November 28, 2007

A Church Of Atheism?

Have you heard of the First Church of Atheism? The author of Secular Planet is the latest in a series of atheist bloggers who have decided to get ordained as ministers by this new church. Is having such a church a good idea, or does it simply reinforce common misconceptions about atheism?

A Church of Atheism?

Given that atheism is nothing more than the lack of theistic belief, atheism is not a belief system or worldview and has no doctrine whatsoever. Thus, it is clear that atheism is not a religion.

But is it not possible to imagine a church without religion? Although I could imagine a church as an association of like-minded individuals who congregate for secular purposes, I would have little reason to call such a group a church.

Benefits of an Atheist Church

But perhaps there is a good reason to want atheist churches. According to the First Church of Atheism's website:
The First Church of Atheism was born out of necessity. Created by Paul and Jacki McMaster, the FCA is the first society of its kind. Dedicated solely to ordaining atheists so that they too may perform ceremonies previously performed by religious men.
Quite simply, this church exists for nothing more than to provide atheists with a secular alternative for conducting weddings. Someone ordained in this church can legally perform weddings and other ceremonies. No longer do atheist couples have to tolerate Christian clergy.

If one forgets for a minute that atheist couples have always had a secular alternative to church weddings (i.e., the courthouse), this begins to sound fairly appealing. Of course, the courthouse wedding is not going to be filled with pro-atheist messages while a ceremony performed by an atheist minister could be. So maybe this is enough of a reason to support this alternative.

A Potential Downside: Reinforcing Misconceptions

By supporting a church of atheism, even one with as limited goals as this one, do we run a risk of lending credence to common misconceptions about atheism? Christians are fond of claiming that atheism is "just another religion." If one can get past the humor in Christians criticizing something for being a religion, one discovers that this claim is about discrediting atheists. If Christians can convince themselves that we are as dogmatic as any religion, we become less of a threat. They cannot defend their faith-based belief system, so they attempt to reduce us to their level.

Having an institution called a church of atheism and atheist ministers might make it more difficult for atheists to show the public that atheism is not a religion. I see atheism as the inevitable outcome of healthy skepticism, the application of reason, and the requirement of evidence commensurate with the claims for which such evidence is to be applied. In other words, it is important to me that my worldview (of which atheism is one part) is based on reason and evidence, and this is what distinguishes it from a faith-based worldview.

I should also point out that when the First Church of Atheism labels the following as their "doctrine:"
Nothing exists besides natural phenomena. Thought is merely a function of that natural phenomena. Death is complete, and irreversible. We have faith solely in humankind, nature, and the facts of science.
I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I must remind the reader that this is not synonymous with atheism. This may seem like a minor point to some, but there are many advantages to using precise definitions of atheism.

Concluding Thoughts

My opinions on this subject can best be described as tentative. If atheist couples did not already have a readily available means of having secular weddings, the benefit of atheist clergy to perform such ceremonies would seem to outweigh the potential negatives. Since this is not the case, I am leaning toward the position that we probably have more to lose by applying the trappings of organized religion to atheism than we are likely to gain. What do you think?

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