The Holy Atheist Church…


I am sure many of you have heard of the Atheist church services put on by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in London. Around 600 non-believers have been gathering in Bethnal Green since January to listen to inspirational talks, sing songs accompanied by a live band, make friends and volunteer for good causes. Meetings are about to move from monthly to fortnightly.

It now seems that they are taking the idea to international heights- there is already a monthly event in New York, with ‘services’  to begin soon in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

A ‘religious’ service without God, I hear you ask- what is the point? This from here; 

The Sunday Assembly was created after Jones attended a Christmas carol service and enjoyed the sense of community: “There were so many wonderful things about it, but at the centre of it there was something I didn’t believe in. And for me, life is such an absolute gift so why can’t we talk about that?”

He added: “I’d always thought there’d be people in other parts of the world who would like this. It was picked up by the media and more than 750 people around the world have written to us saying they’d like a Sunday Assembly in their town.” At the New York meeting, the congregation sang songs by the Beatles and Queen, and closed with Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Guest speaker was Chris Stedman, a humanist chaplain at Harvard.

It coincided with the city’s Gay Pride march, so the theme was “coming out”. Jones said: “People in the US talk about coming out as atheists. I’d think, what’s an ‘out’ atheist? That’s bonkers.”

Jones visited nine other US cities where people asked for advice on setting up assemblies. In the UK, branches will launch in Bristol this weekend and Exeter and Brighton in September. Jones and Evans kick off a global roadshow on October 20, with 40 assemblies in 60 days. Locations, decided by demand via their website, include Australia, France and Scandinavia.

Evans, a Christian until she was 17, said: “When I stopped believing in God, I didn’t miss God but I did miss church. And that’s the point of the assembly, meeting like-minded people and bolstering each other up.”

Jones added: “Atheists are very good on reason, and science, but that doesn’t get you jumping out of bed in the morning. This is about being alive.”

All of which sounds quite lovely to be honest- anything that celebrates community, encourages people to do good things and to live life in a deeper and fuller way is OK with me.

I suspect that God might agree too.

What does it mean however to call yourself an Atheist? It suggests a little more than just indifference to the idea of a supreme being at the centre of it all.

Perhaps some might describe it as a religion that sets out to describe all other religions as wrong. There are after all a lot of those kind of religions.

As a Christian, I was brought up to see atheists as evil, deluded, the enemy. Agnostics were perhaps redeemable, but atheists were active opponents of God. They were sticking two fingers up at the divine and would have eternity to regret their foolishness. Militant atheists like Dawkins have done nothing to erode the battle lines.

I found this article by Andrew Brown in the Guardian really helpful, in which he describes six kinds of atheism (based on American research);

The largest group (37%) was what I would call “cultural non-believers”, and what they call “academic” or “intellectual atheists”: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers. I call them “cultural” because they are at home in a secular culture which takes as axiomatic that exclusive religious truth claims must be false. Essentially, they are how I imagined the majority readership of Comment is free’s belief section.

They are more than twice as common as the “anti-theists” whose characteristics hardly need spelling out here:

If any subset of our non-belief sample fit the “angry, argumentative, dogmatic” stereotype, it is the anti-theists. This group scored the highest amongst our other typologies on empirical psychometric measures of anger, autonomy, agreeableness, narcissism, and dogmatism while scoring lowest on measures of positive relations with others … the assertive anti-theist both proactively and aggressively asserts their views towards others when appropriate, seeking to educate the theists in the passé nature of belief and theology.

Nonetheless, these people made up only 14% of their sample, and all other research that I know of would place their proportion much lower.

The other two noteworthy groups are those to whom religion is completely and entirely irrelevant, “non-theists”, and what the researchers call “ritual atheists“, who overlap quite a lot with “seeker-agnostics”, both of whom might be targeted under the marketing category known as “spiritual but not religious”. What defines them is the ability to treat religious practices as something like acupuncture or Chinese medicine: something that works even though the explanation is obviously nonsense:

One of the defining characteristics regarding ritual atheists/agnostics is that they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions. They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation. Ritual atheist/agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual.

As the authors observe, this covers a large spectrum of American Jewry.

(One further category, “activist“, is used to label those who hold strong beliefs on ethical and environmental issues. Pretty much what the term means in lay parlance.)

I think the English, or more generally European results, would be different. The typologies are broadly the same, but since Christianity is much less of a marker in European culture wars, and certainly not an active one in the UK, you would expect the distribution of categories to be different, and for people to be very much less self-conscious about unbelief and less likely to regard it as a salient feature of their personalities.

Atheism is an honest response to lack of belief.

However, most of us who continue to try to live with faith in God have to admit to the presence of doubt, and I for one think we should be honest about this.

I liked the perenthetical trickery of  Pete Rollins who talks about (a)theism. Contained in all our ideas about God is also the idea that what we know is always incomplete, imperfect and error-strewn. He would contend that the only honest way to approach God is to start from the point of (a)theism- where our theories about God are confronted with our unknowing.

Gravity gets us all in the end my friends, and may we all fall into the arms of a loving God.

Dawkins and Fraser go at it on the wireless…

Great little exchange on Radio 4 this morning between Richard Dawkins, Athiest missionary, and Giles Fraser. I may be slightly biased but if we were to use a tiddlywinks analogy, Fraser’s winks were more numerous in the pot.

I tried to rise above it all but that line from Fraser where he asks Dawkins to name the full title of ‘The Origin of Species’ (which he couldn’t) made me laugh out loud.

Consider this post a slightly guilty admission that if I turn the other cheek, it is whilst smirking.

You can listen again here.

Building things to point at the heavens…

We have been doing it for a long time now.

Remember the story of the Tower of Babel?

According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.” God came down to see what they did and said: “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.” So God said, “Come, let us go down and confound their speech.” And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.”(Genesis 11:5-8).

This has come to mind because of two stories over the last couple of days. The first one concerned a strange offer from the Brazilian government to build a replica of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, on Primrose Hill, overlooking the City of London.

The Guardian reports local councillor-

Primrose Hill Lib Dem councillor Chris Naylor said he wasn’t sure a 20ft statue of Christ with his arms outstretched was quite what the area needed.

Then today there was another story in the papers about a plan to raise a temple to Atheism at the heart of the City of London. As if there were not already plenty of those. De Botton said he chose the country’s financial centre because he believes it is where people have most seriously lost perspective on life’s priorities- presumably he hopes to restore the balance of these priorities by architecture.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins‘s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

They appear to be finding it difficult to find a site in the City of London however-

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well there you have it. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Opium of the People all cosied up perhaps?

Whatever the merits of these two schemes, which may well never get anywhere near planning permission, there are some interesting issues here. Spending money on buildings in the name of religion or areligion always seems a little like a power statement- particularly in times when people are in need. The great medieval cathedrals were build to inspire awe and trembling and to dominate the skylines.

But they remain. And I love to be inside them. And the can be very useful in our climate.

It is one of those human contradictions that constructed spaces can open up spiritual spaces inside us – or perhaps close them.

What gives buildings this kind of power? Is it simply the curve of arch and the vault of roof? The ambient acoustics? The softening of history or the pride of ownership? I suppose it might be all of these things, but it seems to me to be as hard to dissect and define this power as it might be to do with any human art form.

What of that ancient story of the Tower of Babel? I have heard it used to illustrate all sorts of theories-

  • God was bringing mankind down a peg or two as we were getting too big for our boots
  • God was blessing us with nationhood and nationalist pride
  • It is an illustration of a stage of the journey away from the Garden of Eden. A logical extension of the move from hunter-gatherer, to farmer, to wealth accumulator, to city builder

I tend to associate with the last of these. Cities are wonderful places. I visit them most often as a tourist these days, as we live so far out on the western fringe. I love their energy, their human variety, the layers of creativity and commerce all mingled. Then I love to leave them behind and go home.

Because our experience of the weight of human experience is not really captured by how high, how big or how magnificently we can stack stones is it?

This is about what happens within our small spaces, wherever they are – when we meet and love within them. The Tower of Babel might be seen as a warning of the pointless steeple, unconnected to the land and the life of those upon it.

The Archbishop and the little girl…

Did anyone see this story over the weekend?

It seems that the father of a little girl called Lulu took objection to the teachers at her Scottish Church primary school ‘doing God’. Curiously Lulu was asked to write a letter to God, entitled “To God; how did you get invented?”

Lulu’s Dad, who is not a believer, cheekily forwarded the letter to the Scottish Episcopal church (no reply- sorry Andrew!) the Church of Scotland (no reply) the Catholic church of Scotland (a nice but complex answer) and finally to Lambeth Palace- and received this reply;

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan


Blair and Hitchens debate religion…

I have just listened to the debate on religion on radio 4 between Tony Blair (convert to Catholicism, former prime minister, invader of Iraq, possible war criminal) and Christopher Hitchens (writer, journalist, atheist, cancer sufferer).

They debated the proposition that ‘religion is a force for good in the world‘- you can listen again here.

I found myself in agreement with much of what Hichens had to say. He was witty, erudite and thoughtful.

Hitchens described faiths’ view of mankind as-

“…victims of a cruel experiment, in which we are created sick and then ordered to be well. Over us, to supervise is installed a dictatorship- a kind of celestial North Korea… But there is a cure- salvation at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.”

Blair was Blair- earnest, persuasive, but at the same time repetitive, on message, but a message that is degraded by our recent shared history. He spoke of the good that faith pours into the world, and how bigoted fundamentalists exist both within and without our institutions of faith.

Hitchens won the debate hands down for me- but that was more because his moral authority and his intelligence won against Blair- who is yet to be re-invented by history as many politicians are in the years after power.

I was left to reflect on my own faith- which has had to find a place within the powerful critique that Hitchens uses, but somehow still survives- is stronger even.

I am not alone. Many of us who have grown up trying to reconcile the irreconcilable have found that if you let go of trying to hold together the absolute truths- to stop the desperate defence of positions on Biblical authority, atonement, sexual sin etc etc- then we rediscover the hope that God is bigger than all of that.

And we turn again to Jesus.

Religion makes you a better person?

So Cherie Blair has got herself in trouble again

I always feel a little sorry for Cherie- she has been a tabloid target for years. There is something gawkishly vulnerable about her that always made me sort of like her, whilst being a little afraid of her at the same time.

But I suspect she is no fool.

But this latest story- it seems she was sitting as a judge in the case of a man who had suffered some queue rage, and ended up breaking a man’s jaw.

Inner London Crown Court heard that Miah, 25, of Redbridge, east London, went into a bank in East Ham and became embroiled in a dispute with Mohammed Furcan about who was next in the queue.

Miah – who had just been to a mosque – punched Mr Furcan inside the bank, and again outside the building.

Ms Booth told Miah that violence had to be taken seriously, but said she would suspend his prison sentence because he was a religious person and had not been in trouble before.

She added: “You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”

The National Secular Society soon latched on to the story with a howl of militant evangelical atheistic outrage, feeling that Cherie’s comments meant that she might have treated a non-religious person less leniently.

I suspect that Cherie’s comments have been taken way out of context, and that if we examined most of the summing up comments made by Court Judges when passing sentence, we would find much more juicy morsels to splash around the red top papers.

But the story seems to have stimulated a wider debate about whether religion really does make people behave better- and whether faith makes us better people. And if so- then are Buddhists better than Followers of Jesus, or are Muslims better Pagans?

What do you think? Because I am not sure.

I can not comment on other faither, but I have known a lot of bad behaviour in churches. But I have also noticed that on the whole, people are motivated to do good. For every insensitive bigot, there are a whole lot of other folk who are seeking to live better lives.

In my experience, society is full of wonderful people, who seek to make the world a better place. Some of them have faith which gives a code for life, and a bridge to understanding things in a deeper way.

However we are all capable of such good and such evil. Sometimes religion brings out both.

I have not used one of these voting things for a while- so here we go-

Lord Reith 1, Atheists 0…

Long term TFTD contributor Rabbi Lionel Blue

Each weekday millions of people in Britain reach for their radio and tune to BBC radio 4’s Today programme. It has been my primary window on world news and events for 40 years. In a world of sound bites and looped infotainment it’s continued popularity is remarkable. Thoughtful extended reflections on real issues? Serious journalistic inquiry that makes politicians tremble in their Gucci’s? It will never catch on surely?

Today programme listeners tend to be very protective of their habitual morning listening. We do not like things to change. We do not like things to be trivialised or tarted up. John Humphrey’s can often irritate and annoy with his savant-pedanticism- but he does this as one of ours. Like an older brother at Christmas.

At 7.45 each morning, we are offered a Spiritual slot, called Thought for the Day. A selected bunch of folk from different faith backgrounds are given 120 seconds to reflect on a current issue. It is often bland and esoteric. Sometimes it is beautiful and moving. It is one of those rare ‘pause, breathe in and think’ moments. Or at very least a moment to switch the kettle on.

Step forward the Militant Atheists. They object strongly to their morning listening being corrupted by religion. Particularly when Atheists and humanists are not invited to speak. This from the National Secular Society

“Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs…This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. Our evidence shows that five out of six of the public are heavily on our side. We will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.”

And so complaints were sent (7 in total) and much huffing and puffing was made in many quarters. The BBC trust sat in leather chairs for quite some time- then rejected the complaint.

The ghost of Lord Reith, Presbytarian forefather of the BBC- rested again in peace…

Of course, we may yet Atheist voices Thought for the day. But I find myself in agreement with The Guardian’s John Plunket who said this-

Introducing secular voices to Thought for the Day wouldn’t just have changed the slot, it would have killed it. As one of its former editors John Newbury said, there is no need for a non-theological Thought-style reflection at 7.50am – there is plenty of that elsewhere on Today and across the Radio 4 schedule.

Evangelical muscular atheism seems to me as anachronistic in these pluralistic times as the street corner preacher in his sandwich board proclaiming the nigh-ness of the end.

And whilst I have no desire to get into pointless arguments with people who have claim to know what can never be known (who remembers last year’s bus campaign?) I must confess to a feeling of more than a little smug satisfaction at the rejection of their complaint…

Doing battle with the atheists- ‘probably’ a waste of time…


So, Christians find themselves in the news again.

Ron Heather, a bus driver from Southampton turned up for work last week, and found himself faced with a vehicle emblazoned with advertising paid for by an Atheistic campaign, with the slogan- ‘There is probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Ron, as a Christian, found this objectionable, and so told his employers that he could not drive the bus. Ron seems to be a good bloke from the little we can see of him, and his dilemma heart felt and honest. Check out the story here.

But the story of the campaign is a fascinating one for many of us. It seems to shine a light on the place of faith and belief in our time and context, and perhaps it may yet enable healthy debate and discussion.

So- what is it all about?

Step forward the first protagonists- atheist (It is well worth checking out their website.)

The campaign, interestingly enough, seems to have started as a REACTION to bus campaigns about judgment and sinners burning in lakes of fire run by Christians! Here is some footage from the launch;

Toynbee and Dawkins- the heavy hitters behind this campaign- are interesting figures. One a broadsheet columnist, and intellectual- the other a scientist who has a brilliant but flawed reputation. Neither of them are people who could be thought to have their finger on the pulse of post modern Britain. In fact, Dawkins in particular seems to me to be regarded as a severe and arrogant figure, whose rationalistic determinism is particularly modern.

Then we have the counter reaction from Christian Voice. Here is a quote from their director Stephen Green

‘According to one national newspaper, ‘some atheist supporters of the campaign were disappointed that the wording of the adverts did not declare categorically that God does not exist, although there were fears that this could break advertising guidelines.’

‘Well, I believe the ad breaks the Advertising Code anyway, unless the advertisers hold evidence that God probably does not exist.

‘The ASA does not just cover goods and services, it covers all advertising. The advertisers cannot hide behind the ASA’s ‘matters of opinion’ exclusion, because no person or body is named as the author of the statement. It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules.

‘There is plenty of evidence for God, from peoples’ personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world. But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it.

The Christian evangelist is not concerned by fears that his complaint will lead to atheists complaining about Christian adverts. ‘I am sure many of them have complained about Christian advertising already,’ he said, ‘but a statement such as “The Bible says ‘the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord'” is entirely factual. The Bible does say that. The statement “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life – no-one comes to the Father but by me,'” to take another example, is a Biblical quote, from the same Bible which is part of our Christian Constitution and upon which witnesses promise to tell the truth in Court. The Bible is, to coin a phrase, our Bible.’

So, the battle is joined over whether you can ‘prove’ God exists, and predictably, for some Christians the proof is to be found in the didactic statements taken from the Bible(the King James version of course)- and so that is enough. For others, this argument is akin to believing in Klingons because we saw them on Star Trek.

Again- it is well worth checking out the Christian voice website. The message given is that Britain is a land that is sliding into a cess pit of sin, promiscuity, perversion and homosexuality. Christian voice casts itself as a lone voice speaking for the truth of God in the middle of a the Godless heathen, who are all heading for the fires of hell, lest they heed the warning.

In reading it I find myself, even as a Christian, alienated and ashamed of what these people have made of the Gospel of Jesus. I find myself disagreeing with both the substance and the tone of the message. It sits at such odds with everything that I understand the Gospel of Jesus to be about.

But what might be the outcome of this little splash of media attention given to we people of faith, and the militant evangelists of atheism?

I have mixed feelings- and feel another list coming on!

  1. As a Christian, I find the atheist slogans upsetting- but think that they have as much right to display them as Christians have to display our evangelical messages.
  2. Some of the Christian slogans make me feel just as uncomfortable!
  3. I wonder whether this is a real opportunity for people to think again about God, and rather than a negative campaign, this might encourage people to ask questions and in fact, draw them closer to God?
  4. This battle seems to belong to an earlier age- a time of Christendom and modernism. It seems to me to engage with a debate about spirituality that most people have no interest in at all. It is as likely to alienate people from Dawkins and his disciples as it is to turn them from God.
  5. Is our role as Christians to ‘defend the faith’ or to ‘defend God’? Is it to set ourselves up as moral arbiters for our society- pointing the finger at the ungodly and the sinful wherever we see it? Or is it rather to let others know our allegiance by the love we show for one another?

So- here’s a question. Please vote!