New congregations that don’t do God may be a sign of the timesby Jessica Abrahams / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Ollie Killingback spent most of his career as a clergyman for the Church of England—and for much of that time he was an atheist. “I had doubts before I entered the Church,” he says. “The study of theology [during ordination training] was supposed to relieve those.” It didn’t and he entered the ministry anyway. “I’d been on that track for so long… [but] I found myself with more and more unsatisfying situations where I couldn’t, with what I had been taught, find an adequate answer.”
Other priests go further. “Iain” still works as a Protestant minister in Ireland. In an interview with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, he referred to God as “total and absolute nonsense” adding that trying to instil religious faith in children amounts to abuse. His congregation doesn’t know this, only his wife; he can’t look at her while he’s preaching. Ollie and Iain are members of the Clergy Project, an international online group of more than 530 clergymen and women who do not believe in God. Many have left the ministry, but about a quarter have not and use pseudonyms online. The project, founded in 2011, receives about 50 applications a month (although not all join—the group has a stringent screening process to protect the anonymity of its members). Some of the newest members are imams in Islamic countries.
Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, and his collaborator Linda LaScola published a study in 2010, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” for which LaScola interviewed six non-believing Christian clergymen. Dennett wondered then how many secret non-believers there were still standing in the pulpit. Research is limited, but Catherine Dunphy, Executive Director of the Clergy Project who formerly trained to be a Catholic chaplain, has watched the group grow 10-fold in two years. “If you speak to members of the Clergy Project, the one thing that is heard over and over again is that ‘we’re the tip of the iceberg.’ This is something that we believe is pretty rampant,” she says. “The majority of clergypeople know what it’s like to doubt, and there’s a good percentage that are in the closet with their doubts and have relinquished their faith.”
Leaving the priesthood is not like leaving other jobs. A priest who declares his or her atheism faces financial and social repercussions: income and home depend on the Church. Some lose their spouses and families. Others have faced threats. Dunphy recommends that members of the Clergy Project use pseudonyms on the site as “exposure is something that is greatly feared by members living in Islamic countries and in the evangelical south of the US, who encounter great stigma from their communities and families when they come out as atheists. Some have even had their lives threatened, or had harm threatened against them.” She attributes the rapid growth of this project to education and access to atheist literature online. But it must also echo the wider trend towards secularism among the public, which Peter Kellner describes above.
A survey conducted by the Free University of Amsterdam in 2006 found that one in six Protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic. But while ministers like Iain feel that they are lying outright to their congregation, non-belief among clergymen is not always perceived as a problem. Some follow the tradition of “Christian non-realism,” most famously expounded in the UK by Don Cupitt in the 1980s, which holds that God is a symbol or metaphor and that religious language is not matched by a transcendent reality. This position was supported by the Dutch priest Reverend Klaas Hendrikse in his 2007 book Believing In A Non-Existent God, which led to calls for his removal from the Church; but a General Synod found his views were widely shared.
In 2011, Canon Brian Mountford of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, published Christian Atheist: Belonging Without Believing, containing interviews with a dozen “Christian atheists,” among them the author Philip Pullman. When Mountford spoke about these interviews to his congregation, he was surprised by how many approached him afterwards to say they thought they might be a Christian atheist; the book became a Blackwell’s bestseller.
Such arguments are more easily accommodated within mainstream Christianity than within evangelical traditions, which may explain why the majority of Clergy Project members are former evangelicals. But in some mainstream traditions, non-realists have even risen to senior positions—Reverend Gary Hall, for example, who was appointed as Dean of the Washington National Cathedral (an Episcopal church) last year, once told Richard Dawkins that, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.”
“I think the Church has to take very seriously indeed all those who don’t believe in a metaphysical god but value community, the moral compass of Jesus, and the elevating, religious experience of beauty in church music, liturgy, poetry, art and drama,” Mountford told me. “The Church has to risk engaging with the spirit of the age even when that threatens some of its most sacred cows. In doing so it will find that many people want to rediscover spiritual value, seriousness and community in lives isolated by the TV and computer screen.”
Even some clergy who have left the Church because of their atheism feel there is value in the community and the time for reflection offered by religion, and have set up secular congregations (for another take on this idea, read our review of Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God on p72). Gretta Vosper, a member of the Clergy Project who previously led a United Church congregation in Toronto, took most of her parishioners from the Christian congregation to a humanist one. Another member of the Clergy Project, a Lutheran pastor in Houston, set up a secular congregation after he left the church called Houston Oasis, which describes itself as “a community grounded in reason, celebrating the human experience.” Some of his former parishioners left the Lutheran church to join the new atheist one. Harvard University’s humanist chaplaincy (founded by a former Catholic priest) has opened a 3,200 sq ft “humanist hub” for a “godless congregation,” and there is another in Arizona.
“Atheist churches” have flourished this year in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia. Congregations attempt to draw out the socially and psychologically beneficial aspects of traditional church gatherings without the need for God. Alain de Botton’s “Temple for Atheists” in London, proposed last year, never got off the ground, but several successful projects have done so.
One of the most popular is the Sunday Assembly, founded at the beginning of 2013 by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in London, but now with branches all over the country, as well as Melbourne and New York. When I went to one meeting I found a congregation of around 250 heathens—Evans claims it is up to 600 some weeks. Services are themed; this time it was “stargazing,” which began with well-known “hymns”—“Reach for the Stars” by S Club 7 and “Starman” by David Bowie—accompanied by a band. There was a lecture from an Oxford astrophysicist on the universe, and an acappella group performed a song about the solar system. Afterwards, we were encouraged to commune with our neighbours over tea, to join book groups and voluntary organisations.
“I spend most of my time sat at my desk on the internet,” Evans says. “I’m no sociologist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not good for us.” We live in isolation, she says, not knowing our neighbours. “Community is what the church used to provide,” and though many of us no longer believe in God we still want that sense of community.
Dunphy agrees. “I think that what Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have established with the Sunday Assembly is that there’s this need to have a communal experience, to have some fun, to talk about shared values, to articulate things that we find interesting and to have a discussion.” With organised religion declining, “you need to have something to fill that gap,” she says.
The Sunday Assembly was originally held in a former church, but the land was still owned by the Church and they were asked to leave. It’s now held in a larger venue in Bethnal Green. But there’s a historical symmetry about the idea of a humanist gathering taking place in a former church. Religions tend to recycle the buildings, symbols and rituals of their predecessors: pagan temples were transformed into Catholic churches; Catholic churches taken over by Protestants; and Protestant churches now adopted by secular humanists. Some may balk at the idea of a church being repurposed by atheists, but it’s part of a tradition of such conversions.
“I do not know if the [traditional] church will survive,” says Dunphy. “Just over a century ago Robert Green Ingersoll predicted that in 100 years churches would be dead… That has not happened. But I think the influence of religion will decline and some churches may morph. If we look at the phenomenon of the Sunday Assembly or the Houston Oasis, those [groups] are speaking to the need or the desire for community among human beings.” In that way, the Sunday Assembly—a group of atheists gathered in a former church for a sermon from a university lecturer—may offer a glimpse of what religion might look like in the future.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Daniel Dennett “interviewed six non-believing Christian clergymen for his 2010 study, ‘Preachers Who Are Not Believers.'” The interviews were in fact conducted by Dennett’s co-author, Linda LaScola.