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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. Jane

    And God is there with them! That is how His Love works!

    June 23, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • JWT

      Which god ?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:07 am |
    • T-ROY

      Sadomasochism is someone who loves the one he fears. I believe this is the nature of the Christian relationship with God. Their morality comes from the fear of god, but they also love the thing they fear...

      June 23, 2013 at 9:22 am |
  2. Atheists do it better ;)

    isnt ritualistic practice in orderly fashion religion? i mean does it really matter if you have god or not? this really irritates me as an atheist. i feel that the nature of creating a godless church defeats the purpose of casting off the "yoke" of religion in the first place. atheism to me equals freedom, it equals a solidarity of humility for the human SPECIES. these jerks seek to recreate the same tired old idea, only under the guise of "lack of god". i guess without true change in thinking, were doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Malefique

      Churches have always been social clubs, first and foremost. What's wrong with atheists gathering to socialize?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • Spinner49

      If ritualistic practice is religion, then anytime you say the Pledge of Allegiance, or any time you attend a meeting using Roberts rules of order you are worshiping. To me the problem is the unprovable, supernatural aspect religion that create a division from nonbelievers.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:23 am |
    • Barbara Young

      Spinner49: Unprovable and supernatural events are repeated throughout time – they are repeated for persons who deserve or attained a Divine State of recognition from God. If you enter into the Living Presence of the Chryseis Daughter or Christ Son, this is measurable, as there is a huge increase in Energy and is sustained as long as you are in Either One's Living Presence.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  3. jason

    Christ ordained the church without Christ there is no church.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • aWitchintheWoods

      No churches? What a singularly great idea!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • jason

      Christs church will endure forever. What a joy to travel the highways and byways of America and see the steeples declaring Christs church above every town and village!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:11 am |
  4. bigmicmusicmachine

    ..What about a compromise.. instead of God or no God.. what about a BETTER God?

    ..here are two possibilities..

    http://buildingabettergod.blogspot.dk/2010/05/church-of-cosmic-huh.html

    http://buildingabettergod.blogspot.dk/2010/05/god-you-dont-want.html

    June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  5. Sean

    "religion is not at all bad"? I refer you to almost every war in history that has occurred..
    Before replying, remember that I said ALMOST every war and NOT ALL wars.
    And personally as an Atheist, an Atheist Church seems seriously stupid to me.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • Good ol boy

      Yeah, and of course there were never any atheists i the past to start those wars! You know good and well that every leader who starts a war is a religious backslider or atheist!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • I Am God

      I'm not sure why people are declaring it a church for. It is just a community group that decided the church would be a better place to convene due to its size.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • I Am God

      Good ol boy. Hitler was a Christian no matter how many times you try to deny it.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • Tom

      I just listed in my head, from most recent to oldes, the last 10 wars that the United States has been involved in. I coouldn't link the Christian faith to any of them.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • Good ol boy

      Yeah, just like yer God! Bwahaha!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • I Am God

      Hey Tom you must live in a very disturbing and limited view of the world. Why don't you expand your horizon a bit to say like Africa.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • ml

      Hey Tom, so I guess the only religion in the world is Christianity? Thanks for clearing that up..

      June 23, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  6. ml

    I get where this guy is coming from but to me it seems to be backwards. The *problem* has always been organized religion. To me its, more about Faith without religion rather the opposite.. And that means faith in whatever .. For atheists, like myself, , that might be faith in the goodness of humanity, the beauty of life and love and the power of hope..

    I don't have faith in faith, I don't believe in belief , you can call me faithless, you can call me faithless... I still cling to hope and I believe in love.. and that's faith enough for me.. thats faith enough for me.. – N Peart 2008

    One thing I don't profess however, is to know the answers (unlike literally every person who puts their faith in the hands of organized religions..).. The fact is, whether any of you , including athiests, want to believe it or not, the only thing that is really 100% fact is that We don't really know. And there is nothing wrong at all with "I don't know" ..

    All of you who seem to think that belief in some deity gets a pass from needing proof because its "faith".. well thats crap and deep down every single one of you know it. The FACT is, you base virtually every other decision you make (like whether or not walk into traffic, whether or not to jump off a bridge, whether or not to roll in a bed of poison ivy, whether or not to feed a wild grizzly bear etc) on FACT and Proof.. Just because you don't have any proof about something doesn't mean you get to make up your own answer and tell everyone else that it is fact ((which is exactly what organized religions do) .. Because its not. You can believe it all you want..... But its not fact until its proven... and therefore the bottom line is *you don't know*... That is ONLY thing that is absolute and the only thing every last one of have in common, whether we want to believe it or not. Period.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  7. Tom

    This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
    For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
    Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,
    Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
    Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away

    June 23, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • ml

      bla bla bla..

      are you really serious? no I mean, really ... Are you ? the silliness of this stuff never ceases to amaze me..

      June 23, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  8. Topdecker

    The problem is, most atheists I know, myself included, are not interested in meeting up and talking about religion, or in trying to emulate a religious gathering. It is just not important to us. I would rather take my daughter out for pancakes or go see a movie. There are a great many atheists in the United States, but they will never organize like the christians.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  9. Jenny

    I love it. Most of the reason I've stayed to myself much of my adult life whenever possible has been to avoid the religious. And when you live in rural/religious areas, you know not where to find other atheists.

    I do think it a shame that CNN consistently puts articles about atheists in the (ugh) "Belief Blog."

    June 23, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  10. j

    A is for the awful things they say here
    T is for the thousands daily dead
    H is for the hell on earth they've brought us
    E is for the ease with which they lie
    I is for the Ignorance they live by
    S is for the sins they hold so dear
    T is for the Truth that they all dread
    Put them all together they spell ATHEIST
    The folks who've made this world run red.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • ed dugan

      The religious nuts will start throwing stones but their hypocrisy over thousands of years renders them helpless. When religiion is finally gone, as it should be, the world will be a much better place. Now put that in a poem you ignorant religious huckster. Finallly we athiests are getting organized. The smart against the stupid!

      June 23, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • ml

      Um No..
      When has a single person every been slain in the name of Atheism?
      What makes the world run red.. and kills more people than any other cause on the planet, is the inherent evil of organized religion. And frankly, if the atheist pastor wants to start one, he's no better than any other...

      June 23, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • jason

      Professing themselves to be wise they exchanged the creation for the creator.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      wow...did you come up with this all on your own or did you have an adult help you?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  11. Darwin's Dog

    Lol, now Atheists are meeting together for their version of church, can they still deny that it is not a religion?

    June 23, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • I Am God

      A group of baseball players go to McDonalds for lunch. Can they still deny they aren't eating at McDonalds?

      June 23, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • Good ol boy

      I know, right? Every time you try to nail down an atheist, they say they have no common beliefs. How do they go forming a church then? It won't last real long when they discover that they have no shared moral foundation.

      June 23, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Because we are social animals, socializing is inherent human nature. It is the primary reason that christians build churches when even your Jesus character told you you do not need them. It is for the , and I will use the christians term, fellowship, that uis the sense of community. They just don't have the extra overhead of a preconceived iinstruction manual.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Good ol boy

      What community Richard? Atheists are very fond of saying they have absolutely nothing in common, or didn't you know?

      June 23, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • I Am God

      Good ole boy having a community group meeting does not correlate with religion. When did you leave school? It is quite obvious you never got of Middle School when you left due to your lack of education.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      ol boy
      That is not what atheists say at all, I have no idea where you are getting that.
      They ONLY differ from religious folk in that they do not believe in any gods. Other than that they have the same similarities as any other people. You are just making stuff up and saying atheists are what YOU are making up. Stop being silly.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • Good ol boy

      I'm just parroting what atheists say whenever you say atheism is a religion. "how can we be a religion? We have nothing in common." Sorry, game over. You lose. Atheism is now officially a religion. It has a church.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      ol boy
      Far from over. To be a religion , there must be some supernatural component. That is exactly what the atheists believe is not true. We do not believe in supernatural things. Atheism does not fit the catagory of religion.
      Saying it does and then acting like a child does not change the fact.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  12. Simon Lloyd

    I am so into this idea. FInally a place to meet likeminded, educated individuals who are also moralists. FINALLY.
    Atheism is filled with both obnoxious and positive people. Kind of like I dunno any other social group and like these other social groups the obnoxious members tend to get the most attention.

    I imagine this won't be in the news again for a long time. However that being said more unified god-free individuals should be talking and discussing how to help shape this nations future for the better. Not so much a voice to drown out the religious right but to counteract the toxic effect of one religion influencing government.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Darwin's Dog

      So basically what you are saying is that you want YOUR religion to be the one influencing government?

      June 23, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • The real Tom

      Since it's NOT a religion and since our government is secular, you really don't have much of a point, Dog. Keep on barking, though. It makes you look so very confident.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • I Am God

      Hey Dog Atheism and Communism and Socialism is not the same thing so I suggest you get a clue.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  13. Church??

    It seems like atheists do things the hard way. Going to church, reading the bible, arguing about the existence and nature of God, politics....these are the things that are miserable about religion. I assume the reasons why you chose not to have a religion to begin with??

    Believing there might be some higher power that only wants the best for you? That's the only part worth keeping.

    Oh well each to his own.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • Good ol boy

      Ha! Atheists are more religious than the religious folks they hate so much!

      June 23, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  14. aWitchintheWoods

    You are incorrect, CARLinAC. Atheists don't believe in "nothing."
    We believe in ourselves and humanity.
    We believe in living a good and decent life.
    You know...the real things.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • Darwin's Dog

      You have your evangelists, your beliefs, and now you have your church. Yup, atheism is a religion...

      June 23, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • The real Tom

      Well, it isn't, but don't let the facts get in the way of your delusion, Dog.

      June 23, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • Jenny

      Also, most atheists believe in nature and the planet that is our home. Mainly, we do not feel the need to abuse animals in the myriads of ways that the religious take so much enjoyment in.

      June 23, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • aWitchintheWoods

      Sorry, Dog but religion is the belief in the unprovable and the unknowable.
      If the basis for belief is in the provable and the knowable, it's not religion.

      June 23, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  15. Irony is Lost

    Wonder if all religions started the same way, by giving people the chance to come out and meet people who share similar beliefs. What are the chances Humanist becomes a religion with religion related problems.

    I don't follow a religion, it's not important to me, therefore I don't need to have meetings with other people to whom it is not important. This whole thing sounds like a therapy group for people who like to feel important.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Simon Lloyd

      We atheists are already there. For instance some us define ourselves as 'spiritual' and long for community etc.
      I myself left the unitarian church because it was too grounded in christian mimicry even though unitarian universalists are ummm not christian.
      The point is organized 'religion' will create numerous problems. Labeling, group beliefs, even the definition of what it means to be an 'atheist' could be changed, still if Atheism is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life. And most people i've met who call themselves atheist's are doing just that then unifying gives us the power to start enacting social change faster.

      The article for instance talks about how the group discusses compassion, something our society is severely in lack of. Raise the nations ability to feel compassion through outreach and you effect change. Immigration and Prison reform for instance would become a more malleable subject.

      June 23, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  16. adam higdon

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

    For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:48 am |
    • Robert

      There you go again. Quoting the Babble. Folks, your Gawd didn't write this freakin book. A bunch of men did. The book does not contain anything but mythology. If it makes you feel better to believe this junk that's fine, but it doesn't make you right either!

      June 23, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  17. J

    If you only read CNN, you would assume that the USA is mainly populated by atheists, with a few dozen Christians in that one horrible church in Florida somewhere. Gotta love the internet.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:47 am |
  18. chris

    I like what they are doing here, but once it grows, just like all organizations it will design rules, beliefs, structure and then go out in the word to convert. God or not it's still a belief system that will be pushed onto others.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Wow, you go from presumption , to speculation, to it is true so quickly there. You must have had religious schooling. Why don't you just see where it goes and then start patting yourself on the back...I personally would love to see what "beliefs" the atheists are going to come up with to make your statement true. Since they won't. your statement is already false.

      June 23, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  19. bigmicmusicmachine

    I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
    – Susan B. Anthony , addressing the National American Woman Suffrage Association meeting in 1896

    God is Love, we are taught as children to believe. But when we first begin to get some inkling of how He loves us, we are repelled; it seems so cold, indeed, not love at all as we understand the word.

    – W. H. Auden

    If God created us in His image we have certainly returned the compliment.

    – Voltaire

    The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshiped anything but himself.

    – Sir Richard Francis Burton

    June 23, 2013 at 8:46 am |
    • J

      Voltaire sure had some good zingers!

      June 23, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  20. literalman

    In the summary you write "without the Almighty". Unless CNN has an editorial stance that this supoosed "Almighty" exists, then the summary should be change to "without any 'Almighty'".

    June 23, 2013 at 8:46 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.