“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.