The Huffington Post ran a fascinating article a couple days ago about the launch of Britain’s first atheist church. Yes, you read that right. This past Sunday a couple hundred atheists gathered together in a former church turned performance space in London to gather as Britain’s first atheist church. They gathered together, sang some songs, spent some time reflecting, and even had a message. As you can about imagine, the event has sparked a lot of attention and has both the Christian community and the global atheist community grappling with how to appropriately respond.
I have to admit that a part of me loves that this is happening. Honestly, I would love to be able to visit sometime. Now that might throw some Christians for a loop who might feel uneasy about the idea of an atheist church. And I will admit it is much easier to look with fascination or amusement at something when it is happening on the other side of the Atlantic,
but let me share a few reasons I think this could be a good thing:
1. When this starts happening in some of the urban cultural centers in the U.S., it is going to be a serious “gut check” for local churches.
Perhaps for the first time local churches will have to begin to wrestle with questions like, Apart from our statement of faith, what sets us apart from the atheist church meeting down the street?, Are we really all that different?, Would a visitor even be able to discern the difference?, and If not, what does that say about what we are communicating with our words and our actions? And perhaps the scariest question of all: What if the atheist church down the street is actually more loving, more gracious and more compassionate than we are? This sort of self-evaluation would be a great thing for all of us.
2. The establishing of atheist churches more honestly reflects the reality that atheism is a belief system, and an exclusive one at that.
Some go so far as to argue that atheism is a religion. I wouldn’t go that far but the establishing of an atheist church sure seems to give credence to that line of thought. The bottom line is that to believe that no God exists is every bit as bold and exclusive as the belief that one God exists and reigns over his creation (the claim of Christianity). The difference is that one says, “We have personally experienced this God and we cannot deny He exists,” and the other says, “We have not experienced this God, nor can we prove his existence, and therefore He must not exist.” It is certainly okay to have that conviction. I have a number of friends who do. But let’s at least be honest that both are belief systems and exclusive ones at that. Perhaps from here we can have an honest, respectful conversation about where we might disagree.
3. I am excited for atheists to get to experience what they perceive to be “the best of religion.”
The founders of Britain’s first atheist church believe the best of religion to be a sense of community, mutual edification (they actually use that word), and turning good intentions into action. I sincerely hope they get to experience all of this and more. Community is indeed a beautiful thing, and as a person who has a soft spot for atheists, I hope an atheist church can provide that for them. But a part of me also hopes they get to experience all of these things so they can see for themselves that religion in all its varying forms brings no satisfying answers to the questions our soul longs to have answered. Religion is utterly empty, whether it be Christian or atheist or any other. I hope that the atheists who are a part of this get everything they’ve ever hoped for in religion so they can finally find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Religion is not the answer. Jesus is.
4. In time, it just might help expose Christian churches that have exchanged the gospel for entertainment and self help.
Attenders of Britain’s first atheist worship service were treated to live music (including an Oasis cover song), standup comedy, and a message oriented around dealing with failure. Sound familiar? Take into consideration that I pastor a church where we laugh a lot, perform cover songs every now and then (I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to some Oasis), and in just a couple weeks I will be delivering a message about, of all things, dealing with failure! A little scary, eh? The truth is Mosaic‘s “liturgy” is pretty similar to that of many churches established over the past two decades. The atheist church adopted a similar form of service much like Scientology did. But the difference that makes all the difference is not the form of service, but the message of the gospel. We believe that the underlying source of every problem under the sun is sin. And the only answer is Jesus. Not self-help. Not positive thinking. Not religious activity sprinkled over an essentially same life. But an entirely new life springing out of a new heart reconciled to God through Jesus. Churches that have strayed from this essential message of the Bible and have moved towards self-help philosophy cloaked in entertainment based ministry could be in for a real wake up call when they start losing parishioners to the atheist church down the street. That, too, would be a good thing.
You know, perhaps I am just being naive. Perhaps I really should be concerned about the possibility of atheist churches becoming a stateside reality. But personally, I think anything that challenges us to ask hard questions about who we really are and why we do what we do is a good thing. Perhaps we have gotten a little lazy in our expression of and participation in the local church. Perhaps it is time we do some hard, reflective self-evaluation about what our means communicate and what we are inviting people to be a part of. Perhaps the American Church needs something like this to shake us from our slumber.