Nonbelief System

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by Josh Sanburn,

from TIME Magazine,

Secular Sunday services, Atheist churches are sprouting up in Houston, Tulsa and beyond.

jerry-dewitt-and-mika-aus (right) -atheists

Houston Oasis, a church that’s not a church. It was started in September 2012 to foster community within Houston Atheists, a group formed through the online social-networking portal Meetup that claims to be the site’s largest association of atheists. Each Sunday, Aus welcomes his congregants at the door before leading them through many of the motions of a religious service. There’s music, meet-and-greet time, guest speakers and executive director Mike Aus’ message, which is part TED talk, part uplifting reflection on the wonders of the world–this world–around us.

Just a few years ago, Aus was a Christian ministers active in the pulpit. Today he’s a nonbeliever leading secular Sunday services.

But Oasis is careful not to get too churchy. There’s music but no congregational singing. There’s time to shake hands with your neighbor but no moment of silence. Because while it has all the markings of a church service, Oasis is designed to appeal to those who long for the rituals of old-time religion but have lost faith in its doctrines.

Oasis is one of a growing number of so-called atheist churches in the U.S. Most are connected to Sunday Assembly, a London-based organization on a globe-trotting mission to launch 100 assemblies in 15 countries by the end of the year. About a dozen are already operating in the U.S.; almost twice that many are planning to open.

But whereas Sunday Assembly is largely a top-down movement, atheist churches are also sprouting from the ground up.

The rise of atheist churches is part of a growing willingness by many atheists to adopt secular versions of religious practices. It’s also a result of more everyday nonbelievers, and even clergy, “coming out” as atheists and reflects a modest mainstreaming of atheism across the U.S. As one example, since a Supreme Court decision in May that upheld prayer before town-board meetings, nonbelievers in several communities have delivered the public invocations after the court acknowledged atheists’ right to do so.

While 1 in 5 Americans claim no religious affiliation (up from about 1 in 6 five years ago), almost 6% now explicitly identify with atheism (the lack of belief in God) or agnosticism (the view that knowledge about God is unknowable), up from 4% in 2009. “You can’t help but think that more atheists will come out,” says Dan Courtney, a member of the Atheist Community of Rochester, who gave an invocation on July 15 in Greece, N.Y., the town at the center of the Supreme Court ruling about prayer at civic meetings.

But the very concept of an atheist church–and even the term itself–is anathema to many in the movement. Some believe it’s too much like the very thing they disavowed in the first place.

Aus’ gathering in Houston is aptly named: it is very much an oasis.

For years, Aus preached at a progressive, nondenominational church in Houston, and he readily admits to having been a “cafeteria Christian.” “I never believed in hell,” he says. “Ever.” He always loved going to church and the community it nurtured, but by the late 2000s Aus realized he needed to leave the ministry. He first joined the Clergy Project, an online group of hundreds of active doubting preachers, then in March 2012 he declared himself an atheist on the MSNBC program Up With Chris Hayes.

Being an atheist may be America’s last closeted identity, but the door has been opening over the past decade. In the 2000s the so-called New Atheists, led by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, provided intellectual support to nonbelievers through a series of books and articles that often tore religion into pieces.

A number of atheists, however, are against the very idea of an atheist church, including Bill Maher, possibly the country’s best-known nonbeliever. “It undermines the whole point of atheism, because the reason why people need to get together in religion is precisely because it’s nonsensical,” Maher says, arguing that people of faith need strength in numbers to support their belief systems.

But in a sense, that is exactly why atheists are getting together. In a country that still tilts skyward, nonbelievers need their own strength in numbers, even if that means imitating old-time religion.

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