Do Atheist “Mega-Churches” create the same effect as Christian ones?

there-is-no-god

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection, an “inspirational talk” about forgotten — but important — inventors and scientists and some stand-up comedy.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” “Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

The AP has this story running lately, and it’s making the rounds on social media. This is not really news—atheist congregations have been around for a while, and of course Unitarian Universalists who have been welcoming atheists for some time might wonder why this isn’t a boon for their membership.

What caught my eye on this one was in the excerpt above, that “Lean on Me” was featured as one of their “hymns” “that took the place of gospel songs.” The reason I took note of that in this case was that “Lean on Me” was one of the things sung on the last Sunday morning in the mega-church I belonged to before I left Protestantism to become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church.

That both an atheist and a Christian congregation could both sing this same song and consider it appropriate is not particularly a coincidence. The form of these new atheist “churches” is quite obviously in imitation of mega-church Protestantism. And I have little doubt that many congregants get exactly the same kinds of feelings that they might have when they belonged to mega-churches.

If worship is defined as singing songs that make you feel good and hearing inspirational speaking, then it doesn’t particularly matter entirely too much what the precise content is. Even within the mega-church movement, the specifics of doctrine can be rather fluid. It is the experience that counts most.

This is one of the things that got me thinking critically about Evangelicalism. At the time, I was working as a stagehand, often manning large concert productions especially during the summer. It struck me one Sunday morning that the spirit I felt there in that mega-church was remarkably similar to what I felt with 20,000+ fans at rock concerts down at the local arena. This is now the standard for worship in Evangelicalism, and even the smaller Evangelical churches aspire to it (perhaps while fiercely clinging to an auxiliary “traditional” service at 8am for the old folks).

But historic Christianity has never defined worship this way. It is rather centered on the Eucharist, which is known to be the true Body and Blood of Christ and reverberates out through the whole life of the Christian, both in church and outside of it. Although I can imagine that atheist congregations might try to imitate something like that, I have my doubts that they would want to. It’s too explicitly Christian.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what that says about modern revivalist mega-church worship.

Update: It seems that this post has attracted a few atheist readers who would like to come here and discuss atheism rather than the similarities between atheist “mega-churches” and Christian ones. No further comments along those lines will be published. Anyone looking to argue atheism is welcome to Google up one of the gajillion places online to do so and have at it.

25 comments:

    1. Indeed. The point, of course, is to answer in a humorous way the rather silly atheist argument from skepticism: “I do not believe in God because I do not see any God.”

      In any event, the image was just something useful to hand and not an attempt to advance a thorough argument on atheism. That kind of thing is found in numerous places elsewhere and isn’t what this post is about.

        1. That’s essentially the same argument, though—not believing because you don’t find proponents convincing. That is, the truth value of something is predicated upon whether its proponents represent it well enough for you, which is essentially just an ad hominem. (It’s also predicated upon a whole Aristotelian system of “burden of proof,” defaulting to an unquestioned skepticism, etc.)

          Anyway, as I said, that’s not what this post is about, so we won’t be publishing further comments that don’t address the post’s topic.

    2. Stephen Hawking in his latest 1-hour presentation on the Universe said at the very end, “And I because I could see no evidence of God, I must conclude that there is no God.”

      People see what they want to see.
      An atheist looks at the sky, the stars, nebulae, etc, and thinks, “I see no evidence of God.”
      A believer looks at the sky, the stars, nebulae, etc, and thinks, “I see only evidence of God.”

  1. It doesn’t surprise me. Atheists have been having ‘debaptisms’ for a while and I went to a ‘church’ meeting that was more an “Inspirational Speaking based on the Bible” than a real church service. When I came to Orthodoxy, I was blown away (and scared) by the sheer undiluted and unmatched manifest Presence of the Living God, and that was something I had been longing for. I joined up to connect deeply to that Presence, to connect to the Living God.

      1. Ironically, yes. They have a man dressed in robes and they have the people who want to be debaptised lined up and the man in robes says something like “Do you accept that there is no God and that science is supreme” and “I debaptise you in the name of science” and then blows a hair dryer all over the person. They have a video of it on You Tube and everything.

  2. I have always found it amusing that most atheist will insist upon morals that initially were founded by the Church. Most believe in monogamy and helping those less fortunate, yet they deny where that comes from.

    1. I’d be interested in learning whether atheist mega-churches talk about morality and its source, especially in terms of giving moral exhortation. (“Lean on Me” certainly counts.) Does anyone know if sermons from these places are online anywhere?

    1. Interesting. Generic statements, pretty much the standard pablum that doesn’t address anything in depth but sounds very nice. The usual self-centered, humanist views extolled and to his credit he does address, in a small way, the nature of humanity (most people are good or are trying to be good).

  3. The similarities to me beg the question: Is community something where we mutually enshrine individualism — which is pretty much the moral ethic of at-large American culture — or one where we enshrine community thinking? Not mere tribalistic community (which basically is what enshrined individualism is) but a shared community that allows empathy/sympathy, compassion and service-mindedness toward the Other?

    From the POV to which we are contrasting it is also not really just a matter of individualism but also a worldview that says it is not important from where moral values come; if they have present useful value to an individual that is their value. The core of this worldview depends on arbitrarily seeing “the present” as divided from the past, and not questioning the paradigms and shifts allowed to be fixed dividers in this “march toward progress.” This is done despite the irony of the present just being a moment in a string of presentist days, were each day only to be lived “in the present”, which includes such fractured reasoning that allows the arbitrary dividing from an athiest “forefather” like Kuhn who would question the truthful rootedness of such a presentist worldview paradigm.

  4. “Even within the mega-church movement, the specifics of doctrine can be rather fluid.” Indeed, the most prominent of trends in Evagelicalism today is the unlabeled, generic church. I have a hobby of looking up the webpages of these churches. If I dig deep enough, I will sometimes find they are really Southern Baptist or PCA Presbyterian. Sometimes they won’t have a statement of faith and many which do will get a bit creative, perhaps saying God is “manisfested in three personalities” rather than more traditional descriptions of the Trinity. Many generic churches are actually independent and there is rarely any indication of their specific beliefs. Surely the leaders have certain beliefs, but it seems this is not considered as important as the atmosphere and activities.

    Athiests these days seem to be very evangelical about their beliefs as evidenced in the comment sections about any online article mentioning religion, though they frequently work the topic into the comments on articles having nothing obvious to do with religion. There is a difference between the statements “I don’t believe in God” and “I believe there is no God.” The first is really an expression of agnosticism and its author probably wouldn’t have much motivation to evangelize or worry that some other people believed in God. The second statement involves a leap of faith, assuming the person is not truly delusion like the man depicted in your graphic above. Atheistic faith seems extraordinarily common these days and always makes me think of the line “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Why get so worked up about something you don’t think exists? So many of these “atheists” seem absolutely obsessed with God and I get the feeling that, deep down, they are really just angry with him. Some today express this anger with atheism and some with neopaganism, but it seems that, in both cases, adherents are focused more on their image of the Christian God than on their own chosen beliefs.

    1. Ed,

      i completely agree with your assessment of what’s going on “at bottom” with atheism. i think this is what Paul basically says in Romans 1. There’s an important sense in which there just are no such things. And i think these “churches” are manifestations of that very thing–that what these humans cannot rid themselves of is the impetus within them to connect/commune with something greater than themselves. (Also makes me think of Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17.)

      Nevertheless, i do want to comment on this:

      “Why get so worked up about something you don’t think exists?”

      i can see a motivation different from (more accurately, in addition to) the one you’ve pointed out. Some might get worked up about ‘that which doesn’t exist’ because it does exist in the sense of the lifestyles/policies/culture being imposed upon you by those who do believe God exists. In other words, if you and i lived in a predominantly Muslim culture with a strongly leaning Islamic government, i suspect we would spend a good bit of our time arguing against the claims of Islam, and a good bit of our effort organizing to reduce Islamic influences/impositions in our daily lives.

  5. Actually having been in the Evangelical movement for about 40 years, I never understood why only songs (where most of the participants were mute and just looked around) was referred to a “worship time”. I quite often thought that I could go to the local 40 Watt Club and “worship” just as easy.

    1. Mike,

      Yes! i come from a non-instrumental evangelical tradition, so if you don’t sing, then there’s no music to be had period. There are some congregations in my former denomination that were switching to using instruments. i remember attending one once, and there was a guitar solo in the middle of a “worship song.” What was i supposed to do during the guitar solo? Air guitar? Attempt to hum along? Just sway? i don’t mean to speak for everyone, but as far as i was concerned, my worship stopped at that point and in the nature of the case couldn’t really start up again until the singing started again. i didn’t really see what advantage had been gained by the full rock-band-ification of a hymn.

  6. Yes, references such as “the true Body and Blood of Christ” will obviously not resonate with our atheist friends. But occasions for deep experience which “reverberates out through the whole life” might be available to everyone though various kinds of worship/practices. In the traditional language of Christian mysticism, isn’t your analysis describing the tension between cataphatic (images/words) and apophatic (imageless/stillness) experience, between practices that engage and uplift “the self” and those that allow the self to stand aside to expose “the wonder-arousing, mysterious state behind/within all phenomena”? Perhaps the whole person (or non-person) requires both. However, our culture is incredibly more cataphatic-centric, both in religious and non-religious contexts, and perhaps in part because “self” promotion is better for the marketplace and just more fun. (A gross overstatement and too judgmental but i hope you get my point.)

    1. William–that’s really fascinating. If a church believes that the primary purpose of worship is the inspiration of attendees, then any secondary condition about the content having to be Christian seems entirely ad hoc. And why i think this is such an astute observation is that “believing the primary purpose of worship is inspiration” can be held explicitly *or functionally.* In other words, even if some church claims that the Christian-content condition is primary, the worship could still be designed in such a way that the inspiration condition takes precedence. Thanks for making me think!

  7. It would seem to me that all worship (using the term in the broadest possible sense) “inspires.” The real question, from an Orthodox point of view, is, “What spirit is being breathed into the worshipers?” I have never attended an Atheist “church,” though I have certainly (in my former life) worshiped with Episcopal, Unitarian, and Congregationalists who were functional atheists. There was no question there of a personal Spirit by whom they could be inspired. Though there was talk of inspiration, the spirit being breathed into people was not the Holy Spirit, but the spirit of the age: it generally boiled down to emotional (and cultural, political) manipulation. Since there was no Inspirer beyond the socially enlightened leadership, it was up to that leadership to determine how best to inspire through the use of upbeat, ambiguous, self-referential, and or social-guilt-inducing songs or readings, and politically correct stories – with or without puppets, diaphanous, translucent gowns, or overhead projection.

    My experience, if I examine it through the lens of Orthodox theology and practice, leads me to believe that worship should, can, and does inspire one who is prepared to worship “in spirit and truth.” However, that inspiration is a gift, not a goal, in as much as we offer up our prayers and praises to the Father through and with his Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Son, and thereby create space within ourselves into which the Holy Spirit may be “breathed.” It is God we seek, not inspiration — though we know that God rejoices to be able to inspire us.

    I had heard of “debaptising,” but this is the first time I have heard what might actually be involved. Scary, and silly, all at the same time. Hair dryers? For real?

    Monk Theodore

  8. There may be another angle to this recent development. Atheists love to state that the Church scheduled its own festivals/holy days in place of those of existing religions in an effort to destroy the worship of the other religions. Basically, they consider it a power play of sorts by the early church. The creation of an “atheist mega-church” on Sundays, basically aping the format of existing Christian worship (to what degree depends on your denomination) may be an attempt to do the same to current Christian worship in our society. By providing a similar “experience” during the same time of Christian worship they may hope to undercut Christianity by drawing the curious/disenfranchised/generally disappointed away from trying to find the truth.

    This would, by no means, be an effective strategy on its own–simply creating your own “church” is not going to destroy other churches–but they may consider it a single “nail” they can drive into the perceived coffin they are trying to create.

  9. this just gets me because it shows that a belief system is what it is whether theist or athiest. The farthest you can get from a belief system is not caring, apatheism. I’d been trying to figure out what the heck people call it as they say I’m agnostic when I’m indifferent, and I never really bothered believe anything ever outside of being imaginative and humoring myself. To me its making something out of nothing, theist or atheist, why people waste there time pushing either belief, guess they’re just all lemmings.

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