home
RSS
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 • Faith Now • Houses of worship • United States

soundoff (6,851 Responses)
  1. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 23, 2013 at 7:05 am |
    • A dose of Reality

      Still waiting on your proof. But then,,,,maybe you are just a broken record playing the same thing over and over again

      June 23, 2013 at 7:10 am |
    • Imagine No Religion

      @Atheism is not...blah blah blah:

      So, have you ever threatened YOUR children with eternal dam nation? I haven't, but I'll bet you have!

      Prayer changes nothing.

      I challenge you to take the George Carlin Prayer Test. Pray to your imaginary god friend for a month, then pray to Joe Pesci for a month. You'll find the percentage of prayers answered by god, and those by Mr Pesci, will be about the same (50/50).

      Don't waste energy praying. Instead, go down to your local animal shelter and adopt a pet that is on death row. Or, buy a homeless person a meal. Or, plant a tree amongst the concrete jungle. It is far more productive.

      -–
      "There ain't no jesus gonna come from the sky.
      Now that I found out, I know I can cry." – John Lennon

      June 23, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  2. atheism is

    a disease causing blight on humanity

    June 23, 2013 at 7:04 am |
    • A dose of Reality

      Um No, you have atheism confused with religion

      June 23, 2013 at 7:11 am |
    • atheism is

      a producer of stronger, firmer, larger erections

      June 23, 2013 at 7:12 am |
  3. atheism is

    hands dripping with the blood of the martyrs

    June 23, 2013 at 7:02 am |
    • kissandra

      "Atheism Is" a rational denial of the absurd doctrine that mankind deserves to suffer eternally for having the audacity to not believe something for which there isn't a shred of evidence.

      June 23, 2013 at 7:08 am |
    • atheism is

      feet dripping with the blood of farters

      June 23, 2013 at 7:15 am |
  4. atheism is

    death

    June 23, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • JMEF

      I guess anyone that disagrees with you is not worthy, not exactly what Jesus taught. It is obvious you are not a Christian by your posts, what do you profess to be? Just another troll full of hate?

      June 23, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  5. the real Tom

    The poster 'atheism is' must be up early to get ready for remedial classes. Summer school awaits you, honey. Better eat those Cheerios, and quickly. Don't forget to wipe your chin, now!

    June 23, 2013 at 6:56 am |
    • atheism is

      the ability to eat Cheerios without dribbling them on your chin

      June 23, 2013 at 7:14 am |
    • atheism is

      the maturity to eat something other than cereal for breakfast.

      June 23, 2013 at 7:23 am |
  6. kissandra

    Oh boy. Here we go. Watch the dogma fly, followed by namecalling, accusations, denials, irrationality, defensiveness, and threats of doom and gloom. Lordy.

    June 23, 2013 at 6:54 am |
  7. AtheistSteve

    I think this entire idea is foolish. Calling an atheist group or community a church only serves to confuse. Churches were established by religions primarily as houses of worship to God. All the other societal benefits of such gatherings like community, charity, health, welfare, education, etc. are secondary and entirely the work of well meaning people within the congregations, not supernatural forces. Also atheists already have access to secular communities albeit nowhere near as ubiquitous as religious ones. If we start calling every gathering of like-minded people a church then things sports, politics, music concerts, plays and bridge clubs are all churches too.

    June 23, 2013 at 6:53 am |
    • Saraswati

      Humanists are more than atheists, and have an ethical system. The article is misleading in confusing the two. Humanists and Unitarians are very different from "atheists", that latter term not describing a belief system but a simple lack of belief in just one thing.

      The word "church" has a complicated etymology which appears to have evolved from nonreligious to religious meanings, so I don't see a reason it can't be secularized or detatched from Christianity. Not only do unitarians use it, but scientologists and others. PIE root is "swollen" or "powerful".

      http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=church&allowed_in_frame=0

      June 23, 2013 at 7:14 am |
  8. Ricardo

    Religions in the world are also part of Creation, the true reflection of human beings mind differences. If the Creator really wants us to be united then it will happen but sorry folks we are created not equal in relation to how we see things around us. Unless the creator will change all our minds in one direction, which is possible, then unity will come. THINK OTHER AS YOURSELF will definitely lead us to a better world.

    June 23, 2013 at 6:46 am |
  9. shlomo

    I believe in g-od and I say, it's better to be athiest than believe in qoran.

    June 23, 2013 at 6:46 am |
  10. frank

    Does not believe in God? The next time he gets hit in his testicles I bet he says oh God help me....

    June 23, 2013 at 6:46 am |
    • Philojazz

      Let's try to bring the level of comments up a bit, okay, Frank?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:56 am |
  11. atheism is

    evil

    June 23, 2013 at 6:45 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Now THERE'S an intelligent comment, cogently backed up with irrefutable evidence and sound reasoning. Bravo to you, sir!

      June 23, 2013 at 6:51 am |
    • kissandra

      Actually, if you want to get right down to it, "Atheism Is" a rational denial of the absurd doctrine that mankind deserves to suffer eternally for having the audacity to not believe something for which there isn't a shred of evidence.

      June 23, 2013 at 7:05 am |
  12. atheism is

    the unloved and unloving demanding their way

    June 23, 2013 at 6:44 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      I would have to say that you are wrong. AtheistSteve and I are very much in love without the need for a god to enter our home.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:48 am |
    • atheism is

      a perpetual hate filled lie

      June 23, 2013 at 6:50 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Hmmmmm... this one's on a bit more tenuous ground.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      fucktard, abortion is not murder unless the babe can survive outside the mother's body...it's not your business regardless when your imaginary friend loves murder of thew innocent.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      ^^^posted to wrong location

      As for what you would know about our love, we were both christards long before we found each other, we grew up and know that love is not dependent on christardation but is a human emotion that existed long before man ever invented your imaginary friend.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  13. atheism is

    the vicious hate filled murder of innocents

    June 23, 2013 at 6:44 am |
    • the real Tom

      So christians don't kill any "innocents"?

      What percentage of the population is atheist?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:45 am |
    • atheism is

      the smallest percentage as a group on the face of the earth

      June 23, 2013 at 6:47 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      theism is the support of child abuse; rape; oppression of women; support of incest; support of mass murder; support of idolatry; hate for all who don't believe in their imaginary friend; hate for people born gay; hate for sustaining the earth.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:47 am |
    • the real Tom

      "the smallest percentage as a group on the face of the earth"

      If that's the case, cap'n, why are you so upset about them? What's the matter with your brain?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:49 am |
    • atheism is

      abortion

      June 23, 2013 at 6:49 am |
    • atheism is

      a detterent to all that is righteous and decent

      June 23, 2013 at 6:51 am |
    • the real Tom

      What about it?

      Are you going to pretend that abortions are only obtained by atheists?

      How could that be, if they're the "smallest" group on earth?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Oh, do you mean like what god did to the first born infants in Egypt?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:53 am |
    • atheism is

      the root cause of abortions

      June 23, 2013 at 6:54 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      What a woman does with her personal body is not your business. Abortion is legal whether you like it or not. No-where in the buybull is abortion mentioned. Your god is the greatest murderer of children ever and in fact condones it.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Oh and it is christard women who have the greatest number of abortions yearly.

      June 23, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • atheism is

      the lie of selfishness

      June 23, 2013 at 7:01 am |
    • atheism is

      murder by abortion on demand

      June 23, 2013 at 7:01 am |
    • atheism is

      very scary to immature brats.

      June 23, 2013 at 7:18 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      fucktard, abortion is not murder unless the babe can survive outside the mother's body...it's not your business regardless when your imaginary friend loves murder of thew innocent.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Truth Prevails :-): The truth is that theism is the opposite of what you claim.

      June 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  14. atheism is

    death in an unnatural disguise

    June 23, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      death is the natural process of the only life you'll ever have ending.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:50 am |
    • atheism is

      death on earth

      June 23, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      You idiot. You are about as clueless as your imaginary friend. There is nothing more after this one life so stop wasting it for something that doesn't exist outside of your buybull.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:57 am |
    • atheism is

      hate filled rants insulting the truth

      June 23, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Not hateful, just facts based on evidence (which obviously scare you). Time to grow up...imaginary friends are only for the weak minded and children...which of these categories do you fall in to?

      June 23, 2013 at 7:02 am |
    • atheism is

      a lie disguised as reality

      June 23, 2013 at 7:03 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Truth Prevails :-): You do not know any more about whether there is life after death than does the person you are calling clueless and an idiot.

      June 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  15. aurelius

    At last someone who appeals to the more educated kind, including me. Enough of that god and bible crap!

    June 23, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  16. atheism is

    the fortress of fools

    June 23, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  17. atheism is

    an impediment to the progress of mankind

    June 23, 2013 at 6:42 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Theism is far more damaging. It makes the mind weak and leads one to believe without evidence. It slows down the progress of mankind. Without religion stepping in the way we'd be so much further ahead; we wouldn't see innocent children dying due to their deluded parents praying instead of using science to cure them; we wouldn't see the oppression of gays or women.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:56 am |
    • atheism is

      the great pretender of intelligence

      June 23, 2013 at 6:57 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Oh yes because believing in stuff that can't be proven with any form of evidence is such a great thing...you're delusional.

      June 23, 2013 at 7:06 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Truth Prevails :-) I'm sure you don't like it when Christians project their beliefs on you. So don't project your beliefs on others. You may think there is no evidence for God, butt the fact is that millions believe in God because of the evidence.

      You say that belief in God impedes progress. There are societies that don't believe in God. Can you name any such society that has made more progress than theistic societies?

      June 23, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • G to the T

      Bob – if millions believe because of the evidence – would you be willing to share this evidence? I've studied religion in all it's forms for ~20 years now and I've never found any. Thnx

      June 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  18. atheism is

    a cancer on the face of humanity

    June 23, 2013 at 6:41 am |
    • the real Tom

      If your beliefs are so strong, why do you fear those who don't share them?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • atheism is

      more to be pitied than feared

      June 23, 2013 at 6:46 am |
    • the real Tom

      Then why are you posting that you hate atheists? If they're to be "pitied", then why are you pretending they "impeded progress"?

      Why are you so friggin' ignorant?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:50 am |
    • atheism is

      a blockage on the artery between God and man

      June 23, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • the real Tom

      Oh, really? So a person who doesn't believe is powerful enough to block your omnipotent god?

      I knew you were stupid, but never realized the depth of your ignorance.

      June 23, 2013 at 6:54 am |
    • atheism is

      the hate filled swamp of the lost soul

      June 23, 2013 at 6:56 am |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 23, 2013 at 6:32 am |
    • Science

      To funny the se-x deal ?

      June 23, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  20. Brandon

    I prefer picnics... or football. Or best of all, tailgating.

    June 23, 2013 at 6:24 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Advertisement
About this blog

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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.