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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. jed

    I believe that something bigger than myself gave me existence and I call this God. Past that I do not know.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • Colin

      I call "I don't know" "I don't know"

      June 23, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      it did. it's called the universe.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Wow. I just call them Mom and Dad.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  2. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't have a hissy fit and drown the world because people didn't do what I said. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow priests to molest innocent little children. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • jkb1977

      So you would take free will away from humanity? I mean these repeated posts of yours are fun, but the issue of suffering is hardly one that's new to religion.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      no, I wouldn't take free will away. I'd just make man better and have him be good. There is an endless array of free will still available if you are good and the only options are to do good.

      Why would an omnipotent being make man so imperfectly unless he was a sadist?

      June 23, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • jkb1977

      That's the rub isn't it? If we live in a universe where truth is subjective, good cannot exist except in relation to evil.

      June 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow televangelists to use my name to steal money from poor people. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  5. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow disease. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  6. texasgirl

    After reading this, I would not categorize this church as atheism and hence a complete rejection of God. I would say your group is more a rejection of organized religion and what man has done to God's message. Organized religion, in my opinion, today hardly reflects Christ's original message.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
    • Colin

      No, we pretty much reject all sky fairies, Judeo-Christian and otherwise.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • sybaris

      Funny that your omnipotent god can't just step in and say, "Look fellas, you've mucked this all up, here's what I'm tryin to tell ya"

      June 23, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  7. sybaris

    Religion and the worship of a god is a filthy perverted way of life

    June 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  8. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow wars. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  9. TheVoiceOfOne

    So Atheist are fools. Prove that you are alive and blow your brains out.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • le.Observer

      TheVoice,

      Grow up.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Oh dear, aren't you clever?

      June 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  10. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't let three innocent girls be held and abused for 10 years. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  11. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't let tornadoes kill innocent little elementary school children. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    If I could stop a child from starving, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  13. Dyslexic doG

    If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  14. TheVoiceOfOne

    To The real Tom. Prove to us that there is no God. We are waiting.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • sbp

      Prove that Zeus is not the real god. Stupid argument. Which is not surprising.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Prove that Russel's teapot does not exist.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • le.Observer

      Prove there is a God.

      Let's move on to something possible.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • Candiano

      Can't get the hang of the reply button?

      June 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • jkb1977

      All claims about a transcendent God are unverifiable. It's just a matter of choosing which uncertainty you're comfortable with (or if you take a more utilitarian view, whichever makes you a better person.)

      June 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  15. jkb1977

    All well and good, but when will an atheist walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon while imploring reason to help him?

    June 23, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      no, he'll probably rely more on science.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  16. Science

    Funny stuff !

    Steve Martin Is "The Great Flydini" on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9xKU8eYCFk&w=640&h=390]

    June 23, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
  17. TheVoiceOfOne

    Jesus loves us all. Don't judge any atheist, just pray for them. They will be converted.
    We all start out blind but with Jesus their eyes will come open too...... Be bless everyone, God is real.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Why don't you tell your pals to pray for some brains. I haven't seen a single one of them post a thing that shows evidence of any cerebral activity whatsoever.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • sbp

      And you know this "for the Bible tells me so?" You can't try to convince people the Bible is true because it says so in th e Bible. That's like believing Harry Potter is real because it says "a true story."

      June 23, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Jesus loves me this I know,
      "Cause your babble tells me so!

      June 25, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  18. Lisa

    Science and logic are not mere beliefs. And it's way more far-fetched to insist that a deity exists in absence of any evidence than to proclaim that there doesn't seem to be any evidence of that existence.

    I guess some people do need "more" as you say but I personally feel there is plenty without the need for a deity. Humans tend to speak on behalf of their gods and it causes a lot of problems. If instead, we focused on the bigger needs of our species and our planet, maybe we could unite into a humanity that gives the same degree of satisfaction.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
    • jkb1977

      Science and logic are important, but science is not the only system of epistemology that humans use. People use religion to appreciate what is transcendent and not quantifiable (morality, mortality, a meaningful life, etc.)

      June 23, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Science is the one system that works.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Human morality is not derived from religion, it precedes it.

      June 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  19. Chad

    This is a fantastic step. There really ARE good things that come from community churches - but the irrational belief in what's very likely to be an imaginary being isn't necessary to be moral, do good things, and to strengthen the bonds between people. THAT'S what makes good things happen - people working together for a common good. People believing in a mythological deity? Few good things ever really come from that.

    Kudos to these humanists.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  20. mason

    Atheists skip the irrational and myths...

    June 23, 2013 at 9:58 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.