home
RSS
Church without God - by design
Members of an atheist congregation at Harvard listen to music during a recent gathering.
June 22nd, 2013
11:25 AM ET

Church without God - by design

By Dan Merica, CNN

Boston (CNN)-– It’s Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a rapt congregation listens to a chaplain preach about the importance of building a community.

A few dozen people sit quietly for the hourlong service. Music is played, announcements are made and scholars wax poetic about the importance of compassion and community.

Outsiders could be forgiven for believing this service, with its homilies, its passing of the plate, its uplifting songs, belongs in a church.

If so, it’s a church without one big player: God.

Sunday’s congregation in Cambridge is a meeting of the Humanist Community at Harvard University and the brainchild of Greg Epstein, the school’s Humanist chaplain.

A longtime advocate for community building, Epstein and his group of atheists have begun to build their Cambridge community and solemnize its Sunday meetings to resemble a traditional religious service.

To Epstein, religion is not all bad, and there is no reason to reject its helpful aspects.

“My point to my fellow atheists is, why do we need to paint things with such a broad brush? We can learn from the positive while learning how to get rid of the negative," he said.

Godless congregations

For Epstein, who started community-building at Harvard nearly 10 years ago, the idea of a godless congregation is not an oxymoron.

“We decided recently that we want to use the word congregation more and more often because that is a word that strongly evokes a certain kind of community - a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world,” he said.

“It doesn’t require and it doesn't even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”

Epstein is not alone in his endeavor. Jerry DeWitt, who became an atheist and left his job as an evangelical minister, is using his pastoral experience to building an atheist church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

This Sunday, DeWitt's congregation will hold its first meeting as a "Community Mission Chapel."

"When you become a part of this congregation, this community, you are going to become part of a family," DeWitt told CNN. "There is an infrastructure there for you to land in. There is going to be someone there to do weddings and to do, unfortunately, the funerals."

READ MORE: Unbelieving preachers get help to 'come out' as open atheists

Sunday school for atheists

As members of the Cambridge congregation file into a wood-paneled classroom at Harvard, singer Shelley Segal greets them with a few songs from her latest recording, called simply, “An Atheist Album.”

Taking a hint from the theme of the event, Segal strums on her guitar and belts her song, “Gratitude.”

“I don't believe in a great power to say thank you to,” Segal sings. “But that won’t take away from my gratitude.”

Harvard's humanist chaplain Greg Epstein leads an atheist gathering.

After the music, Epstein offers a few words of greeting before the meeting gets to its heart: a discussion about compassion.

A four academics and a journalist discuss the effects of religion on raising children and their ideas about compassion. Congregants listen intently, some even taking notes.

Each service has a message – compassion, evolution or acceptance - after which congregants engage in a lengthy discussion.

Before the main event, kids are invited to what some parents refer to as “Sunday school,” where Tony Debono, a biologist Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaches the youngsters about evolution, DNA and cells.

There's little talk about organized religion, positive or negative.

Likewise, down in Louisiana, said his atheist services will not be anti-religion.

"What we are looking at doing is different," DeWitt said. "If you are a religionist and you come and sit in our pew, the only way you can leave offended is because of what you don’t hear and what you don’t see. We won’t be there to make a stance against religion or against God."

Coming out of the closet

In the last few years, the number of “nones” – those who don’t associate with any organized religion – has grown at a rate faster than any other group. Nones now represent one in five Americans, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll.

Although the number of atheists has grown, too, there are still a large number of “nones” that choose not to associate with the label “atheist.”

Some at Harvard’s Humanist congregation fall into this category.

“I don’t particularly have a religion,” said Anil Nyer, a neurologist who brought his daughter to Humanist Sunday school. But Nyer also said he didn’t want to label himself as an atheist.

One reason to shy away from the atheist label: Many Americans hold a negative impression of nonbelievers.

According to a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans believe that atheists are changing American culture for the worse.

“Whenever we put atheists on a list like this and we compare them to other groups, atheists tend to come in towards the bottom of that list,” said Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.

“Americans tend to hold a lot of reservations about atheists.”

Epstein hopes his congregation can change that.

By formalizing meetings and building a strong community, the Harvard group hopes it can be a model for other atheist congregations forming around the country.

A group meets during an atheist gathering in Boston.

More atheists may come of the closet if they know a congregation will be there to support them, Epstein said,

“Being an atheist is something we want people to come out and be,” said the Humanist chaplain. “There are so many people, probably millions, who are humanists or atheists or nonreligious in private and nobody knows."

Epstein said he gets e-mails daily from people founding atheist meet-up groups.

“Tulsa, Oklahoma; North Carolina; London; Vancouver, Canada; Houston, Texas,” Epstein said, listing the sources of the most recent e-mails.

“One part of what we are saying is come on out and let your neighbors know” about your disbelief, he said. “It is not going to make you worse of a person, it is going to make you a better person to be more open about who you are.”

Rituals for the irreligious

For the last few years, the Humanist Community at Harvard has operated out of a small three-floor walk-up off the bustling streets of Harvard Square. The walls are littered with posters about atheism – tributes to famed atheists Eddie Izzard, Seth MacFarlane and Stephen Fry.

Because of the scattered furniture and the Harvard dorm feel, Epstein jokingly describes the space as “college broke chic.” That’s being generous – but it's also about to change.

Starting in the fall, the Humanist Community at Harvard will begin meeting in a nearly 3,000-square-foot community center with an event space for nearly 100 people.

Although the plan is to use the space at the group’s headquarters, it will also serve as a broader community center for the group that Epstein and others are trying to build in the Boston area.

“What we really would like to see is a community center where people can come by at anytime and to use it as a space to study or have a meeting for various committee,” said Chris Stedman, the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard.

Stedman said he sees the new building as a place for people to gather, not only to become part of a humanist community, but to also become more engaged with the world.

When he talks about his plans for the future, Epstein appears to long for a time when the new community center could mimic aspects of church - a place for baby-naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals.

The success of an atheist church will depend on walking the thin line between too much and too little ritual, Epstein said.

Humanists boast a proud freethinking streak, and some at the Harvard event said they don’t want to be associated with any sort of dogma or belief system - or even a system based on disbelief.

Anyway, Esptein said his congregation will be less a group of people united by beliefs - or disbelief - and more like an opera, or a painting.

“Our community is like a work of art," he said. "Hopefully people will respond to that work of art and it will garner controversy and discussion like a work of art."

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Church • Houses of worship • United States

soundoff (6,897 Responses)
  1. Adam

    Few people realize that we lose all reason for the existence of value, purpose, and meaning if God does not exist.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • snowboarder

      adam, that is just plain nonsense. who teaches you such idiocy?

      June 23, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Barbara Young

      Snowboarder: Now, Now, Guys, it is known that when your Spirit returns to Heaven between death and rebirth, that the DivineLove you experience there is held within your Spirit and subconscious once reborn. Why children are so happy and loving. God starts you out with a boost and then up to the consciousness to determine the right over the wrong, the non-loving compared to the Loving. Love is a high EM field vibration, while anger and hate are in the minus – the minus is dis-ease forming, Love is healthy and a high EM Field, but not as High as when you are giving the Christ Son a Hug and if you are Luckey, a Great Hand Scoops you up and you are now in the Living Presence of God the Father and Mother. Now that is True Ecstasy and Peace and there is nothing you can think of to say to your Father.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • Barbara Young

      Snowboarder, Adam is right, if you place someone in a Faraday cage that separates you from the Life Force from God that comes from the center of this Galaxy, you will die, but before you do, you turn very angry and hateful. Why? if all of man were cut off from His Life Force, what do you think will happen to their personalities and your quality of life?

      June 23, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • G to the T

      WHAAAAAAAAAT? People work in Faraday cages all the time. It the only way to be isolated from outside signals when you are working with sensitive instruments. I'm pretty sure if people were dying/going crazy in them, we'd have heard about by now... Honestly Barbara, I have NO idea what to make of you.

      If just goes to show that there are as many types of christianity as there are christians. So much for not being the author of confusion...

      June 25, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  2. NEVER

    This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen. These people are not atheists.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • IslandAtheist

      Did your invisible friend tell you that?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • NoOneLikeJesus

      Says who? You? Because you are an atheist and don't believe one should be in a church, he/she isn't an atheist?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:56 am |
  3. Kosta

    I may not be perfect, but Jesus thinks I'm to die for.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • be honest

      sad we didn't have therapist back then, jesus sure could have used one

      June 23, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Dan

      and Santa is going to deliver presents to all the good little boys and girls

      June 23, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      That needs to be on t shirts and bumber stickers! Love it!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Tim

      Well then, you might as well say "I may be naughty or nice, but Santa thinks I deserve presents.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • sybaris

      Actually your Jesus man died for nothing. If it really existed then it was actually just spirit in flesh who rented a human suit for a while then poofed itself back to where ever it came from.

      Some sacrifice.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  4. jmfthird

    Here in North Central Texas, I am a member of a Humanist group and I'm very frustrated that the movers-and-shakers of the group want us to define ourselves in terms of our non-belief - and we are faced with dwindling numbers and interest for the same reason. I don't believe in god as a spiritual being, but I can think of "God" as the highest and finest in a human being. That thinking helps me in life. But I am met with condescension and marginalization when I express that in my Humanist group. The community described in this article seems to be putting the "free" back in freethinking, and that is very encouraging. My hat's off to them and I wish them the very best.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • why

      What if this free thinking involves dining little kids. Where is the standard?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • snowboarder

      @why, dining?

      June 23, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  5. Cheerios

    This is what happens when a group of washed up hippies are unable to find a marijuana dispensary . Some of the world's worst mass murdering dictators of the 20th century were atheist. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol-Pot......

    June 23, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Gadflie

      Hitler wasn't an atheist. And, how many of the others killed in the name of Atheism? None. How many have killed in the name of their "God"? Too many to count.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • be honest

      yes,, dictators and religions destroyed innocent lives world wide. They are no doubt the same as they make up stories and demand people believe in them,, and use fears to make sure they do.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Tim

      Your response is what happens when people make blind assertions about things they know nothing about.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • be honest

      stalin had his good upbringing in the ministry. Hitler claimed he was catholic to the end. The vatican cut a deal with hitler.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • Dan

      That is a pretty weak argument for believing in talking snakes, magical ribs, people walking on water, an invisible magician in the sky, etc.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  6. Michael Johnson

    This is a great idea. I hope it catches on. You don't need to believe in God to ponder questions brought in in religions. Am, I my bothers keeper, comes to mind, as a question we should ask ourselves. You don't need to believe in God to see the need of people coming together to address community needs.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • be honest

      yes, religions did steal thoughts and phrases from good people. Sadly, religions and god believers still can't get it right.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  7. Dan

    Shouldn't you brain-washed religious fools be giving 10% of your income to the child molesters at your church right now?

    June 23, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • be honest

      and the religious allowed the vatican's popes, bishops and cardinals to commit the worst crimes, the cover ups. The cover ups destroyed the child, the final blow.

      Why don't governments arrest these sick and disgusting men

      June 23, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  8. Disanitnodicos

    Marxism has the same structure as most religious. Most religions have this structure: Do X today, receive Y in the future, but with no evidence that Y is ever actually forthcoming. For instance, Christianity says, Give your life to Jesus (Do X) today, and go to Heaven (receive Y) when you die, but there is never any evidence that happens. Let's look at that in Marxism: Overthrow capitalism (Do X) today, and live in a communist utopia (receive Y) tomorrow, but there is never any evidence that this has happened. In fact, in all places where Marxism has been followed, the exact opposite happens, the living conditions turn horrible, many people are killed, and the state has to repress speech and the press so people can't talk about how bad things are.

    But for some reason, people are very susceptible to charlatanry: buy this snake oil today, cure your whatever tomorrow. The charlatan gets your money; you never get cured.

    People just need something to believe in. If it's not one of the established religions, it will be some other form of structure, whether a cult, or Marxism. So all of these irreligious people seeking structure in an atheist church are easy targets for charlatans, and most specifically the snake oil salesmen of Marxism.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Bostontola

      Well said, now look at your religion/beliefs.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Cheerios

      Well said! There is definitely a connection to be found between the "secular humanists" and Marxist ideology.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • Gadflie

      That's actually funny. Yes, the two organizations have similar methods. But, you didn't notice that the Atheists have already had the strength to reject one. Why do you think that this makes them more likely to fall for the other? Your reasoning is lacking.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • sybaris

      Religion, the ultimate ponzi scheme

      June 23, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • Fortune holds more for the bold

      Well said and Karl Marx knew exactly what he was doing, the grand imposter and manipulator that he was

      June 23, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  9. sybaris

    The difference between me and your god is if I saw a child being ra.ped I would try to stop it.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Dan

      Good point. I would rather worship you if I had to choose.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • sybaris

      At least you would get a real answer to your prayers

      June 23, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  10. lolCAT2000

    So these people believe in nothing but themselves

    June 23, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • sybaris

      Why don't you believe in Zeus or Ra?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Dan

      They believe in facts and evidence, things that you are not familiar with.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Bostontola

      Typical theist reasoning, only 2 choices, believe in god or yourself only, you're with us or against us... There are many other choices, open your mind.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Dan

      There is a lot more proof that I exist and no proof that your imaginary friend exists.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • lolCAT2000

      @Dan oh really? So tell me, how are you a "fact"?

      June 23, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • lolCAT2000

      @sybaris are you sure you know enough about me, Zeus and Ra to make such a statement?

      June 23, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  11. Kosta

    Kids can't read the Bible in school, but are encouraged to read it in prison. Maybe if we allowed them to read it in school, they might never end up in prison.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Gadflie

      Your ignorance is showing. KIds can read whatever they like in their free time in school. The rule is that the government can't decide to make them read a religious work.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  12. Dan

    It must be make-believe day again.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  13. Bostontola

    Religions greed for souls have led to many wars. It is so deep that they don't just kill people of other other religions, they break into sects and kill each other. That is an amazing thing about belief in an infinite god, it obliterates rational thinking.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • be honest

      they are confused people. Imagine living your life as a child threatened with hell, told you are a sinner, chant and sing songs of euphoric nature .. Oops, isn't that brainwashing?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  14. John P. Tarver

    These relativity and biology deniers are not oxymorons, just the regular kind.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • why

      Its a Church of rebellion.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  15. Dan

    It's not a church. It's a place where intelligent people can be together.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • be honest

      the gods need to keep their sheep in place.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  16. Vinifera

    So when calamity strikes, what will the church of atheism offer as consolation to those affected by Boston bombing, ? Answer: nothing. It's a bankrupt and, as Francis Collins put it, irrational work view. What a joke.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Dan

      What do you have to offer besides some fairy tales?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:46 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      What do religions offer? 'It was god's will'. What nonsense, it could only comfort children and fools.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Gawd

      You are the one that needs to grow up.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • sybaris

      If you need religion or a church in order to prompt you to be benevolent then you are not inherently a nice person.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • snowboarder

      vin, the same thing any church offers, human support.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:56 am |
  17. In God We Trust

    ^^^^^^^^

    June 23, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • be honest

      we do need to get rid of that. We also need to throw jesus out of this country

      June 23, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  18. Omg

    Gandhi : I like your Christ

    June 23, 2013 at 9:41 am |
    • Rolph

      But not your Christians

      June 23, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  19. Rolph

    And I say Hallelujah !!!!😃😃😃😃
    It's about time

    June 23, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  20. Disanitnodicos

    If these atheist churches get big, you can count on them to be infiltrated by Marxists seeking easy recruits to the religion of Marxism. I wouldn't be surprised if it's already happening. When I hear "atheist church," I think Marxism.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:41 am |
    • Bostontola

      Typical of theist to live in the rear view mirror.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:43 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      When I religion, I think cowards. People so afraid of the truth they will believe childish stories. Magic apples in magic gardens, ha!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • be honest

      how odd,, I thing christian parallel when you say markism.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Gadflie

      That's because you have bought into your church's brainwashing.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:02 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71
Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.