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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. john 3:16

    No need to argue one day believe it or not, we will leave this life into the next life, wish is eternity.the Bible says in Romans 14:11 that,every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. people you owe it to your self, find Jesus! you owe to your children as well...

    February 9, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
    • leemenjoseph

      Jesus is not God. He is a human being.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
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  3. PraiseGod

    As other poster posted, yes the end is near. The signs is everywhere. Satanic symbols everywhere, mainstream media being biased .. US is almost reaching the new world order, it's already a police state.
    I pray for all you unbelievers. It's time to find God 🙂

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    December 29, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  6. TYRANNASAUR

    To Epstein, religion is not all bad, and there is no reason to reject its helpful aspects......

    1. First why even call it church?

    2. Why do this on a Sunday?

    3. Why the singing?

    4. Most of everything useful that churches use were taken and reworded good qualities from the early PHILOSOPHERS......there is absolutely no need to pretend or copy any religious organizations rituals.

    5. I as an atheist do not feel compelled to gather with other atheist and chit chat about anything.....I'm one of those that believe that as an atheist I should point out the inconsistencies and contradictions any religious material is loaded with...on a not stopping schedule.....never letting up.

    December 29, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • leemenjoseph

      Then please point up the inconsistencies and contradictions in the true religion if you're able.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
      • idiotusmaximus

        That would take months and i don't have months to waste on such crap as religions.

        March 10, 2014 at 8:04 pm |
  7. Robert

    A breath of fresh air. It's not important to profess belief, only that as humans we need each other. I wish that believers followed what Jesus said, "Judge not less ye yourself be judged". You see so much diversity in organized religion. I believe that a church that brings people together for positive human fellowship without following some controversial dogma about faith and belief in something that humans can't possibly comprehend, that is "God", is a church I could become a part of. Also no rituals would be awesome.

    December 15, 2013 at 8:40 am |
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  9. dennis

    I LOVE TO SEE UNBELIEVERS SPOUT THEIR UNBELIEF.
    It only shows me that the coming of the LORD is very near.

    Now we have atheist meeting to discuss why they don't believe in GOD.
    Now that is funny.
    BIBLE PROPHECY IS STILL NEARING ITS CLIMAX.

    November 26, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  10. HUMILITY

    When someone does not believe in GOD the Father in Heaven and the Kingdom of God in Heaven does not exist, he/she must have experienced loss or deprivation of something he/she believes should be given to him. He/she is questioning God's wisdom for allowing or not allowing events to happen. He then turns into arrogance and ego,thinking he can do anything without God. But with all man's ego and arrogance, he/she still cannot add life to himself without God allowing him/her more time to know him and be repentant, be like a child who accepts God for all HIS Graces. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters that they may surrender their egos to God and ask for repentance. That they too will find their TRUE HOME with God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit in God's Kingdom in Heaven. Brothers and sisters Live your life as preached by the Prophets, our Lord Jesus Christ, his Disciples. Anyone who accepts our Lord Jesus Christ as the Mesiah of man, will receive the Holy Spirit. The new man baptized by water and of the Holy Spirit will become the church of God, the LIVING BODY of Christ, proclaiming His Gospel of Salvation for men and becoming shelter and light for others both in their physical need and spiritual journey back to God the Father. In the parable of the TALENTS, each man is given Grace and also entrusted with the people he comes across with. It is for all his disciples to use the Graces given him to bring back his brother and sister back to God's Grace.

    October 19, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Your handle does not fit your post. You show extreme arrogance in thinking you know why all atheists do not blindly accept your assertions.

      October 24, 2013 at 3:56 am |
    • Humility

      Hi

      The others so called aethist, who do not fall in the above are not real aethist, they are paid servants, betraying their brothers and sisters from the GRACE of our LORD, HIS HOLY SPIRIT, for 30 PIECES OF SILVER, getting the reward of betrayal to promote their own self interest. If anyone who has committed this terrible deed, accepts repentance and believe in our LORD's saving GRACE, he will still be forgiven, because our LORD is the LORD of Mercy.

      October 26, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Deins

      HUMILITY As it was said "He/she is questioning God's wisdom for allowing or not allowing events to happen".
      Nothing just happens because its the Will or Wisdom of God. It seems God is blamed for everything. Right along with Adam and Eve! It's all the Fault of Life and Essence! As "a way of life" professes "I a Poor Miserable Sinner"! A doctrinaire that Justifies blaming God and Adam and Eve for the very pain and suffering it came to Authorize. As a "Way of Life"!

      November 23, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • Humility

        Deins,

        Adam and Eve if you read the Bible lost the Grace of God and was sent out of the Garden of Eden. This is the Word of God not mine, see Genesis. If our being away from God is not our first parent's fall because of disobedience, then whose is it? Where you born ahead of Adam and Eve? God is the alpha and omega, therefore He knows what has happened and what is to happen. He has revealed it in the Gospels and Scriptures and the faithful Saints/Apostles in the Grace of the Holy Spirit of God is revealing the TRUTH till the coming of the LORD.

        Your brother in Faith with the living God Yahweh and His only son our Lord Jesus Christ,

        Marlon

        December 9, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • leemenjoseph

      Those who preach Jesus will inherit (((HELL))). Get back to the true God brother.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:34 pm |
  11. highplainsparson

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  13. GOOD NEWS

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    October 7, 2013 at 4:54 am |
    • austinisto

      And ODIN so loved the world that HE sent his son THOR to prevent his other son LOKI from taking over the place.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:42 am |
      • GOOD NEWS

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        October 24, 2013 at 3:37 am |
        • austinisto

          So, you're saying Christian mythology is superior to Norse mythology? Using a lot "quotation marks" and CAPITAL LETTERS and quoting an ancient work of mythology (the Bible) doesn't provide tangible proof of anything.

          October 24, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
      • GOOD NEWS

        Tangible Proof is: "Mathematics" and "Symmetry" here.
        For GOD created His book of Universe and His book of Religion based on these same "19" coded, matchless and most Superb "Symmetrical Miracles," in the first place. (Please, carefully see the website above)

        October 28, 2013 at 5:20 am |
  14. theridge

    Anyone who believes that all this just blew itself together without Intelligent design is living in hte matrix. That's like believing that a high end Swiss watch in the Sahara desert over time blows itself together. It boggles my mind what folks think. Ill give atheism (which is just another religion) this: at least you people are searching for something and just not some wetbrain that's just going along with the party and doens't give one thought to reality.

    October 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • leemenjoseph

      You're right brother.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
  15. theridge

    Jesus loves

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  17. joel

    Everyone is worshipping someone or something. In this case it is humans. Faith in evolution theory? It is exactly as the book of Romans States.

    September 24, 2013 at 7:04 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Faith is belief without evidence. Evolution theory is backed by plenty of evidence. A theory in the scientific sense is far different than what you obviously think.
      "A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.Scientists create scientific theories from hypotheses that have been corroborated through the scientific method, then gather evidence to test their accuracy. As with all forms of scientific knowledge, scientific theories are inductive in nature and aim for predictive and explanatory force"

      September 24, 2013 at 7:17 am |
      • Matthew Mueller

        "Faith is belief without evidence. Evolution theory is backed by plenty of evidence". First off, much less evidence than is usually believed. Secondly, there is plenty of evidence to support the Christian worldview. It just gets scoffed at or blown off because it doesn't fit with the idea that humans can know everything

        September 24, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          So present some evidence that there is a god. What humans know contradicts all creation myths so why continue to believe them?

          September 24, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Evolution theory is backed by plenty of evidence; there may be some gaps but it is the only credible explanation and generally considered fact.
          Humans can't know everything and yet you claim to know the mind of a being that, if it exists, hasn't been seen since the Big Bang.

          September 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          No, there is little evidence to support the christian worldview, thanks for being ignorant to facts though.

          September 25, 2013 at 4:35 am |
    • Matthew Mueller

      You are exactly correct

      September 24, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Jim Price

      I often hear this argument, that atheists have "faith" in science. I can see how a faithful person might honestly equate their faith with a scientific outlook, but there are some key differences.

      Having faith means believing in spite of evidence and the existence of alternative belief systems. Science means believing only what the evidence suggests is true, and only believing strongly when the evidence is strong.

      If enough evidence arises that evolution is false, even the most ardent supporter will eventually come around to accepting the new theory. Scientists can be dogmatic and set in their ways. Sometimes it takes a long time for new evidence to be properly integrated into a new theory, or for flawed theories to be replaced, but scientific consensus will eventually come around to the new way of thinking.

      Religions change with the times (slowly), but they are based upon the same texts they used thousands of years ago. Science textbooks have to be substantially rewritten every few years.

      This is not to say that religion is not useful and helpful to many people, just that it is nothing like science.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  18. Atheist cat

    Can I has bacon cheeseburger?

    September 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  19. Tryme

    Gosh atheists are ugly people.

    September 11, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
    • kamanalono

      No religion has ever defined what Truth is although one would think that Truth would be religions most important productl; but it is not. So if Truth is of so little importance to religion then what is IMPORTANT! to religion? The only rational answer to that question is LIE’S!

      September 14, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
      • jamie

        So being an atheist defines what truth is?

        September 15, 2013 at 9:25 am |
        • truthprevails1

          All an Atheist is comes down to the denial of theistic claims of the existence of a god or gods. Everyone is an Atheist to a degree...you deny the existence of other gods, so you are an Atheist in that sense.

          September 15, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • cc

      ain't that true

      September 16, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • teeisme2005

      Really? ATHEISTS are ugly people? You think Christians aren't ugly people? I am by no means trying to use a blanket word to cover all Christians, but wow. Talk about rude and wrong. The difference between a Christian and an Atheist is that Christians use their religion as a guidebook for morality (or at least supposedly-it doesn't work out too well for many of them). Atheists find morals within themselves and their community. Poll some felons; I bet MOST will tell you they are some branch of Christian. Their moral guidebook didn't work too well for them, did it?

      February 27, 2014 at 5:33 am |
  20. joem789

    GOD does not exist in the church. You may read certain passages in the Bible that lead one to to believe that attending Church is important. But you automatically pair what you read to the traiditions you already know. But realize that when the Bible was written, some things were different. In this case, the church was a lot different than it is today.

    Back then, the church was intolerant of Sin. Therefore, when people did get together there, they shared the same intolerance for Sin. And because of their soberness, they were likely to take the Bible more seriously. This is unlike today's churches, were tolerance is always in place. Worldly people flock there once a week to do their dance, fill up the offering plate, and then go back to their enslaved, but chosen lives. They are what the Bible refers to as fools and hypocrites.

    I'll repeat myself. GOD doesn't exist in the church. He exists in the real world outside the church. Especially in the places that are forsaken by society. The homeless. The starving.

    We often hear about the Off The Grid life people are now choosing. Call it what you want. But I prefer to call it GOD's intended way of life. He supplied us with all we need, and without meaningless technology or corporate intervention. The rain gives us water. The ground gives us food and shelter. The sun gives us energy.

    Society was designed by greed. Because we never needed society to begin with. At one time, people were far more self reliant. It took a greedy liar to break the status quo by tricking people into making him the middle man. Rich people are just stand-betweens that get free resources. Overall, they hog the world's resources. And they aren't unlimited.

    GOD cannot be in a person's life unless the seed is planted and grows. The root must be grounded in a place that isn't worldly. Regardless of where the plant may crawl to later. We basically shun society. But we later extend ourselves toward it for the sake of bringing others out of the world life. This is how to live a godly life of INTOLERANCE FOR SIN. Westboro church is a worldly church that has misinterpreted what intolerance means. They think it means a showing of hatred. They are FOOLS.

    Intolerance means to reject the ways of the world in favor of keeping the ways of GOD. Churches are tolerant. Meaning they accept the ways of the world without changing anything. They have diluted the Bible to selective passages to accomodate society. They are setting a VERY bad example for GOD by recruiting people to tolerate society.

    The hypocritical thing about it all is when you look at the proper way to raise children. The earliest part of their lives are the most important. Because roots are sprouting. So we are to raise them in the way they should go. A perfect opportunity to raise a godly person who doesn't use society to find God.

    In the "Off The Grid" life, many virtues are found. All because of the lack of burdens of society. Money is needed far less. So you spend much more time working to sustain yourself, having peace, contentment, and time. You become far wiser this way. This is how GOD is found. He is fully compatible with His natural world. Hence the reason why society works hard every day to cover it up. And when you CHOOSE to partake in the ways of society, you are as guilty as society. People would rather live the modern life because they aren't willing to self sacrifice the way Jesus did. And He told us to.

    They want to keep their luxury goods. Shiny cars, swimming pools, technological gadgets, big fancy home, and social status. Fine. It is their choice. but they will not find GOD as long as they do. In His eyes, you are choosing wealth. And these people think that donating money saves them. FYI, there is no assurance that anyone will go to Heaven. Smugness is the opposite of humility. Thus, it is important that we do not know what God plans to do with us after we leave here. So plan to earn His forgiveness till the day you die.

    I recommend you read lots of 18th and 19th century literature. Not mainstream. But journals and magazines. You will find many of them at libraries and Google Books. And you will be enlightened by a different perspective that is no longer seen by today's generation. We are now living during a time of complete deception. And the doorway out is very small. The churces are no longer the way. They once were. But the Bible has already told us they would all fall away. And they have. They are lost.

    September 11, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.