REBLOG: Neither Church, Nor Atheist: The Sunday Assembly Movement’s Relevance to a Theistic World

[This posting is being relocated from a blog I am discontinuing. It is a follow-up rejoinder to a posting on the Sunday Assembly Movement, which I support in spirit.]

I do, however, believe that, whilst Atheist Church may have lofty goals and ideals, it is, an idealist movement that is based upon both shaky premises AND a worldview that owes itself to the Christian worldview, but which, of course, would never admit it.   “Dear Atheist Church Planter Charley, Thank You for Your Kind Response” By Steve McAlpine

Dear Steve,

So, we are going to have another round. It’s probably best that I preface my response to your latest “Atheist Church Planter” posting with a disclaimer and some personal history. We’ve only just begun to know each other and in the interest of a “fair fight,” I think you should know more about with whom you are discussing these topics.

First off, I am not speaking for anyone but myself. I am involved with the Sunday Assembly Chicago planning group, but can in no sense speak for the Sunday Assembly movement. For the “official scoop,” I direct you to SA’s main website and charter for all member assemblies. For much of what I will say in response here, the following quote is most relevant:

The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.

The relevance of this statement is that it also implies that SA is NOT an “atheist church.” We have been labeled such in the press and for the most part it is an innocuous use of the phrase. However, given the sort of issues you raise in your blog, the difference between being a “congregation” versus being a “church” is relevant. You have a grand global cosmological vision of just what Christianity is; we are after something more modest, right off the bat. In fact, that lowered horizon is key to understanding the SA.

You quote me and respond in your second point (I’ll return to the first point in a moment): “”We don’t guilt people about anything.”  What?  Not about anything?  So the sexual predator, child abuser, murderer should not be guilted? Courts pronounced “guilty” every day all over the world, so are they wrong to do so?”

One of the big differences between SA and much of Christianity is that we accept the secular character of the legal justice system. We believe that laws should be determined and applied democratically. Therefore, criminal behavior is not a matter for an organization such as ours to decide nor to judge, but rather belongs to all of society, both theist and atheist. You and I and everyone share the responsibility to deal compassionately, but decisively, with criminal behavior.

Much, but not all of, Christianity sees itself as the recipient of a perfect divine revelation from the creator of the cosmos itself with a mostly complete moral code which it feels obligated to proclaim to the world. Our “godless congregations” rely on reason, democracy, activism, and the shared quest for truth. We do not have a holy rulebook that we are trying to convince everyone to follow. Grasping that lowered sense of moral demand helps to position the question of how we would deal with a sexual predator in our midst. If one were to come to us and say that they were seeking a community that welcomed acts of sexual predation, well, no doubt they would be told to get the hell out. If one came and said they were looking for a support system while they cleaned up their act, we might be able to mobilize some limited resources. I imagine we’d suggest that they get involved with some sort of therapeutic program offered for persons like themselves. A local SA can only do a few things well, we are not seeking to enact a totalizing moral conversion of anyone.

Now for the personal history. I am not a lifelong atheist, in fact, I don’t always call myself an atheist. If you dig around my several blogs you’ll find that I use terms like nontheist and eutheist, but personally find that atheist gets me into more trouble than I care to invite into my life. The reason it does so is that I am an ex-Christian. My father was a Pentecostal preacher. My brother, a couple cousins, uncles, and other relatives are all in either Pentecostal or evangelical ministry. Most of my family, including my own wife, mother, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, & sister attend churches that fit into the category of “evangelical.” I, myself, identified as a Pentecostal believer, prayed in tongues, practiced healing prayer, studied the scriptures zealously, and taught myself some fairly sophisticated theology over a life of following Jesus until 1997 at the age of 34, when I resigned from the church. That decision was one of the most difficult I’ve ever made. I lost many friends and the trust of family members in the process.

What that said, let me return to your opening thoughts. Y0u write, “whilst [Sunday Assembly] may have lofty goals and ideals, it is, an idealist movement that is based upon both shaky premises AND a worldview that owes itself to the Christian worldview, but which, of course, would never admit it.” I hope this doesn’t sound like a tit for tat, but the fact is that Christianity owes its own origins to ancient pre-Christian and pre-Biblical human culture, from which it was born. If you believe in a literal Adam, then you can’t admit my claim, either, and so, dialogue isn’t going to get very far. Most paleontologists agree that Adam was not a literal person, and even the Pope himself agrees. The biblical texts are likely not much older than 900 BCE, and the Epic of Gilgamesh is much older, as are scriptures from ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, and India.

That said, there is little doubt that even someone raised cradle to grave in the English-speaking world as an atheist has imbibed significant influences from Christianity, since it was the dominant religion of Europe for centuries, often imposed under threat of punishment. And, let me be generous and say that to this day I am still quite taken with some parts of the Christian tradition. You can read one of my attempts to constructively analyze the teachings of Jesus in an earlier blog post.

You also conceded that perhaps many atheists do not hate theism, but then judged again that most of us hold it in scorn and derision. That is certainly the tack that many popular atheist celebrities take, such as Richard Dawkins, who calls theism a “delusion” in one of his most famous books. I reject that judgment and hold that theism is a fairly natural product of the ancient human imagination, no more, no less. How many atheists are closer to my stance than not is difficult to say. Most atheists do not spend a lot of time writing books, but going about their lives as best as they are able, like most Christians.

Continuing with your post, quote, “The youngest, most populous cities in the world are by and large also the most religious places.  I guess we will wait to see if it grows in popularity there, but it seems that at the tale end of the Western world as the centre of power, atheism might get a gig.” Sunday Assembly is certainly aiming for a target audience in the industrialized and secularizing West. Studying the global demographics of atheism certainly suggests that non-belief is growing somewhat slowly compared to the total human population. It would take generations for any sort of planet-wide spread of non-religion to penetrate some areas of Africa or the Middle East. However, even there, the internet has made it possible for small isolated atheists to connect with the larger Western movement. SA may someday spread godless celebrations to cities as religious as Mecca, though the atheists in Saudi Arabia presently see themselves as a persecuted minority.

You write, “I get the impression that you believe that if we all pull together we can do what we plainly have not been able to do up to this point. It seems slightly utopian and hopelessly idealistic. And what makes atheism such a good option anyway, given that in the few places on the planet that it was universalised it proved to be a complete disaster, and awash with blood?”

Actually, I do believe that many victories have been won for human progress over the centuries, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, defeating Nazism, Women’s Suffrage, overturning monarchy, mass literacy, scientific breakthroughs, global transportation, etc. It ain’t the millenium, but I have every reason to be hopeful. Yeah, I’m a glass half-full optimist. I know that the challenges we face are enormous, but since I don’t expect God to fix any of those problems, I have no choice but to support the best proposals I can find for such issues.

As for a universalized atheism, no doubt you mean the former Soviet Union or Communist China? You may find it interesting to know that in fact I am a socialist who believes that capitalism’s days are numbered by the sheer irrationality of the global marketplace it has created. The Great Recession of 2007-8 confirmed my sense of things. I do acknowledge that in the name of Stalinism and Atheism great horrors were done in many places. Of course, I could throw the Crusades and Inquisition at the Christians, but I won’t. The fact is that power-mad dictators and clerics do horrible things and use their religion or atheism to justify them. Doesn’t prove that atheism or Christianity is wrong, only that letting unaccountable concentrations of power fester and metastasize is a recipe for disaster. Democracy, more of it, is still a hopeful prescription for not repeating the past tragically.

You try to answer one of my objections about Christian unity by saying, “For all of the disunity among Christians the central spine has remained the same for two millennia.” I simply don’t believe this claim. The Apostles’ Creed is not universally accepted, in fact, it is considered by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches to be incomplete without the stronger doctrines defined by the Nicene Creed. The adoption of the Nicene Creed meant that many churches were expelled from the newly forming imperial Orthodox church because they didn’t buy some line or other in the Creed.

In the early Christian scriptures, we have references to false teachers in every letter of Paul, which means that the orthodox leadership was under constant challenge. Most of those challengers were suppressed and their teachings banned, though some survive in the so-called “Gnostic Writings.” Even Paul and James couldn’t agree on the relation of faith to works.

Division is a universal human problem and SA has been as harshly attacked by some atheists as by some Christians, though considerably more so by Christians. I can say I’ve never met a Christian with whom I could not find some doubt about the central doctrines of orthodox faith, whether the Trinity, the Atonement, Incarnation, or Biblical Inspiration. Many are too afraid of the judgment of their pastors or fellow Christians to admit such doubts. The pressure to conform to stipulated orthodoxy is quite pervasive in every evangelical church I’ve known. And I’ve known several intimately.

To close out this already over-long posting, I support Sunday Assembly not because I think it will change the world, but because the world is already changing, and we can benefit from that. More people in the US identify as non-religious than ever before. I know you’ve not directly experienced the religious fervor that pervades our society, but take from a former insider, it is real, but it is also beginning to fray. It’s not really a zero-sum game, though. I love my Christian family and friends. I am not out to change anyone’s religion, though don’t get me started on their POLITICS!

Peace, Love, Blessings, Namaste, Slainte, and Happiness!!!

Charley

POSTSCRIPT:

I realized after publishing this post that I needed to correct an omission. Not only is Sunday Assembly not a “church,” we are not actually committed to the term “atheist.” This has been one of the more controversial aspects of the founder’s vision. According to our charter, Sunday Assembly:

Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.

Has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.

Is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting.

Some atheists have felt so strongly troubled by these points that they have left the SA movement and in some cases, founded their own godless congregations that were more strongly atheist and critical of Christianity.

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