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
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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. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    What brought this topic back to the forefront?

    May 29, 2014 at 11:27 am |
    • awanderingscot

      And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” – Exodus 5:2, NKJV
      – unbelievers and God-deniers today respond to the gospel in much the same way. The gospel is not only an invitation from God to become reconciled to Him; it is also a command. Those who do not respond and rebel against Him remain under the curse and will come to know His wrath one day.

      June 2, 2014 at 9:11 am |
      • Lucifer's Evil Twin

        Shut up Meg

        June 2, 2014 at 11:56 am |
      • otoh2

        Pharaoh who? And what is your evidence that **any** pharaoh ever said such a thing (outside of your Horatio Alger-like story)?

        June 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. – Isaiah 55:10
        – even so, the gospel has prospered and will continue to prosper. by divine decree it has gone forth and evil men cannot do anything to stop it.

        June 2, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
  2. Doris

    Letting go of superstition

    from "50 Renowned Academics Speaking About God"

    [after discussing inevitable galactic & terrestrial destructive forces out there that want to kill us] "..none of this is a sign that there is a benevolent anything out there…" –Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, host of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"

    "..but to me saying that there was a designer does not help at all.." –Alan Guth, MIT professor of physics

    "..I'm not militant by nature – and if people want to believe, well then that's their business; I mean what concerns me is when belief is used to influence and corrupt education or politics. And it seems to me monstrous that Creationism or so-called intelligent design is taught next to evolution or instead of it. And I do think that it is almost as a form of madness." –Oliver Sacks, world-renowned neurologist, Columbia University

    "M-Theory doesn't disprove God, but it does make him unnecessary. It predicts that the universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing without the need for a creator." –Stephen Hawking, Cambridge theoretical physicist

    May 28, 2014 at 2:51 pm |
  3. thatinthebible

    Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.

    -Blaise Pascal

    Apologetics has its place, but salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit...

    "Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ." (Col 2:8 NLT)

    We can't persuade people with "human" logic and reason.

    I really like the idea of taking any random current local, national, or international news event and just seeing what the Bible has to say about that particular subject; if anything.

    I blog at http://isthatinthebible.com

    Atheists and agnostics are more than welcome to comment there.

    April 20, 2014 at 8:10 pm |
    • tallulah131


      May 28, 2014 at 2:55 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” – John 3:16-21, NKJV

        June 4, 2014 at 10:39 am |
        • igaftr

          Why don't you just qoute the enitire bible.
          It is just as maningless as all of these peicemeal posts. There continues to be no evidence that ANY of the supernatural claims of the bible are true.
          Are you going to post the Silmarillian too? It's a much better read, and just as much evidence it is true.

          June 4, 2014 at 10:48 am |
    • igaftr

      Pascals wager has long been thrown out because it only posits two possibilities, where an infinite number of possibilities exist.

      For an example. It is possible that there is a god, but not the Abrahamic god, and it does not like any who claim the abrahamic god is the only one worthy of worship. Your faith, in that case, could well count against you.

      May 28, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
  4. vinodjeyakaran

    The fool says in his heart, "there is no God" Psalm 14:1

    I pity these people at Harvard.. They need prayer..

    The left wing democratic movement and Atheist movement will be the downfall of America (already started) as they pursue their godless agenda, from abortion to gay marriage. May God bless the Tea Party as they stand for what matters most..Faith and being One nation under God

    April 8, 2014 at 1:01 am |
    • ssq41

      Could have sworn Jesus died for the left wing democratic atheists...oh, that's right...your god hates those you hate.

      April 8, 2014 at 1:09 am |
    • hotairace

      70+% of all abortions performed each year in the USA are had by believers. Believers could dramatically decrease the number of abortions if they just followed their own cults' rules, no changes in any law required.

      April 8, 2014 at 1:13 am |
      • vinodjeyakaran

        Your statement has no factual basis to it at all..I would suggest doing research before posting, You may want to actually educate yourself on the facts associated with abortion.


        April 8, 2014 at 10:32 am |
        • igaftr

          Perhaps you should check your own references.
          From your refernce.
          "Religion and Abortion

          •Those women who had abortions in 2008 listed their religious affiliation as:
          Roman Catholic = 28.1%

          Protestant = 37.3%

          Other = 7.1%

          None = 27.5%

          That clearly shows the post from hotairace to be accurate...by your own reference.

          May 28, 2014 at 3:30 pm |
        • awanderingscot

          “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,
          And do not return there,
          But water the earth,
          And make it bring forth and bud,
          That it may give seed to the sower
          And bread to the eater,
          11 So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
          It shall not return to Me void,
          But it shall accomplish what I please,
          And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. – Isaiah 55:10-11, NKJV

          His word will not fail to be spoken and those who believe will be saved.

          May 29, 2014 at 9:21 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          Hey scientist, please save us from our rainy days,
          Because your counterpart in the magic art is manufacturing judgment day.
          There's a fell wind blowing out of the east, bringing famine, drought and plague.
          Well now, at least that's what they say.

          Well I know what's wrong and I know what's right.
          And I know that evil exists, sure as the day turns into night.
          When a man gets down on his knees to pray, you know he'll find what he is able,
          But chances are he'll find it either way.

          Rain fell like judgment across my windowpane.
          Said it fell like judgment, but it was only rain.

          – Dr. Greg Graffin

          May 29, 2014 at 9:48 am |
      • awanderingscot

        religious affiliation does not of necessity infer belief and therefore you are wrong. check your facts next time

        May 29, 2014 at 9:38 am |
        • awanderingscot

          correction: religious affiliation does not of necessity confer belief, is what i meant

          May 29, 2014 at 9:44 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          And just because someone is a member of the NRA, that doesn't mean they believe in the 2nd amendment, right?

          May 29, 2014 at 9:55 am |
      • hotairace

        These facts are from the Guttmacher Inst!tute, data accepted by both sides of the argument. But go ahead, show how they are wrong.

        May 29, 2014 at 9:47 am |
        • awanderingscot

          "hot air"
          you stated believer as fact and you have no way of knowing that. the fact is that religious affiliation was given, not belief, therefore you are wrong.

          May 29, 2014 at 10:02 am |
        • hotairace

          Ah, the old "no true Scotsman" crap. Again, a recognized inst!tute collected the data and summarized it. If you have a problem with their methods, take it up with them.

          May 29, 2014 at 10:07 am |
        • hotairace

          The word Guttmacher used was "identified." Why would someone identify as a member of a believer cult if they didn't believe? Next you will be saying all the women were atheists but claimed to be believers as part of a plot to discredit religion.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:02 am |
    • enderspeakerforthedead

      It is better to stay silent and be thought the fool than to quote scripture and confirm it.

      April 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        It is better to stay spiritually dead and silent than to reject scripture and confirm it.

        May 29, 2014 at 9:58 am |
        • igaftr

          "scripture" simply means someone wrote something down. This is scripture.
          Do you believe evrything that someone wrote down?
          As far as "spiritually dead", by all means, show that there is such a thing as "spirit" then show how one can be "spiritually dead" as you state.

          May 29, 2014 at 10:08 am |
        • awanderingscot

          His words, written, ARE spirit. but the spiritually dead will not, indeed cannot discern. only His elect receives the spirit, not just anyone professing receives the spirit. one must be quickened.

          May 29, 2014 at 10:49 am |
        • igaftr

          you like to throw a lot of terms that mean nothing around, like the imaginary "quickening" and the spirits you imagine.
          You think because you believe that you can read something more into it, but it is simply a casae of self delusion, you wnat it to be true, so you have convicnced yourself it is, even though there is NOTHING showing any spirit anything exists

          May 29, 2014 at 10:53 am |
        • Alias

          I've always loved the stupidity in that excuse:
          "You don't know god so you don't understand"
          Great way to try to justify your flawed thinking – NOT!

          May 29, 2014 at 10:53 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          The Quickening
          Bad Religion

          The quickening is an ephemeral thing
          That only happens in the dark
          Like catching lightning in a jar
          And the pain that it brings
          Is just the promise of spring
          It’s madness on the way
          Oh, what does it mean…
          To come alive

          The entering is soulful conjecturing
          Oh, lost and by the wind grieved ghost
          Come back to me again
          Because the way that she bleeds
          Is in the law that he reads
          Confusing words and deeds
          So what does it mean…

          To pierce the vein of the sacred and profane
          Poor science, in service of a faith
          But who will bear the mark of Cain?

          – Brett Gurewitz

          May 29, 2014 at 10:55 am |
        • hotairace

          Ya gotta believe to believe! You're not looking in the right place! You're not praying hard enough! You're not praying correctly! It's always the fault of the unbeliever, never the probability that no gods exists.

          May 29, 2014 at 10:57 am |
        • awanderingscot

          whatever.. you will reap what you are sowing.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:12 am |
        • igaftr

          yes...another well thought out response..
          to paraphrase...
          "whatever, I imagine something is going to happen to you because you don't believe what I believe."

          May 29, 2014 at 11:14 am |
        • hotairace

          I certainly hope so. Would be good to help a few believer cult members escape their delusions, or help a few people understand there's nothing wrong with pushing back against religion and charlatan shamans, not to mention the mentally ill such as yourself.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:15 am |
    • awanderingscot


      May 25, 2014 at 3:52 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        Atheism is illogical and incoherent, but don't tell atheists that.

        May 25, 2014 at 3:53 pm |
        • igaftr

          No of course, it is much better to blindly believe in things there is no evidence for whatsoever.

          May 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
        • Alias

          Let's apply your logic:
          You don't understand because you believe.
          As soon as you stop believing, it will be clear to you.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:04 am |
        • hotairace

          Yes, it is way more logical to believe in the incoherent stories in The Babble and that for which there is absolutely no actual evidence.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:10 am |
        • awanderingscot

          In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

          Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

          Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.

          Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

          Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day.

          Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

          Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” So the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

          Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind”; and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind, cattle according to its kind, and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

          Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:1-28

          May 30, 2014 at 2:57 pm |
        • neverbeenhappieratheist

          thank you for pointing out the lunacy of your beliefs.

          May 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm |
    • awanderingscot

      'knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. – 2 Peter 3:3-7, NKJV

      May 28, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
      • tallulah131

        I bet if I was an illiterate peasant living 2000 years ago, I'd be really freaked about about that verse.

        May 28, 2014 at 2:45 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        your opinion doesn't matter to me.

        May 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm |
        • tallulah131

          And yet you post on an open blog. You invite comment so I will comment as I see fit.

          May 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm |
        • Doris

          Now I remember who you remind me of.


          May 28, 2014 at 2:53 pm |
        • Doris

          (snotty and Rainer – two Helmuts that could easily fit into a pod)

          May 28, 2014 at 2:54 pm |
      • Alias

        Most religions throw in that disclaimer to explain nonbelievers.

        May 28, 2014 at 2:58 pm |
        • awanderingscot


          May 29, 2014 at 8:22 am |
        • TruthPrevails1

          awanderingtot-oh lover of incest (it's what the bible says are the beginnings of mankind-at least that is what it equates to): Just because you have not yet made it out of grade 5 and thus fail to comprehend evolution does not make it wrong. Only an ignorant uneducated dolt denies evolution.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:11 am |
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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.