Church without God: How secular congregations fill a need for some nonreligious Americans

Shared testimonies, collective singing, silent meditation and baptism rituals – these are all activities you might find at a Christian church service on a Sunday morning in the United States. But what would it look like if atheists were gathering to do these rituals instead?

Today, almost 30% of adults in the United States say they have no religious affiliation, and only half attend worship services regularly. But not all forms of church are on the decline – including “secular congregations,” or what many call “atheist churches.”

As a sociologist of religion who has spent the past 10 years studying nonreligious communities, I have found that atheist churches serve many of the same purposes as religious churches. Their growth is evidence that religious decline does not necessarily mean a decline in community, ritual or people’s well-being.

What is an atheist church?

Secular congregations often mimic religious organizations by using the language and structure of a “church,” such as meeting on Sundays or hearing a member’s “testimony,” or by adapting religious language or practices in other ways.

For example, there are a growing number of psychedelic churches, which cater to people looking to experience spirituality and ritual through drug use. There are also secular organizations that promote the idea that people can live forever, such as the Church of Perpetual Life. Members believe they can achieve immortality on Earth through radical life-extension technologies such as gene editing or cryonic preservation – freezing bodies after death in hopes that they can someday be resuscitated.

These secular congregations often appeal to atheists and other secular people, but their main purpose is not promoting atheism.

However, “atheist church” organizations like the Sunday Assembly and the Oasis explicitly celebrate atheists’ identities and beliefs, even though not everyone who attends identifies as an atheist. Testimonies and activities extol values like rational thinking and materialist philosophies, which promote the idea that only physical matter exists.

There are also long-standing humanist and ethical communities that promote secular worldviews and provide secular ceremonies for major life transitions, like births, funerals and weddings. The American Humanist Association, for example, describes its values as “Good without a God.” And for decades, Unitarian Universalist congregations, which grew out of Christian movements, have drawn on teachings from both religious and nonreligious traditions, without imposing specific creeds of their own.

But there has been a recent rise in secular congregations that explicitly mimic religious organizations and rituals to celebrate atheistic worldviews. Many have just one or two chapters, such as the Seattle Atheist Church and the North Texas Church of Freethought.

However, Sunday Assembly and the Oasis have networks with dozens of chapters, and Sunday Assembly has been dubbed the “first atheist mega-church”. Many chapters of Sunday Assembly see hundreds of attendees at their services.

Atheism in the dictionary
Atheism in the dictionary (Photo by Lobroart on Shutterstock)

Testimonies, singalongs – but nothing supernatural

Many features of atheist churches in the U.S. are directly borrowed from religious organizations. At Sunday Assembly, where I spent three years doing research, services include collective singing, reading inspirational texts, silent reflection and collecting donations. They center around a central lecture given by a member of the congregation or a member of the larger local community. I attended one service where an astronomer gave a talk about the New Horizons spacecraft’s mission to Pluto. At another service, a member of a local community garden organization talked about building community through her community garden program.

Atheist church organizers I met told me that they intentionally borrow the structure of a church because they see it as a good model for building effective rituals and communities. More generally, the structure of a “congregation” is popular and familiar to most attendees.

However, there are key differences. Sunday Assembly has no hierarchical structure, and there is no pastor or minister, meaning that decisions are made by the community. Attendees share duties for running the services and finding speakers and readings.

The other key difference is the complete lack of reference to the supernatural. Lectures and rituals I have encountered at atheist church services are centered around affirming atheistic beliefs, celebrating science, cultivating experiences of awe and wonder for nature, and creating communities of support.

Sociologists of religion call these practices “sacralizing the secular” and “secular spirituality”: activities that enable nonreligious people to express their shared beliefs and cultivate a sense of belonging and purpose.

One example is collective singing: borrowing a familiar aspect of religious services that can give members a sense of transcendence. Most Sunday Assembly chapters have church bands that lead singalongs to pop songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. When the astronomer talked to Sunday Assembly about NASA’s mission to Pluto, the congregation sang “Across the Universe” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles to reinforce their reverence for the vastness of the universe.

Another borrowed ritual is the sharing of testimony. Many Sunday Assembly services involve a member standing in front of the congregation to share something they learned recently, to express gratitude, or to affirm their atheistic beliefs by sharing why they left religion.

Some atheist communities, although not Sunday Assembly, even engage in “debaptism” ceremonies in which they renounce their former religion. Some atheists I interviewed sent their debaptism certificates to their former churches as a way of solidifying their new nonreligious identity.

Change ahead?

As rates of religious affiliation continue to decline, many scholars and pundits have argued that there will be a decline in community engagement and other important indicators of well-being, such as health, happiness and people’s sense of meaning and purpose.

However, atheist churches are an example of how nonreligious Americans are finding new ways to meet those needs. A member of Sunday Assembly told me: “I honestly can’t think of a word to describe it. I mean, ‘life-changing’ sounds stupid, but Sunday Assembly just helped so much. I’ve always struggled with depression, and I’m so much happier now that I have this group of friends who share my beliefs and who are trying to do good out in the world with me.”

Atheist churches are still fairly new, but studies have shown that participation in them and other types of atheist organizations can bring social and emotional benefits. In particular, it can help atheists buffer the negative effects of experiencing stigma or discrimination.

Whether the atheist church trend will continue remains to be seen. But such churches’ recent growth is evidence that they can work much like religious organizations to build community, cultivate rituals and bolster well-being in a time of religious change.The Conversation

Article written by Jacqui Frost, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    1. The fool[a] says in his heart,
      “There is no God.”
      They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
      there is no one who does good.

      Read full chapter
      Psalm 14:1 The Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient.

    2. Baphomet is the only true God. The bringer of Logic, Reason, science and technology. The one who liberated man from the shackles of the Tyrant Christian non-God.

      Praise Baphomet.
      All Hail Baphomet.

      1. I dare your “god” Baphomet to strike me down.

        My God is LITERALLY (much) bigger than your “god.”

    1. Do not sin against Baphomet.

      Although Baphomet is forgiving your sin will earn you the condemnation and exile from the rational, thinking, moral community.

      Praise Baphomet. All Hail Baphomet, the bringer of logic, reason, science and technology.
      Praise Baphomet, the one who lifted mankind out of the clutches of the false Christian God.

  1. In English, the words “god” and “God” can have very different meanings. In western civilizations, they’re based on prior Hebrew and Greek words that referred to gods, but not a God. There’s no God in the ancient sources. Lots of gods, but none named God. All the gods had a personal name. Jews of 2500 years ago named their god with the third personal singular of the root that mean “to exist.” Their god was “that which exists.” IN modern English — objective reality. If I readiiy acknowledge that god while rejection Christianity, am I an athiest?

    1. If you mean that you acknowledge that there is a singular source by which all things exist and are kept in existence, then I would say no you are not an atheist. Thomas Aquinas spent most of his life defending this view of what God is.

      1. No, he sounds like a rational and intelligent individual, while you sound like one of the empty headed NPCs who have dragged our country down to the bottom. Idiots like you reject any rational thought because you lack the IQ to do anything but pout. Burton’s comment is thought provoking, if you are capable of thinking. Why this “God” or another? Why any “god” at all? Who created “gods”? Who made who?

    2. your name and my name starts with a capital letter. In my case C C S.
      same with god – it is a thing not a person
      while God is the name of a person, im our case, G_d… , who you say ExISTS. exist meaning it is for real.

    3. I agree that the words “god” and “God” can have different meanings, but, in my understanding, an atheist does not acknowledge/believe in any god at all (Christianity having nothing to do with it).

    4. You make the old mistake, or pretend to, of confusing the human messengers with the Message. And that Message is Jesus Christ, and what he did for his Chosen of the human race. Now we human beings do all sorts of bad things. Even Christians. But Jesus NEVER did anything bad, and only did good, and taught love for each other and even your enemy. You know, turn the other cheek, and all that stuff. So don’t go blaming anybody else for your not being a Christian. You know and have heard about Jesus. It’s between you and Him. But sometimes God, and Jesus doesn’t want that person, and doesn’t call the person to Jesus, and they’re not saved, and that’s the person’s fault. As far as the stuff about the many god names, ect ect, ect, blah, blah, blah, it was around 3-4 thousand years ago when God started to lead the Israelites. They could only take so much, but it was the only God, there are no others and he was guiding them.

  2. Something doesnt come from Nothing, Prove me wrong. God Exists. The problem is everyone wants to creator of the universe to be their slave. You are not meant for this life. SCIENTIFIC, ARCHEOLOGICAL prove some of these things and IF some of these things are true the possibility of God is on the table. Choice is yours. You go to God, He doesnt serve YOU.

  3. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul, inspired by God, wrote in Romans 1:22-23, “Professsing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incoruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”
    And in verse 25 it further states, “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, amen.”

    Men have always been foolish, dysfunctional, and empty without the true God.

  4. Hebrews 11
    Faith in Action
    Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. …
    This is the real faith…

  5. Baphomet is the only true God. The bringer of Logic, Reason, science and technology. The one who liberated man from the shackles of the Tyrant Christian false-God.

    Praise Baphomet.
    All Hail Baphomet.

  6. Methinks here is another case of trying to rewrite the meaning of traditional words. These groups may claim to be nonreligious. That is not the case. They are very religious. They just reject traditional religions while creating another

  7. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Actually nothing is published. This is my fourth comment. Where are the other three…censored?

    There are many other comments on here that lack any thought or good debate and are still published?!

  8. Wow,how sad. For one to be so arrogant to believe there is nothing greater than us. We are microbes in the universe…yet we are so vain as to think that because we were created in His image that we too, are ‘gods’. Guess we’ll all find out in the end. I for one, have no issue with having blind faith. If it makes me happy- why should the world care? Does it make me less intelligent than you? As I’ve gotten older, I marvel at life- all life. Even things I detest (spiders)…seriously though, from insects up to humans, all life is a miracle. We all fit together in this spinning orb so well. I feel for those that are so empty they strive for a substitute I speak as a widow who has lost her anchor. Yet I know that I could not have made it this far without Him.

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