Atheist megachurches should be praised as centers for celebrating their community
It’s all-too early in the morning, and your alarm is going off. Naturally, you press the snooze button once, twice, maybe twelve times, but this morning is different. That unrelenting jingle going off in your ear isn’t ringing to wake you up for Spanish class or that breakfast you regretted committing to a few weeks back. You and I both know why you can’t turn it off.
It’s Sunday morning, and we all know what happens on Sunday mornings when the alarm goes off. You get your sorry, sinful romp outta the sack and make your way to the shower. You half-heartedly slip on your finest pressed slacks or sundress and leave, still sleepy, for a place that’ll hopefully churn out a far more invigorated version of you.
Jesus — or Stephen Hawking — will be ready for you within the hour.
That’s the idea behind the Sunday Assembly: to recreate that signature invigoration given to us by the spirit, minus the spirit.
It’s a movement that’s been spreading around the U.S. at breakneck pace, even finding an audience in Houston at The Houston Oasis, a community of secular humanists.
Here’s how a typical experience at your local Sunday Assembly might go down: you show up, engage in some sort of clichéd ice-breaking ritual with a few neighbors in the audience. You hear songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Lean on Me” — spiritually ambiguous but unarguably uplifting. You listen to a riveting sermon — er, speech — about the contributions of minds like Edison, Hawking and other scientists, inventors and non-Creationists. You’re given time to reflect. You’re given a chance to donate.
That probably sounds familiar.
Basically, it’s adopted nearly every rudimentary part of the traditional Protestant Christian worship service, minus God.
It’s no secret just how fundamentally rooted in Protestant Christianity the Sunday Assembly is. I’ll level with you; I’ve been going to church my whole life, and I was pretty shocked at just how structurally identical an Assembly gathering is to that of a traditional Methodist service.
However, what’s important to know is that nobody’s trying to shirk that assumption or deny the glaring similarities to Christianity as being simply inevitable.
Heck, even one of the Assembly’s founders, Sanderson Jones, has been incredibly open about the influences that Christianity’s given him, according to Yahoo! News.
“If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad,” Jones said to Yahoo! News. “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.”
Jones added, “What part of that is not to like?”
Again, I’ll be honest with you. At first, it was tough to digest the Sunday Assembly. I didn’t quite know if these megachurches were a blatant rip-off of the organized religion that atheism, by its essence, fundamentally rejects. I wasn’t quite sure if the Sunday Assembly was a natural progression for atheism or something that broke their ideological mold.
Speaking with the director of the University’s religious studies program, Lynn Mitchell, proved to be an incredibly eye-opening experience.
“The fact is, there are almost an infinite number of ways that people worship, and there are thousands of different Christian denominations and sects,” Mitchell said.
He went on to explain that Christianity’s system of worship didn’t originate with Christ. About 2,000 years ago, cathartic exercises like communal eating and initiation rituals existed in other religions of the region where Jesus lived.
Those rituals were adopted by Jesus and developed into what we know today as Holy Communion and baptism. And now, in 2013, Christianity’s service format has become known as uniquely Christian.
Mitchell also touched on a concept that I had never been introduced to, but one that made sense immediately: the concept that all humans beings are “homo religioso,” or naturally religious.
“Augustine said that every human being has a god-shaped hole in his heart, even when people cease believing in the god they grew up with. They want to be freer and they’re frustrated by fundamentalism, so they call themselves agnostics or atheists.”
“Atheism is the most extreme of agnosticism. But even atheism,” Mitchell added, “is a form of religion.”
As a helplessly inquisitive college student, the concept of homo religioso really struck a chord. After all, you and I are at the unique age where we’re just now being introduced to some of life’s greater uncertainties. We’re expected to have grappled with these uncertainties, hashed out opinions on them and be able to defend those opinions beyond a shadow of a doubt.
We’ve got an incredibly essential void to fill and an incredibly limited amount of time to do so.
According to The Huffington Post, 64 percent of students attending a four-year university report a decline in their religious service attendance, and 13 percent of university students have renounced all religious affiliation by the time they get their diplomas.
I’ve only been at UH for a semester, but I’ve yet to come across two people with identical viewpoints on religion. Some are convinced that religion and science can’t possibly exist concurrently. Others are third-year biology majors who have never deviated from their evangelical roots. I’ve met Baptists-turned-Muslims, people who have found a savior in God and people who have renounced God as being little more than folklore.
And it makes sense. We’re plunged into a pool of higher academia and mixers and Whataburger and growth. Getting a degree is the tangible goal of college, sure, but the real battle of early adulthood — figuring out who’s behind this convoluted, gorgeous universe — is most often fought in private.
We get overwhelmed, and we need community. We flock to churches or Sunday Assemblies or bible studies or the Houston Oasis. They all give us that identical sense of community, but with vastly different implications that, truthfully, we’ll never quite be capable of comprehending.
Student minister Michael McAlister of the A.D. Bruce Religion Center explained how the Sunday Assembly’s success enforces the universal need for community, even if that community doesn’t include a god.
“One of the problems with atheism is that it doesn’t provide a great cause to rally around and promote,” McAlister said.
“People don’t tend to gather in order to promote something that they do not believe in, (which) can leave atheists with an emptiness that may be filled, in part, through participating in an encouraging community of like-minded people.”
Whether you’ve got the gospel or godlessness at this point in your life, here’s to you ultimately finding what we’re all looking for out there: meaning and the place we’ll call home when we’re done here. It’s the grandest decision we’re capable of making and one for which we’ll be held accountable long after our days as overwhelmed undergrads.
Senior staff columnist Cara Smith is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]