The First Church of Atheism

Imitation, as they say, is the highest form of flattery. Thus when your avowed enemies start copying, mimicking and adopting the very things they claim to hate, then you know something strange is going on. Atheists and secularists of course have made known their hatred of the church and of faith for centuries.

And when given half a chance, the God-haters will put feet to their God-bashing beliefs. The French Revolution is a good example of all this. There the rhetoric was regrettably matched by action. Recall the words of the revolutionary Diderot who infamously declared that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.

And the militant secularists certainly tried their best to carry out that bit of advice. As I have written elsewhere, “The viciousness of some of these secular radicals is seen in the amount of blood that was shed, especially religious blood. Thousands of clerics were executed (perhaps as many as 5,000), with many tens of thousands forced to flee, or renounce their vows.

“Numerous laws against religion were passed. Churches were closed, looted, and destroyed, and church properties were confiscated. People were forbidden from wearing crosses, church bells were not allowed to ring, religious processions were banned, and a secular war of terror was effectively unleashed on the French people.

“Atheists and secularists had a field day, with enforced celebrations of secularism and reason, ransacking of churches, ceremonial iconoclasm, and other activities associated with the Cult of Reason. A secular cathedral was built, the Pantheon, in which the gods of reason, liberty and fraternity were worshipped.”

While some atheists might like to see the same sort of secular tolerance carried out today, there are some who have moved in other directions – including those who are not ashamed to show the true religious nature of their atheism. Thus we now even have Australian atheists holding Sunday ‘church’ services.

Yes you heard me right. Here is what one write-up about this says: “For a churchgoer, it is utterly familiar, yet eerily different. There is a polished, urbane man up the front holding a microphone, and behind him is a large screen to display the words for the songs and any video messages.

“Next to that is the band, much more casually dressed. The assembly unfolds in the normal format: words of welcome, music, members of the congregation doing the readings, more music, a message, a communal greeting of the people near you, a rather embarrassed plea for cash in the collection hat, and a closing song, after which an impressive home-made cake is shared.

“But there is no cross, no altar, no prayer, no Eucharist, and definitely no God. And the sermon is something of a jaw-dropper: a sex therapist exhorting the congregation not to decry or fear the thing she loves, sex. Welcome to the Sunday Assembly, ‘part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time’, as its founder, English comedian Pippa Evans, describes it.

“Yes, you read that correctly: an atheist church. Explicitly designed to mimic a church service, but without ‘the myth and superstition’, Melbourne’s branch held its third monthly meeting last Sunday morning in South Melbourne – a pleasant hour of fellowship and shared purpose for the 40 or so mostly middle-aged people who made the trek from as far away as Croydon and the Diamond Valley.

“At first sight, an atheist church seems an oxymoron, an absurdity – like a football match without the football. Certainly some of the more devout atheists and Christians have criticised it on those grounds…. Thom Mann, the music leader on Sunday, gave his rationale in a blog a couple of months ago. Raised a Christian who finally found the faith irrelevant, he was also annoyed by ‘the overly self-assured tone’ of atheist advocate Richard Dawkins and his naive certainties.”

Evidently the theophobes miss the fellowship and sense of community: Former Catholic Pauline Diano put it this way: “I decided to get involved even before I came here. This isn’t about bashing religion – it’s giving people who aren’t religious somewhere to go and connect with other people, to congregate and feel uplifted and communal. There’s obviously things religion does very well, and these are what we are trying to tap into and make available for people who want that sense of belonging.”

So here we have a bunch of people who dislike God, faith and church, seeking to do all the things God, faith and church specialise in. Well good luck with that. That is like a bunch of vegetarians trying to recapture the wonder of eating their first Whopper or lamb souvlaki.

But while vegetarians can get a bit close with their vegeburgers and salad souvlakis, the atheists will be getting nowhere close to what they are trying to mimic and recover. Of course their aspirations are all good – but they only make sense in the worldview which they reject.

A longing for community and love of strangers makes no sense in the atheist evolutionary worldview, but makes every bit of sense in the Judeo-Christian worldview. Because even secularists are made in God’s image and live in his moral universe, they too of course can miss real community and real loving relationships.

But atheism is just not how they are going to get that, no matter how much they try to make their pagan church services in line with the real thing. You see, it takes God to make it all work. All the atheists can do is look longingly on what theists already have.

Even the God-hating Marx could get the problem right, at least to an extent. Yes alienation is perhaps the biggest problem we humans have to deal with. Yes we are all alienated from each other. But Marx did not take his diagnosis far enough or deep enough.

The reason we are alienated from one another is ultimately because we are alienated from God. It is because we are out of touch and out of sync with our maker that we are of course out of touch and out of sync with everything else: our neighbour, our world, even our self.

God came to restore that broken relationship we should have with him, so that these other broken relationships can also be restored. But it must be in that order. Without getting right with God, we will never be able to properly get right with others or with ourselves.

Scripture of course makes this quite clear – its ethical injunctions always assume this. The Ten Commandments make this plain for example: the final six commandments which have to do with loving our neighbour are preceded by and predicated upon the first four, which are about loving God.

Jesus also made this perfectly clear. He said the first great commandment was to love God with all our being. The second great commandment was to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Again, the latter cannot be properly done without the former.

In our unredeemed condition we may well have a desire for community, for the common good, for love of neighbour, and so on, but we are ultimately too consumed by sin and self to realise these goods. Only by seeing ourselves as God sees us – as sin-soaked and self-centred individuals who need to get back in proper relationship to Him – can we begin to get things right here.

So it is nice that these atheists are denying the dog-eat-dog world that their own worldview actually gives rise to as they look for something more, something better. But fake church services – even with so much of the content and vibes of the real thing – just will not cut it.

Only by getting back in right relationship with the author of love, community, and relationship will all this begin to succeed. So these folks can try to pump up the feelings, recreate the vibes, mimic the atmosphere, and plagiarise the spiritual goods, but can I suggest they will not succeed.

Indeed, I can guarantee they will not succeed. Try as they might, they cannot expect to get the best out of one another – either as individuals or as community – if they pretend God is not in the mix. As David Wells put it, “The experience of our modernized world leads us to think of it not only as the absence of God but, as it turns out, the absence of human nature. This is no coincidence. The death of God is always followed by the death of the human being.”

www.theage.com.au/national/you-gotta-have-faith-the-rise-of-the-church-of-nonbelievers-20130803-2r6q3.html

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6 Replies to “The First Church of Atheism”

  1. Dear Bill, It seems to remind me of the “Church” of Scientology. By the way on the 6th July Dublin held a Rally for Life attended by 60,000 people. Of course the high priests of Political correctness totally ignored it.
    Regards, Franklin Wood

  2. I know this is not the right place for this Bill, but as there’s no comment option at the end of William Lane Craig’s itinerary, may I take the liberty of noting that Dr.Craig is appearing at at least eleven public functions in Sydney, and just the one in Melbourne. I know Australia is often Sydney-centric, but surely eleven to one is slightly less than balanced.

    Rowan Forster.

  3. Hi Bill. Thanks again for an excellent comment. One thing is for sure, that any atheist “church” cannot last long, for what is there to ‘worship’, or discuss. There is simply no rationale for its existence!

    What is heartening amidst the secularist and atheistic climate of today, is that once again, and as so often before, God raises up his own witnesses to himself from time to time to confront the atheists on equal terms and with ability to engage with them intellectually, philosophically and spiritually. I am sure you will be aware of the powerful apologetic ministry of one such, William Lane-Craig in the USA. He speaks to university students world-wide, sometimes numbering many thousands, and thereby the seed of sound Christian theism and Gospel truth is being sown in many young lives. He is more than adequate to understand and answer in debate the thinking of most leading modern atheists, such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Kappell and Wolpert amongst others. I strongly recommend his website: http://www.reasonablefaith.org), and particularly his gracious and yet powerful answer to Bishop Spong in a debate on the resurrection of Christ. The latter pretends to accept orthodox Christian belief, but really believes only in a “spiritual”, but not the bodily resurrection of Christ.

    Graham Wood, UK

  4. This is not atheism, but paganism. All the early pagan basically was about sexuality and thus there is nothing new under the sun. Trying to be unique, when they are just returning the their roots of old.

    Ian Nairn

  5. It’s intriguing, but probably built on a false premise.

    Many socialising type clubs and societies already exist, and the community service ones (Rotary, Apex, Lions and local activities groups) already do a good job in a non-religious way.

    There is nothing in this to provide cohesion – the atheist is looking out for number one, so it will be difficult to “share a vacuum” with other like-minded people.

    I agree that this will fade after the initial interest and curiosity value have been exhausted.

    John Angelico

  6. No, it certainly can not last, but I wonder if in a small sense these services might be more honest than many of the established church so that, when they fall apart at least some who are determined to continue in their quest for truth find the One who said “those who are of the truth will hear my voice”.
    I am astonished at the fact that they have maintained the Sunday for the day to hold their gatherings and not chose another day as an expression of rebellion against that which they on one hand copy and on the other hand reject.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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