This may sound condescending, and the only thing I can do is insist that I do not mean it that way: I find it very heartening that some atheists have decided to start a church. Along with stories about humanist chaplains, I think this is a sign that popular atheism is “growing up.”
Again, I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Well, I do, in one sense. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others have been known more for what they rail against than what they are for. When someone insists that religion embodies everything that is wrong with the world, and that we would all be better off if only our thinking were more rational and in better order, I can’t help but think them a bit naive. In Christian thought, sin is pervasive, and infects everything we do—including our reasoning. This is why a raving religious fundamentalist and a non-believer who insists he is “spiritual but not religious” can express the same contempt for others in the same religious terms: “everyone who disagrees with me is a damned fool.”
But I believe that most reformations begin by rejecting something and then having to deal with the “what now?” When Protestants rejected papal authority they had to deal with the “what now?” of how they would organize and who would be in charge. It is not enough to be isolated individuals who share proper thinking. We must organize and effect change. That is what I mean by “growing up.”
Christian churches have operated with a theology that they enflesh or “incarnate” the Spirit of Christ, that they continue a ministry which he started himself. In secular language, it’s about how you live out what you believe and connect it to a larger, ongoing project. And it’s not just “walking the walk” on your own, because it doesn’t become real until it’s done in community, with a common purpose, with real human beings who sometimes get on your nerves or challenge you. If atheism is only about getting religion off our backs so we can enjoy life, then it is a juvenile atheism. When it becomes about how we can practice transforming society into something more humane and increasing our collective quality of life, all the while struggling with our own tendency toward evil, then it is growing up.
In terms of the condescending sense of “growing up,” I’ll also point out that it is far too easy to find examples of Christians who are immature, who are known more for what they are against than what they are for, who do not connect the tenets of what they supposedly believe with their way of life. So easy, in fact, that reciting all of the ways Christians fail to be Christian is tiresome, and I find that I tune out and start thinking about more productive ways to spend my time. I’ll also point out that anyone who thinks they are mature and that they have it all together is probably the most “lost” of us all. (Not coincidentally, this was Jesus’ chief complaint against the religious leaders of his day).
One part of growing up is having a sense of mission, and this is what really excites me about the concept of the atheist church in the article: Just because you believe in an accidental, purposeless universe does not mean human life—and your life—are without purpose. This seems to be a hard concept for many Christians to grasp about atheism. The mission (the author calls it a “mantra”) of the church in the linked article above is “live better, help often, wonder more.” Having a good mission statement is key to getting people on board with collective action of any kind. If you want to challenge the naysayers, have a clear yardstick for group decision-making, and motivate your people, you need a mission statement.
It’s also a reason you need a good theology—or “atheology”—of your mission. Why is what you do important to other people? Can’t they achieve that mission by watching a bunch of TED talks? Is there some reason people need to be “in the flesh” with other human beings in a group? For Christian churches, it is good to ask: Why do people in your community need Jesus? Why do they need church? Why do they need your church? If you really want to take it to the next level, ask these questions of your people.
While I am writing about mission with an air of authority, I do so tongue-in-cheek, with some sense of trepidation and humility. Though I do have quite a bit of experience in different churches, I’m in the process of planting a new church, and we’ll see very shortly if I’m able to live out what I write. The atheist church in the article started with 300 people. I hope we do so well!
I enjoy thinking about what it would take to plant an atheist church, because it helps me critically reflect on how I am planting this church, and what difference a theology of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit has on what I do. There are days that I have trouble believing in God, and what sustains me is the belief that I’ve been called to do this thing, regardless of how I feel in the moment, and not by my own power. Somehow, even in the midst of my doubt, God shows up. Again and again I witness the miracle of the mustard seed: a tiny bit of faith, planted and watered, which spreads like an invasive weed. (In atheistic language, it is a benevolent, infectious meme.) I hope to see the birds of the air come nest in its branches.