I’m a choirboy. Take a look at my photo and you can probably tell – there's something about my angelic features, and the slight haze of a halo above my head. As a kid I sang with my school's chapel choir, and I loved singing in Sunday Service. I loved the sense of ritual, the quiet aura of the space, the beautiful hangings and artwork. I even quite liked the sermons! But most of all I loved the singing.
I remember once going up to the altar to be blessed – something I didn’t usually do. I could see the Reverend moving down the line of children with their heads bowed, placing his hand upon their heads, the smell of incense in the air. And when the Reverend got to me, he pressed down really hard, as if he was trying to squeeze God into me. And I wondered: perhaps he knows I don’t believe in any of this!
You see, as longtime readers know, I’m an atheist. I grew up in a happy nonreligious family. My values come from the rational, pluralistic vision of Star Trek (in fact I’m convinced I’m named not after the King James Bible but after James T. Kirk, although my parents vigorously deny this).
I used to visit the planetarium with my grandfather, watch the stars with him, listen to Carl Sagan and watch Contact, and contemplate the wonder and majesty of the universe – no God included. And when I read The Humanist Manifesto for the first time while sitting in my Cambridge University dorm room, I knew that this was who I was – someone committed to a naturalistic perspective, with a clear set of positive ethical values which prioritize human welfare and flourishing, and which seek to safeguard human dignity.
I find this secular view of life to be both meaningful and enriching. I find beauty in the marvelous mechanisms of nature, and I feel compelled to act ethically given my understanding that we have but one life to live. I am also comforted by my conviction that a naturalistic worldview seems fully compatible with the evidence we have painstakingly gathered, as a species, over millennia of investigation.
But I have a confession: sometimes I miss church.
There are those in my community who might seek to "excommunicate" me for such words (I jest, but only just). Perhaps I'm a closet-case, one of the faithful who can't admit it? I mean, why else might I lament my infrequent visits to the altar? Why else would I sometimes yearn for a hymnbook on a Sunday morn? Why else do I sometimes rouse myself at ungodly hours on the weekend, and actually attend a religious service [sharp intakes of breath, as the collective opprobrium of all the atheist world descends upon me]? Why else might I enjoy it?
Here's why. Because religious services offer a combination of aesthetic, social and intellectual experiences which, together, provide a setting for existential contemplation - contemplation about what I like to call the "Capital Letter Questions." Who am I? Why am I Here? What is the Purpose of Life? How am I to come to terms with Death - that of others and of myself? How Should We Treat Each Other? How can we Make a Difference in the World?
These sorts of questions are the raison d'être of religious spaces. Through hymns and music these questions are raised. Through sermons guidance and new ideas are given. Through art and narrative the paths of our ancestors are conveyed, and fresh possibilities created. Through the social networks built at church political action can be mobilized. And churches are unafraid to tackle head-on the moral issues of the day. Certainly, they frequently give profoundly deficient answers, but at least they ask the questions.
In short, churches and other religious spaces simply offer an experience that secular and Humanist institutions too often fail to provide. There is truly no comparable widespread secular space dedicated to communal ethical exploration, for example. Indeed those of us who are Secular (which generally, in America, means toward the liberal end of the political spectrum) often seem terrified to speak in terms of morality, as if the word itself has a religious air about it. Atheist spaces are often completely artless, and many would scorn communal singing and ritual as being "too religious."
I increasingly feel this is a dangerous state of affairs.
Being nonreligious should not mean being bereft of existential resources. The Capital Letter Questions which are at the heart of religious traditions are also in the hearts of atheists and Humanists. We need community and solidarity as much as anyone. As Felix Adler once said, "the custom of meeting together in public assembly for the consideration of the most serious, the most exalted topics of human interest is too vitally precious to be lost." Adler's response was simple - he founded the Ethical Culture movement, which is essentially a non-theistic church. For a while it was one of the great new "religious" innovations, flowering across the United States and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since then it has much declined, and it may be that a proud tradition is dying out.
I say to my fellow atheists and Humanists, it is time for another Adler. It's time to put our rational heads together and create something to move our minds to contemplation and our hearts to action. It's time to buy up empty churches and refit them to our purposes. It's time to get out of the armchair and into the streets. It's time to tell proud stories of Humanists from the past, and the causes they championed. It's time to sing Humanist songs and make Humanist art. It's time to muscle into the moral conversation with a megaphone bigger than any of us individually can provide. It's time to advance our creed and to become a political and cultural force to rival and complement the greatest world religions.
In short, it's time to fall in love with church.
If you're with me, visit my new website, Temple of the Future. There I advocate for a passionate, activist, radical Humanist vision for the 21st century. Join us - you could even sing in the choir!