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Do Atheists Exist?
A new “godless” church makes you wonder.

Sanderson Jones, right, and Pippa Evans sing a song at a Sunday Assembly meeting on November 10, 2013. (AP)

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For people who like church except for the parts about God, a British couple have bodied forth a new denomination that cheerfully excludes him, raising the volume on the question “What is atheism?” several decibels overnight. The Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” founded in East London last January by standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, now boasts affiliates in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Canberra, Melbourne, New York, and Portland, Ore. On September 21, it announced a “global missionary tour”: This past fall, interested individuals in 22 cities across the Anglosphere held Sunday Assembly meet-ups. Look for permanent congregations to be established in some of those locations. Look for more to follow if the momentum continues.

“Church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked),” Jones and Evans confess in a short piece that appeared in the New York Times to mark the launch of their venture. Stuart Balkham, an earnest convert, told the Guardian that at a London meeting he attended the Assembly was “unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format,” which he thought was great.

Half ironically, the founders allow that the Assembly is a church, dedicated to benevolent acts and the search for transcendence. Though they draw the line at “religion,” insisting that it and atheism are mutually exclusive, the openness with which they borrow ecclesial atmospherics and nomenclature suggests that they see their atheist outfit as not entirely secular either. You might call it a third way, an alternative to religion and secularity both, much as the Church of England was historically a “via media” between Catholicism and Protestantism.

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Speaking the language of the many who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” the Assembly draws on an increasingly widespread understanding of religion as something like what “the letter” of the law was for Saint Paul — “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). If “religion” remains the inevitable word for a certain moral and philosophical seriousness, however, atheism is, or should be, counted as religious after all. Among the latest to advance that thesis is Ronald Dworkin, whose Religion without God was published posthumously in September. His argument is solid at least insofar as it’s not original; his readers may be quicker to grasp it than he anticipated. Citing Torcasco v. Watkins (1961), Dworkin quoted Hugo Black, who in a clarifying footnote to that Supreme Court decision had commented that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others,” a list to which the casual observer could be forgiven for adding several mainline Protestant denominations whose vanishing theism quotients have haunted the landscape of organized religion in America for half a century or more. And so the Sunday Assembly, its rejection of the label “religion” notwithstanding, joins a distinguished parade of institutions demonstrating that religious practice persists as an anthropological fact even where belief in God is muted or absent.

We live in a post-secular age, having run up against the limitations of procedural liberalism, which, while regulating the market on which God and the Devil compete for souls, remains scrupulously disinterested in the outcome. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, an atheist, created a stir twelve years ago when he began to argue that the secular state has an interest in the distinctive contributions that Judaism and Christianity make to the political order. The Italian philosopher Marcello Pera, also an atheist, goes further, proposing a Christian civil religion to replenish the Judeo-Christian matrix from which the West derives the moral values on which liberal democracy depends. The values uprooted from their native religion are like cut flowers, good for a time but not sustainable. The Sunday Assembly is hardly the first attempt to keep them going a while longer.

In embracing altruism, the Assembly touches on moral theology, as do Habermas and Pera, but unlike them it does so from a position it has staked out on the near outskirts of metaphysics, which lends the godless church much of its warmth. The third part of the Assembly’s motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more,” reflects a value attractive to souls seeking relief from the cool, or chill, as they experience it, of the secular climate in which they live. “Our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age. “The sense that there is something more presses in.”

Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.

Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it. The articulation of thought about what that mystery is — “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” in Wittgenstein’s succinct rendition of the matter — has been so honed by succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology that it’s now difficult for anyone, whether theist or atheist, to improve on their exact formulations. So the atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.



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