Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

Atheist Churches and the Pain and Promise of Wonder

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Atheists and polytheists have a lot in common.  Both of us have sat down and really thought about what we believe.  Whether we were raised within the dominant Christian culture or not, the general view that there is one, male God who rules everything is the accepted method of belief in western society.  To deviate from that, whether toward zero gods or a ton of them, and to be open about it, is a brave deviation from the norm that both of these groups have embraced.

Both of us have a closet we have to emerge from as we become more and more open about our beliefs, and both of us risk alienating our loved ones by announcing our true thoughts.  Both roads can be lonely; it’s hard to be different.  Because of that, adherents to both paths often choose some kind of community.  Even the solitary Witch often seeks a sabbat group or convention where he or she can share ideas with like-minded people.  The same is true for atheists.  And last year, the most noteworthy example was the lightning-quick rise of the Sunday Assembly.

The Sunday Assembly is a “church” for atheists.  It started in London and has quickly spread across the western world.  It’s a place for nonbelievers to meet and share ideas under the banner of the Assembly’s lovely slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”


But like all quickly growing groups, there is already a problem.  CNN reported Saturday that the Sunday Assembly has already hit a schism.  It seems that the leaders of the New York congregation have a completely different idea of what an atheist is than its London founders do.  Where the Assembly wishes to attract all manner nonreligious types, the breakoff group, calling itself the “Godless Revival,” seems to be more like atheist fundamentalists.  Their message is less “Come all ye skeptics” and more “I believe in no God, no Father, no Almighty.”

This happens in the Pagan community too.  Disagreements happen; ideologies compete with each other.  To me, it’s the sign of healthy thinking.  If everyone thinks exactly the same, your group becomes stagnant.  If there’s no Trickster jumping in with shiny new ideas, then your group rots.  These disagreements happen any time a group of people get together, especially a group of freethinkers like atheists and Pagans.

Social psychology teaches us of the concept of “groupthink.”  Groupthink occurs when disagreements are stifled, unanimity is assumed, and leaders control discussion.  It leads to bad decisions and disastrous outcomes.  The classic example used by psychologists is JFK’s Bay of Pigs debacle.

If you encourage people to “wonder more,” you’re going to find arguments and ruffle some feathers.  But that’s OK.  That’s what happens when people think.  Constant agreement is a dead giveaway that no one is thinking. Just as two warring countries often learn each other’s culture better, the two sides of an argument will expand each other’s minds if both sides are truly committed to the “wonder.”  The community that questions itself stays healthy.


Author: Tim

I am a teacher, a theater lover, and a High Priest in the Temple of Witchcraft. I love to point out the places where the everyday world, arts, science, and religion intersect. I stand for interfaith cooperation and the belief that people of all religions, political beliefs, and nationalities have more in common with each other than differences.

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