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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. aallen333

    The truth of the matter is that everyone is on their own personal journey to find truth. Truth can be expressed in various ways. It can be expressed philosophically. It can be expressed through evidence. It can be expressed through testimonials. It can be expressed through prophetic utterance that come to pass. It can be expressed through miracles proven to be true. There are different religions and different faiths around the world. And even though there are those that can stake claim to one or two of the above proofs, only one can stake claim to all of these expressions through undeniable proofs – the Judao-Christian faith. Take for instance the nation of Israel. Scripture makes it clear that Israel was birthed for God's sole purpose. No other nation in history can make this claim and provide undeniable proof that this is true.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • Lawrence

      Saying there is proof isn't that same as actually having some. Care to share some of it?

      July 5, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • Lawrence

      Sorry, my earlier reply should have said

      Saying there is proof isn't the same as actually having some. Care to share some of it? And of course, using your religious text to support claims found in another part of the same text does not count, since that is very circular.

      July 5, 2013 at 8:37 am |
    • aallen333

      @Lawrence I have mentioned Israel. Throughout the biblical text, God warned Israel if they turned away from Him and began to follow pagan gods, He would send adversaries that would remove them from the land He had given them. But when they turned back to Him, He would return them to the land. This happened time and time again as Israel sinned before God, He judged them, they cried out to God and He had compassion and returned them to the land so that they could fulfill their purpose. The sceptics challenged the veracity of these texts as simple literature that could not be backed up with evidence. But the sceptics were silenced with the discovery of the dead sea scrolls which proved the accuracy of the dating of the events showing the prophetic utterance to have occurred prior to the actual events as recorded in secular history books. The latest account being the removal of the Jews from the land by the Romans shortly after the crucifixion of the one who claimed to be the Son of God, and their return to the land nearly 2000 years later in 1945. Israel is a sign to the world. If their removal meant the gathering in of the gentiles. What will their return mean but God's final judgement of the kingdoms of this world and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

      July 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      aallen333: Israel is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Due to the fact that so many people accept it as being the word of god they are playing it through to ensure it happens. In order for your claim that god said anything, you first have to provide the evidence that your god exists and do so without using the only book that mentions your version of god. Given that the bible is word that was apparently told to man to write, there is no way to verify that it is anything more than the word of man.
      Your claims fail horribly. This explains why they do: http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Prophecy

      July 5, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • aallen333

      @Truth Prevails Your comment is a tactic typical of that used by those who no longer can argue on the merits and are unable to disprove the proofs- make baseless proclamations void of any evidence. By doing so you become guilty of a practice you accuse others of practicing. It lacks intellectual honesty and is a tool employed by those who feel they are in a debate they can no longer win.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  2. Richard M Stallman

    If there were a god, or gods, they would not offer a moral compass.
    Just because something is powerful does not mean it is right.
    Even if a god started miraculously stating its views,
    such that there was no doubt that it existed and held those views,
    we would still face the question of whether to agree or disagree.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Ron

      Well Richard, it is clear that you are confused.

      July 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It is apparent, Ron, that you much prefer to let others do your thinking for you.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  3. DevilDog1775

    Harvard's roots rest in the knowledge that it began as a theological seminary, training ministers to spread God's Word in the "wilderness". People are intrinsically depraved with no knowledge of God until He reveals Himself to them. "Just as He chose us before the foundation of the world". Christ said, "No man comes to Me less the Father draws him to Me". The natural tendency of humans is to reject God and the natural outcome is to mimic God for the world has an intrinsic need of a Savior. Mans heart is empty and void of real compassion and contentment. During the tribulation period described in the Bible, the anti-christ will mimic the Tabernacle and God's Throne. The word anti-christ is an attempt to mimic the one true God.

    The lost soul continues to attempt to fill that void in their hearts, that empty feeling that they try to fill with others like company, that can only be filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit. These people who attend this church are attempting to fill that void in their lives. If you ask them to be honest, they would tell you that they return home, void of fulfillment. Satan is alive and well on planet Earth and is roaming to and fro to see who he can devour today. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    (BTW DevilDog stands for the US Marine Corps and 1775 is the year the USMC was formed)

    July 4, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Some people enjoy the company of like minded individuals and find that Sunday is convenient because there is not of business conducted that day. I really wouldn't read much more into it than that.

      (Tallulah was the name of a small white cat that gave me the pleasure of her company for 18 years. 13 is my lucky number.)

      July 6, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  4. Simple Wisdom

    Still just another religion. A religion based on what can be seen, what can be measured, what can be proven.

    There is plenty of evidence to support the existence of another realm that exists beyond any human capability to perceive it. (God arguments aside) This realm can't be measured – yet. At one point, neither could O2 (yet it existed none the less).

    To assume that what has been seen, so far, is all that exists is beyond ignorant. Technology advances in leaps and bounds. Thousands of new discoveries happen each year – biology, chemistry, astronomy, physics...

    I can understand 'agnostic', but; atheism leaves no room for discovery. Atheists use science as the foundation for disbelief. Science has yet to disprove the existence of a spiritual realm, much less the existence of a god or intelligent designer.

    There must be another reason atheists deny the existence of something that has yet to be disproven. Science would tell them "keep on searching". For science, there is no limit to discovery. If science thought the way atheists do, there would be no light bulb, no airplanes, no genome, no vaccines, no ozone layer. If science has yet to figure out why rocks in Death Valley move from place to place on their own, then don't tell me there is no God. Be honest and just say, "I don't know" (i.e. agnostic). Atheist sound desperate to prove something for which there is no proof.

    July 4, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • rick

      Atheism leaves plenty of room for discovery. Most athiests do not claim they know for certain there is no god. Your argument is foolish

      July 4, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Lawrence

      Simple Wisdom – Your reasoning is just as applicable to unicorns, leprechauns, fairies, Zeus, Odin, ...

      July 5, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Cameron

      Great points. Many atheists limit their inquiry of ID or God to direct observation rather than the effects of things, while yet not all science is limited to direct observation. Atheists would be far more consistent if they were agnostic. Rather, they are being more consistent with the Bible's anthropology by trying to conclude with science that there is no God. Whereas even the Bible (Rom 1:20) does not say we see God physically, but infer Him through what has been made.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:32 am |
  5. herbert jones

    This is the result of Satan trying to destroy [for cometh not but for to steal, and to kill and to destroy] organized churches. Religion is not of God, it is made up by man. But to label your group as a church is offensive to God; Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and will return one day to rupture it up from the earth; I doubt seriously your group will be taking part in this event. It is your privilege and rights to believe what you will: but don't believe what it is not; that your group is a church. I believe God would characterize your group as a "Cult." Origin the pit of hell and leading those that are unaware of Satan's devices to be taken captive by him at his will. I pray for you and those that are snared by his deception, and that you are set free to serve, JESUS CHRIST the God of all mankind.

    July 4, 2013 at 9:07 am |
    • Giggles

      AMEN, WELL STATED!

      July 4, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • rick

      this is the result of people using their brains, rather than their "feelings"

      July 4, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • rick

      good luck with that rupture, herbie

      July 4, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      herbert: The only thing ruptured is your ability to grasp reality. Your imaginary friend and his kid are not real. No evidence outside of the buybull to show either exists or existed.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Athy

      And the 2000-year-old bible is very dicey evidence. No references, no experimental data, no bibliography. Just poetry, legends and myths. What kind of evidence is that?

      July 6, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  6. TheSnail

    another fraud, people will hide any subversive agenda behind the term humanist, and if you don't agree with them they will yell "don't you care about human beings you monster"

    July 4, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • rick

      people will hide any subversive agenda behind the term christian

      July 4, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  7. CNNisOK

    don't these people have a starbucks they can congregate in?

    July 4, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Probably and they probably congregate in the churches also...afraid of admitting disbelief due to the risk that comes with it.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  8. GOOD NEWS

    atheism is basically false;

    for GOD is absolutely Real.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    July 4, 2013 at 5:15 am |
  9. makeda1999

    If you ever see me at a church, please shoot me! However, when you wake up clutching your chest at that 2 am or the midnight hour as they call it, you better have something real in your life to call on. I promise you. I mean I promise you life is going to knock you to your knees and if you don't want to get up evil and stay that way, get your own God. Just make it real for you.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:56 am |
    • tallulah13

      I am much closer to death than I am to birth, and though I have been "knocked to my knees" several times, I have never once been tempted to "wake up evil". Not because of any god, but because my parents taught me that my actions have consequences and that I am responsible for them. But if you need a god in order to be a good person, you go on and believe whatever you like.

      July 4, 2013 at 3:23 am |
  10. See Spot Thrash

    So they hand out dog biscuits for communion at this place?

    July 4, 2013 at 12:28 am |
  11. Rocks Flatbush

    Goofy looking bunch. Surprise surprise.

    July 3, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
    • Rocks Flatbush

      don't got no perty gals like what we do in our church

      July 3, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • See Spot Thrash

      No doubt. A total dogshow.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:13 am |
    • See Spot Thrash

      Just noticed Reverend Cueball's earring. Outre. Very...outre.

      July 4, 2013 at 1:41 am |
  12. Charles

    Why isn't the existence of matter good enough evidence of a creator?

    July 2, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • Commentator

      What created the creator?

      July 3, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Why the need to believe in some type of higher power or creator? Why can't you accept there are mysteries that cannot be answered in our lifetime? Why isn’t living this life making you happy enough without having to believe in myths?

      July 3, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      The existence of matter is the evidence of energies and fields that we do not comprehend very well, yet. To a.s.sign motive and character to some possible combination of primal forces or energies or fields that we cannot define is sloppy reasoning and poor logic. Mystery causes intrigue at the cost of easy answers.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:25 am |
  13. Charles

    Just because God doesn't grant wishes like a genie in a bottle is a dumb reason not to believe in God.

    July 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Just because nomadic Bronze Age goatherders invented this god thousands of years ago with no evidence and none ever since is a dumb reason to believe in this god.

      July 3, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Just because one's parents tell a child a bunch of myths is a silly reason to believe said myths as an adult.

      July 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  14. Charles

    When it's convenient to their political agenda, liberals will ignore millions of years of evolution.

    July 2, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
  15. Agnostic analogy

    Picture it...three guys are on a boat. The engineer who designed the boat, the guy who painted the boat and the accountant. The boat catches fire burning all the life rafts and all the life jackets. The ship is sinking and the engineer announces there is nothing left to be done the boat will sink. Suddenly the painter jumps up and says, "Hey I heard a rumor that if we paint ourselves blue with this left over paint then our bodies will become boyant and we will be able to breathe under water. The engineer laughs at him...but as the water rises he sees not only the painter but the accountant painting themselves blue. He explains again why this will not work, but the accountant says: "I'm sorry I'm too nervous to do nothing.".

    July 2, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  16. A Hopeful Mormon

    What seems ironic about this is that, for athiests, life is ultimately pointless anyway. If there is indeed no God society will cease to exist in a matter of time anyway and anything anyone has ever done will be completely forgotten. This thought isn't why I choose not to be an athiest, rather, I believe God exists simply because I feel so. My experiences in life and with prayer have taught me that God exists and he is ever watchful of what we, his children, do.

    July 1, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
    • Bambi

      These people are being respectful of the beliefs of others that are different from their own. Why can't we all pay them the same respect?

      And what right does anybody have to say that life feels pointless to the athiest? How dare you speak for them? Have they told you? All of them? Perhaps if you were an athiest, you might feel that way, but because you are not, you have no right to put words in their mouths. I'm not an athiest, but those I know are responsible, loving, and courageous, and find great meaning in the present. They have told me as much in words and deeds.

      July 2, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Thanks Bambi. I'm agnostic put I try hard to respect the faith of others unless they try to say 'their way' is the only way (which sadly is way too common) and that if you don't believe in their so called god you're immoral by definition.

      Your clealy are a nice and loving human being. The world needs more people like you!

      July 3, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  17. Nihlism

    Personally I think I'd take more joy from animals and plants than in an office like setting surrounded by people and technology. It's not spirituatlity exactly but the feel of a dog or a cat in my arms, or the smell of fresh dirt is worth ten of any indoor get togethers.

    July 1, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  18. America becoming Godless society

    "The wicked shall be turned into hell, And all the nations that forgot God."

    Psalm 19:17

    July 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • America becoming Godless society

      Psalm 9:17

      July 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Observer

      America,

      Fortunately, most people are smart enough to avoid all the senseless killing that God ordered. No one believes and accepts that nonsense and calls themselves Christians anymore.

      July 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • Nice Try

      Observer… And who made you the spokesperson for "most people"? And since when do you speak for most people? In fact, last time I checked, the number of atheists in this country was only around 1%-2%. That's hardly "most people." So to begin your statement by saying "most people this" or "most people that", when it is obvious you have no clue what you are talking about, and nor do the majority of people even feel that way, then it only means that everything else you said after that is a complete lie…

      And why is it that atheists always feel the need to lie about everything they say? Answer: Because if they told the truth, they'd have no argument…

      July 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  19. America becoming Godless society

    The decay of the moral fiber of America continues to erode.

    July 1, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      If the decay is eroding, as your sentence claims, than that's a good thing. Unless you meant something you didn't write, like the morality of America is decaying AND eroding.......but that seems weird. Oh, well. Keep posting the opposite of what you mean with your poor use of grammar. It's appreciated.

      July 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • America becoming Godless society

      Cpt.

      Good catch. You obviously are smart enough to figure out – America is in serious trouble.

      You can post correction as needed, PC police.

      July 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Explain why you think morals require a god. Then why your god.

      July 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  20. GOOD NEWS

    Atheism under One GOD, by Design.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    =UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES=

    June 30, 2013 at 6:14 am |
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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.