“Isms” have a special place in the Western heart, and with good reason. Critiques of Neoliberalism help us make sense of the market-driven ethos, and explorations of postmodernism yield diagnoses of our current cultural malaise. In the religious sphere, the great dividing line between theism and atheism is guaranteed to pique interest, especially for reporters covering religion. Indeed, the volatility and cultural richness of the divide between theism and atheism is apparent in the recent journalistic fervor around the Sunday Assemblies and former pastor Ryan Bell’s experiment with atheism in his “year without God.”
Each of these atheistic ventures, in its own way, might be called an evangelical rendering of atheism. In other words, the “doing” of atheism in each project betrays a very theistic, even evangelical, understand of the world. This not to say that the Sunday Assemblies and Bell’s “year without God” are not truly or properly atheistic, but rather that perhaps like all “isms,” they are shaped by their supposed opposite in ways that may not be obvious at first glance. And, I would argue, the evangelical Christian understanding of atheism that informs both projects weakens them precisely by its Christianizing of them.
Newly formed so-called “atheist churches” have attracted plenty of attention from news media, and as with any nascent movement, their perceived legitimacy is largely a reflection of taglines and headlines. For this reason, I am very sympathetic to the Friendly Atheist’s retort to journalists who’ve garnered hits with headlines like “Atheist Megachurches.” Aside from the sheer numerical inaccuracy of such a notion, it exemplifies the kind of sensationalism our news media culture depends on. While I am hopeful that the authentic backstory–as the number of nonbelievers grows, many of them will begin to form coherent movements–points toward the development of communities of nonbelievers, the very form of the Sunday Assemblies’ organizational impulse appropriates a page from the evangelical playbook, not by happenstance, but by design.
In an interview for the Nomad podcast, Pippa Evans, one of the Sunday Assemblies co-founders, describes the design of their service, which begins with a sing-along, followed by an uplifting message and another emotional sing-along song at the end. While not a megachurch by numerical standards, this ritual structure is fundamentally evangelical. Indeed, it is precisely the arc of the worship service, this experiential “show,” that Pippa missed about church. This model has the same shiny, plastic gleam as the consumer-oriented culture of modern evangelicalism, which often cultivates a kind of individualistic, spiritually inflected materialism in participants, rather than fellow-feeling and an impulse toward social action.
Thus, by appropriating the performative elements from evangelical services, Sunday Assemblies appears more like an evangelical atheism, where the shape of the unbelief remains, ironically, recognizably Christian.
A Year Without God
In a similar way, Ryan Bell’s widely reported year of “trying on” atheism by reading from the tradition and deliberately “not praying, worshiping God, attributing circumstances to God’s providence or asking God to intervene in the world” remains quite Christian in two senses. First, in a reflection of Ryan’s own faith journey, his emphasis on close examination of his beliefs is a hallmark of evangelicalism, where personal assent to theological propositions is of paramount importance. In this way, the impulse behind his yearlong project–a desire to root out one’s inner framework of belief–seems intimately related to the American evangelical ethos.
And second, in a more general way, there is a privileging of Christian assumptions in Bell’s approach to atheism as not praying, not reading the Bible and not seeing the hand of God in earthly events. This strategy defines atheism in light of Christian norms–or, to put things another way, Bell risks characterizing atheism as a denial of Christian normative action and belief. Certainly any well-meaning pluralistic Christian would shy away from such a privileging of the biblical worldview, but in practice it becomes quite hard for a Christian to think of atheism as something more nuanced and complex than simply being un-Christian. Does Bell’s Christian exploration inevitably cast atheism as some kind of subtraction (life minus faith) rather than as a completely different way of experiencing and describing the human condition?
Both of these highly publicized atheist ventures–Sunday Assemblies and Bell’s year without God–trade on deeply Christian theistic understandings of human needs, both collective and individual. Whether through the use of the evangelical worship form (without the dogma) or through a critical self-examination of one’s beliefs (without recourse to God), theistic undertones abound. Is this somehow “wrong”? Not necessarily. I deeply appreciate the spirit of both ventures. They are simply signs of the intermingling of our “isms.”
Jonnie Russell is a contributing fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.