Yesterday I read this article (click the link). I urge you to read it before reading this.
To summarise it briefly as possible: A ‘church’ in North London makes headlines as people gather to celebrate the very fact that they… don’t believe in God?
I’ve read a lot of strange articles, but this one definitely stood out to me. Not because I feel like this singular case is threatening in any way (it’s no different to the humanism being taught in schools, universities and other institutions after all), but because it reflects the changes our culture is undertaking, and it’s actually very sad. But before I get on to that, there are a few points I can’t help but address.
Firstly, the use of a former church building for the practice of their… well, not faith, exactly… let’s go with ‘ideology’. I am fully aware that a church building is just that: a building; it is a functionality. But there is undoubtedly a degree of disrespect in the act of choosing to hold such a gathering in a place that was built to accommodate worshippers of God.
The phrase ‘atheist church’ is problematic in itself. A church is a body of people whose primary aim for gathering is to worship a common God. By that logic, a congregation of atheists come together to worship the very absence of God- essentially, then, they aren’t worshipping anything at all.
Interviewed writer Alain de Botton states: “‘atheism’ isn’t an ideology around which anyone could gather. Far better to call it something like cultural humanism.” This statement proves the flawed nature of this concept.
The interviewees in this article argue that it is a ‘celebration’; the service includes singing fun songs and contemplating the ‘miracle of life’. A strange word choice for supposed atheists, since miracles are part of the supernatural. But then, there is this quote:
The audience – overwhelmingly young, white and middle class – appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith. Few actively identify themselves as atheists.
So, despite the article’s title, it appears that most of the ‘congregation’ don’t even consider themselves atheists? Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. But as jarring as these contradictions are, they’re not actually the heart of the matter at all. It’s this part of the quote – “the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith” that got me.
Because there is a void, in the life of each and every person who does not personally know the one who created them. A void people will try to fill with anything and everything, because they simply do not know what exactly it is they need.
This part of the article seems to agree with this notion:
Another attendee, Gintare Karalyte, says: “I think people need that sense of connectedness because everyone is so singular right now, and to be part of something, and to feel like you are part of something. That’s what people are craving in the world.”
Why choose this, of all things, to make people feel connected?
Having read the article, their order of service, though obviously differing in content, is similar in structure to an average Christian church service. The singing of songs, a talk, and (if you’re part of a church that likes technology) a powerpoint presentation are pretty standard for a Sunday morning Christian gathering. Do those former Christians find comfort in this familiarity? There’s some mockery in adopting this structure and twisting the content in this way, though perhaps that adds to the appeal.
The biggest question for me though is this: What was it about their experience of the ‘Christian faith’ that led them to abandon it, in search of something they believed would really satisfy?
Perhaps this quote from the article provides some insight into where the problem may lie- “It’s a nice excuse to get together and have a bit of a community spirit but without the religion aspect”.
Ah, that ugly word, religion. Religion as a term is pretty difficult to define, but when Christianity is seen as a set of rules and principles, rituals and traditions, it becomes nothing more than a security blanket. It makes people feel better about themselves because they are being ‘good people’. Instead of operating out of love, religion operates out of fear. Fear of what will happen if the rules aren’t all obeyed; fear of a wrathful God.
That is not the God I know.
My God is a God of love, of grace and forgiveness. The bible tells me that this is true, over and over again. And just in case that reassurance wasn’t enough, He proves it to me through the happenings of my daily life.
But most importantly as I walk through this journey of faith, I find myself actually getting to know Him. As any relationship requires communication, spending time in God’s presence teaches me more about his character- his goodness and faithfulness.
I wonder if those people who abandoned their Christian faith and joined this new ‘atheist church’ simply never knew God as their Father, and never encountered His love.
And that poses the question- what are churches across the country doing about this? Because if church is simply a place to follow all the rules and go through the motions, it’s as good as any other religion or cult.
I don’t have an answer to these problems, but this article saddened me. I only trust that God will work through even this unlikely situation, and that through these Sunday gatherings these people will begin to hunger more and more to know if this life really is all there is. That the very act of turning away from God will point them back to Him, the ever patient Father whose grace is always enough.