If God Is Dead, Who Gets His House?

Photo: Frank Schwere

It seems unlikely that many of the 850 or so people at the Society for Ethical Culture on a recent Saturday night believed that God was still extant. But evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and possibly the most famous atheist in the world, was not taking any chances. He gave a PowerPoint presentation driving home that religion does not meet any of the standards of basic scientific inquiry, before casually flicking away a few of His last crutches. Doesn’t God provide people some solace? asked an audience member. “Isn’t that a little childish?” Dawkins replied. “Just because something is comforting doesn’t mean it’s true.” Then someone asked about death, and Dawkins quoted Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born.”

The room erupted in loud applause. God had definitely left the building—if he were ever here at all. Dawkins and his colleagues had helped to produce a kind of atheist big bang, a new beginning. But what kind of new structures might evolve?

The Society for Ethical Culture was formed in 1877, eighteen years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and made the religious universe wobble on its axis. But godlessness can be a little scary, even for an atheist. Ethical Culture’s imposing 1910 edifice on Central Park speaks to its patrons’ wealth, as well as their concern that society might fall apart if it didn’t have a church. But for all the grandeur of its secular cathedral, Ethical Culture peaked at maybe 6,000 members, with only about 3,000 today.

Now, once again, nonbelievers have a fresh sense of mission. The fastest-growing faith in the country is no faith at all. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of its “Religious Landscape” survey in February and found that 16 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. The number is even greater among young people: 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now identify with no religion, up from 11 percent in a similar survey in 1986. For most of its modern history, atheism has existed as a kind of civil-rights movement. Groups like American Atheists have functioned primarily as litigants in the fight for church-state separation, not as atheist social clubs. “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people who don’t feel like they need an organization,” says Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists for the past thirteen years. “They’re so independent that if they want to get involved, they usually don’t join an organization—they start their own.”

The quartet of best-selling authors who have emerged to write the gospel of New Atheism—Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Dawkins (the Four Horsemen, as they are now known)—has succeeded in mainstreaming atheism in a nation that is still overwhelmingly religious and, in the process, catalyzed a reexamination of atheistic raison d’être. But for some atheist foot soldiers, this current groundswell is just a consciousness-raising stop on the evolutionary train, the atheist equivalent of the Stonewall riots. For these people, the Four Horsemen have only started the journey. Atheism’s great awakening is in need of a doctrine. “People perceive us as only rejecting things,” says Ken Bronstein, the president of a local group called New York City Atheists. “Everybody wants to know, ‘Okay, you’re an atheist, now what?’ ”

So some atheists are taking seriously the idea that atheism needs to stand for things, like evolution and ethics, not just against things, like God. The most successful movements in history, after all—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.—all have creeds, cathedrals, schools, hierarchies, rituals, money, clerics, and some version of a heavenly afterlife. Churches fill needs, goes the argument—they inculcate ethics, give meaning, build communities. “Science and reason are important,” says Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard University. “But science and reason won’t visit you in the hospital.”

Many atheist sects are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations, much like Ethical Culture. They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing. But this impulse is fueling a growing schism among atheists. Many of them see churches as part of the problem. They want to throw out the baby and the bathwater—or at least they don’t see the need for the bathwater once the baby is gone.

On a recent chilly Friday night, a few dozen members of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism were gathered downstairs at the Village Community School on West 10th Street for Shabbat. For them, this is a monthly ritual that includes lighting candles and singing Jewish songs that have been carefully excised of a deity. “Where is my light?” asks the song “Ayfo Oree.” “My light is in me.” According to the congregation’s leader, the humanist rabbi Peter Schweitzer, who wrote much of the secular Shabbat service, as well as the lyrics and verse for the congregation’s life-cycle events like weddings, funerals, and bar and bat mitzvahs, Judaism is mostly a culture—religion is just one component. So he simply takes a red pen to the God parts. “We offer a different door in,” says Schweitzer. “One that doesn’t ask you to compromise your lack of beliefs.”

Photo: Frank Schwere

Schweitzer tells me that Humanistic Judaism was founded in the early sixties by a former Reform rabbi from Michigan named Sherwin Wine. Wine, Schweitzer explains, coined the term ignostic—you’re never going to know what God is, so why waste your time worrying about it? “God is a construct of the mind,” he says. “Maybe you get there. Maybe you don’t.”

Schweitzer sees Humanistic Judaism as an obvious extension of a North American Jewry that is already highly secular—one that for decades has made “the deli a more significant cultural force than the synagogue.” Many secular Jews continue to feel a strong connection to their cultural roots. “Jews need a place to go, especially during high holidays, where they don’t have to check reason at the door,” he says. “This is honest religion. A real gift.”

After Shabbat, I talked to a retired philosophy professor, Marvin Kohl, an expert on Bertrand Russell, who admitted, reluctantly, that he believes in God. “I like the intellectual side,” he says of the meetings. Before the night was over, a speaker from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice gave a talk about affordable housing. Then Schweitzer reminded the congregation that it needs new office space. There aren’t enough members to afford a synagogue.

Atheist orthodoxy for the most part has been an oxymoron, partly because atheist leaders have tended toward a certain eccentricity. Before the Four Horsemen arrived, the face of atheism in this country belonged to Madalyn Murray O’Hair—“Mad Madalyn”—the pugnacious founder of American Atheists who disowned her son when he became a Baptist preacher and publicly pronounced it a “postnatal abortion.” Angry and overweight, she was the muse of daytime-talk-show host Phil Donohue and a speechwriter for Larry Flynt. In 1964, Life magazine crowned her “the most hated woman in America.” O’Hair was murdered and dismembered, allegedly by her office manager, David Roland Waters, in 1995, but this wasn’t discovered until six years later, prompting speculation in the meantime that she had fled to the South Pacific with piles of atheist loot. January 2001 signaled a low point in contemporary atheist history. The same month Waters led police to the remains of the woman who successfully fought to end prayer in public schools, a Pew survey found that only 19 percent of Americans thought schools should avoid prayer or similar reflection.

Orthodox or not, for many traditional atheists, the word church is taboo, even if God is definitely not in residence. When Tim Gorski, a Texas physician, approached Paul Kurtz, an influential atheist who now chairs the Center for Inquiry, an atheist think tank, about his plans to start the North Texas Church of Freethought in the nineties, Kurtz discouraged him, on the grounds that atheists don’t need church. And about ten years ago, American Atheists turned down Gorski’s bid to sign on to an atheist advertisement published in USA Today. “Individuals and organizations could put their names on the ad. Churches could not,” Ellen Johnson wrote me in an e-mail, while insisting that American Atheism’s “eleventh commandment” is to never criticize or rebuke kindred organizations. “Since they were technically a church, we said no.”

Gorski believes that a church is not necessarily God’s house. It belongs, first, to the people. Many atheists, he says, misunderstand why people go to church in the first place. “It isn’t the specific doctrines,” he says. “[Church] binds people together and relates them to one another and gives them each a personal, private, and, of course, quite subjective understanding of themselves and their world.”

“Every service is different,” says Gorski. “For example, we created a serial feature called ‘Moment of Science,’ where we look at something recent or not so recent but something from science that informs our everyday experience. Economists tell us that if our neighbors live in nicer houses, we’re unhappy. We share this with members, so that next time they’re unhappy, they can think about why and hopefully change that.”

Atheism’s bitterest schisms, no surprise, were often formed in church. Gorski says he grew up, uneventfully, as a Catholic. “I’ve got no ax to grind,” he says. But at a meeting of the New York City Atheists in January, two former Jehovah’s Witnesses recounted a childhood rooted in lies and indoctrination. The young woman, who used a pseudonym for fear of never being able to speak to her parents again, told the audience that her father would hide her National Geographic. Ellen Johnson explains it this way: “Our members have left religion and don’t want any part of that.”

Additionally, many atheists see the challenge of tearing down the pillars of organized religion as far from over—just check the numbers of Americans who don’t believe in evolution, they say. And that work—of arguing, of reeducation, of fighting discrimination against nonbelievers—should take precedence over any kind of organization-building.

As a political strategy, however, that may be shortsighted. Greg Epstein, who like Schweitzer is a student of Humanistic Judaism, is perhaps the most outspoken voice for humanism in the United States and has made waves among atheists by arguing that the militancy of the Four Horsemen could derail an otherwise powerful movement. When I met the 31-year-old Epstein for breakfast in a Soho restaurant last month, he told me he’s writing a book called Good Without God, due out next year. “Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious,” he says, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. Epstein says that when he arrived at Harvard as the assistant humanist chaplain in 2004, there were just a handful of organized nonbelievers and no Website. Now he has a mailing list of over 3,000 and sponsors popular conferences featuring big-ticket atheists like Salman Rushdie, E. O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker. This month, he’s presenting Greg Graffin, co-founder of the punk band Bad Religion, who is also a lecturer on life sciences at UCLA, with a lifetime achievement award in humanism. I asked Epstein whether atheists need a church. “I’m saying we need to get organized,” he responds. “But what I view as organization still has pleasant disorganization. No humanist will accept authority for authority’s sake. It’s not in our makeup. If anyone came up and said, ‘This is the rule, this is the humanist dogma, and I can tell you based on my authority what the creed is,’ we’d throw them out with the trash. There’s a difference between building a community and building an atheist regime.”

In February, Epstein spoke to members of the Society for Ethical Culture to try to light a fire under an assembly whose numbers have been dwindling for decades. Founded by Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, to drive social-justice initiatives and promote good without God, Ethical Culture walks like a church and talks like a church—congregants sit in pews, rise to sing hymns, and pass around a collection plate. But at one of their Sunday-morning meetings in January, their Senior Leader, in a very unchurchlike fashion, cited agnosticism as the only intellectually defensible religious position. More to the point, Epstein is eyeing the group’s building as a prototype for the church of New Humanism. Modeled on a Greco-Roman coliseum, Ethical Culture has semi-circular pews to promote conversation and a low stage designed to minimize the distance between leader and congregation. “I want to build big, beautiful buildings like Ethical Culture in every big city in America,” says Epstein. Unfortunately, his organization only brings in $200,000 a year. And while that’s up from $28,000 four years ago, it’s not enough to build a New Humanist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, let alone Central Park West.

The Four Horsemen haven’t completely turned their back on the movement they’ve helped to ignite. In addition to working on a children’s book about evolution to be published in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, Richard Dawkins has launched his Web-based out campaign to encourage atheists to come out of the closet. In lieu of a rainbow flag, he sells T-shirts with the scarlet letter A. Sam Harris, who says playing the victim is the wrong approach, is starting something called the Reason Project, bringing entertainers into the movement to further atheism’s passage into the mainstream. Celebrity atheists like Bill Maher, Ian McKellen, and Julia Sweeney, whose one-woman show Letting Go of God, is a big hit at atheist conferences, have been vital to the renewed energy behind the movement. “Nobody is satisfied with the profusion of groups and meetings,” says Harris. “My starting yet another organization is unhelpful on that front.”

At this point, the movement can’t even agree on a name. Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, prefers the term anti-theist because he’s entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect frightening, the spiritual equivalent of living in North Korea. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he has said, is “modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual adoption of the word gay.” (In the first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens dismisses the term as conceited.) And Sam Harris, brash young scientist that he is, triggered a minor revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term atheist, disparaging those who identify with a negation. “It reverberated in atheist circles as a sacrilege,” Harris told me. “But what’s worse is adopting language that was placed on us by religious people. We don’t feel the need to brand ourselves non-astrologers or non-racists.”

Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.” Even Richard Dawkins is not one to reject certain memes based on their churchly pedigree. He calls himself a “cultural Christian,” admitting that he likes to sing Christmas carols as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit to his tolerance of religion. He can see the tactical virtues of making temporary alliances with religion—to “hold hands with religious people” when it comes to making the case for important causes like teaching evolution in the classroom. But there are definite limits. “In the larger war against supernaturalism, frankly, it doesn’t help to fraternize with the enemy,” he says.

Do Atheists Need a Church?

1) The atheist needs to be, to a certain extent, politicized and educated to be able to defend themselves against the Christian onslaught. You know, the Christian media is so powerful right now, and you probably don’t see it as much in the city, but it’s just, anywhere else in the country it’s kind of overwhelming. —Nathan Bush

2) I don’t think that they need a church. I feel like the entire city is their church. —Warren Giddarie

Do Atheists Need a Church? (cont.)

3) If they got together and talked about sort of the intellectual impetus behind being an atheist, difficulties that atheists encounter in the workplace or in other parts of social life, then absolutely.—Arvand Khosravi

4) Religion is a belief, and I feel like atheism is more a feeling. So I don’t really know what the church would function as. Would we sit around talking about nothing? —Noah Wunsch

5) No, I think a knowing wink and a smile is enough. —Iain Pender

If God Is Dead, Who Gets His House?