The Church of Atheism

Last autumn seemed to be the season for anti-religious religious movements. About October or November 2012 the British broadsheet newspaper, the Independent, covered a service held in an atheist ‘church’ in London. It was set up by two comedians, a man who was a former Jew, and a woman, who had been raised as a Roman Catholic. The service’s venue was a decommissioned church, and much of it seemed to involve ridicule and mockery of religion, except for a section where the congregation was told to shut their eyes, breathe deeply, and think of how special they were. The paper described it as an example of ‘New Age’ type thinking and ritual in a milieu that would otherwise have ridiculed and rejected it. The newspaper reported that the service’s congregation numbered 200, a figure that most mainstream churches would have envied. It noted that the two were considering holding further such services.

Now I was bitterly attacked several years ago on this blog for pointing out how many atheist organisations haved adopted the features of organised religion. Classic examples are the Ethical Churches of the 19th century and the Humanist Society today. The atheist church in London is another example. There isn’t anything new or radical in atheists holding such services to denounce and ridicule religion. Under Lenin and Stalin in the former Soviet Union, churches were closed down and turned into museums of atheism. A fictional version of one of these is described in the novel The Keeper of Antiquities. Outside of the USSR the Surrealists under Andre Breton held a similar service attacking Christianity and specifically Roman Catholicism. A French Roman Catholic newspaper in the 1950s had run a feature on them. Breton responded by published a violent denunciation of the Catholic clergy, ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’, in the Surrealist newspaper. The Surrealist also marched out to a ruined church on the outskirts of parish to attend a blasphemous service led by a former Roman Catholic priest.

The atheist church was also an example of a growing trend in which the main spokespeople for organised atheism aren’t philosophers or scientists, which the exception of Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and a few others, as comedians or comic actors, like Ricky Gervaise or Stephen Fry. Several of the comedy programmes broadcast by the BBC are aggressively atheist, such as QI under Stephen Fry, Stuart Lee’s series last year and the News Quiz on Radio 4, chaired by Sandi Toksvig. Frank Skinner apparently offended many atheists last year or so by remarking at a comedy event that much contemporary comedy was less about humour as about preaching atheism and attacking religion. This event proved that he was right. It also bears out another comment about the New Atheism, that it was celebrity led.

It also points to something peculiar about the psychology of the congregation of such spoof churches themselves – the need for some church-like organisation to belong to, as well as the desire to mock, insult and decry religious observance and belief. This goes far beyond any definition of atheism as ‘a lack of belief in God’. Most people without any kind of religious belief generally stop worrying about it. They simply stop going to churchm or mosque, synagogue, temple or other religious institution. They may become cynical or embittered, or simply adopt an attitude of complete indifference in which religion is alright for some people, but not for them. They simply are no longer interested in it. This is outright anti-theism, characterised by a need to attack, and form organisations that imitate and mock that which they so despise. It shows an increasingly bitter and polemical comedy industry attempting to adopt a position as aggressively antireligious preachers and moral spokespeople, so subordinating humour with vitriol and polemic.

One Response to “The Church of Atheism”

  1. ekc Says:

    Thank you for returning and for writing such a fantastic blog entry. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this church of atheism and how certain figures influences this movement, especially through different venues such as politics and entertainment. I used to watch Bill Maher until I decided it was best not to based on his anti-religious rants disguised as “humor”.

    I too have experienced recent attacks online over the past year, and a message board I frequent now has a forum for atheists and agnostics. It’s filled with anti-religious rhethoric, and to the credit of different people of different faiths, they are standing ground against atheists in their own forum, and countering atheist through their faith. I noticed recently the attacks have been increasingly aggressive by atheists and I’m not sure why, but your blog articulated key points in the growing atheist movement.

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