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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. ironwolf56

    Judging by the photos these are the kind of people that drive Prius's and listen to NPR too. I wonder if they ever realize they're the definition of out of touch ivory tower leftists?

    June 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      So...you can tell what people drive, what they listen to and what they think just by looking at a picture of them?

      That's an interesting talent you have. Got any proof of it's accuracy?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • nothern Light

      You have another talent as well.....you are the poster child for the word "bigot"

      June 23, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  2. TIM

    I pray to the easter bunny since he is more believable then the controlling things the bible cannot prove.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • j

      You'd be an idiot then because vast portions of the Bible have been confirmed.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Oh? What portions would those be? The fact that some of the names of people and places jive with the historical record?

      Show us this confirmation, would you?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Jason Beckford

      TIM,
      Why would the bible need to "prove" anything at all to the like of you?
      The burden of proof is on the one bringing the charges.
      J

      June 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  3. No way Atheists!!

    It would be so helpful if Atheists would identified themselves with a sign or a t-shirt in their every day life. Something simple like "this is what happens when you mix hatred and ignorance". When blogging, we GET that something is really wrong with you, but people just bumping into you in life....yikes.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Read what you posted. Can you really say there isn't hate in what you post? There clearly is ignorance.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Damocles

      Awww... someone said something you didn't like and you think it's hate.

      Need a hug?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Roger that

      If you want to learn how to hate, really hate, then I suggest reading the Bible.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • GAW

      Hmmm..Same person New username?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • proud2bsecular

      what a sad soul you are. plagerizing my comment that was directed at NO2ATHEISM. Sad (and not a huge sign of intelligence) not be even be able to come up with an original comment.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • G to the T

      Yeah! Or maybe an armband or require that they all wear a patch on their clothes... wait... where I have I heard this before?

      June 26, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  4. Jason Beckford

    By the way, the TRUTH, by nature will be self-centered. Anything that is absolute truth will have to be precise, thus making it so called "self-centered". SO WHAT!

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

      Who gets to define "absolute truth"?

      Maybe the absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth? Ready to embark on that paradox?

      We are all human beings. We all must live with the fact that what we believe isn't fact. We believe, but we can't prove. We can't KNOW. It is just the way of human existence.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  5. mac101

    Folks ought to try the Unitarian-Universalist congregations – they have been doing something very similar for centuries. Famous UU's include Henry David Thoreau, John & Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, Marian Edelman, Louisa May Alcott, the list goes on and on. http://www.UUA.org.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  6. Jason Beckford

    Pooh-Pooh is as Pooh-pooh does, sir. God DID create human fellowship. This is why He gave us the rules and reasons to govern it. To try to take God out of it, and one thing you will find for sure....that these atheists in hiding "nones" will have "none" reason to meet after a while.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      As long as atheists are human beings, there will be reasons to join together. It is about building community and making the world a better place, just like it is for hundreds of thousands of faith based communities.

      Including the Muslim ones and the Jewish ones and the Pagan ones and the Buddhist ones, etc...

      June 23, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  7. NO2ATHEISM

    Atheists even hate each other. I see them spewing hate at each other every single day, so what are they learning in their "church"?

    June 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • NO2ATHEISM Jr.

      But dad why do you hate me? You spend most of your time on the web.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • GAW

      Read the sign folks "Don't Feed the Trolls"

      June 23, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Charlie

      Oh, you mean similar to what you're doing right now against atheists? Hypocrrite.
      Pot, meet kettle. Gonna change your handle again?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for haters

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZ_BSz8H5qo&w=640&h=390]

      June 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  8. NO2ATHEISM

    Namerike*
    It's hard for you to understand. But we don't respect you. We have read your book and see through you. Nothing fails like prayer

    Well, Namerike*, There is nothing to understand about atheism, it's very clear how ignorant their religion is. Atheism has no respect for human life, much less respect the belief of others. You read the bible, but clearly failed to read it and understand it with an open spiritual mind. The prayer of a sinner is never heard, that's why yours has failed because you want to look at God as if he lives in a bottle where it can be rubbed and God will come out to grant your every wish while you keep being an atheists/sinner......IT DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY, BUDDY!!

    June 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

      Visit a zoo and watch an animal, secular by nature, and it will explain every thing about hindu atheism, ignorant self center ism of hindu secular s, ignorant self centered man kind.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Charlie

      Again, more Christians commit violent crime than atheists. And nearly 80% of women getting abortions are Christian. So you are lying. BAM! 9th Commandment broken.
      Hiding behind the "I can get into heaven just by asking forgiveness for every crappy thing I've done"...IT DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY, BUDDY!

      June 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  9. Greg

    It's not a church....it's a social club...church comes from the New Testament word for ecleesia.....can't have church outside if scripture....

    June 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      So no religion but Christianity has "church"?

      Pretty self-centered idea, if you ask me.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Chicken in the bread pan pickin out dough

      It's all BS

      June 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • ME II

      @Greg,
      Merriam disagrees:
      Origin of CHURCH
      Middle English chirche, from Old English cirice, ultimately from Late Greek kyriakon, from Greek, neuter of kyriakos of the lord, from kyrios lord, master; akin to Sanskrit śūra hero, warrior

      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/church

      June 23, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  10. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Actions without truth absolute, constant of their essence are just an idea, having no value, and an idiotic, secularist approach ends in a hind disaster, Way of hindu secular s, self centered, animals by nature, not of human.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  11. Lou

    The absolute arrogance of Christian to poo-poo this, they act as if they created human fellowship.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • bao

      agreed! They act as if ideas like 'dont kill eachother', 'dont steal stuff from your neighbors' and 'respect your elders' didn't exist until 2000 years ago 🙂

      June 23, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  12. Aleks

    It looks like USSR had tried all of that before.
    Millions have died in result. There is no true compassion w/o God.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Maksim

      It was done to control people, not in the name of atheism. You need to learn history, comrade.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      There is no true compassion from the Christian concept of god.

      I only found true love and true compassion once I'd walked away from Christianity.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  13. NO2ATHEISM

    Atheism is a self-worship religion and they constantly are killing people every single day in the name of self-religion. Just look at the news and see for yourself.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      I think you would like to blame atheism for most "killing" but an objective eye sees differently.

      Atheism, as a general rule, does not include worship, of the self or anything else because atheism does not believe that a god exists. If there is no god, why worship?

      Worship is, by and large, an artifact of the Abrahamic faiths.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

      So does hindu Lucifer, crook self centered of all, god of hindu atheists, self centered goons pretending to be to be god themselves.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Lou

      I worship Humanities ability to bring to reality what is first seen through observation of the natural world and our ability to manipulate it to our will. It is not the one but the whole that I would like to protect and see go into the stars to secure our race's future.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Smith

      I prefer the word 'Worship' to not be in my vocabulary.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Lou

      The "faithful" would have us fight while we wait for superman to come and save us instead of us saving and bettering ourselves

      June 23, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  14. salami oladapo r

    There are two character in this life. Good and evil. And i want u to ask urself one question, how does the two manifest?

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

      Through choices. No different then right from left. Which do I choose? The necessary one.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Jason Beckford

      Atheism is equal to a child looking up to his parents and saying "If the world is really round, than make it spin faster, then I will believe it is round!" Who are more self-centered...Christians or Atheists?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • G to the T

      1 – "good" and "evil" are abstract, subjective concepts. 2 – Which is more self-centered – believing you are a special creation, watched over by the all-power creator of the universe or believing that you are a very VERY small part of a VERY large universe with all the importance that implies...

      June 26, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  15. NO2ATHEISM

    Most atheists have Christian, Jewish, or Muslims family.....I guess their family are worthless to them because atheists don't know how to value life.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • Namerike*

      We just look down at them. Feel sorry to them. And invent reasons to not give them money

      June 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Charlie

      More Christians commit violent crimes than atheists. More Christians abort their fetuses than atheists. Cate to try that again?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  16. LB

    This is a step towards evolution with community. There are still "divine" universal laws such as law of attraction and concepts such as forgiveness and love although the dogma that is overemphasized by the various religions does more to hold people back nowadays than it does to progress conscious living through the evolution of consciousness.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • lol??

      A mind is a terrible thing to lose.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • TIM

      And what makes that "DIVINE". Since Divine also means to Discover by guesswork or intuition. I do hope you were not referring to the whole Fictional Bible thing.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  17. tony

    CNN Deceptive or Incompetent Journalism. front page link: "Atheists copy churches, skip faith"

    Same meaning as "Journalists can't spell and write crap"

    June 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  18. NO2ATHEISM

    Poor pathetic atheists, what religion are they going to chose to blame for the world's disaster? I want to blame the religion of atheism.

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

      Yup! It was we who parted the red sea and caused the massacres of the Tsunamis.

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

      Really? How about blaming who is responsible: men, in the name of religion.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • NO2ATHEISM Jr.

      Don't pay attention to my dad he has a lot of time on his hand.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Namerike*

      It's hard for you to understand. But we don't respect you. We have read your book and see through you. Nothing fails like prayer

      June 23, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • lol??

      Namerike*, who was yer N*i*g*g*e*r* last year??

      June 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • proud2bsecular

      It would be so helpful if you identified yourself with a sign or a t-shirt in your every day life. Something simple like "this is what happens when you mix hatred and ignorence". When blogging, we GET that something is really wrong with you, but people just bumping into you in life....yikes.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  19. Pokydoke

    Religious people base their lives on myth, fantasy and fiction, Atheists don't.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • TIM

      So true. If you believe in the bible then you have to respect those who believe in fairies that live under their house. Both carry the same proof and evidence.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  20. Community Building

    It's nice to see people who want to improve the lives of the people around them.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • GAW

      Are you talking about the people in the article or the people who post the comments? 🙂

      June 23, 2013 at 2:51 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.