|Worship at an atheist mega-church|
The AP story links this development to the growth of the “nones” in the US—that is, people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in a survey. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a major center for religious demography) found that 20% of Americans fall under that category. But, as the story makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand all these people to be atheists. A majority of them believes in God and says that they are “spiritual but not religious”. All one can say with confidence is that these are individuals who have not found a religious community that they like. Decided atheists are a very small minority in this country, and a shrinking one worldwide. And I would think that most in this group are better described as agnostics (they don’t know whether God exists) rather than atheists (those who claim to know that he doesn’t). I further think that the recent flurry of avowed atheists writing bestselling books or suing government agencies on First Amendment grounds should not be seen as a great cultural wave, in America or anywhere else (let them just dream of competing with the mighty tsunami of Pentecostal Christianity sweeping over much of our planet).
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family. This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety). Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”. This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.