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.