Atheist and Agnostic Churches/Temples

In recent years the number of Atheists (believe there is no God, in the sense of an ultimate Being) and Agnostics (believe we cannot know whether or not God exists) have grown significantly, and the last couple of decades have seen churches founded for both religious groups. As this link shows (http://www.londonnet.co.uk/news/2012/jan/richard-dawkins-rejects-plan-%C2%A31m-atheist-church-city-london.html) there is also now discussion about buildings raised in the name of such religions.

Now if you read the comments on sites such as the one above you’ll see that mostly the reactions have been negative. But as an Atheist myself I completely agree with De Botton not only that Dawkin’s rhetoric has been symptomatic of a ‘destructive’ kind of Atheism, but also that there is a profound spiritual element to Atheism that should be celebrated and discussed. In fact I believe the case for spiritualism within Atheist beliefs is far stronger than the case for it existing within other major religions (with the exception of Buddhism, for which I would say there is a possible overlap with Atheism depending on your viewpoint). My reasoning for this is based on my answer to the following question:

Would you rather live in a world where you were created by one Being to accomplish one ultimate goal after which life would cease to exist or be utterly meaningless; or would you rather exist in a world where no one’s perception of value is any more important than anyone else’s, where everyone perceives wonder through their own eyes, and where everyone decides on not one but many purposes for themselves?

Surely the latter answer means more spirituality right, for rather than a rigid adherence to what you are being told from a certain source about a finite existence, you are exploring an infinite reality with wonder and purpose all around you.

Would you agree with me and De Botton about the merits of coming together to celebrate and discuss such spirituality? Or do you agree with Dawkins and most of De Botton’s critics that such efforts are futile, silly, and a waste of resources?

2 comments

  • I would just say that calling atheism or agnosticism ‘religious groups’ makes no sense. Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position, not collecting stamps is a hobby, ‘off’ is a TV channel or bald is a hair color. Thus, to me, calling places where atheists/agnostics meet ‘churches’ or ‘temples’ seems like a misnomer. Just my two cents…

    Religion and individuality? Yeah, because religions value individual opinions that go against flock thinking so much. Education is where it’s at: where education thrives, religion/superstitious thinking loses ground, where education gets undercut and opposed (mostly religiously motivated opposition, surprise) cults prevail. If you can’t be an individual without wishful thinking, you have a problem.

    Why would you need a temple or a church to not be religious anyway? I can do that at home and if I want to meet or discuss with like-minded people there’s the internet, conventions, conferences etc. No need to call it temple, call it ‘meeting room’! Wait, so reflecting on religion makes you a philosopher or theologian? Because in that case, I’d be both, yay! 🙂 I also don’t get why you would automatically call a group ‘religious’ just because it discusses religion. Of course their discussions will be based on theological positions, because that lies in the nature of the subject. However, that does not make a group religious. An AA meeting discusses the effects of alcohol, but that doesn’t make it an ‘alcoholic group’ so to speak. Also, relating to the original blog post: I disagree that an atheist/agnostic worldview necessitates a more spiritual ‘outlook’ than a magical sky daddy. A rational perspective founded on fact-based, observable, demonstrable (and falsifiable) evidence de facto eliminates the need for ‘spirituality’, whatever the hell that may be (mostly a copout for people who don’t like the words atheist and agnostic, as in ‘I don’t believe that weird stuff in the Bible or the Qu’ran, but I’m a spiritual person, I believe there’s something out there.’ Well, Scully and Mulder to the rescue then!) 🙂

    I’ll just quickly add more generally speaking, that I don’t really consider ‘theology’ to be a subject worthy of much consideration or appreciation, scientifically speaking. Might as well have studied ‘fairytale-ism’ or ‘Santa Claus-ology’!

    The bottom line is that religions always have opposed and fought progress of any kind (and always will), because it hurts their business model. Enlightened, well-educated people are far less likely to buy an invisible product. Keep them ignorant and chances are they’ll believe anything delivered with enough conviction by a self-proclaimed authority, which is why religion actually harms our society. Actively propagating ignorance and blind belief of baseless claims should never be considered a virtue.

    If there was a way to erase all memories of religions from people’s minds, I really think society would be better off as a whole, if only because the motivation behind the majority of world conflicts would disappear. In a society of non-belief, there is no legitimization to slaughter each other over differences of interpretation of ancient books making unfounded claims of universal, infallible, unalterable truth. Now, wouldn’t that be worth it?!

  • Great reply. Thanks Thierry. In fact this is one of the best sorts of replies to get on a debating site, because it’s one that comes from a different frame of mind than my own.

    You say that atheism isn’t a religion, and of course factually speaking you’re correct. But you go on from that to criticise religion in its entirety, even distinguishing it from other ideas to be the cause of most conflict. And underlying your argument is the assumption that humanity does not need spirituality. This is something that I fundamentally disagree with. And I’m not going on religious arguments either, or even science. I could cite empirical data that correlates religion and happiness. I could also cite data that correlates religion and intelligence to support my own atheist point of view. But as with your singling out of religion as the one idea among all that causes the most conflict, all of this data is questionable. And so we come back to the basic question of whether we need something more.

    The answer to this question obviously depends on what that ‘more’ actually is. I spoke to a woman in Westminster University last week, and she told me that because she had come through a near death experience it provided proof of Christianity, and the protection of God. But I have also come through a near death experience and do not count it as proof of any divine protection. For after all such beliefs would make only the dead athiests. But this belief is founded on her views about what that ‘more’ actually is. You automatically jumped to the assumption that spirituality implies thinking that that ‘more’ is a living being more powerful than us. But Einstein’s and Spinoza’s God did not accord with such far fetched ideas, and neither does mine. Indeed it brings to mind an old Hindu story about Western intellectuals bringing all their assumptions into the east. They laughed at Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, asking them to clarify what their god actually is, and how many of them there are. But these religious men laughed in return, and said (paraphrasing obviously) “How many is energy? How many is water? These things do not have a quantity, and so why should God?” All scientists believe that there is more out there than what can be touched and seen. All scientists recognise the forces, energy, space, time etc, all of which form the basis of reality. Are these people materialists as you seem to be? Or are they spiritual? Einstein always said that the best scientists were those who accepted that they were in part spiritual, and I believe that this is the premise of De Botton’s thinking (not read his book by the way so feel free to correct me there). He said that when he walked about outside he would gaze with childlike wonder at the trees, the plants, the animals and the stars. He never lost his fascination for nature, and it was that, not a belief in some mystical being, which he defined as spirituality. In fact the Dalai Lama says similar things too about the need for meditation.

    So to bring it back to the subject some sort of spirituality does not necessitate a centralised politico-religious structure or belief in the religions of the book. Just because most existing religions (mainly western, let’s face it) do not encourage individual thought and evolution does not mean the religions of the future will not do so. Indeed you could say that the Church’s present day ideological schism is based exactly on this tension: does the word of God come through the good book, and through the appointed officials of the Church? Or, if it can come through the few, can it not also come through the many? If the latter is the winning argument then Christianity will begin to evolve once more, as the masses are allowed to shape it. If the former argument is true it will eventually cease to exist. For this is history. Religious thought evolves. And political structures that do not allow such evolution eventually cease to be.

    Lastly, why would atheists need a temple? I admitt that I have issue with the name as well. But I understand why it is used, and it comes back to the issue of spirituality. If you believe that some element of spirituality (defined as you want, as wonder, a certain emotional stimulation, or even a hippy-like sense of being in touch with nature) is a necessity for all human beings then you should also want to encourage Atheists and Agnostics to explore spiritual issues. As you suggest this could predominantly take the form of education, and be called something other than temples or churches. But I should guess that the name exists to reinforce this belief in the necessity of spirituality for all people. A simple meeting room could be used to discuss football. De Botton wants it to be used to further people’s spiritual needs.

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