Help! My paradox meter broke: an "atheist church"?


The last time I was in Houston, I had to change the fuse in my paradox meter after meeting a self-described pro-choice Republican woman, who was also a lawyer.  I told her at least she was better than Wendy Davis, to which no response was offered.  I said it a second time, and with a puff of white smoke, the paradox-meter died.

Dang, the fuse just blew again, reading Time’s August 4 issue, Religion section article “Atheist “Churches” Gain Popularity—Even in the Bible Belt” (behind a paywall).  Yup, the “Atheist Church” they wrote about is in Houston.  I think the heat and humidity is corroding people’s grey matter in that city.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a group of people who share their non-belief in a supreme being or beings getting together on Sunday morning to listen to non-worship music, meet and greet with a non-pastor, and listen to a non-sermon, but it seems rather pointless.  Mike Aus was a Christian pastor for 20 years, then “came out as a non-believer, left religious life altogether and became active in the free-thought community in Houston.”  He founded Houston Oasis, which is the non-church, or maybe more accurately, the un-church for un-believers.

At this point, I want to apologize for any possible offense to Christian churches who bear the name “Oasis”.  In my town, we have one, and I’m related by marriage to the pastor.  Listen Pastor Ken, you have a great church, and I hope all the atheists here grace your doors, every Sunday, week after week.  Amen.  That’s the paradox.  Christian churches want atheists to come and hear the Gospel, or at least they should want that, and here’s a whole church full of them.

I suppose there are more than enough country club believers who simply want to sing three hymns, hear a 12 minute homily, eat a biscuit, sip wine and go home in 45 minutes flat.  If atheists have a choice between an un-church gathering, faking it through sit-stand-kneel-so-I-feel-accepted, and staying in bed on Sunday morning, I think the rational choice is bed.  Or going for a jog.  Or walking the dog.  Or anything except joining a bunch of atheists who have nothing better to do than play “church” without God.

At Houston Oasis, they play church.

Each Sunday, Aus welcomes his congregants at the door before leading them through many of the motions of a religious service. There’s music, meet-and-greet time, guest speakers and Aus’ message, which is part TED talk, part uplifting reflection on the wonders of the world–this world–around us.

If I want to hear a TED talk, I can go to Youtube and watch one on about any subject I choose.  If I want to hear an uplifting reflection on the wonders of the world, I can watch reruns of Cosmos, billions and billions of times.  Neither of these choices require me to get out of bed on Sunday morning and sit with a bunch of people I don’t know.  In fact, I can watch them in bed, whenever I want.

The Time article circles around the reason for places like Houston Oasis like a hawk planning to have field mouse for lunch.  Then it dives in for the kill.

Being an atheist may be America’s last closeted identity, but the door has been opening over the past decade…A number of academics and authors have recently espoused the benefits of religious practices and institutions minus the theology. Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, argues that religion should be understood as an explanation of the origins of the world and the afterlife as much as a set of rituals and social practices.

Is being an atheist a stigma that would require some closeted identity?  It seems so: many people who are atheists have a hang-up about their atheism.  They would prefer the term “freethinker” or “humanist”.  Apparently, atheists feel like they are unfairly stigmatized, at least here in America.  America is a country of deeply-held beliefs, one of the most religious countries in the world, where only 2-3% claim to be atheists, with an additional 3-5% agnostic (meaning having great doubts about the existence of God).  Then there’s an additional 8% who say they are “secular unaffiliated”.

I’m not sure what “secular unaffiliated” means, but I think it means someone who would like to get up on Sunday morning and go to church, or get up on Saturday and go to synagogue, or skip a party on Friday night and attend a mosque, but just doesn’t have the willpower to do it.  I’ve had conversations with some of these:  “yeah, I believe in God, but, you know.”  Yeah, I know.  Why actually do anything with your beliefs when it’s so much easier to do nothing.  It’s so much easier to believe nothing at all.  Party on.

Another 5-7% are “religious unaffiliated”.  These are the buffet-religious.  I’ll have a little bit of this, a little bit of that, whatever tastes good today.  Many of them have been hurt at church; they’ve read the Bible but there’s no way you’ll get them to join a church.  They’ll go here and there, occasionally, or maybe they’re CEO’s—Christmas and Easter Only.  They crack open the 30 pound family Bible on Christmas Eve and spend 10 minutes looking for the book of Luke (it’s Luke, right?) to read the story of Jesus in the manger.

Getting back to the 2-3% atheists.  That’s more than the percentage of Jews in the country.  Most Jews are not afraid to tell you they are Jews, or that you served them cold soup, or that you’re nuts if you think I’m going to pay for that dreck.  Especially if they’re from New York.  My mother was born in Brooklyn, and yes, we’re Jewish.  I know this.  Now shut up.

Why are atheists so stigmatized?  Maybe it’s because being openly atheist attracts evangelical Christians like moths to a flame.  They all want to talk to you about Jesus and convince you how Jesus is the answer.  My step-father used to ask “what’s the question?”  Some atheists see this “witnessing” as a bothersome exercise in hate, versus Christians who see it as an act of love.  Atheists just want to be loved for who they are, is that so wrong?

Atheists want to be accepted, so they gather together, have rallies, and celebrate their belief in not believing in a god.  According to some studies, there’s a strain of religious intolerance running through America, at least when it comes to trusting atheists.

A study reported in the December 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that only 33 percent of respondents would hire atheists as day care workers, but 65 percent would hire them as waitresses.  t’s no wonder that atheists poll so badly; according to the same survey, religious folks believe the godless are about as trustworthy as rapists. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue,” explained University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan, one of the researchers, “believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

This is pure speculation.  A 2007 Barna report found that evangelical Christians and atheists may be two sides of the same coin.  “Survey: Evangelicals, Atheists Consistent in Faith and Practice” found that

“There are important distinctions between evangelical Christians and other segments within the Christian community,” stated George Barna, who directed the study, in the report. “That small 8 percent segment of the public is substantially different from others in how they apply their faith principles to every dimension of their life.

“The only other faith group demonstrating similar consistency between faith and practice were atheists, whose fundamental dismissal of social conventions and participation in favor of more self-centered views and behaviors helped them to stand out from the crowd in a different way.”

A core group of atheists and evangelical Christians are both secure, sure, and active in their beliefs.  Nowhere is this more evident than a Christian’s encounter with Penn Jillette.  Jillette, an atheist, said about the encounter: “How much do you have to HATE somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”  It’s ok for a Christian to talk to an atheist about Jesus, without spouting all kinds of “sin”, “Hell”, and “you gonna burn”.  It’s also ok for an atheist to be gracious about it and say “thank you” for the offer of a Bible without invoking “crusades”, “Bible-beater” and “ignorant woman-hating, gay-bashing trash”.

What kind of atheists fill the pews at Houston Oasis?

I’m speculating here.  I think it’s a mixture of the curious (“what the crap is this?”), the lonely (“hey maybe I’ll meet someone special”), the evangelical atheist (“you must not believe!”), the doubter (“I question my faith”), and the bored (“I got nothing better to do”).  There may even be a smattering of believers in God who show up, even some evangelical Christians who think this is a great mission field (maybe it is).

One thing I know, after I put a fresh fuse in my paradox-meter, is that you won’t see me at Houston Oasis.  I am an out-and-proud Christian, an evangelical, Pentecostal, Spirit-filled believer in the Son of God.  A messianic, blood-bought Jew.  On Sunday mornings, I have something better to do with my time:  I worship God in spirit and in truth.  I’m perfectly okay with atheists gathering to play church.  It’s no threat to me.  In fact, I wish them well, and hope that in some way they feel more fulfilled by joining together on Sunday mornings to, um, join together.  As long as they don’t beat me to the Shoney’s for lunch.


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