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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. tkdubb

    This whole world is going to hell....smh this is ridiculous.

    July 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • niknak

      Since there is no such place as hell, you are wrong on your first claim.
      And I have no idea what the second part of your sentence is supposed to mean.
      Were you trying to write English?

      July 22, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
      • Southern highlander

        What the second part means is that Atheist is making their own church, but without God it's not a church and atheist say god doesn't exist. So why make a church.

        July 23, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
        • Christian

          I agree southern highlander... They sure spend a lot of time arguing about nothing then??!? Surely they know deep inside God exist but they want to be free to live how thy choose so they argue about something they say isn't there. It makes no sense.

          August 5, 2013 at 1:47 am |
        • LinCA

          @Christian

          You said, "They sure spend a lot of time arguing about nothing then??!?"
          Nothing? Are you fucking clueless? Are you so sheltered that you fail to see the cancer that religion is? Are you so fucking dimwitted that you don't see that atheists don't fight against your imaginary friend. It's its dimwitted followers that are the bane of our existence.

          You said, "Surely they know deep inside God exist but they want to be free to live how thy choose so they argue about something they say isn't there."
          Get a fucking clue. Your imaginary friend doesn't exist anywhere but in you simple mind.

          You said, "It makes no sense."
          To you? That doesn't surprise me one bit.

          August 5, 2013 at 1:52 am |
  2. God is real

    How life began is a theory. The "missing link" is nothing more than a theory. Theories of scientists. It's their way of explaining something they can't explain. God is real.

    July 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • niknak

      And you have proof of your god where exactly?
      I say it is false, and until you can come up with some proof otherwise, it will remain false.

      July 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
      • TJGJT

        niknak, I ask you the same exact question that you asked, where is your proof that there is no God?

        July 23, 2013 at 2:43 am |
        • niknak

          I cannot disprove something that does not exist.
          And you are the one making the claim that it does exist, so you have the burden of proving it.

          I say the Pink Unicorn exists.
          See if you can find some proof that it does NOT exist.

          July 23, 2013 at 9:21 am |
      • Southern highlander

        Science says that life came from out of no where but it also says that it can't from nothing. So that proves Atheism is wrong. And God is real.

        July 23, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • Blurrr

      I am strongly Christian, and God is very much real, but denying evolution is like denying gravity. Your extremist opinions not only are false, but push away and ostracize many good people who might otherwise convert. God created humanity through the process of evolution and natural selection, and we use science to learn more about God's creation. "O Lord how manifold are your works. In wisdom have you made them all."

      July 22, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
  3. God is real

    Scientists claim how life began and they are not witness to it. The beginning of life, to a scientist, is nothing more than a theory.

    Scientists claim a missing link, but it's only a theory that there is a link at all.

    July 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  4. ElmerGantry

    Where does one go to OUTSOURCE ONE'S THINKING?

    Commenter "GOOD NEWS" has the answer.

    GOOD NEWS

    GOD is absolutely Real.

    Welcome to the Final Age.

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

    July 17, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    The place to go to outsource one's thinking.

    July 22, 2013 at 7:23 am |
  5. GOOD NEWS

    Yes, GOD is absolutely Real.

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

    July 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  6. Mark

    I'm no astrophysicist so when the experts say the Earth is 150 million km from the sun and that the speed of light is 299792.458 km/s, I take them at their word. They are witnesses to these truths. They seem sincere and have credentials. When the same scientists speak about God, they are no longer speaking as a scientist but as a philosopher, a theologian. The scientists have witnessed to what they know, and Jesus has witnessed to the things he knows to be true.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • tkdubb

      thats the same thought process of people when they believed the world was flat. turns out they were dead wrong. Believe them if you want, but they are dead wrong again and pretty soon, according to crap going on, like in this article, in this world, they will be proved wrong again in the most EPIC of fashions. When the true King of Kings, Jess Christ returns. I cant wait to see the looks on unbelievers faces.

      July 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
      • AustinAtheist

        Let's see... I'm guessing that expecting an encore appearance by the long-dead Jesus falls into the same category as flat-earth thinking, which was based on pre-scientific primitive thinking.

        BTW, is "Jess Christ" related to Jesus? His cousin, maybe?

        July 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  7. winstoninabox

    Reblogged this on vex cathedra and commented:
    A call out to Dr. Clam.

    July 19, 2013 at 1:14 am |
  8. downtown dave

    When creation, conscience, history, archaeology and Scripture prove the existence of God, what is left for an assembly who purposefully shuts Him out? http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

    July 18, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • Mike

      None of the things you said are true...

      July 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
    • sam stone

      downtown dave: how does that prove anything?

      July 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  9. M. Rodriguez

    Reblogged this on The BitterSweet End and commented:
    We all need community and fellowship, even the unbeliever.

    July 18, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  10. Ezekiel

    Should I pick between the literally 1,000s of gods humans have created or go with the one my parents tried to force on me, or maybe Atheism?
    I'll go with the super being overlord who had The Pedophile Mohammed as a prophet, like him I like the tight young stuff too. I guess that means I could be a priest though too. Hmmm, so many choices and they all lead to the young stuff. Oh boy, I mean girl, I mean boy.
    BOW!!!!!
    YIELD!!!!!!
    KNEEL!!!!!
    AND GIVE ME YOUR MONEY, ERR UMMM, I MEAN DONATIONS!!!

    July 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  11. ttwp

    Church without God is like trying to have a meal without food...not very filling.

    July 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Mike

      Since God isn't real, every church is church without God.

      July 18, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
  12. Kindness

    Kindness
    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    I Accepted Jesus christ as my lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners. Even once we are saved by christs merciful grace we will still experience adversity to mold us to adhering to the truth.
    We will slip... But not fall of the ship ...carrying us onward to perfection in christs grace.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith ....above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read romans or corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are by faith above reason in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door,
    And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
    The, looking in, I saw upon the floor
    Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
    “How many anvils have you had,” said I,
    “To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
    “Just one,” said he, and then with twinkling eye,
    “The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
    And so, thought I, the anvil of God’s Word,
    For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
    Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
    The anvil is unharmed – the hammers gone.

    Truth is..exclusive

    July 18, 2013 at 12:31 am |
    • Smithsonian

      "Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale."

      It is a fairytale. The Bible is primarily a book of religion, a guide to faith. it was not a book of history, poetry, economics, or science. It contains all sorts of literary genre, which are used to teach about the relationship between God and mankind. Even biblical history is edited history: events were chosen to illustrate the central theme of the Bible. The Biblical writers did not pretend they were giving a complete history; instead they constantly refer us to other sources for full historical details, sources such as "The Annals of the Kings of Judah" (or Israel).

      It is therefore not possible to try to "prove" the Bible by means of checking its historical or scientific accuracy. The only "proof" to which it can be subjected is this: Does it correctly portray the God-human relationship? In the best analysis, the Bible is a religious book, not an historical document.

      July 18, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  13. GOOD NEWS

    GOD is absolutely Real.

    Welcome to the Final Age.

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

    July 17, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
    • sam stone

      then go meet him

      July 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  14. downtown dave

    As I was thinking about the "You can be good without God" slogan this morning, it occcured to me that at least on two points this slogan is Scriptural, and I want to commend the people who came up with it. First, in Matthew 7:11 Jesus says, "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,...". Jesus, the Son of God, states that a person who is evil knows how to give good gifts and knows how to do good things. Second, you make the statement that a person can be good without God, not that a person is good without God. This implies you are not there yet and have some work to do to become good. Romans 3:23 says, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,". So, in your slogan you say that a person can do good things without God, and that you fall short of being good...both of these points are Scriptural.

    As far as your hating religion? Jesus hates religion as well. There are those who want to give you a list of things to do and a list of things not to do, and by following these things God will accept you. That is not Scriptural. What Jesus wants is to give you life and a relationship with Him that is free to you. He paid the price. He went to the cross to take away your sin and He wants to credit you with His righteousness, something you cannot earn. That's what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us that salvation is by grace and not by works. http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

    July 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • Ted

      Jesus is long dead. He was just a mortal. Next.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  15. mark troiano

    I notice a lot of guys with jewish last names are atheists. but I bet they still celebrate the holidays and go insane at the slightest wiff of anti Semitism, which doesn't make sense since Judaism is a religion, not a nationality. same goes for people with crhistian heritage. if they do not believe anymore they are not Christians. being a cultural jew or Christian is ridiculous!! is one a social atheist?

    July 17, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  16. Savvy

    Really? This is an interesting article, but the journalist doesn't seem to understand that this is nothing new. In 1877, the New York Society for Ethical Culture began holding services. You can check their own website and do a little reading on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_Culture

    July 16, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • Savvy

      And the movement actually began in the 1700s in England.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  17. Penny

    Here is the URL to this blog, with the operative word being "religion":

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com

    I win the debate!

    July 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Ted

      Guess you forgot to ask what the prize was...open up your mouth...

      July 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  18. joe

    Here's the universal truth about religion.

    Its populations are overwhelmingly the ignorant and the uneducated.

    Any more need to be said?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • peripateopneuma

      Yes, let's add that when you take philosophy in college, you have 2/3 of the first year dealing with great intellectual minds who were Xian. Errr religious. Errr idiots who can't think by your standards.

      You, my friend, are what the dictionary's definition of bigot fits most soundly upon.

      July 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
      • Mike the Massacred

        I dont know why the "educated religious [lol]" accuse Atheists of being bigots*. We tolerate AND understand your position on religion. We understand not all religious people are extremeist, but more often than not religion is the cause of death, disease, poverty, and greed...

        *Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

        July 18, 2013 at 5:05 am |
  19. Mathews

    A "Church without God" belongs to the other side. The Dark side. So you belong to Satan. Might as well call it Church of Satan.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • ANCampbell

      Ummm, no. Did you stop there or read the entire article? I think you just stopped at "A Church Without God". This is a place for atheists to come together as a community without God being involved since atheists don't believe in a God(s). This is like-minded people can come together to discuss what they choose, hold events of their choosing, etc. while doing it with people who will not belittle them or condemn them for not believing in a God(s).

      July 16, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • peripateopneuma

      Don't be an ass. As a Xian, of which, apparently you wish to defend "our" faith, you are being Anti christ theologically, and asinine humanistically.

      July 16, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Angi

      Why would I call it "church of satan"?
      I do not recognize a god- equaling disbelief in satan.
      All it is, is a fairy-tale, a dark fairy-tale.

      July 18, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  20. palintwit

    “She said being a U.S. Senator is a job she’s always dreamed of resigning from,”

    Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/07/bill-maher-jokes-sarah-palin-rick-perry-94112.html#ixzz2ZDVfNiuf

    July 16, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • mark troiano

      yeah you lose me when you start referencing people that make fun of he mentally challenged for laughs. good luck with that.

      July 17, 2013 at 5:18 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.