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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. Christ was gay

    Religion dulls the mind and makes witless zombies of the masses. Why do you think Einstein and Fermini were atheist? The truly great person does what's right because it's right, not because an imaginary friend says to.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Aleks

      Really? Don't you know that majority of great scientist were devoted christians?

      June 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Christ was gay

      Devote... no. Just because you are a scientist doesn't make you smart.

      Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were atheist too

      June 23, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  2. atheism is

    the devils delight

    June 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • most pedophiles

      are christian

      June 23, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • nope

      @most...
      nope

      June 23, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • donnylone

      That's right

      June 23, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Sorry genius.... I don't exist.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Community Building

    Blame is the key word here. Religion plays the blame game with everything. There's always something broken that needs to be fixed and someone to point the finger at. I can't stand the idea that everyone is inherently bad and needs to be "saved" by believing what someone else tells you is true. That's really why religion can't stand non religous people (besides the fact that religions don't really like anyone who isn't part of their crew). They can't cope with the idea that someone could be a good, honest, caring person without being part of a religion because their religion teaches them that in order to be a good, honest, caring person, you must be religious, so any non religious person, by default, is bad. They will never see it any way but their own and anyone who doesn't go along with the script(ure) is a sinner and deserving of ridicule.

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

      Community Building,
      Every great empire at its peak was willing to steal, kill, and destroy to increase its own power.
      This is the record of mankind from the beginning of time.
      Show me a nation at its strongest point that does not use its power to invade and steal what belongs to its neighbors and I will show you a people who doesn't need "saving".
      Jason

      June 23, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Community; What you state is on target. I understand that most people are raised with 'faith' and retain this faith as adults. But why the need to convert others? Why the insecurity about their faith. If they were not so inscure they wouldn't be trying to convert others or insult others that don't have the same faith as they do.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Amara

      Nice one!

      June 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  4. Rick

    Unless you change the definition, you are not chaplains nor clergy.

    Psalm 14

    King James Version (KJV)

    14 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • That's convenient

      Well, someone's saying something that doesn't go along with your view, then they're wrong. Let's just fix it with a line of dialogue.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      So, no one but Christians can be clergy? Tell that to the Jews, the Muslims, the Pagans, etc...they all have clergy, and chaplains too.

      June 23, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
  5. atheism is

    the unpardonable sin

    June 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Why is it that you post lie after lie? Is it through repet!tion you believe that claims of any of the thousands of gods will somehow gain credibility?
      Atheism itself is just not believing in anything supernatural. ANything else said about it is just YOU projecting YOUR beliefs without understanding the facts, and there fore is you bearing false witness, which is one of your gods top ten no-nos.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • G to the T

      Actually, I'm pretty sure telling the holy ghost to go screw itself is the only unpardonable sin...

      June 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  6. Jason Beckford

    Myweightinwords,

    Remember that there is a big difference between TRUTH and FACT.
    Atheists believe in fact and so do Christians, but we don't confuse the two.
    You have been mislead my brother.
    J

    June 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Jason, isn't it folly for you to speak for all christians? I know many christians that do confuse what you are calling 'truth' (I would call it faith), with facts. For example, those that insist the christians myths are facts.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      1) I am not an atheist.
      2) I am a woman.
      3) I believe in Truth. I just don't believe in your truth.
      4) Truth without fact is not true.

      June 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  7. atheism is

    the lie that kills

    June 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  8. atheism is

    the lost leading the gulible

    June 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  9. atheism is

    a deterent to the progress of mankind

    June 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  10. Rob

    Does Epstein include jew-worship in his canon?

    June 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  11. atheism is

    absolute evil

    June 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  12. atheism is

    an insult to moral dignity

    June 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  13. atheism is

    stupidity in action

    June 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • you are

      a liar

      June 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • nope

      @you...
      nope

      June 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Yup

      @nope
      Yup

      June 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • pothead

      @nope you dope

      June 24, 2013 at 12:17 am |
  14. atheism is

    a haven for liars

    June 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  15. atheism is

    the cause of death for untold millions of innocents

    June 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • christians get

      the most abortions

      June 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • atheism is

      the reason there are abortions

      June 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • nope

      @christ...
      nope

      June 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Yup. Look at the stats. Dare ya.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  16. atheism is

    a deadly mistake

    June 23, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  17. atheism is

    The last refuge of the selfish

    June 23, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • Lou

      We are not the ones waiting for a deity to make things all better for us.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things..

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

      prayer = spell casting

      June 23, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  19. Dave H

    This is awesome, and I'm not an atheist so hopefully they don't preach that there is no God, because really, it isn't about what you believe, it's about what you do.

    June 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  20. No way Atheists!!

    Exposing Atheists.......google it and see how evil they are.

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

      I'm an atheist, and I think when people describe me, "evil" isn't one of the adjectives they use. I think they use pretty much the same adjectives they use for their religious friends.

      June 23, 2013 at 3:25 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.