An Atheist In God’s Kingdom

Let me come right out and say this: I am an atheist – identifying myself as Christian is simply shorthand for describing the complex worldview that I hold*. This may shock and surprise those of you who’ve often heard me declare that I’m a Christian, but there is no hypocrisy: I have never had a real, empirical, first-hand experience of God, or even any semblance of an experience that could be described as supernatural, and therefore have no rational reason to believe in a god (or gods). However I firmly believe in the benefits of “church”, which is why I still attend one, and is a subject which will form the basis of a series of posts titled An Atheist In God’s Kingdom – starting with this one. I intend to be a voice for a group that currently isn’t very well represented: atheists who support and encourage the institution of religion, if not necessarily its underlying beliefs.

Peter Singer, a prominent Australian ethicist who spoke at the recent Atheist convention in Melbourne, once proposed the “golden rule” which he reiterated at the convention: “that it is a function of our development as humans who feel pain, take time to raise our helpless young, live in social groups and need to co-operate” (quoted from The Australian). That is, we are intrinsically social beings and cannot live or function in isolation.

I had a very profound personal experience of this several years ago, a couple of years after I came to Sydney. Sitting alone in my apartment one afternoon surrounded by books, games, computers, musical instruments and endless other things that I had gathered together for my personal enjoyment and entertainment, I was suddenly overcome by a crushing despair, and completely overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness. Afterwards, it became clear to me that although I have the kind of personality that doesn’t get along well with other people, I still needed close friends (to my friends in Adelaide who are reading this: I mean ones that live in the same city). The problem was, I didn’t know where I could find any.

Faced with the same situation, some of you would probably consider going out to a public place like a bar or club. Now I’m not criticising any of these things, but I had quite a sheltered upbringing and don’t drink, smoke, dance, or chat up strange women (however attractive), so that form of “socialising” contained too many obstacles of too great a size for me to overcome on my own.

Now consider the church – as in any significant gathering of people from a religion, not just Christianity. Before I go any further, I need to level-set with you: what I’m about to talk about here is the Ideal Church. Such a thing does not currently exist, and probably never will. It’s certainly not unexpected that you’ll be able to think of specific examples that illustrate failings in the areas that I mention. As I go further into it, you’ll see that this Ideal Church may not even be a church at all, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The “body of Christ” welcomes one and all with open arms – there is no requisite to believe, since converting the unbeliever is part of their remit from God. And there are certainly no material requirements – you don’t have to be rich, good looking, or socially adept (but as with every other area in life, having those things does help). It happens reliably week after week, and as long as you keep going to the same place you’ll always see the same people. And there are loads of these pre-packaged communities.

I can’t think of anything in the secular that can even remotely compare. Book clubs, hobby enthusiasts, rotary, etc. – all but the largest of these community groups (e.g. Scouts) are dwarfed in size and scope by even the smallest of church gatherings. Here are people gathering together in communities every week, building lasting relationships and helping one another out, united in mind and purpose.

And therein lies the rub: secular society lacks a consistent, coherent system of communities. Militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al are barking up the wrong tree in trying to tackle the problem intellectually, targeting religious belief systems such as Creationism. They need to build and present a viable means for people to come together under a broad-ranging common banner. You could point to interest groups and the like, but these are way too specific to be of any use to the general populace. That the need is there is apparent – over 2,500 people attended the Atheist Convention mentioned at the beginning of this post. Atheist groups can also deny that their gatherings are like a church of unbelievers, but in truth this label opens up many more possibilities to them than if they are closed to the idea simply out of fear of being labelled as an alternative religion.

What form would these meetings take? I couldn’t possibly know, but I would once again defer to religion to provide the model. Having a person to deliver a short, life-affirming message, not based on religious dogma but around human achievement and experiences. One organisation that’s already doing something like this extremely well is TED, with their 18 minute time limits and topics that always inspire, but they need to break out from their current demographic of intelligentsia, celebrity and academia, and realise that they have a huge global following amongst the laity and use that to help bring people together at the local level.

I’ll bring this very long post to a close by mentioning that one of the strongest criticisms often levelled at the church is the amount of money that it draws from its congregations. Think about it though: people will invest both time and money into something that they value, and the rarity of being able to find a good community is probably what allows churches to command a high price.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there’ll be more in this series. I hope you find it interesting enough to keep coming back or subscribing to, and I always welcome your thoughts and comments.


* I admit that there’s a certain degree of semantic trickery involved here and that I should probably just go with “agnostic”, but let me explain: agnostic is to belief and non-belief what omnivore is to carnivore and herbivore. Unlike agnostics, I’m not taking an each-way bet – either there is a god or there isn’t; none of this “it’s impossible to know” business.