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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. Colin

    Actually Observer, the Bible does mention abortion, but in exactly the opposite way that the Bible-cuddlers like to think.

    In Hosea 9:11-16, Hosea prays for God’s intervention. “Ephraim shall bring forth his children to the murderer. Give them, 0 Lord: what wilt thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts. . .Ephraim is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit: yea though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb.”

    Clearly Hosea desires that the people of Ephraim can no longer have children. God of course obeys by making all their unborn children miscarry. God effectively performs the abortions.

    Also, in Numbers 5:11-21, the description of a bizarre, brutal and abusive ritual to be performed on a wife SUSPECTED of adultery. This is considered to be an induced abortion to rid a woman of another man’s child.

    And in Numbers 31:17 (Moses speaking) “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every women that hath known man by lying with him.” In other words: women that might be pregnant, which clearly is abortion for the fetus.

    Hosea 13:16 God promises to dash to pieces the infants of Samaria and the “their women with child shall be ripped up”. Once again this god kills the unborn, including their pregnant mothers.

    2 Kings 15:16 God allows the pregnant women of Tappuah (aka Tiphsah) to be “ripped open”. This is another likely abortion reference.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  2. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    Ok then. Since I am an atheist I reject supernatural cr.ap. However I am a humanist and I value human beings individually and collectively. I prefer thought and evidence over doctrine or faith. To equate humanism, a system so described, to satanism, a system so full of crap, was confusing.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  3. R.M. Goodswell

    "But there are some who have not the ability to know when to muzzle their mouths and would even dare spout curses before a King."

    This day and age nobody should bow to anyone because of a t itle, because they happen to be born to the right family....nobody. and especially not to an imaginary mascot a church uses to scare money and obedience from the ignorant.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  4. Observer

    Bootyfunk,

    Good point.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  5. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    Erasmus are you ok? You seem a bit disoriented.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  6. myweightinwords

    If you were talking to me about trolling...no, I'm not trolling. I'm being serious.

    Modern Satanism, that practiced by The Church of Satan, is humanism, dressed up in a shock jock drape.

    Luciferianism, the actual worship of Lucifer is a different story, but still doesn't include "magic powers" or "wizardry". It is merely a branch of Christianity that chooses Lucifer over God.

    Then, there are the Maltheists, who believe that the Christian god is real, and the bible is his word, but that he is evil and worthy of scorn and unworthy of any worship or obedience.

    I count as friends people who claim one of all three of these religions as their own.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  7. The real Tom

    Why is abortion your biggest concern? Why don't you do something to prevent unwanted and unplanned pregnancy? Why don't you advocate for comprehensive s3x education in public schools?

    Are you doing ANYTHING proactive to prevent the need for abortion?

    June 24, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  8. Erasmus

    Words of wisdom

    He who believes there is a Satan, believes the Bible is true. Another believer!

    June 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  9. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    Not a troll. A cowardly post and run.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  10. Erasmus

    Your Pep Pep's Bones

    God can't be that if he doesn't exist? I mean you have the the right to rant, just please do it logically.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  11. Erasmus

    Where did you learn about Satan, just curious, since he's only mentioned in the Bible. Glad to see your reading it atleast, actually you must of studied it as well, i mean to know all about satan vs God and all. How long you been a Bible believer, i mean, the Bible is quite clear satan exist and the Bible has convicted you of that, again how long have you been studying?

    June 24, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  12. Bootyfunk

    let them know it does mention abortion - only in a positive way, as a means to rid a husband of a wife's conception by adultery. the bible never says abortion is bad though. so it seems the bible promotes abortion, at least in certain circ.umstances.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  13. Observer

    Bootyfunk,

    We are both right. I was referring to the actual word being used in the Bible.

    June 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
  14. Bootyfunk

    i think this is great. one of the things in the plus column for religion is that it brings neighbors together (of the same faith anyway). people seem to feel more comfortable expressing emotion and affection at church. it allows people who might not otherwise spend time together to meet and get to know one another. if you remove the religion from church, it becomes more of social strengthening without the brainwashing. reinforcing that logic and compassion should guide us. sounds like a good thing to me.

    June 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Me too.

      June 24, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Vic

      Brainwashing and Communism are almost synonymous!

      June 24, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Vic,
      Brainwashing works, communism doesn't. Brainwashing and belief in god is a much more synonymous.

      June 24, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      what does communism have to do with it? communism is a political system.

      June 24, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Vic

      Atheists founded Communism! No offense intended.

      June 24, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • Vic

      Humans perceive God sentiently; Communism Brainwashing uproots that!

      June 24, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      all communists are atheists, but not atheists are communists...?

      June 24, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • Commenter

      Vic,

      There are all sorts of Christian Communists (and Socialists). Many say Jesus espoused some of those policies.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_communism

      June 24, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      humans don't perceive god at all. that's the problem. no proof of any invisible sky fairy.

      you can be good without god. it's true. try it.

      June 24, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Vic,
      You need to look up synonymous.

      June 24, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Len

      Communism has never worked. There is no way that independent, rational, evidence-loving atheists would choose to support a loser ideology like that. Of course, Marx wasn't against God so much as he was against organized religion's manipulation of the working class.

      A lot of God believers aren't fans of organized religion any more either, especially the "relationship, not religion" crowd. Care to call them communists too?

      June 25, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • Nice Try

      Bootyfunk… You stated, "humans don't perceive god at all. that's the problem. no proof of any invisible sky fairy."...

      Answer: You should speak for yourself and talk what you know. You don't know what other people perceive…

      June 25, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • Nice Try

      Bootyfunk.. You stated, "you can be good without god. it's true. try it.

      Answer: Even Jesus Christ himself calls you a liar. Mark 10:18 – And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.

      June 25, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • HotAirAce

      And who the fvck is jesus and why should care?

      June 25, 2013 at 12:56 am |
  15. Bostontola

    The thing I like about this church, no worship.

    June 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • Nice Try

      Bostontola… Proverbs 14:12 – There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

      June 25, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • Commenter

      Nice Try,

      Do you think that your (Bible) way is right? Well, there ya' go...

      June 25, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  16. Bootyfunk

    wrong. the bible does mention abortions, but never in a negative way. in fact, the bible gives a recipe for an abortion potion. it only works on adulteresses. seems the bible is pro abortion, not anti.

    June 24, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  17. Cpt. Obvious

    The only Zimmerman I worship is Dylan. What the fvck are you on about?

    June 24, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  18. Bob

    Sounds pretty much like most other religions. Just don't ask questions...

    June 24, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  19. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    oooh WIW, such a provocative statement. Trolling?

    June 24, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  20. Observer

    The Bible NEVER mentions abortion, but hypocritical Christians love to fantasize that it does.

    June 24, 2013 at 9:39 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.