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Why Would Atheists Engage In Christian Ritual?

Once the Associated Press takes hold of a story, it gets ripped off the wires and republished all over the world. That’s what’s happened this week to a story written by AP reporter Gillian Flaccus about “atheist megachurches” rapidly spreading all across the world.

The events aren’t exactly churches, in the traditional sense, and they’re not yet truly mega in size. They don’t have dedicated buildings or paid staff, as churches do. They do have many resemblances to churches, though, and are called Sunday Assemblies.

Like churches, the Sunday Assemblies have their main gatherings on Sundays. Why? Well, that’s the time sunday assembliesChristian churches have always met. Like churches, the Sunday Assemblies have a particular order of activities – songs, readings, and sermons, with refreshments afterwards. Why? Well, that’s the way most Christian churches do things. As with churches, people sit in rows in an audience, while a small number of officiants conduct the ceremony up at front? Why? Well, that’s what Christian churches do.

See the pattern? Sunday Assemblies do everything that Christian churches do, except require their participants to declare a belief in the Christian god.

These Sunday Assemblies, then, aren’t really non-Christian. They’re something more like atheist Christianity, practicing many of the rituals of Christianity, derived directly from the Christian tradition, with the theism of Christianity extracted.

Why would atheists do this? Some of the materials from Sunday Assemblies suggest that the events are for people who grew up Christian, have decided that they don’t believe in the Christian god, but miss the ritual of going to a Christian church. There’s an odd sort of disconnection of thought and action in this, as these people reject a central tenet of Christian ideology but still want to outwardly behave as Christians do.

These Sunday Assemblies exhibit a conspicuous god-shaped hole in their ceremonies, suggesting that participants are nervous about venturing out into the world without a Christian tether tied around their waists.

People who have grown up without Christianity aren’t as likely to find comfort in these groups, which seem more like the next logical step in the Protestant Reformation, rather than a truly non-Christian movement. Ideas are embedded in the actions we take, after all, not just in the words we say about what we think.

There’s nothing wrong with people who call themselves atheists attending these Sunday Assemblies. It’s just that Sunday Assemblies won’t be the ticket for people who are more interested in the open field of possibilities as we develop ideas and rituals centered in our own contemporary experience, separate from the traditions of the past. There’s an infinite territory outside of Christianity, after all, far bigger than what can be contained in a church with just one aspect of Christianity removed.

7 thoughts on “Why Would Atheists Engage In Christian Ritual?”

  1. Bill says:

    As someone who regularly vacillates between being a non-believer and a Christian (depending on which side of the bed I happen to wake up on), here’s my perspective. Organized religions generally, and Christian churches in particular, bring a lot of very valuable things to the table that really have absolutely nothing to do with belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to wit:

    1. Community and Fellowship: a safe, established, friendly place for like-minded people and their families to gather, share, work and play together.
    2. Mission: An organized voluntary framework within which such people can work together to help address the needs of the larger secular community.
    3. Music: A free concert every week…and, if you choose your church wisely, a dang good one, provided your musical tastes extend to include handbells, Renaissance choral music, and gospel music.
    4. Regularly-scheduled thought-provoking and often challenging lectures on moral, metaphysical, and practical topics delivered by competent, professional speakers.
    5. Free parking!

    So why should atheists miss out on all those benefits just because they don’t happen to believe in the FSM? I’ll grant you, the patterning on a typical church service bespeaks a certain lack of outside-the-box thinking but, hey, give it time to evolve. And, in the U.S. at least, Sunday mornings are a proven good time for such meetings.

    1. Bill says:

      Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention book clubs, community dinners, charity drives, political action, sports outings, visits and handholding when you’re in the hospital, and much more. None of these things constitute “Christian ritual.” In a world where it is increasingly difficult for post-college adults to meet lots of people with whom they have a lot in common outside the workplace, these are just valuable community services. I think it’s great that they’re also made available to folks who don’t serve the FSM, too.

  2. Korky Day says:

    The Unitarians have been doing it for many generations. So why don’t all those people go there?

    1. J Clifford says:

      Because Unitarians possess many of the same problems as the Sunday Assembly, but with an even thinner veneer of non-Christianity. Unitarians tend to dominate everything with God talk that drives non-Christians away. Unitarians only THINK they’re inclusive.

      Bill, it sounds like the Sunday Assembly is perfect for you, as you acknowledge that you swerve back and forth in and out of theism. For people who are looking for a complete alternative, the Christianity-lite of the Sunday Assembly won’t suffice.

      People find everything you list outside of Christianity, and outside of churches, too – just not in one place. As we’re living in a culturally diverse time, maybe having multiple groups to depend upon is the best choice for sone people.

      1. Bill says:

        Sunday Assembly isn’t for me, J, no matter which side of the bed I wake up on. I prefer friends and associates who have beliefs, rather than disbeliefs, and positions rather than restrictions. Self-identified ‘practicing’ atheists define themselves by what they disbelieve and where they don’t stand. That particular Venn diagram leaves too much room for all the world’s flavors of crazies, skinheads, conspiracy theorists, corporatists, and many other kinds of folks I just can’t identify with and am not interested in hanging with. In short, atheism doesn’t define a community. Nothing wrong with that (in fact, one could argue that it’s an inclusive ‘big tent’, which I gather is supposed to be a good thing). I’m not criticizing it…it’s just not my cup of tea.

        You are absolutely right in saying that all the non-religious benefits of church that I previously listed can be found elsewhere, entirely outside of organized religion (you’re focused on Christianity, but here I’m trying to take a more ecumenical perspective beyond Christianity alone), so folks always have other opportunities to enjoy these same benefits through numerous secular organizations. And of course that’s a perfectly legitimate approach. For me, though, the smorgasbord approach lacks one important plus: a personal sense of community. ‘Community’ is such an over-used word nowadays, and so abused (particularly in the sense of ‘online communities’) that I almost hate to even utter the word, but there, I did. I personally feel that one of the more glaring deficiencies of today’s world is the lack of real community opportunities for many people. Say what you will about organized religion, one of its defining characteristics is that it builds real bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face, this-is-me-holding-your-hand-at-2-AM, I-knew-your-grandaddy communities. Smorgasbords, in contrast…not so much.

  3. Korky Day says:

    I think that Unitarian congregations vary quite a bit.

    1. J Clifford says:

      The Unitarian creed, and its basis in Protestant Christianity, doesn’t vary very much from congregation to congregation, in my experience. Neither do the rituals.

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