August 7, 2014

When Atheist Gatherings Are Too Church-Like

First Baptist Church, Hope Valley RI

 JT Eberhard (What Would JT Do?) recently wrote a post defending his love of something called KC Oasis. I am not familiar with this group, but based on his description, it sounds like a fairly well-organized atheist/humanist/skeptic community in Kansas City. He really enjoys it, and that's great. I'm happy that he found it. What got my attention was not anything JT said about the group itself but what he had to say about atheists who avoid groups we consider overly church-like.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when a friend told me tonight that she doesn’t like going because it’s too much like church. I’ve heard this from other atheists. Personally, it perplexes me. I associate church with believing things for shitty reasons, not with music.
My suggestion to JT and anyone else feeling perplexed by this would be to ask those saying it to identify what reminds them of church and whether they enjoy any of the activities they associate with church in other non-church contexts. Perhaps they associate different things with church. Different people are bound to have different associations based on their personalities and their experiences.

This got me thinking about what I associate with church. Here is a brief list of a few of the things I associate with church:
  • The celebration of irrationality (i.e., faith) and emotion over reason
  • The indoctrination and emotional abuse of children
  • Physical discomfort (e.g., wearing uncomfortable clothes and sitting on hard pews)
  • Social pressure to sing songs I neither know nor enjoy
  • Listening to music I do not like sung poorly
  • Being ordered to stand and sit repeatedly
Unlike JT, I associate church with both faith and music, really bad music that I'd prefer never to hear. As much as I love listening to the music I enjoy, I have little interest in singing it in public with strangers or in listening to music I don't like. If I were to attend an atheist group where group singing was taking place, I'd probably not go back. I might even say that it was too church-like; however, the truth would be that I have zero interest in doing this regardless of whether it reminds me of church.

I've never associated church with camaraderie or asking for money to cover expenses, so these things would not get in my way. And although you'll not catch me taking part in any sort of "communal food" event (i.e., potlucks), this has nothing to do with any association I have between them and church.

JT says:
The fact that this attitude exists in atheists demonstrates that even in the minds of some/many unbelievers “church” is associated with a bunch of secular things like music, camaraderie, communal food, and asking for money to cover expenses (that don’t include threatening other people with hell).
I'm not sure how this attitude demonstrates anything of the sort. Nothing on my list above is specific to faith. Even if the first two are the closest to being church-specific, but they are not. Irrationality is often celebrated outside of faith and religious contexts. This can even occur among atheists, and I don't care for it there either. And sadly, children are emotionally abused outside of religious contexts too.

JT makes a good point about how religion has no claim over the things he considers pleasant. I think that's a great attitude to have. But I cannot resist pointing out that some of what he considers pleasant are not things all of us want to reclaim. For some of us, the issue isn't that church led us to have negative reactions to what we would have otherwise loved; some of us have negative reactions to church, at least in part, because we associate it with things that we did not like in the first place. I'm absolutely willing to let churches have everything on my list.

For me, what JT refers to as "the icky 'church' feeling" is partially about faith and partially about pushing activities I do not enjoy in any context (including secular settings). If atheist/humanist/skeptic groups push similar activities, you'll not find me there. But that's just me.

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