Is it an oxymoron for atheists to start their own churches? Even God-less ones? As more North Americans continue to move away from religion, a growing movement to efficiently organize is taking root. How atheism is learning from its fiercest critics.
Digital Journal — Atheism inched its way into the spotlight when two best-selling books stormed into our cultural arena: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Both books attacked religious values and imparted messages such as Hitchens calling religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry.” Dawkins says the existence of God isn't possible, saying such a complex creature calls into question how it was even created in the first place.
As expected, Dawkins and Hitchens faced a barrage of criticism from the religious public. They called the books short-sighted and insulting. But atheism earned enormous attention amidst the controversies, giving those who fear coming out of the God-less closet more empowerment to do so.
And they are tired of shutting up about their free-spirited philosophies. Atheists are increasingly amassing themselves into loose-knit organizations, building human-centered groups that take the God out of church. Yes, they might want their own church but they want to throw out the Bibles and replace them with traditional songbooks.
As explained in a New York Magazine feature, the secular Society for Ethical Culture was formed in 1877 to give atheists a chance to congregate in a proper facility. Humanistic Judaism stresses cultural roots rather than following the Old Testament by rote. Humanist rabbi Peter Schweitzer told New York: “Jews need a place to go, especially during high holidays, where they don’t have to check reason at the door. This is honest religion. A real gift.”
The First Church of Atheism was born out of a need to spread the belief “that science and reason dictate all natural life.” The Church allows atheists to become ordained free and provides a directory for atheists to find ministers to perform certain ceremonies.
The Texas-based Freethought Church held its first service in 1995, when 40 people attended. Today, around 150 people are active members of a church that does indeed explore religious ideas, but emphasizes the need to reject what they call “religious superstition.”
An American atheist points out many people misunderstand why church is so popular with practicing Christians. Tim Gorski said: “It isn’t the specific doctrines. [Church] binds people together and relates them to one another and gives them each a personal, private, and, of course, quite subjective understanding of themselves and their world.”
Statistically, if not anecdotally, more North Americans are not identifying themselves as religious. A survey from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released in February 2008 revealed 16 per cent of Americans have no religious affiliation. And among respondents ages 18 to 29, the “unaffiliated” number soars to 31 per cent, more than any other category (Muslims come closest, at 28 per cent).
In Canada, the atheist landscape isn’t much different. According to Statistics Canada, between 1985 and 2004, the percentage of Canadians aged 15 and older reporting no religious affiliation increased from 12 per cent to 19 per cent. Also, 20 per cent of adults between 30 and 44 years old reported no religious affiliation, up from 13 per cent in 1985.
Not surprisingly, the nationwide group American Atheists praised the recent surveys showing the rise of atheism in the country. In a statement, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson said: “We’re encouraged that as a group non-religious Americans are thriving, and that more believers are obviously questioning the dogmas of their religion and starting to think for themselves.”
Atheism is enjoying a reawakening that is seeing its affiliates organize into groups and campus clubs in order to voice their concerns, such as the need to separate church and state. They want to bullhorn their opinions on intelligent design curriculum in schools and the product-placement of God in political campaigns. They are also unafraid to smack out a lawsuit or two — look at how Specialist Jeremy Hall sued the U.S. Army for violating his “right to be free from state endorsement of religion under the First Amendment” and facing retaliation from fellow officers when he tried to organize a meeting of atheists in an Iraq army camp. Hall told the New York Times:
Even if [the lawsuit] doesn’t go through, I stood up. I don’t think it is futile.
It doesn’t end there. Atheist activists face public attacks, evidenced in how Illinois state Rep. Monique Davis berated atheist Rob Sherman last week, stating atheism is “dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children.” The blogosphere had a field day with that verbal lightning rod.
It’s obvious to see the need for atheists to get organized. They are learning from their own detractors, it seems, because they are also moving into churches, lobbying Congress and creating public awareness campaigns to be both seen and heard. Dawkins and Hitchens may have put their concerns on the map but those two firebrands can’t be to atheists what the Pope is to Catholics. Part of an atheist’s MO is to think freely and to take action without orders from an ordained leader.
If activist atheists are so passionate about their beliefs (um, or religious-related lack thereof), standing idle will only hurt their cause. They have every right to get their voice heard in a continent still overwhelmingly religious. It’s like they are in the back of the classroom, ignored and pitied, just dying to let the rest of the classroom hear their ideas. Even if their opinions run contrary to the norm, shouldn’t they also be voiced?
It won’t be up to anyone but atheists whether that happens. Much like how organized religion has structured bullet-proof marketing campaigns, atheists should do the same. In order to step out of the shadows for good, these free-thinkers should do what they’ve always done: stand up for their rights, think outside the box and find like-minded people who can turn apathy into action.