The Godless Congregation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Greg Epstein, James Croft

At 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday in September, in a sparsely appointed room in Hous ton, Texas, a trained pastor convenes a meeting. The babble of babies can be heard in the background, but they are soon drowned out by the tones of musician Dr. Otis Futhermucker. Futhermucker, a leathery baby-boomer with a raspy voice and a self-styled “reverend of the blues,” twangs his guitar and blows his harmonica for a couple of soulful tunes before handing the program back off to the pastor, who welcomes everyone to this, the first gathering of a new community.

After an aw-shucks apology to the crowded room (“they have bigger rooms available” for the future), the pastor, Mike, promises that at next week’s meeting someone will be able to handle children’s programming. Then he reminds everyone that this is intended to be a welcoming place for all people, whatever their baggage, and that he hopes visitors will feel better about life when they leave. Mike encourages those gathered to share their journey: the story of how they came to be in the room. One member, a black former Baptist deacon and an engineer, weaves an affecting tale of the deep searching that led to the development of his religious views as the audience listens closely, rapt with attention.

Mike then delivers a message from the podium on his chosen “theme of the day”: the importance of awe and wonder in life. He starts with an inspirational reading, then, moving to a whiteboard, begins outlining humankind’s history on the planet—our place in the big scheme of things. He talks of common human experiences and emotions, peppering his remarks with personal anecdotes, quotes, and jokes that help the audience grapple with some of the biggest—and the smallest—questions of life, from “How should I deal with someone who cuts me off on the road?” to “How can I deal with existential angst?”

“Understanding, I think, brings healing,” he reflects, before finishing his address and inviting Dr. Futhermucker to close the session with some more blues.

So far, so churchy. But this isn’t a church at all: it is a gathering of atheists and humanists. God, once the center of worship at such meetings all over the world, draws only passing mention —as a literary character.

The inspirational reading is from atheist philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, and the extended exploration of humankind’s place in the universe is filled with insights drawn from evolution, neuroscience, and social psychology. The references are to Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin rather than Luke and John. The “pastor” is Mike Aus, a former Lutheran who “came out” as an atheist on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes immediately following the Reason Rally in March 2012, and he disavows the role of authority figure. He says he’s not giving a “sermon” and that his purpose is to engage the audience in discussion and spark questions rather than to dispense wisdom from on-high.

This is Houston Oasis, a community “grounded in reason rather than revelation, celebrating the human experience,” a growing community founded to serve a civic need that most don’t yet realize exists. It is a community for people who believe in congregating but don’t believe in God.

The Rise of the Godless Congregation

Something interesting is happening: across the United States and increasingly even the world, atheists are coming together not to debate but to celebrate. Moving beyond discussions of the existence of God and the evils of religion, groups of nonbelievers are meeting to ask the big questions that animate human life: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? They listen, discuss, and exchange ideas. They share the joys and struggles of their lives. They deepen their relationships. They affirm existence as they listen to poetry or music; some even sing together. But most of all they seek, together, to live fuller, richer, more meaningful lives: lives informed by reason, infused with compassion, and guided by hope for the future of humankind.

These groups of atheists—these communities, assemblies, congregations (call them what you will: we use the provocative term godless congregations)—are different from standard atheist discussion groups. They are consciously designed communities based on shared humanist values that supplement discussion with a wide variety of communal activities to bring people closer to each other. They recognize that religious congregations frequently offer much of value to their members and that the needs those congregations meet are often not met by existing secular organizations. They try, mindful of potential pitfalls, to provide spaces for existential reflection, moral development, and healthy personal growth similar to those often found within religions—but to provide them for people who have left God behind.

Increasingly—and unlike most local humanist groups in recent generations—these groups call upon professional leaders who seek to make a living from their efforts. Mike Aus of the Houston Oasis and Jerry DeWitt of Joie De Vivre (Louisiana’s First Secular Service) are ex-clergy, graduates of the Clergy Project, seeking to take their community-development skills and put them to good use in the service of freethinkers. The Humanist Community at Harvard manages a full-time staff of three to five people in any given year, including a chaplain and assistant chaplain. Both leaders of The Sunday Assembly, a wildly popular monthly godless congregation in London, are self-employed professional comedians and performers who have devoted themselves to their new “godless congregation” nearly full-time since inventing it several months ago. Other humanist and atheist groups are looking to hire part-time community organizers to assist in their own growth.

As coauthors of an upcoming book, The Godless Congregation (Simon and Schuster, 2015), we are not “starting a new religion,” “turning atheism into a religion,” or attempting to “ape religion.” We strenuously reject the negative aspects of many religious faiths and would be horrified to replicate them. Yet we also understand that the human animal has a yearning for meaningful community that, for many, was satisfied to some degree in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. We recognize that just because we choose not to worship a deity does not mean everything that happens within the walls of a house of worship is irredeemably awful. Reasonably, rationally, we leaders of godless congregations are sifting the bad in religion from the good, and seeking, in a way entirely consistent with the highest humanist values, to meet real human needs.

Is This ‘Religious Humanism’?

Of course, those of us working to build godless congregations today are not the first to have attempted such a thing: in fact, it is worth noting, especially while writing for Free Inquiry, the flagship publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, that the roots of today’s “secular humanism” were to a great degree, religious. Unitarian and liberal Christian ministers were among the strongest supporters of the first Humanist Manifesto, and religious Humanists were among the most prominent founders, in 1961, of the new religion of Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalist congregations often harbor many humanists, and some congregations are primarily humanist. One prominent example, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, is a “Unitarian Universalist Humanist Congregation” with a big and beautiful building in the heart of its city, dedicated to the belief that “human problems can only be solved through human efforts.” It’s a thriving community of atheists, skeptics, humanists, and others who seek to make themselves and the world better—they just do so in a way that resembles a church service. Though they sing hymns and listen to a sermon from a reverend, it’s far from a cult and shows no danger of becoming one—it is an entirely healthy development.

Ethical Culture, a movement of Humanist congregations founded some 140 years ago by the son of a prominent New York rabbi, was founded as a religion. Numerous Progressive-era causes would have slowed were it not for the influence of founder Felix Adler who, as well as a professor and orator (categories today’s humanists and atheists are more comfortable with) was most centrally a congregational leader who established numerous religious-Humanist congregations (Ethical Societies) throughout the United States in his lifetime. He saw these Societies as the primary engine of social betterment and as critical to his essentially humanist cause. Over two dozen Ethical Societies still exist today, the largest of which—the Ethical Society of St. Louis—is a Humanist congregation with hundreds of members who meet in their own beautiful building and enjoy a high profile in their city, all while showing no sign of dogmatism or authoritarianism whatsoever.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine, one of the most influential Humanist leaders of the twentieth century, founded the movement of Humanistic Judaism fifty years ago and built a large synagogue—the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit—where members celebrate Jewish culture, history, and literature but where the Torah scroll resides in the library and children enrolled in the Hebrew School learn to recite Hebrew and Yiddish poetry that describes God as a man-made concept and human reason and love as the highest ideals toward which to strive. The Society for Humanistic Judaism still boasts dozens of congregations and communities across North America and Israel, and like Ethical Culture members and Unitarian Universalist Humanists then and now, many of its completely atheistic members still think of what they do as “religious Humanism.”

The idea of the godless congregation has existed for a long time and in some cases has been extremely successful. This is not a new concept, and “religious Humanists” have been—and are still—doing much that newer godless congregations can learn from.

Nonetheless, we find the term religious Humanism unhelpful in describing the renewed enthusiasm surrounding congregational humanism that we are witnessing today. With respect to our religious Humanist forebears and our secular humanist allies, we feel the distinction between “religious” and “secular” humanism to be about as relevant today as the choice between music on cassette or vinyl. Times have changed, the culture has moved on, and old categories no longer fit the current reality of our lives.

The term religious confuses because, although it holds up certain valuable aspects of this emerging congregational movement—the centrality of humanism to participants’ lives, its status as an organizing framework for addressing great existential questions, its position as a source of moral guidance—it also carries undesirable connotations that godless congregations hope to avoid. To name one example, traditional religion’s tendency toward dogmatism, authoritarianism, groupthink, and rigid hierarchies are all things the godless congregation seeks strenuously to counter, and association with those tendencies is unhelpful.

For many atheists, the term religious is simply too loaded with negative baggage to be a friendly descriptor for this latest wave of broadly humanist communities. In our travels, we have met countless atheists who reject out-of-hand common, life-affirming human practices such as communal singing and the use of symbolism (lighting a candle, say) simply because, for them, they are “too religious.” This points to the difficulties of using the term religious to describe this new movement, and similar problems are attached to the term atheist church—understandably popular with the media though it is (reporters are trained to love human-bites-dog stories, at least at first).

Furthermore, the attempt to distinguish between religious Humanism and secular humanism—an effort to draw a distinction between forms of humanism rooted in the early twentieth century and forms that first took shape in the 1970s and 1980s—perpetuates the idea that there is something substantively different in the humanism that these two groups seek to promote. Yet this has been proven over time to not be the case: today, the values of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis (a bastion of religious humanism) are hardly distinguishable from those of the Center for Inquiry (the most prominent proponent of secular humanism). The American Humanist Association shares most of its goals with the American Ethical Union (the umbrella group uniting the remaining Ethical Culture Societies). We are one movement, reaching toward one humanism, and for this reason we prefer to avoid the term religious and move on from an old, unhelpful dichotomy between “religious” and “secular” humanism.” Ultimately, our understanding of religion—what it is, and what it might be—has become so tangled and confused as to necessitate a new framework for understanding what is going on within the larger humanist movement and what these new godless congregations represent.

So the new groups led by Clergy Project graduates and humanist chaplains and even by professional comedians aren’t churches, and they’re not religious Humanism. But what are they, and what might the humanist movement learn from them? We suggest there are three critical characteristics of these emerging communities that can inform the humanist movement at large. First, these emerging humanist communities represent an entrepreneurial social project, born of creative individuals willing to take risks and rethink old ideas. Second, they represent the efforts of a new generation of humanist activists, mostly untethered to existing institutions, who are reimagining what it means to be a secular person in the twenty-first century. And third, they hold the potential, in our view, to secure the future of humanism, offering a structure and set of institutions that will help the humanist movement become more successful in a more lasting way.

Entrepreneurial, Outward-Looking Humanism

Mirroring the energy of the rising secular student movement, these new humanist communities display an entrepreneurial spirit that recalls the dynamism of Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz. The founders of these new humanist communities are bravely venturing into unknown waters and experimenting with community structures, taking some things from traditional religious gatherings (Houston Oasis offers an atheist variation on Bible study, while Jerry DeWitt’s style is heavily influenced by charismatic preachers) and other things from more thoroughly secular community gatherings (speeches at the Sunday Assembly resemble TED talks more than sermons).

Instead of looking inward—into the existing freethought movement—these innovators are looking out to the communities that surround them and asking how they can effect change. Encouraging service and community engagement, they are going far beyond philosophical discussions and a focus on science and skepticism and asking more challenging questions of their participants like “How can we live a good life?” and “How can we make real connections with those around us?” In pursuit of these questions, they are experimenting with practices that may make stalwarts of the humanist movement uncomfortable but which seem intriguing to the public at large: meditation, moments of silence, singing, and interfaith discussion and collaboration. While not all of the practices may stick with these communities in the long run, the willingness to experiment—to try something out, even if it makes some atheists squirm—shows a risk-taking spirit that has evaded many established humanist groups for some time.

This fast-moving, risk-taking, outward-looking attitude is a contrast and a challenge to existing humanist-movement organizations. Although in recent years the major humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations have begun working more closely together (the Reason Rally is one excellent example of what we can achieve when we pull in one direction), the pace of change has been slow and the focus has been mostly inward, toward existing movement members or those most likely to immediately join up. These new godless congregations, however, in offering something markedly different from most Center for Inquiry branches, Council for Secular Humanism local groups, or American Humanist Association chapters, are reaching far beyond the boundaries of the freethought movement and bringing in people who might never have considered joining an atheist group before.

A New Generation of Activists

Also significant is that these innovations are coming from a new generation of humanist activists who, until recently, were not part of the organized humanist movement at all. Mike Aus, Jerry DeWitt, and Teresa MacBain (a third graduate of the Clergy Project making waves in Florida) were not known to the movement until recently (though they have been participating in the Clergy Project for a couple of years), but they have already made a big splash. It is still an open question as to whether Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans of the Sunday Assembly are even part of the humanist movement: they are hardly connected with the United Kingdom’s major humanist organizations, and they have certainly created an exciting, innovative community space for the nonreligious without much reference to the humanist tradition.

Furthermore, these leaders are not part of the mainstream atheist blogging culture or even the secular student movement. They are removed from discussions of counter-apologetics, intra-movement wrangling over territory and resources, and endless debates over terminology and language (“Should we capitalize the H in Humanist?”—a question that once threatened to derail a presentation at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference).

Such new leaders bring new skills and a new outlook to the movement: skills that are desperately needed if we are to grow. Most obviously, former pastors like Aus, DeWitt, and MacBain bring years of experience as congregational guides honed in pulpits around the country (MacBain was even an expert in “Church planting”) and are now turning those skills to the task of building godless congregations. Jones and Evans bring the energy, enthusiasm, and contacts of experienced comedians, which lends their assemblies a raucous energy that would shock many American humanist gatherings—along with great music! And emerging leaders such as Chris Stedman, the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard, bring years of experience facilitating interfaith dialogue and discussion, which improves our small movement’s ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with our religious neighbors.

This influx of new leaders with new skills is revealing some of the gaps in the repertoire of existing organizations. While we’ve become rather good at filing lawsuits, provoking public discussion with highway billboards, and writing best-selling books and major blogs, we have done little, as a movement, to engage and connect with local communities. Since most of us don’t live in the courtroom, in our cars, or on the Internet (OK, some of us live on the Internet, but that may not always be in our best interest!), the humanist message has been able to reach people in only a small portion of their lives. The leaders of emerging godless congregations seek to make humanism a routine part of everyday life for their members and neighbors, increasing our impact dramatically.

The Future of Humanism

In our minds, godless congregations represent the best chance for humanism to grow into a mass movement able to have an impact on the broader culture. By building local communities that fulfill real human needs that no other secular space so comprehensively manages to meet, we will bring more people into the humanist movement and ramp up the commitment of those already engaged with it. We will make humanism more visible, more connected to the wider society, and more relevant to people’s daily lives. And we will ensure, through the building of countless local humanist institutions, that the humanists of today can pass their values onto the next generation.

In his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton argues that “Thinkers must learn to master the power of institutions for their ideas to have any chance of achieving a pervasive influence on the world.” We agree. Godless congregations could be the institutions that enable humanism, at last, to become pervasive and influential in American culture to a degree it has not hitherto achieved. If we build these institutions, we will end the longtime curse of humanism—that it looks great on paper but in most places doesn’t really exist in practice.

But let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a skeptic of this project. Perhaps you are worried this is all too “churchy” and think atheists shouldn’t go in for this sort of stuff. Perhaps you are opposed to the idea of professional leadership, thinking it sounds too hierarchical. Perhaps, for you, the idea of humanist communities is simply one step too far in the direction of cultishness. We want to ask you a simple question: What are all the enthusiastic, talented, dedicated secular student leaders going to do to promote the freethought movement after they graduate from college?

For instance: Amanda Brown is one of our most passionate, accomplished secular community activists in the country. She’s an obviously brilliant, fast-talking, ambitious twenty-something from Kansas who also happens to be tattooed, pierced, married, and a mom. Brown created the website We Are Atheism, which features videos of dozens of atheists describing what inspires them to do good in their lives and communities and that has over twelve thousand “Likes” on Facebook. But she is much more than just an Internet activist for atheist pride. Brown was the founding chair of the philanthropic committee of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition (KCAC), which began performing significant acts of community service on a regular basis when she led fifteen atheist members out to deliver meals to those in need one Thanksgiving morning and found that they had one of the largest constituencies of volunteers at that food pantry that day.

Brown’s work has continued to grow: in late 2012, We Are Atheism formed a spin-off group, Atheists Giving Aid, which has raised over $70,000 for victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the May 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, among other tragic events. Brown and other group members even recently got a meeting with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback—not usually known for recognizing the achievements of atheists—as a reward for their tireless community work.

Although Brown and her local colleagues should indeed get all kinds of credit for their efforts, it is also true that she learned how to plan and execute projects and events when she was part of a student movement. Although she was an activist for liberal causes since age fourteen, she’d never thought to get active in building a godless philanthropic community until she joined SOMA—The Kansas University (KU) Society for Open Minded Atheists and Agnostics, “the Best God-Damned Group on Campus.” SOMA is a well-established presence at KU, first having won the Secular Student Alliance’s Best Group Award back in 2006, years before Brown had ever heard of organized atheism. And it was her experience hearing the speakers at SOMA’s student-run conferences—conferences that were partly a result of ground that was well and intentionally paved in the hopes that talented young people such as her would one day come along—that inspired her to go out and make a difference in her unique, positive, community-oriented way. Now that she’s graduated from college, what Brown most wants to do is put her energy into building and leading a professional atheist organization that exemplifies the KCAC’s slogan of “Positively Godless” values—“activism, philanthropy, education, and community”—in other words, something quite like a congregation.

And really, what are we to do with secular student activists such as Amanda Brown if not build godless congregations? The impressive success and astonishing growth of the Secular Student Alliance, which has grown to nearly four hundred campus chapters as of this writing despite having limited resources—nearly half as many as the billion-dollar-budget Campus Crusade for Christ—has been the cause of much rejoicing in the freethought movement of late, and we celebrate its success too. But much as we might wish otherwise, college is only a small part of our lives (and many people do not attend college). At some point we must move on. Without secular communities that provide the range of activities and intensity of commitment offered by many secular student groups, we risk losing these passionate young newcomers to our movement. Only a fraction can be employed by existing organizations, and it’s a lucky few who can stay engaged with the movement by blogging or writing. These students are, literally, our movement’s future, and it is our responsibility—and it is in our interest—to enable them to stay engaged with humanism throughout their lives.

Creating godless congregations in every town and city—welcoming havens for atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, and humanists, places where they can raise their children to respect humanist values, and are beacons of humanism—would be a huge step toward ensuring that the young humanist leaders of today become the established humanist leaders of tomorrow. It would give humanism an enduring, powerful place in U.S. culture. It is one of the best ways we can secure the future of our movement.

The Role of the Movement

So far, all this has happened without significant support from the major humanist movement organizations—none have put large amounts of resources or a concerted effort into building and supporting local community organizations for humanists. But existing movement organizations could certainly play a big role. They have the resources and the organizational expertise, as well as the connections, to help these new communities grow and develop in a healthy way.

Major organizations are beginning to get involved, however. When American Humanist Association (AHA) Executive Director Roy Speckhardt was negotiating with us to have the AHA (non-monetarily) sponsor and endorse our Humanist Community Project, we were pleased that he specifically requested that our mutual work should be done “for the benefit of the movement,” not just for the AHA. AHA leaders like Jennifer Kalmanson (whose article appears in this section) are, even today, meeting to plan for a future movement that will be much bigger and much more influential because it will enjoy a network of congregations. Together, we’re not just growing the humanist pie: we’re building a pie-making factory—or rather, a network of artisanal bakeries using the finest ingredients and recipes.

As new organizations come on board, we hope they will support the emergence of godless congregations without trying to take credit or dominate their development. We can and should invest in godless congregations now; the rewards may eventually be greater than any of us anticipate.


Greg Epstein

Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of The New York Times best-selling book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. He serves as the vice president of the forty-member corps of Harvard Chaplains, and his work has been covered by The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, and numerous other media outlets. Under Epstein’s leadership, the Humanist Community at Harvard has grown to feature a 3,200-squarefoot Humanist center in the heart of Harvard Square and a professional staff of ten as of fall 2013. He holds graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Michigan and was ordained as a secular humanist rabbi in 2005.

James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard and has worked on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard graduate and is currently studying for his doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan, and Star Trek and is a proud, gay humanist.