No, it's not the fact atheists are now forming "churches" that interests me.
It's the fact they are aping the churches and, frankly, I'm not sure there's a lot of difference between the origin and the copy:
Jones got the first inkling for the idea while leaving a Christmas carol concert six years ago.
"There was so much about it that I loved, but it's a shame because at the heart of it, it's something I don't believe in," Jones said. "If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"
Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an "inspirational talk, " and some stand-up comedy by Jones, the movement's co-founder.
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.
At the end, volunteers passed cardboard boxes for donations as attendees mingled over coffee and pastries and children played on the floor.
I say this as someone with a strong preference for liturgical worship, but then again I've been to church services, among both conservative as well as liberal Christians, that varied only slightly from this description. At some of those churches I've strongly felt the presence of God, and people who loved each other because of God; at others...well, drop a few words, and it could have been the event described above. And frankly, this sentiment could have been expressed by almost any member of any "church":
"I think the image that we have put forward in a lot of ways has been a scary, mean, we want to tear down the walls, we want to do destructive things kind of image is what a lot of people have of us," he said. "I'm really excited to be able to come together and show that it's not about destruction. It's about making things and making things better."Where's the fundamental difference between the believer and the non-believer? That's not an idle question; that's the first question I remember being put to me in seminary. Why is Jesus somebody other than a guy with some really good ideas? And no faculty member answered that; they wanted us to find an answer.
Rachel Maddow had John Lewis on the other night. I can't find a shorter version of this, because the reason I post it is in the reading of Lewis' book, in the first few minutes of the video. It is the idea that the marchers for civil rights endured the beatings and assaults not just because their cause was right, but because they had been taught not only to take it passively, but to love their attackers.
Love their attackers; imagine that. Now imagine that being taught on a wholly rational basis, and imagine how far you would get, how many people you would get to join you, agree with you, act with you, bear the pain with you, when you tell them the goal is not just to endure, but to love.
I know many churches don't teach the lesson quite that personally, either. But I'm trying to imagine an atheist "church" doing it. Or inspiring what Dr. King inspired, and making possible the organizations that made the civil rights struggle possible.
I'm not condemning atheist "churches" here. But in the struggle between the Church of Belonging and the Church of Meaning and Belonging, I still think the true church is finally found in the latter. If that church expresses itself like Pope Emeritus Benedict, it faces certain problems and limitations; but if that church doesn't create and allow the leadership of a Pope Francis, it faces even deeper problems.
And I'm not sure an atheist "church" would ever produce anything more than a Joel Osteen.