When the Atheist Builds a “Church”
While the first wave of the movement was anti-God and anti-religion, the second wave wants to reclaim religion, but in a godless shell. – Groothuis
Anthropologist of religion, T. M. Luhrman notes in The New York Times that “Atheist services have sprung up around the country, even in the Bible Belt, many of which are associated with Sunday Assembly.” This church, non-church was founded—perhaps appropriately enough—by two British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Sunday Assembly gathers number around 200. They draw “thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of hands,” according to Luhrman. Another New York Times story speaks of an atheist leader admitting that their services are still looking for “a sense of transcendence.” Ex-clergy man Jerry DeWitt presides over Community Mission Chapel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their statement of purpose says in part:
Our mission is to gather community while promoting a foundation of hope, trust, and love thus bridging tolerance through common secular values. We will bring the excitement into the hearts of freethinkers without exposing them to any supernatural aspects. We can provide all of the music, merriment, and ministry to our passionate growing secular crowd and still have it devoid of supernatural praise.
I could go on. Religion Without God, by the distinguished philosopher Ronald Dworkin (d. 2013) was his last philosophical statement. Barbara Erehfeld, the best-selling social critic, recently released a memoir of a spiritual experience she had long ago as a child. Taming a Wild God goes to great length to chase God out of this experience, lest her atheism be violated.
Atheist spirituality is a movement worth watching. This surprising and significant development merits some hard thinking.
When atheists refer to spirituality, they mean some natural state of being which is conducive to human fulfillment. Since atheists do not believe in the soul or in any non-material reality, “spirituality” cannot mean something pertaining to the soul or life in God-directed world. Prayer, for example, is not part of it. Neither is worship, since there is no one there to receive it. However, atheists may celebrate the greatness of humanity or revere certain secular saints. Their basis for spiritual gatherings and personal spirituality is anthropology and psychology, not theology. How might this be justified?
First, the atheist worldview is grim indeed, as many atheists admit. Humans need some philosophical adrenaline to go on, in order to ferret out some meaning somewhere. These atheists, then, are seeking solace in a universe that is “just there,” as Bertrand Russell put it in his debate with Frederick Copplestone in 1948. It was not put there for anyone by anybody. “A Free Man’s Worship” had to face these unforgiving facts:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
So wrote this atheist in 1903 in his much-republished essay.
Second, atheists through the ages have typically either ignored the philosophical and cultural significance of their atheism (happy oblivion) or have kept a stiff upper lip about it. They call it being mature instead of indulging the gentle fantasies of childhood. In The Myth of Sisyphus, atheist Albert Camus said the only philosophical question worth bearing in mind is whether or not to commit suicide, since all is absurd without God. His answer was No, since man finds meaning through his encounter with the absurd. Absurdity will not yield to human aspirations, even those of a literary genius such as Camus. If all is absurd, then all wresting with the absurd is absurd as well. Logic will allow for no release from this philosophical prison.
I write with confidence, after forty years of studying philosophy, that no one drank deeper in the well of atheism than philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900). Read part of his “The Madman,” from The Gay Science:
THE MADMAN. Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto…”
Atheism is earth-shaking. Nothing remains the same in its wake. Clear-eyed Nietzsche braces himself against the godless reality before his eyes.
- The cosmos is severed from meaning, design, or purpose. We are “plunging continually” through a void.
- Therefore, we can never find solace in anything outside the cosmos. There is no transcendent realm by which to steer our course through the exigencies and vicissitudes of life.
- Therefore, we must realize that everything in existence must be deracinated from the purposed existence of God. Everything changes; nothing is left the same.
Having felt the force of the two points just argued, what is left of religion for atheists? What spirituality might they claim?
Some want to build on anthropological observations about “the sacred” for their gatherings. Humans need rituals related to life’s basic themes, such as birth, maturity, death, and sexuality. Belief in God—or some sacred reality—can be safely fumigated from that these sanctions of man. In her New York Times essay, Luhlerman attempts to explain why rituals remain meaningful without traditional religious beliefs.
Another part of the answer is that rituals change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. In “The Archetypal Actions of Ritual,” two anthropologists, Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw, go so far as to argue that ritual isn’t about expressing religious commitment at all, but about doing something in a way that marks the moment as different from the everyday and forces you to see it as important. Their point is that performing a ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect.
This response trades on a false dichotomy and commits an odious philosophical crime. First, rituals must involve both beliefs about reality and the significance of the rituals. The very reason why a ritual “focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect” is precisely because it celebrates or commemorates something taken to be objectively true, to be factual. Partaking in Christian communion is meaningless and not worth doing if one fails to believe that (1) Christ instituted his event (2) that Christ was not crucified and resurrected (3) that Christ provides our redemption, and (4) that the observance has significance today in light of (1)-(3).
Second, we expose the philosophical crime by letting the words of “the madman” echo in our ears. If atheism is true, no human action—ritualized or not—has any meaning, value, or significance. “Dust in the wind,” as the Kansas song put it, is all there is, was, or ever will be. Or, to return to the critique of Camus: If all is absurd, then ritual is absurd, and spirituality for atheists is absurd as well.
Man, by nature, needs to be bound to something real beyond him and this fallen world. As Francis Schaeffer put it, we require a sufficient “reference point” existentially and philosophically. The reference point for atheism is a meaningless universe and humans who are vainly living in comprehensive vanity. In The Psychology of Religion, Cornelius Van Til wrote that, given their false worldviews, opponents of Christianity can only try to “integrate into the void.” That void is no place for human development. However, by studying non-Christian thought:
We can learn from…something very striking as to the devious paths in which human thought has gone in order to escape the necessity of facing the living God.
The true living God cannot be escaped by staggering down the devious path of spiritual atheism. Neither logic nor experience nor tradition can smelt spirit out of mere matter.
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary where he heads The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Program.