The first atheist church has opened in London, and it serves as yet another reminder of three important facts connected to the ongoing cultural struggle between many believers and non-believers. First, principled atheism is as much a faith as is theism; no matter how much many atheists would have us believe otherwise. Second, the human longing for community transcends the often bitter divides about where to find it and how to celebrate it. Third, like most so-called firsts in the world of faith and no-faith, this one is not really new.
Very few, if any, ideas or institutions are truly new. Virtually everything that we celebrate as new has its roots in something else, and that is especially true when it comes to religion. For example, before there was Christmas, there was Hanukkah. And before there was Hanukkah there were yet older celebrations of light in the midst of darkness - some Greco-Roman and others Zoroastrian. Of course, each of these traditions is unique, but none simply fell from the sky as fully formed novelties. Each emerged from a context which included predecessors which they both mirrored and altered, and the same can be said for this “first” atheist church.
While there may be no precedent for this kind of church in England, Americans have been playing with idea of church without God for generations. Perhaps best known, and most durable, among these experiments is the Society for Ethical Culture. Founded in 1877 by Felix Adler, the society did not actively embrace atheism. It simply pursued “deed over creed” and assumed that both theist and atheist beliefs were entirely personal and largely irrelevant.
That the society was founded not only by a Jew, but by the son of noted Reform rabbi Samuel Adler, also fits within a tradition in which arguing against the very right of God to be God goes back to the Genesis story of Abraham. Not to mention the fact that according to recent studies of the American spiritual landscape, Jews are the most highly secularized religious group in the nation. They would eschew the term religious, but functionally, that is what it is. They are part of a community of meaning, values and practice which draws on a shared past and identifies with a collective present and future.
Like their predecessors, the newly founded atheist church of England, seeks to create meaning and offer a sense of belonging for those who lack what one of its founders describes as “the good stuff of religion.” They see no reason why “theological disagreement” should keep people from enjoying that so-called good stuff, and especially in a world where decisions about worship are made increasingly based on what works for the worshipper, not based on some pre-existing theology or creed, that seems like a more than reasonable claim.
In fact, while I am not at all sure that a monthly meeting arranged by a performance artist and a comedian, as is the case in England, will be able to deliver all that they promise, successful spiritual ventures have started with far crazier stories. Not to mention that to recognize the power of no God, is not so different from recognizing the power of some newly identified God or prophet, which is the founding story of pretty much every faith tradition.
And it is for placing itself on the same continuum as theistic systems, that I am most grateful to the founders of this new church. The decision to believe or to disbelieve is just that, a faith claim. Nobody can know for sure when it comes to finite beings making claims about either existence of non-existence of the infinite. But, as this new church reminds us, we can see more of ourselves in each other than we often do.
In recognizing that we all make the decision to believe or not for a variety of reasons, with some going back and forth about exactly where they stand on that issue, we can recognize that both faith and non-faith are personal journeys which seek both communities of affirmation and the possibility of finding greater purpose and meaning in our lives. Perhaps it is because we are so very alike, we believers and non-believers, that some of us fight so hard to distinguish ourselves from each other. Perhaps.