of “wondering why.”

Wonder is actually part of the Assembly’s mission: its motto is “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” They call themselves a “movement of wonder and good.”In the Public Charter, Evans and Jones speak of the “awesome world we live in.”

But if a person’s eyes are truly open to wonder, he must eventually begin to ask: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” “Why is life so beautiful – and so tragic?” Man’s heart is made to feel awe before the mystery of existence, and his mind is made to seek answers to these ultimate questions.

The Assembly says it is content to celebrate “the one life we know we have.” But someone who has truly learned to wonder – both in the sense of feeling awe, and asking questions – may grow dissatisfied with this fatalistic celebration.

Wandering off alone, he might begin to ask himself: “Is there another life?”

This Congregational Atheism promotes wonder, but it proposes simplistic non-answers to the ultimate questions. The purpose of life in this “awesome world” turns out to be: “Whatever you want; just don’t hurt others on your way to the grave.”

I hope the Sunday Assembly helps people to “Wonder More.” Ultimately, though, you can’t cultivate a sense of wonder, while waving away questions about life’s origin and goal. In the long run, you cannot live as though life were a miracle, while constantly denying the very possibility of the miraculous.

You can try to do that, of course, but it can’t be sustained. Either the wonder will die out, turning the Sunday Assembly into just another bunch of hedonists; or the questions will persist – and lead some of these skeptics, in all likelihood, out of atheism.

“Try not to think about God.” Try to live as though life were a gift, while denying the possibility of a Giver.

Try, but you can’t in the end. You weren’t meant to. “Wonder More,” indeed.

image: miker / Shutterstock.com

Benjamin Mann

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Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • FRED MARION

    How nicely put…well written with sound logic.

  • Yvonne

    Thank you. You are right. Ultimately the Life Question always surface
    asking us: who am I really: why am I here and what is the purpose of it all.

  • peacebwu12

    What a thoughtful analysis of the situation. Thank you for the “humor” in it all, this piece made my day (and ail likely help in speaking to people about nihilism and relativism in the future). God bless you in your endeavors!

  • Michael

    I am not very informed about the Carthusians. I only know what I saw watching Into Great Silence. What does the reference to the past 45 years mean?

  • Thirst for truth

    Very well written and thought provoking article. I had not heard about “The Sunday Assembly” before reading this article, and was intrigued by the principles in which they run their organization. I found it interesting that the author’s prediction is that Assembly members will be “drawn toward faith by their involvement with the godless congregation”. I understand his reasoning with many of the Assembly’s activities being “Christ-haunted”, and using the comparison of Dostoevsky’s polar bear quote to relate how congregating in a church-like environment will ultimately lead followers to constantly put the question of God before their mind. However, I do
    disagree on many accounts.

    “We won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can.” “Have fun, be nice and join in.” “Help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the
    people they want to be.”

    The author claims that this message is already everywhere – I would like to know where is the “everywhere” the author is speaking of…because this is the first time I have ever came across that specific grouping of ideals – so why turn it into a “church”/assembly? I can think of a few good reasons.

    People congregating and coming together as a community of likeminded individuals is not a religion-specific notion. I think that some of the largest benefits that Christians receive, and why a lot of people go church is to learn, hear a positive message, be with people they love, and become closer to God. Well, it seems like Assembly members like to receive all those benefits…other than the becoming closer to God part. So with that in mind, I find it humorous that the author believes people coming together for the quest of bettering themselves is an exclusively theistic activity which will ultimately lead them to faith.

    I think the reality is simple: some people want to come together to speak about positive ways to enhance life without gospel, commandments, or strict expectations.

    As to the author’s views on God leading people to faith through The Sunday Assembly by their cultivation of wonder, I believe he has it backwards. The act of wondering has been the biggest contributing factor that has lead me away from faith. Bible stories were never able to satisfy my thirst of knowledge for our origins, where scientific evidence and theory have been able to fill that void in a tangible and proven way.

    I was raised Catholic, but when I started being able to think for myself – and when questions I had on life were not fulfilled by the Catholic gospel – I slowly began emancipating myself from the church, and have never been happier. I don’t feel the need to congregate with others that share my views on life, but after this article, I now know of a great place to go if I ever wanted to. Thanks

  • Barrysullivan1

    Very well written. Being trained in nuclear engineering has exposed me to many of the intricacies of nature and helped me come to the conclusion that there must be a God to have created such a world. The scientific axiom of “nothing from nothing” meaning that even if one believes the “Big Bang Theory” one must ask how did the stuff that banged get there? I’ve also engaged folks in discussions of morailty, theology for the last 50 years and found that the majority of aethiests believe that shacking up, abortion, drug use, etc. are up to each individual and there are no objective standards all should follow. Observing the consequences of this belief system in our society has also led me to see how destructive it is.

  • TomD

    “. . . when I started being able to think for myself . . .”

    It is possible to think for oneself and to be an orthodox Catholic.

    This requires, in part, that one recognize that one’s thoughts, and the journey that one takes in further developing those thoughts – the act of wondering as you refer to it – are grounded in the transcendent truth of God and His revelation to us, not on an internal journey of “self-discovery.”

    We have made opposite journeys . . . I was raised unchurched and chose, as a free-thinking individual I assure you, to be baptized into the faith. While I am challenged by some of the teachings of the Church, I recognize that the foundation for my day-to-day, very personal exploration of those teachings is God’s revelation and the two thousand year evolution of the faith by those who have preceded me.

  • Eh..what does it really matter

    Just don’t hurt others on the way to the grave?

    How dare they put limits on my freedom?!

  • Micha_Elyi

    The Big Bang Theory, eh? You do know that it was invented by a Catholic priest, of course. And that atheists dubbed his theory “the Big Bang” in order to mock it, the atheists being firm in their belief that the universe was uncreated and therefore had existed forever.

    That atheists today point to the Big Bang theory as if it somehow supported their beliefs is more than just delicious irony, it’s also a Big Laugh.

  • Micha_Elyi

    “I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up – they have no holidays.”– Henny Youngman

  • franco

    Michael I think he means that if one was in a Carthusian Monastery for the past 45 Years , they would not have heard the secular lingo of relativism etc. Or at least that is how I take it

  • gday

    You’re all atheists. In a sense. They just don’t believe in 1 more god than you. Think about how you feel about Zeus and Thor.

  • paul

    Because atheists take a scientific viewpoint and change is ok with new information.
    Unlike your type who follow a book that condones rape; mass murder pedophiles incest.
    Death penalty for wearing two types of fabric.
    I hope I live long enough to see you dumbasses in the minority in the west.
    Go fiddle some kiddy or pray to a kiddy fiddler.
    Idiot

  • paul

    As a master of historical facts can you please rattle off how many people have died over religious bullshit. Funny how Christians know the best time to convert people is after disasters or during famines or plague. When people are content or educated there is zero chance. Notice how educated societies such as china were not so easily bullshitted to.
    You seem like a westener. Are you wearing 2 types of fabric or tattoos? Do you read horoscopes. See what your book says should happen to you.

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