Religion

Why Criticism of Atheist Churches is Making Atheists Look Ridiculous

This morning, I stumbled across an article on PolicyMic titled Why ‘Atheist Churches’ Are Making Us Atheists Look Ridiculous. Events like the Sunday Assembly have recently gained popularity in the UK and US, encouraging people to gather together each week to learn, discuss topics like morality, do charitable acts, and apparently sing a few songs. I’ve never been, but if there were one nearby and if I didn’t have to wake up too early, I wouldn’t mind checking it out one of these days.

But atheist Drew Miller isn’t happy with other atheists hanging out every week. He writes:

But it raises an important question: do non-believing assemblies differ from theistic congregations in any meaningful way?

Well gee, I’m just spitballing here, but I guess I would say that maybe theistic congregations are focused on worshipping an all-powerful supernatural deity, while non-believing assemblies have nothing to do with that. Maybe?

Miller may as well be whining about a secular choir practice. “So you’re telling me you get together EVERY week, and you sing songs together? How does that differ from a religious choir in any meaningful way?”

“But why are these atheists still gathering on Sundays?” asks Miller, before dissecting the moral failings of everyone who has ever participated in the event. Allow me to make another guess that differs slightly from what he posits: because it’s fucking fun? Again: I have not been to Sunday Assembly, but I did start Boston Skeptics, where we regularly gathered together in a pub to listen to someone talk – sometimes about morality! – while socializing. We even had a regular brunch. Much like Catholic Mass, it took place on Sunday and included food and alcohol. How did it differ from Catholic Mass in any meaningful way? Well, we didn’t worship an all-powerful supernatural deity and IT WAS FUCKING FUN.

Don’t get me wrong: not every skeptic enjoyed Sunday brunch. But when they went and did their own thing, it wasn’t a “schism” as Miller labels someone starting a different kind of Sunday Assembly (as an aside, that person is Lee Moore, a creep who tried to get famous last year by attempting to convince me and other women to engage in an open debate with the people who are harassing us).

Miller quite stupidly refutes his own points repeatedly, including by referencing the “the centuries of bloodletting between Sunnis and Shias, or Catholics and Protestants.” How do those “schisms” differ in any meaningful way from some atheists meeting up in a bar instead of a music hall? Geez, let me think for a second . . . maybe the atheists aren’t worshipping an all-powerful supernatural deity and THEY’RE NOT KILLING EACH OTHER?

My headline is a bit tongue in cheek: I don’t think Miller’s boneheaded opinion piece is ruining atheists’ reputation. But, it sure isn’t helping disabuse anyone of the notion that atheists are boring asses who have a kneejerk negative reaction to anything that even superficially resembles something a theist would do.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s Friday and I have a lovely fish dinner to plan.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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28 Comments

  1. Atheists have been welcome at Unitarian Universalist churches for decades. The problem is that too many atheists are too bigoted and snobbish to associate with anyone who might be a theist, even in places they are otherwise perfectly welcome to attend. Thank you, Rebecca, for providing another example of that arrogance.

    1. Dale, I find your response to this post to be trollish and offensive. Many atheists recognize that we are welcome at UU churches, but as we don’t generally choose to worship supernatural beings or overarching spiritual ideals, it’s kind of a moot point.

      Let me clarify. You, for instance, know that you are welcome at all basketball, football and band practices for your old school, even though you no longer attend classes. Does not attending make you snobbbish or arrogant? not at all. It just makes you someone who does not attend.

      The problem is that you hear the loudest of those in the atheist camp attack religion with derision, and assume that their attitude and anger is representative of every atheist. Let me assure you, it is not. I have been to several UU meetings (my aunt is a UU volunteer and guest speaker) and have never opened my mouth to complain, looked at them with derision, or gotten angry when they start speaking about spirits and spirituality. After all, I was in their camp voluntarily. It wasn’t my cup of woo, but hey, whatever.

      Do the humanists, atheists, non-believers, freethinkers, and everyone else that might read your comment a favor, and stop lumping us all together under one painful stereotype. Most of us want to live our lives free of religion and the arrogant comments of the religious.

    2. Are you saying, Rebecca provided an example of that type of arrogance by pointing to Drew Miller’s terrible article? That might make some sense (although I’m not sure that avoiding the Unitarian Church assembles is proof of arrogance as much as it is disinterest).

      But if you are saying that Rebecca and her article are the proof of arrogance, then your comment makes no sense at all. I mean, it makes so little sense that I don’t even know how to respond to it other than to say, No. I hope it’s not this latter one, but that’s how I read your comment.

    3. This comment has various issues. For example, Christians are obviously welcome at Unitarian Universalist churches too. Would you claim that all Christians that prefer to have 100% Christian assemblies are bigoted/snobbish?

      Then there is the claim that Rebecca is an example of that arrogance? It sounds like an extreme non-sequitur. I mean, all she shared to have done is reunite with other atheists/skeptics at a pub? That’s suddenly the pinnacle of atheism bigotry and arrogance?

      As welcoming as Universalist assemblies might be (I have no first hand experience nor have no idea if those even exist around here). You cannot expect them to be for everyone. Plenty of atheists are reportedly attending the universalist assemblies already, we can assume the rest just don’t know about them or are looking for something else.

    4. A few of my acquaintances have explored Unitarianism. They were all driven away by the tendency, as Dr Robert Price has put it, to replace god with political correctness. You have to believe exactly the ‘right’ things, or you’re not welcome.

    5. Sigh! Dale Husband arrives like freaking clockwork at a thread mentioning atheists and immediately rips into them – this time it’s any who don’t attend UU services (forget the fact that the OP is actually one atheist discussing another atheist’s poorly-considered reaction to atheist services and not the UUs at all).

      It’s par for the course: for those who don’t know Dale elsewhere, this is the same old tiresome atheist-bashing trollery he hawks all over the internet from Panda’s Thumb to Scienceblogs and numerous points in between and either side. Dale simply can’t resist an opportunity to pompously scold non-believers and hypocritically engage in the kind of arrogant bigoted snobbery he chides others for.

      You know what Dale? If your tiresome, priggish little beef with atheists is commonplace at a UU gathering (or if you, personally, just happen to be present at one), forgive us if we don’t come flocking. And if we shit you so badly, you should be thankful that some atheists are setting up gatherings of their own.

  2. I tried to go to a UU church for a while, but it felt too “churchy” for me. The pews, the standing up and sitting down in unison, the chanting phrases, the singing, etc. All of that stuff is boring or creepy or annoying to me, so I stopped going. I would like a setting that is either like a seminar (just listening to an interesting speaker) or like a coffee house (small group chat) but I don’t care for ceremony or worship-like behavior – I won’t even pledge allegiance to the flag for that reason. Also, I cannot stand church music, even if so many people seem to think it is beautiful. I guess even Atheist church wouldn’t be for me. I know I sound like Grumpy Cat or something, but I don’t think I am alone in not wanting to go to church for more reasons than that I don’t believe in god. I don’t consider myself snobby or bigoted, though.

  3. I’m in the UK and church going is pretty dull and mainly based on weak tea, that’s the Anglican church for you! I actually went to Xmas Eve mass this year, as I was staying at my girlfriends parents and I didn’t want to come across as a moody Grinch. They like to go as cultural xtians, so I went along with them…. it was as dull as dish water and went on for hours. Yes I did roll my eyes at some of the farcical moral proclamations and stories, but when you’re in love …..x
    Now… If there was a local gospel type congregation near me, I might pop in for a soulful sing song once in a while. I’d even offer to fill in if they were missing a band member! Of course, you don’t have to agree with the words, but simply enjoy the music!
    If Atheists want to get together as a social group, then what of it? Even if their template is similar to what goes on in the regular church goers world.
    Thanks for the post Rebecca.

  4. Also, there really is no right way to be an atheist (other than the nonbelief part). When atheists go out and bicker over what we do in our spare time to please our hearts and minds, it seems like we’re just another dogmatic bunch of quarrellers (as arguably some of us seem to be). But it’s really not up to them to define how I utilize my nonbelief to have a good time.

  5. Personally I don’t understand Sunday Assemblies, but then I gave up on Sunday Mass years before I stopped being catholic, so obviously i’m not the target audience here.
    What does freak me out is making atheist sunday meets into a franchise with strict rules and shit. Because I’m really not cool with hierarchies in atheism, and even less with institutionalizing them.

  6. My primary objection to groups like Sunday Assembly (with whom I’ve been closely involved) is that they’re not really filling any particular purpose. They’re a weekly congregation without the God element, but you can’t just stand around and talk about not God.

    You mentioned how nobody is indignant about choir practice just because it’s secular, but the point is that choir practice is ABOUT something—namely, singing. I often argue that the secular alternative to church is LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE. Book clubs, rock concerts, stitch and bitch, charity events, meetup groups, flash mobs, poetry readings, college… you name it. They’re ALL the secular alternative to church. You don’t believe me, go to any special interest group and start rattling off about God and God’s will. Even most Christians will tell you that it’s not the time or place for that kind of discussion.

    The fact of the matter is that the entire reason churches exist in this day and age is because they HAVE to have a place to spout their nonsense. It’s just not acceptable anywhere else. That’s why atheists don’t need churches, because they have the rest of reality.

    1. Actually, a large part of why many people attend churches is to be part of a community. Most of the people I know who attend Christian churches don’t pay much attention to the theology, but they appreciate a place where they can get to know and be together with people of similar values and ways of thinking and, when necessary, get emotional or perhaps even practical support. (My ex-wife just found out she had cancer, and her Quaker meeting is a place she can ask for people to drive her places, etc.) Those who have children are also looking for a place that will reinforce their values (not necessarily ghod-related.)

      As for the church service itself, a lot of people find ritual — any ritual — satisfying. Just doing the same thing every week at the same time (and with other people) is very comforting, whether that’s a church service or Saturday golf.

      An atheist “church” could well fill those same needs for those who like the sense of community, the pot-lucks and picnics, and a shared sense of values that churches provide but are alienated by talk of God and Jesus (or Allah, or whatever.)

      Those who don’t feel a need for it obviously wouldn’t need to go. Different strokes for different folks. Which is what my reply to this guy would be: if you don’t like it, DON”T GO! And leave the people who do like it alone. (Civilization 101.)

  7. If Mr Miller wants a schism, let’s give him one!

    I have no appointed myself the Publican Atheist Pope, Bishop of the Unholy See, Cervisifex Maximus, direct successor to Lucretius.
    I declare that henceforth all atheists who gather in any building other than a bar, pub, or tavern for the purposes of frivolity, serious discussion, fellowship, fart jokes, music-making, music-listening, or general community building and fun having will now be considered apostates, heretics, and heathens, and will no longer be recognized as members of the Publican Atheist Church.

    May your beer be flat, your wine sour, and you liquor watered down.

  8. Dale Husband, I have been to MANY MANY UU services (having being raised going to UU services, and my Dad teaching at the Sunday school), and numerous Boston Skeptics brunches. Unless waffles and mimosas have become compulsory at UU services, attributing a preference for skeptic / atheist brunches to bigotry and snobbery sounds positively bigoted and snobbish.

  9. That business with Lee Moore was bizarre, wasn’t it? I kept telling him – “Sure – by all means – if they stop harassing us, I’ll be happy to forget all about them.” But no no no, that wouldn’t do – I had to agree to TALK TO THEM.
    About what? I had nothing to say. “Stop harassing us.” That’s it.

    1. Dialogue requires that two people listen to each other. When one party is burying the other in messages while ignoring their requests to stop, dialogue is already over. Suggesting they need to sit down and have a conversation is ignoring the conversation that’s already happening!

  10. I’m story-telling at the NYC Sunday Assembly on Feb 2nd. Perhaps a good reason to kill two birds with one stone by visiting NYC and checking out a Sunday Assembly? Y’know for professional research purposes, of course. Not at all to get drunk with me the night before and have a lot of fun. Not at all. Professional.

  11. Wow – consenting adults get together on Sundays to have fun, be entertained and learn something, sounds awful! I think anyone who doesn’t like the concept should probably just not go – why take the time to broadcast disapproval with questionable rationale? BTW, I spent many years as part of a UU congregation, and was completely accepted as an atheist. I finally left when I got tired of the open support of woo and religious nonsense.

  12. My two cents: Mr Miller’s objections can be summed up by this single boneheaded question:

    “…do non-believing assemblies differ from theistic congregations in any meaningful way?”

    To reiterate Rebecca’s comments, they obviously do differ in what is probably the _most_ meaningful way possible – they aren’t theistic. Atheist assemblies appear to be for the singular purpose of being with other people who share their interests, untainted by the narcissism inherent in thinking that the creator of the universe gives a rat’s arse where you are at any given time, by the fear of community/family/divine disapproval for not going, by fantasies of Paradise/terror of Hell or the concern that you could simply be doing something else with your Sunday morning. Atheist assemblies are for people who want to enjoy being with other people, without millennia of imposed cultural baggage (though it seems some, like Miller, want to throw that baggage right onto them purely because what they’re doing happens on a Sunday).

    For the record, I’ve not been to one but atheist assemblies simply don’t appeal to me in the first instance – I’m sure the attendees have a marvellous time but I’m not into crowds or group affirmations or public poetry readings or public displays of what-have-you or happy-clappiness in general. That’s just how I’m wired socially, but I’d never hold it against anyone else for wanting to go. To each their own, etc.

    But seriously, if your main criticism of atheist assemblies amounts to “a group of people assembling weekly to do things they like is rather similar to *gasp* CHURCH!!!111” (a criticism which is incidentally very popular among believers and heathens alike) then, seriously again, a grip needs to be gotten, by you, post-haste. Miller, and those like him, might as well be slamming book clubs because they don’t differ “in any meaningful way” from Bible study groups.

  13. Atheists Trolls like trolling, online, anonymous. Anything that brings attention to them being socially-inept trolls rather than ‘liberated’ or ‘insightful’ will be met with a lot of trolling.

    That said, atheist megalomaniacs are going to start grabbing for secure public pulpits the moment they think there are enough congregants paying attention.

  14. I don’t like the idea of atheist “churches.” The word “church” refers, in its primary, dictionary definition to a building in which Christian worship ceremonies are held, and a secondary meaning is the public worship of God in such a building (i.e. “attending church”). It is used to refer, when capitalized, to refer to the entire body of Christendom (the “Church”) or to the Catholic Church — “The Church”. Muslims don’t go to Church, they go to Mosque. Jews don’t go to Church, they go to Temple. Unitarian Universalists generally don’t call their places “churches” they call them “meeting houses.”

    Mine is more of a semantic objection. I have no beef with communal joining together on a regular basis to do stuff, and that stuff might include singing, meditating, listening to speeches, discussing morality, philosophy, ethics, etc. But, I wouldn’t call it Church, and I think to call it that does, to me, make atheists look ridiculous, because one thing that Christians often want to pin on atheists is the label of “just another religion.” We often hear that from Christians, where they say “atheism is a religion” and you just worship something other than God! Most atheists respond that this is hogwash, and that we are not a religion, and that atheism per se is not a set of beliefs — it’s just a lack of belief in gods, or disbelief in gods, depending on one’s view on that. Essentially, one can be religious without believing in gods, but being atheist is not in and of itself a religion.

    I would prefer if they called it a humanist church or perhaps an “atheist meeting” rather than a “church.”

    But, they can do what they want. No skin off my back. I, for one, won’t go to an atheist “church” – and I think the concept is rather silly.

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