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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. mama k

    SHfO wrote: "Thirty one states have child abuse religious exemption laws."

    What would be an example of such an exemption?

    June 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Ohio has a religious exemption from testing and treatment for tuberculosis. It lets parents use “a recognized method of religious healing” instead of medical care for a child sick with tuberculosis.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Pennsylvania have religious exemptions from prophylactic eyedrops for newborns. The eyedrops prevent blindness of infants who have been infected with venereal diseases carried by their mothers.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • mama k

      Oh my. Thanks, SHfO. That is awful.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      You're welcome.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Vic

    Wow...who is masquerading me now?!

    June 25, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Vic

      Wow...who is masquerading as me now?!

      June 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Dippy

      Who would want to?

      June 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Doobs

      @ Dippy

      Aw, beat me to it...

      June 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Truth

      Atheists proving they are no better than the rest of us. Thanks for the reminder.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  3. bostontola

    I have many Christian friends, most are very intelligent. Their beliefs don't bother me at all, that is their choice. Why would some Christians be bothered by a Humanist church?

    June 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • lol??

      Stop bothering them. You don't need to be makin' any "agreements" with em. You know, the ol' "agree to disagree" dialectic forked tongue talk.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Truth

      Who knows why they are bothered? Why are you bothered that they are bothered?

      June 25, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Madtown

      Yes, why. Why are some christians bothered by other same-gender humans loving one another? Many unanswerable questions.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • bostontola

      1. I never said I had an agreement.
      2. I never said I was bothered, I asked a question.
      Some Christians are so used to making stuff up, they don't even notice as they are doing it.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Truth

      Some atheists are so angry they just assume anyone that speaks against them is a Christian.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • lol??

      Stop bothering THEM, slippery cream pie.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • bostontola

      Truth,
      First bothered, then angry. Making stuff up isn't Truth.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  4. lol??

    The church has lined up Hillary Clinton to push her latest book, "How to Beat Out Your Neighbor in the Commodities Game by Cheating With Red Bone". It's subt**tled, "Find Your Own Bone".

    June 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Ted

      Liar. You have to loie and make up stuff to make your point.
      One Hilary is worth a million of you..

      June 25, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot!!!!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEF7IoQ3eUk&w=640&h=390]

    June 25, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  6. fred

    Religion explained well:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPOfurmrjxo&w=640&h=390]

    June 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  7. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    Look at what is happening in Christianity today.

    Today Christians are denying gays civil rights by opposing gay marriage.
    Undermining science classes with requests to teach Intelligent Design.
    Seven states prohibit atheists from holding office, Pennsylvania, Maryland,
    Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.
    Thirty one states have child abuse religious exemption laws.
    Faith healing churches have been linked to 2 dozen child deaths.
    Use biblical arguments in congress even though we are a secular nation.
    Tenn. Rep. Steven Fincher argues that god is opposed to food stamps.
    The Good News Clubs, sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship,
    meet in 3500 schools and teach children as young as preschoolers that they
    are born with dark sinful hearts and that they deserve to die and go to hell.

    June 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "Seven states prohibit atheists from holding office, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas."

      Thankfully (due to the first amendment) these are unenforceable. However, in several of those states, due to the nature of the electorate, it is unlikely that an 'openly atheistic' candidate would be elected.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • Truth

      It seems like you are only focusing on the bad things.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Hey GOP, just ask Herb Silverman!

      June 25, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Truth

      Are you ignoring the bad things?

      June 25, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Secular Humanist from Ohio

      I googled Herb Silverman:

      "In 1990, a colleague pointed out that atheists were ineligible to hold public office in South Carolina. After an eight-year battle, Herb won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which struck down this religious test requirement."

      I'm unsure of whether you were making a point there.

      June 25, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  8. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot!!!!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-4NFvI5U9w&w=640&h=390]

    June 25, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Barf

      I'm my own best friend!

      June 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Science

      Just add water................idiot /chad / Austin

      Mercury Mineral Evolution

      Published on Mar 29, 2013

      Mineral evolution posits that Earth's near-surface mineral diversity gradually increased through an array of chemical and biological processes. A dozen different species in interstellar dust particles that formed the solar system have evolved to more than 4500 species today. New work from Carnegie's Bob Hazen demonstrates that the creation of most minerals containing mercury is fundamentally linked to several episodes of supercontinent assembly over the last 3 billion years.

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

      June 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Science

      Hey idiot/Bill Deacon ? !!!...............crickets and elements ...............go chirp chirp splat !

      June 25, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Chad .............just about as good as the atomic clock works ..............your sock puppets show up !

      June 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  9. fred

    Better video about religion:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPOfurmrjxo&w=640&h=390]

    June 25, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  10. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot!!!!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQja3FMj7yU&w=640&h=390]

    June 25, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • fred

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

      June 25, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  11. lol??

    Janet Reno is scheduled to be a keynote speaker. She's ti*tled her nonsense, "Turning Up the Heat On the Opposition".

    June 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  12. lol??

    The mob operatin' under the principles of nutzoism have grown tired of feminist leadership and are pushin' for Qweirdo leadership by abusing the Boy Scouts. They wanna show visitors LUV like they did in Sodom.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Jesselyn

      Do you typically lie so much? You cannot possibly be a follower of Jesus. You sound very bigoted and cruel. I suggest therapy.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • Doobs

      @ Jesselyn

      lol?? is the blog equivalent of the village idiot. It makes nonsensical comments and occasionally lapses into what looks like a redneck lisp.

      Most of us don't bother with lol?? unless we're really bored.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Dippy

      Really, REALLY bored.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  13. Bootyfunk

    "According to a recent Public Religion Research Inst.itute poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans believe that atheists are changing American culture for the worse."

    atheists generally have a higher rate of education than christians
    atheists have a much, much lower rate of going to prison than christians, which means atheists are less likely to be criminals than christians
    atheists are more likely to practice safe s.ex, which means atheists are less likely to spread disease and have less abortions than christians
    atheists are generally more open-minded and less racially prejudiced or h.omophobic than christians, just check the south

    sure would be nice to be judged on something other than our non-belief.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  14. lol??

    They hold fundraisers by sellin' DIY r*ape kits that includes morning after pills fer their victims.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Trix

      Much easier to pretend one never has s.ex while their raist preacherdaddy drives them to the clinic to "cleanse" themself of the unwanted "Christian". Shhh. Mrs. Preacherdaddy doesn't know her daughter is unclean.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Trix

      That should be rapist preacherdaddy. Fulfilling the command to be fruitful and mulitply until Mrs. Preacherdaddy finds out.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  15. Bootyfunk

    atheists making church useful! i like it.

    humanist ethics > biblical morals

    June 25, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  16. Dyslexic doG

    stop Christians from brainwashing their kids and the whole religion would die out in a few generations.

    No adult hearing this foolishness for the first time would believe a word of it.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Rupert

      You'd be surprised how many adults fall for this nonsense late in life.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Doobs

      There's always people like Austin who are looking for something to cling to so they feel they have value.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  17. lol??

    The A&A's sell their own inheritors into slavery to the Beast gubmint. And those are just the little one they let live!!

    June 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Trix

      Whereas Christians abort their young in the largest numbers. Effectively getting rid of their unwanted inheritors. More for the collection plate to buy forgiveness.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • sam stone

      christians are happy with someone else taking the punishment for their "sins"

      it is not a moral stance, but then christians are not interested in morality

      June 25, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  18. lol??

    Nutzo and evil are two sides of the same coin.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • == o ==

      Looks like the disgruntled ex-Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer" has returned.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Pete

      You would know, that is for sure.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  19. lol??

    The A&A's give the term human a bad name.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • Happy Atheist

      Try looking up "torture devices invented by Christians" or google "Popes Pear" . It's eye (and mouth) opening. Now who is it that gave humans a bad name again?...

      June 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Trix

      Christians abort the most fetuses, and you say atheists give the term human a bad name? Right.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  20. Bill Deacon = cathoholic nonengineer

    What it is.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Rupert

      I second that.

      June 25, 2013 at 2:19 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.