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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. Mary

    If life has no meaning, then why try to make sense of a meaningless universe with reason, logic, and science?
    That doesn't make any sense.

    July 7, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Know This

      Mary,

      You might not even be here if it weren't for science's eradication of small pox, polio and other mass killers, and the facilitation of clean water delivery and sanitation, and ensuring abundant crop and livestock production - just to name a few.

      I wonder if some of those scientists would have second thoughts about their advancements if they knew that having this "Mary" person around would be a result!

      July 7, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • Athy

      Your question doesn't make any sense.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • WASP

      @mary: if you have friends,family, children or anything that has value to you then life has meaning; even if it's only yourself that you love..........................your life now has meaning so go live life and stop being afraid of it.

      July 8, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
  2. Bmerbob

    It's not. I don't have to chant it, or sing its praises or drop my coins into a dish so the paster can get his helicopter fixed and make the next payment on his mansion.

    July 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  3. Mary

    Why do atheists want Christians to practice Christianity so much?

    July 7, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  4. Roger

    Science brought us the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    There are lots of gruesome pictures of this on the Internet.
    Just Google or Bing them, and behold the glory of science!

    July 7, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • Athy

      What is your point (assuming you even have one)?

      July 7, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • Bmerbob

      How about posting the death and destruction and inhumanity of various religious wars and the Inquisition?

      July 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Science brought you the computer and the internet which you are using to bitch about science. Also the electricity that runs said computer, as well as most of your household conveniences. Science brought you the transportation that allows you to travel beyond walking distance and the transportation that moves the goods you use from their point of origin to your specific area. Science provided the knowledge to create buildings and bridges and roads. Science provided the medicines you take when you are ill. This is just scratching the surface of thing things science has provided to humanity.

      If you hate science so much, perhaps you should reject all these things and go live in a cave somewhere.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Old Vet

      If it weren't for science, which has brought effective medications and treatments for my diabetes and heart disease, I would not be alive and well today.

      July 8, 2013 at 5:08 am |
  5. yamnnjr

    Because as every Atheist loves to tell us,

    ATHEISM IS NOT A RELIGION!!!

    LOLOLOLOL Sure Atheists, you just keep telling yourselves that.

    July 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Are you aware that atheism and humanism are not the same thing? Humanism was actually a belief system founded by Christians. You might want to familiarize yourself with these terms.

      July 7, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  6. Angie

    Why can I never get an athiest to tell me what the meaning of life is?

    July 7, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • Athy

      Why does life need to have a meaning? I can never get a religie to tell me that.

      July 7, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • Angie

      If atheists come across as being so much smarter than everyone else, why don't these smug know-it-alls know the meaning of life?

      July 7, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • Athy

      There is no "mysterious" meaning of life, Angie. There doesn't need to be any meaning of life. Don't you get it?

      July 7, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
    • Know This

      Angie,

      You want an example of a "smug, know-it-all":

      "janey33

      That "guy on the cross" died for our sins so we can go to Heaven if we accept Him and live for Him. It doesn't matter if you believe that or not. You WILL meet Him one day. I pity you if you haven't accepted Him, as you will go to Hell. Christians don't believe in God...they KNOW He exists because they have a personal relationship with Him. You know nothing of this so you poke fun out of it. Very intolerant and foolish."

      One of many from the Believer camp...

      July 7, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Why do believers need someone to tell them what their life means? Are their lives that empty?

      July 7, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  7. Feedback

    People can make jokes about a "church" without "God" but ultimately what I love about the United States is that you can do that. You can be a pastafarian, a Christian, or whatever floats your boat.

    July 7, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  8. Guess what

    I love my imaginary friend.

    July 6, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  9. Gerry from Bayonne

    An article about a bunch of sad misfits.

    July 6, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      At least they're not as sad as internet trolls who post inflammatory remarks just to get a response.

      July 6, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      You posted your comment on the wrong forum. It fits perfect under the RCC to make JP a saint forum!

      July 6, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • tony

      I didn't see the article say anyone was sad. Nor that anyone felt out of place. Do you invent "facts" on every post you make? There's the ninth commandment that forbids that.

      July 6, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
  10. GOOD NEWS

    We clearly and unmistakably see (the absolute Existence and the ultimate Power of) GOD

    through HIS most Superb MATHEMATICAL Actions;

    i.e. Fine Tuning within the Universe and within the Scripture now!

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

    July 6, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  11. Mary

    If you don't be believe in creators, then you shouldn't believe in atoms, either, because they are their own creators, and you don't believe in creators.

    July 6, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The problem with not believing in atoms, Mary, is that atoms are observable.

      July 6, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • Athy

      Oh, come on Mary! Get serious.

      July 6, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Mary,

      May the Lord of all the God's first born sons be of kindness for your abilities to fathom the atomic kingdom domains. My mother's name is Mary and my father's name is Joseph. I think about them for they have passed from this dimension of celestial relativity and are united with their creators within the realms of atomically produced rationalities! 🙂

      July 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  12. Mary

    Just because we don't know how the creator got created doesn't mean there's not a creator.
    I think that it's more plausible for an abstract thing such as a creator to create concrete things than for the concrete things to create themselves.
    Any designer or engineer will tell you that the abstract always precedes the concrete, anyway.
    If you don't think that atoms creating themselves is absurd, then why is it absurd to think that a god could create itself?
    Maybe it was a 2-step process: 1) before the creator could create atoms, it had to create itself, 2) having created itself, it wenthe went on to create matter.

    July 6, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Athy

      How did the creator crate the universe and life? Did he have a small microscope and tweezers? A well-equipped laboratory? Where did he get his raw materials? Why did he do it in the first place? Seems to me there are way more unanswered questions regarding intelligent design than there are for mother nature. The big bang and evolution are consistent, well-studied processes that, while some questions remain (and will eventually be answered), are much more believable than some bullshit supernatural process that weak-minded people prefer to believe.

      July 6, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The problem of course, is that you are just inventing a slot in which to insert an unnecessary creator.

      July 6, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Mary,

      We have:

      1. The atomic cosmos

      2. The celestial cosmos

      3. The cellular cosmos

      For: without the atomic cosmos there could be no celestial or cellular chasms of cosmologic orderliness

      July 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • Cameron

      Mary has good points. The proclivity of atheists over the last 200 years has been "God is not necessary, ergo he doesn't exist". Then when it comes to things like ID, final causation, nature being contingent, fine-tuning, etc. these are given a promissory note that they will "figure it out eventually", meaning "they will eventually figure out how to fit these into the paradigm of philosophical naturalism".

      The whole issue of the "supernatural" being fantasy is most of the time a false dichotomy. It was once thought that the Big Bang was fantasy (whereas the Jews understood this for thousands of years), and then the moon's gravitational pull was thought to be supernatural by Galileo when Keplar purposed it. What we currently view as "supernatural" we may someday term "natural" once we understand the cause and effect nature of it more. If there is a God, we potentially could even view God this way.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:54 am |
  13. Mary

    Posting a link to a science article does not prove there is not a creator, which probably already knows everything scientific, anyway.

    July 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      True, but as there is no evidence for a creator and much scientific knowledge disproves the biblical accounts – why believe in a god and the bible?

      July 6, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Posting a link never proves anything. How would anyone disprove what doesn't exist? Can you prove that Thor doesn't exist? What proof can you give that Thor does not exist?

      July 6, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • Athy

      Do you really believe that, Mary? If so, what about the creator? Where did the creator come from?

      July 6, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • tallulah13

      When one believes in a supernatural being for whom there is no evidence, it is simple enough to grant them the traits that you wish them to have. Mary's god "already knows everything scientific" because that is what Mary wants.

      July 6, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  14. DWN

    Its funny knowing that some Atheists and all Babylonian style Christian groups meet on Sunday, Even banks in Islamic nations are closed on Sunday. Sunday seems to have cast a spell over humanity. It all fits with prophecy. The 7th day is the Sabbath of the Lord, always has been, always will be. Sunday is for Babylon and even these Atheists fit in with Babylon. Small wonder Pope Francis says atheists are to be saved. All they have to do is meet on Sunday, wink wink.

    July 6, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • tallulah13

      Actually, I think most in this modern world are taking advantage of the fact that the christian cult declares it a sin to work on Sunday. Days off are very nice. I'm happy to have a weekend. That doesn't make your god real.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  15. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot!!!!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he32vwlKQPY&w=640&h=390]

    July 6, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • tallulah13

      Your taste in music is very, very sad.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • tony

      His/her taste is definitely sad. However the use of the word music is in this context is far to generous.

      July 6, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  16. Jason

    Until they can prove matter can be created in a laboratory, I'm sticking with God.

    July 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • OTOH

      Jason,

      Actually, the default/fall-back stance in matters such as this is to withhold belief until either proven or disproven (and of course that includes the "God-did-it" hypothesis).

      July 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Jason

      Is there some kind of law?

      July 5, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • A simple answer

      Actually I think the correct answer when you don't know is to say "I don't know". What's wrong with "I don't know" it's an honest answer.
      Also Jason, look up abiogenesis and HIggs Boson.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • A simple answer

      Also OTOH there is no need to withold "belief"...if something is proven there is no belief involved. What is wierder though is 98% of what I know of science I believe to be true because someone told me not because I know from first hand experience. Leaves room for alot of conspiracy doesn't it?

      July 6, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      @Jason
      That sounds amazingly stupid. Who is "they?" What are they making this matter from? Why do you imagine that some invisible sky wizard did it by chanting magic spells instead of saying that you (and the scientific community) doesn't know the answers to all the questions about matter and energy? When you're taking a math test, and you don't know the answer, do you pencil in "god" and if so, how many times do they give you credit for getting it right?

      July 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
    • ANCampbell

      @ Jason,

      Acutally, matter is created in laboratories; it's called antimatter. Also, tiny black holes have also been created in laboratories. Are you still sticking with your God?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  17. Jason

    Southpark had an episode similar to this called "Go God Go!"

    July 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  18. Rev Dr Felix Nwosu

    My God this is unbelievable a church without a God?God help this sect to know that their was a creator. which is you i wouldn't no what they would be doing in a church that their is no GOD.

    July 5, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      You do know there are billions of other people who worship different God's in their houses of worship right? Why are you so surprised to find a place that doesn't worship any specific God?

      July 5, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Saraswati

      There have been humanist societies for over a hundred years...if this surprises you, you haven't been paying attention. And no, the world hasn't ended. Nor did it when atheistic Buddhists met over the last thousand or so years.

      July 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  19. hvchronic

    I too settled on a default atheist position after having to wrestle with Biblical inanity and contradiction while being prepped as a child for a career as an Episcopal priest. Still, while "belief" is not an option, I hold a sliver of hope that at least some of what Jesus supposedly promised could come to pass. I even wrote a song about it; a plea for His Lordiness to come down off His fluffy cloud, kick some plutocratic ass and sprinkle us with immortality dust. So far, He's ignored me: https://soundcloud.com/biff-thuringer/please-jesus

    July 5, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  20. samid so,mar

    Like any innovative or new idea the religionist without even considering it,reject it outright, so predictable.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • Jason

      On the contrary, it is the atheist that rejects a lot of very good "why" questions outright.

      July 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Which questions are those, Jason?

      July 6, 2013 at 4:36 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.