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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. GAW

    Folks just click the Report Abuse button for LOL @ ATHEISTS!!!!! as many time as you can.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • Namerike*

      Christians. Burning people and hating people for 2000 years. Worshiping a mass murdering rapist god and zombie son. Begging for money the whole time. An awesome group of forward thinkers

      June 23, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • NO2ATHEISM

      Do you have thin skin? Can't be a tough guy and take criticism as Christians do? Man up and grow thicker skin. there is nothing wrong with LOL @ Atheists comments.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Charlie

      Well, except every one of LOL's comments were outright fabrications.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • GAW

      @ NO2ATHEISM No it just goes to prove that he/she/it is just trolling. The button is there for a reason.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • christinelaing

      Actually, I think his comments should stay. The next time someone tells me atheists are rude, I'll link them to this post. They'll probably try to argue that he's not a "real" Christian, but most rude people imagine they are better than the rest of us and are manifestly wrong. That's a a fair definition of many of the religious, unfortunately.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  2. clubschadenfreude

    it's the "casserole effect". And it shows that people can be good without believing in some magical being that they want to pretend makes them better than everyone else.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • Dear 'fail joy'

      And your arrogance shows you to be superior....

      June 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Charlie

      The arrogance is all yours, fail joy.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  3. Damon Montano

    This is interesting, I would love to see this spread across the world. Atheists have had no place to be for far too long, its about time something like this appear on the land.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  4. LOL @ ATHEISTS

    Atheists say their opinions. You have no monopoly and often no grasp of the difference between your views and that of reality. More liberal atheists are on mood meds to deal with today's world and thus, drugged, their inabilities are obvious to all but them. Atheists commit suicide more then religious people do.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • tony

      You could have just said that, like teenagers you know everything, and everyone else is wrong. Because you say so.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • syz

      If you believe in science, you must be atheist.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • thedoctor

      Just a tip for future reference. Using "LOL" a lot doesn't make you look particularly bright. As you young teens say, "Just say'n."

      June 23, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • HA

      LOL @ ATHEISTS IS A TROLL

      June 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Saraswati

      You're saying that people whose religion says they are likely to go to hell for suicide (most religious people in theUS) kill themselves less? Well, wow...there's some brilliant insight.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  5. james

    it looks like they believe they need to meet together, see Hebrews 10:24,25 just can not get away from the principles and laws taught in the Bible and why sunday school? not saturday?

    June 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • tony

      Why Genesis 1:14. Why Exodus 14:18. . .

      June 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • tony

      Why Genesis 1:14. ? Why Exodus 14:18. ?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • james

      atta boy tony atta boy tony

      June 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      The Sunday choice is probably more cultural than having any bearing on religion. In the US, Saturday is generally held as the day to do chores, run errands, etc, while Sunday is more of a family day. It is the day that seems relevant for getting together with family and friends.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • james

      myweight, my point is that these things were either out of the Bible or from some religion and they are not very often in unison but religion seems to change things in the Bible for their own convenience. and so we see so much confusion about what the Bible really teaches which leads to so much hypocrisy and so many atheists but they still tag along the traditions of the false church that is so ingrained in society.

      June 23, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • The real Tom

      james: winner of the prize for longest single sentence of the day.

      June 23, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • james

      thank you tom. just saving periods.

      June 24, 2013 at 7:08 am |
  6. LOL @ ATHEISTS

    When Jesus wrote the Bible, he didn't mention anything about monkeys turning into men. Now atheists need a church to teach them this, lol.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • syz

      Jesus didn't write the Bible. Get your facts, please.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • james

      Jesus did not write the Bible but if you read it you will learn all kinds of good things that churches have misled the people to believe.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  7. LOL @ ATHEISTS

    Atheism gives one a way to avoid responsibility since one is not accountable to any moral authority.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • syz

      Morality comes from your gene. Religion doesn't teach morality, otherwise all criminals would have been atheists.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  8. Robert Brown

    God loves us so much that he gave his only son so that we could be reconciled to him.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • tony

      How do you know god had only one son? Because the son said so?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • ME II

      Well, "gave" is bit much. I mean where is Jesus now supposedly?

      And why would God need to "give" his son in order to be reconciled anyway?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Which is pretty much the most repulsive thing in religion.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Tony, I believe Jesus is the son. He gives us all the opportunity to be the sons and daughters of God.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • thedoctor

      1) Most people believe in one God. You people believe in three.
      2) What kind of God would allow the killing of his own son?
      3) Penn Gillette said it best, "God works in mysterious, inefficient and breathtakingly cruel ways."

      June 23, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Me, Jesus is in heaven. He is our advocate. His sacrifice was necessary to pay our sin debt.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • ME II

      @Robert Brown,
      "Jesus is in heaven"

      That's my point, God didn't "give" his "only begotten son", He just loaned Him out for about 30 odd years, right?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      My weight, there is no greater expression of love than to give your life for another.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • science

      Hey RB thought you getting warm the other day when you figured where water came from.

      Guess not ?

      2008 article from where RB

      June 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Doc, a non human one.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Me, kind of. He did suffer a brutal death, not that others haven't, but God had to allow it. Imagine watching your own child tortured to death. He gave.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • ME II

      @Robert Brown,
      1) When you know it's not permanent, how much 'sacrifice' or 'giving' is really involved?
      2) Compared to the torture already committed directly by God (floods etc) and yet to be comitted (eternal torture in hell), Jesus was nothing.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      @Robert,
      My weight, there is no greater expression of love than to give your life for another.

      That depends entirely on the reasons, doesn't it? All the nice platitudes in the world doesn't make it nice. The supposed need for this salvation, the idea that I would ALLOW another person to take my place in punishment for some evil thing that I have done, it is repulsive. Disgusting. Horrifying.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Me, I don't know. I think the separation was the worst thing for both, even temporarily.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      My weight, it is all those things and wonderful too. I didn't see my need until with the help of God I realized I was a sinner in need of a savior. I am truly thankful for what he has done for me which gives me the desire to tell others the good news.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • ME II

      @Robert Brown,
      "I think the separation was the worst thing for both, even temporarily."

      I assume you're talking about the amount of sacrifice, right? Comparing separation with drowning or eternal torture would seem rather absurb, right?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  9. LOL @ ATHEISTS

    ATHEISM = RELIGION.........just like any other Satanic religion.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  10. LOL @ ATHEISTS

    A set of beliefs is a religion, according to Durkheim. Atheism is a set of beliefs, therefore, it is a RELIGION.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • tony

      Dad. You already said that.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • LOL @ ATHEISTS Jr

      Please spend more time with me and less time trolling......I wanna play catch with you.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Atheism is not a "set of beliefs". Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. Period.

      That is not to say that a group of atheists can't get together and form a religion. However, atheism wouldn't be their religion. One of the set of beliefs in that religion would be that there is no god.

      Understand the difference?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • syz

      Atheism is not a set of beliefs. It is based on scientific evidence. Get your facts first.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Atheism is not a "set of beliefs". You only need a dictionary to see that...or to have lived in an English speaking country for more than a few months. Seriously, get an education and then come back to this conversation in a few years.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  11. LOL @ ATHEISTS Jr

    My dad is cooking up some more trolling posts for you atheists. Stay tuned.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • tony

      Takes a while to think them up, does it?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • LOL @ ATHEISTS

      Son, I taught well, why are you turning your back to the teachings I inherit in your life? Christ can only deliver you and set you free.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • LOL @ ATHEISTS Jr

      Yes it does Tony, My dad is a bit slow and he's mean. That's why my mommy left him.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  12. deol

    Atheism is the deepest thirst for God.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • LinCA

      @deol

      You said, "Atheism is the deepest thirst for God."
      Bullshit. I have no more thirst for your imaginary friend than I have for the Tooth Fairy.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • tony

      Religion is Satan's greatest and most successful Creation.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • KennyG

      Exactly. These people are actually searching for God but use services like this to cover up their concern. They know that there is come thing greater out there, and want to know where they came from. Science can't explain...

      June 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • Science

      Hey deol

      Was the universe was made in 7 days ?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • tony

      Belief comes from bypassing learning basic physics

      June 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Atheists do not "thirst for god" and these atheists gathering together are not trying to cover anything up or whatever you're thinking.

      They come together because they share a common interest and because they are social beings looking to make the world a better place.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  13. Nissim Levy

    Atheism is a lack of a belief in god, it is not a belief there is no god. Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to know if god exists or does not exist

    June 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  14. tony

    CNN needs to make an Atheism Blog if they want to publish supposed Atheism activities as news.

    Besides, its a growth area.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  15. andy

    Whats up with all the atheist articles from CNN lately?

    June 23, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • sybaris

      you scared bro?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Saraswati

      There are ten stories under recent posts and only one is about atheism.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • Andy

      No not all all just find is interesting. I guess it's just CNN and their agenda.

      When I say lately I don't mean in the last day or two I mean in the last year or so.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  16. proud2bsecular

    It is telling that so many of the comments about this article are thoughtful and probing. With the exceptions of the fundamentalist commentators, the flavor of curiosity and generosity in posts is striking. The concept that people shouldn't have to choke down dogmatic, unprovable belief systems in order to participate in community is revolutionary, in the best sense. Maybe this article will give more free-thinkers courage to connect.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  17. LOL @ ATHEISTS

    How moronic and hypocritical atheists are......so what excuse will they now have to blame religion for the chaos that's happening when they are RELIGIOUS themselves??

    HYPOCRITE MUCH, ATHEISTS FOOLS???

    June 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • sybaris

      Well uh we'll just do like we've always done and point to the followers of the Abrahamic god.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Leg called Samith

      A trolling we will go ... A troling we will go

      June 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • tony

      If those are atheists. Remember this a belief blog.

      BTW Atheists don't have to resort to name calling. They have facts and evidence on their side.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • One one

      You are the same one who said religion = atheism on the previous page. Who's the fool ?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  18. Stephen Okawa

    Atheism is simply this: a refutation of the statement: "There is a god(s)." That's it. That's all. All any atheist asks is that you provide EVIDENCE for YOUR CLAIM.

    A lot of you will probably think that I'm asserting this is no god. NO! I make so such claim. I retain the default position: That I don't know until it can be empirically or demonstrably proven.

    Example: A jar of marbles. You say it's even. I refute this. I'm not claiming it to be odd; I just want you to show me it's even. If you can't, then what good is your claim?

    Notice one important thing: Me refuting something is NOT a religion. Would you call my refutation of the marbles being even a "religion?" No. Theists simply can't handle that they can't provide evidence for their claim. Not one Theists has ever provided evidence...and I suspect none ever will.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Frank B

      But Stephen, if I offer proof that the jar of marbles is even and you except that truth, all you've gained is a finite knowledge. That may be good enough for you and nothing is wrong with that. People of faith are only saying that they thirst for something more than the finite, the touchable, something more than things that crumble. And there is nothing wrong with that either

      June 23, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • IntellectualViolence

      @ Mr. Okawa
      Point of order: refute means both to disprove something and to deny or contradict something (something = statement or theory).

      With due respect, your analogy breaks down here: You refuting 'something' is not analogous to an atheist's rejection of the supernatural (God, gods, etc). You denying that the marble count is even has nothing to do with the supernatural and can be empirically known, both hallmarks of religions.

      Atheism takes a position on the supernatural and is not empirically knowable. Atheism is more a denial. Stating a disbelief in the supernatural IS a belief system, just as complete as the theist's belief system that asserts the existence of the supernatural. One could argue that the theist's belief system is older, more comprehensive / complex, and generally accepted, but not that it is a more complete belief system.

      June 23, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  19. Casey

    So this week, CNN runs headline stories on a Church without God, a Traitor selling out the USA, a photo piece that attempts to glamorize gay people and that looked really sad to me, a story about the biggest legal drug outlet in the country, I could go on. We live in a very messed up time. I really can't see the US continuing as a great nation... there are just too many complacent and PC lemmings sitting idly by... while the lunatic fringe rams this stuff down our throats. Scary.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • thedoctor

      So.....CNN presenting stories you don't agree with is "ramming stuff down our throats?" Might I respectfully suggest a different news source? There are gays and there are big drug outlets; they are real. Should they not report on these things? Perhaps CNN should consult you before doing stories.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Meanwhile homicide rates are at a 60 year low, and other violent crime is down. I'll take this downfall of America if that's how you define it.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  20. Zarzook

    The fool said in his heart, there is no God!

    June 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • sybaris

      which god?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Zarzook
      "The fool said in his heart, there is no God!"

      A quite old and sometimes effective tactic – declaring that those who do not believe your story are 'fools'. Nobody wants to be considered 'dumb' for not seeing the Emperor's new clothes, or a 'bas.tard' for not seeing the Sultan's new turban, or a 'cuckold' for not being able to see the Miller's gold thumb.

      Even Joseph Smith used it when he gathered his 'witnesses' to his golden plates. He told them that only those with 'true faith' would be able to 'see' them.

      The ancient, primitive Hebrews who originated those Bible stories were quite adept at manipulative mind-games.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Zarzook

      You said, "The fool said in his heart, there is no God!"
      The smart man says it out loud.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • ME II

      "...anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." (Matthew 5:22)

      June 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
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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.