Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Church for Atheists

One of the most common complaints I see from atheists online is that religious people often fail to understand that a lack of belief is not a religion. As I covered awhile back, nonbelievers exhibit the same range of personality traits found among the religious, and as such cannot be considered to constitute a monolithic group. Still, a new organization called "The Sunday Assembly" is now essentially billing itself as a "church" for atheists. The group started in London back in January and has been attracting members ever since.

Yesterday, The Sunday Assembly—the London-based “Atheist Church” that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over—announced a new “global missionary tour.” In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.

The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.

All churches boast a high growth rate when they're just starting out, so it remains to be seen if the group can keep up its momentum. To me, frankly, it seems a little silly - not going to church is one of the advantages of not being Christian. Furthermore, for people who actually want a church experience without any theistic dogma, Unitarian Universalism has been providing that for a long time. So it's hard to see where this new group expects to fit. What seems clear, though, is that they've gone a long way towards muddling the distinction between religion and nonbelief. It will be up to the larger atheist community to decide whether this is a good thing.

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10 comments:

Nerd said...

Science is the "religion of the day." People think it's based upon some sort of factual reality.

It's really based on superstitions, called "axioms."

Plus inductive logic.

Scott Stenwick said...

If you're talking about the metaphysical idea that only those things that can be verified by the scientific method exist, I would agree with you because the scientific method has limits. Specifically, it deals with "weak phenomena" that are not completely deterministic and for which we lack precise measuring instruments poorly.

However, when it comes to deterministic effects for which we have good measuring instruments, I disagree that experimental data regarding those effects should be conceptualized as "axioms." It may not be an exact reflection of factual reality, but with enough observations the data set becomes a pretty good approximation of it. Hence technology.

Simon Tomasi said...

I'm struggling a bit to see the point of this organization other than to spread atheism. If this organization is a church, does that mean that it will have bishops and the rest of the church hierarchy? Or will it work on a distributed model where each member can have direct knowledge and experience of godlessness?

Scott Stenwick said...

It seems kind of odd to me too, especially given that belief and nonbelief really are totally different things. Believing in something is well-defined, whereas not believing in a particular thing says little about one's actual overall views.

As I see it, a religion should be a system for producing spiritual experiences. Everything else is basically just belonging to a social club. But here's a case where the "club" is all that seems to be going on, pretty much by definition.

Nerd said...

I'm talking about the axioms, like efficient causality, objecthood, identity across time, the idea that the universe operates according to "laws" and that these laws are objectively knowable.

As for particular scientific facts or measurements, the empirical method can only DISprove previous theories and hypothesis. Positive knowledge is beyond its purview.

And even so, it's based upon inductive reasoning, which is logically fallacious.

Scott Stenwick said...

Scientific inquiry may not result in philosophical or objective truth, but as I see it that's not really the point of the scientific method. The point is to derive methods for causing change in the world that are reproducible and therefore practically useful - just like how I envision much of my magical work.

Metaphysical constructs of the sort you're talking about are certainly beyond the purview of empirical investigation, and for now phenomena such as consciousness remain inexplicable because their investigation requires tools we don't have. But to my way of thinking neither of those points fatally undermines the scientific method's effectiveness.

Nerd said...

Investigation of consciousness is quite possible, using first person methods.

As for science, reproducibility is yet another superstition, as no two phenomena are exactly similar.

The empirical method may have some pragmatic efficacy, but only when paired with divine insight.

Scott Stenwick said...

Of course it is. As scientific illuminists, that's what we do!

The trouble with trying to generalize to others from first person methods is similar to what eventually doomed the structuralist movement in psychology - lots of first-hand introspection, but few commonalities between individual accounts.

Nerd said...

"Third person reality" is another superstition.

Scott Stenwick said...

If so, I'm of the opinion it's a superstition that works. If it didn't, you wouldn't be able to generalize anything at all from one person to another, and I personally find the evidence that it's possible to at least some degree compelling enough to accept.