Atheist Church: An Exercise in Mimicry

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“And another thing: stop throwing your coats over the seat next to you. Leave room for latecomers. Yes, I’m talking to you, Leonard. What? Well, throw it over your lap, what do I care what you do with it? I should what? I will punch you in the pancreas you talk to me like that again! And turn your damn cellphones off! What? In the event of an emergency I will make an announcement and everyone can file out of the auditorium in an orderly fashion. How is that fascistic? So sit there like an idiot with the flames lapping at your heels, see if I care! No you can’t leave it on vibrate—BUT HOW DIFFICULT IS THIS? Do you want to come up here and do this? You think I like trying to encourage you miserable herd of passive-aggressive losers? I hate every last one of you! Die! Die! Die!”

I knew this was happening in the U.K., atheists getting together on Sunday mornings to mimic a church gathering of like-minded nonbelievers. Now we have an example in Houston, Texas, of all places.

But the 80 or so attendees at this new weekly gathering for nonbelievers come for many of the same reasons that others pack churches in this heavily Christian corner of the Bible Belt — a sense of community and an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the coming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.

“Just because you don’t believe in God does not mean you do not need to get together in community and draw strength from that,” said Mike Aus, a onetime Lutheran pastor who is now an atheist and founder of Houston Oasis.

“We are open to any message about life as long as no dogmatic claims are made.”

Like the inviolability of the innocents?

Oy.

Among the values preached (if that’s not too dogmatic a word): “Everyone should be accepted wherever they are as long as they are accepting in turn.”  In other words, Thou shalt hate thy enemies.

“Homo sapiens is a tribal species; we thrive in community,” he said. “There are elements of church life that serve human needs but transcend church life, like the need to gather, the need to be together. We can offer those in a secular way.”

That offer is getting a healthy number of takers — attendance averages 70 people, but has hit 100. Twice during a recent gathering, volunteers had to bring in additional chairs to accommodate latecomers, and some attendees reported driving over an hour to get there.

It’s a diverse crowd, ranging from high school to retirement age and including a number of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. They came in casual attire, in tune with the jeans and black turtleneck Aus was wearing.

Houston Oasis is part of a growing trend. Atheists and other nonbelievers have long gathered for events with meaning and music, but in the last year, a number of nontheistic groups have initiated Sunday morning events that include elements of a standard church service. The largest is London’s Sunday Assembly, which meets in a former church and has been turning away people due to lack of space since its launch in January.

A nega-church in the making.

I was curious about what actually went on during one of these events. Through means I would rather not disclose, I did manage to get hold of the order of service, as well as the notes from one of the Sunday morning “Announcements”:

Coffee hour has been cancelled. Apparently there was a dispute about whether the coffee was fair trade or merely organic and so it was all flushed down the toilet. The Habitat for Humanity project has been cancelled, as no one bothered to volunteer. It seems everyone expect government to take care of stuff like that. The Orangutans Are People Too seminar has been cancelled, as “Snippy” was “put down” after ripping Mrs. Winstead to pieces. The anti-anti-abortion protest has been cancelled. Seems the clinic in question has been temporarily shut down until the plumber’s strike is settled. The Robert Ingersoll Study Group has been cancelled. Certain members objected to his having been a Republican and a man. The Transhumanist Winter Solstice Gift Exchange has been cancelled because of confusion regarding genderless regifting. The wedding affirmation of Bob and Lindsey and Aaron and Leslie has been cancelled because the gift registry went on for 32 pages.The Anti-Malaria Fundraiser has been cancelled because, frankly, there are too many people as it is and evolution has reasons that Reason does not know.

Among some of the more popular hymns: A Mighty Fortress Is My Duplex, Amazing Nothing, When I Survey the Wondrous Key Ratings Demographic, and the Winter Solstice classic Silent Scream.

The readings from this particular service were taken from the transcripts of Lenny Bruce’s profanity trial, season 2 of the The L Word, and the Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel Cramp.

The Benediction was short and sweet: “Good luck.”

I will be curious to see what kind of shelf life this movement has. Eventually there will be splits and factions, even heresy trials for those who don’t not believe enough, closet agnostics, old-fashioned humanists who still believe in such a thing as human exceptionalism, etc. Some may apostasize and become full-throated believers, no doubt resulting in ostracization and disfellowship.

It will be nothing if not fun.

UPDATE (04/19/13): Interesting post on former ELCA Lutheran pastor Mike Aus.

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18 thoughts on “Atheist Church: An Exercise in Mimicry

  1. Your take on it sounds a lot like the Unitarian ‘services’ we attended back in our crazy ol’ couldn’t commit to a particular religion days. I am so happy we did “apostasize and become full-throated believers” So very happy!

    • I originally had a paragraph in there asking why they just didn’t join the Unitarian-Universalist Church, but assumed the answer was pretty simple: you could conceivably believe in a god and be a UU, while these folks are hard-core “Our nada who are in nada” types. (I have in-laws who are Unitarians, and so I have been to two or three of their services as a spectator. Very…one from column A, two from column B.)

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  3. It’s really easy to mock. Ever hear the equally-fair characterization of Christianity? “The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.”

    Anything can sound silly if you add enough snark.

    • I take your point BUT you don’t want a fair characterization of atheism. Trust me. Go for the laughs while you can.

      Also: your parody will always sit uneasily side by side with an entire civilization whose fruits we enjoy and that remains grounded largely on that faith, whether it acknowledges that heritage anymore or not.

  4. Why you being such a jerk about it, Mr. Sacramone? I’m a Baptist, but I see no point in mocking these people. Matter of fact, they’re clearly seeking spiritual solace, and ought to be regarded as a ripe mission field. A good evangelist would probably have 20 percent of them attending a proper Christian church in a year’s time.

    • Then get to it!

      Also, if you think these “churches” are harmless, I promise you: they are not. I speak as a former “atheist.”

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  6. “Aus” is a name I know well, from Norwegian Lutheran pietist culture. I don’t know if this guy is related to the fine Luther Seminary professor I met years back, before the seminary was purged of conservatives, but if so he’s just one of many. Now I shall go away and weep quietly.

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  8. Western civilization developed from Greek philosophy and Christianity. Chemistry developed from alchemy, and astronomy developed from alchemy.

    Therefore, Greek philosophy and Christianity are just as essential to western civilization as alchemy is to chemistry and astrology is to astronomy.

    Or, maybe the situation isn’t as simple as you imply?

  9. Wouldn’t they be better off with a guild or fraternity then a religion? That’s really what they want.

    • Yes, which is what makes this so odd. I can’t help but think that one of its purposes is to be a poke in the eye of traditional churches.

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