Well, it seems that the end of atheism is near. Why, you ask? Consider this: earlier this year, a group of atheists in London formed what they call the “Sunday Assembly,” which is, yes, a church for atheists.
One attendee put the attraction this way: “I don’t think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church – a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food – without the stinging imposition of God Almighty.”
Have they gone mad? Do they have any idea of what they’re in for? I fear for my atheist friends pursuing organized non-religion. How many varieties of unbelief will be truly welcome? Just how do you craft a Confession of Non-Belief, anyway? Besides, if the only thing you have in common is your conviction that there is no God, what’s the point?
The Sunday Assembly proposes as its motto: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” What about those fine but independent atheists who really don’t want to be badgered to live “better” (compared to what?), or to “help” (on whose terms?), or to spend much time “wondering” (if nothing’s spiritual and everything is material, what’s there to wonder about?) – don’t they realize that all the community-oriented stuff they evidently desire can be had, entirely without any required reference to God, in any good local civic club?
How long before the pursuit of better living, frequent helping and more wondering is derailed by arguments about the color of the carpet in the assembly hall? I do not envy them the wrangling to come over the proper symbols to use that illustrate the non-faith that is at the center of what they propose to celebrate.
I don’t mean to be derogatory. I have the deepest appreciation for the self-professed atheists I know whose doubts about God proceed from a position of authentic intellectual integrity and who seek to live according to their best understanding of the meaning of life.
What this group fails to grasp, however, is that all the perceived benefits of church life mentioned above are not the essence of church, but a happy by-product. What Christians have in common is not found in these secondary activities, but in one thing alone: the cross of Jesus Christ. Apart from being sinners who confess their need for God’s grace, Christians worldwide generally do not have much else in common; the love of God in Christ is the only glue strong enough to hold us together.
As Paul wrote, “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Humanity is not deficient as a result of living poorly, helping less or any lack of wonder. We are deficient because of the stubborn reality of something called sin.
Christians humbly proclaim that it is only by denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus Christ that there is anything to gather around at all.
THE REV. ED REES IS THE PASTOR OF ST. ANDREW PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AUGUSTA.