I recently read an article from the New York Times by the Stanford anthropologist, T. M. Luhrmann. She begins by noting that her family will go to church on Christmas. There is nothing unusual about this except that the church Luhrmann will attend is Unitarian. Unitarians reject orthodox Christian Trinitarian theology—just try to make sense of Trinitarianism—and replace it with the doctrine that God is one. Unitarianism emerged in early modern Europe but over the last 200 years, “the Unitarian church had become a place for intellectuals who were skeptical of belief claims but who wanted to hang on to faith in some manner … The modern Unitarian Universalist Association’s statement of principles does not mention God at all.”
This faith without god is becoming more popular in the USA, and atheist services have arisen around the country. “How do we understand this impulse to hold a “church” service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith?” Luhrmann thinks that “part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” Why not hang out with other people and sing, hear interesting talks, and think about self-improvement and making the world a better place? Luhrmann also theorizes that engaging in rituals may have less to do with religious beliefs, and more to do with setting time aside to reflect in a way that is different from other activities.
Luhrmann applauds this new idea of atheist churches. In fact, she thinks that “religion without God may be more poignant [than religion with gods.] Atheists trust in human relations, not supernatural ones, and humans are not so good at delivering the world as it should be. Perhaps that is why we are moved by Christmas carols, which conjure up the world as it can be and not the world we know.”
The need for an atheist church has no appeal for me, but I can understand that people would want to find community with like-minded believers. After all, that is a large part of the appeal of religion today, especially in cultures in which persons are isolated, alienated and exploited. No wonder the USA and the Middle East have so much religiosity, while Japan, Western Europe, and Scandinavia so little.