A Church Without God?

If you happened into one particular congregation on a recent Sunday at Harvard University, you’d find several familiar things: a homily on the importance of community, music, announcements, even an offering.

But since the gathering in question is for the school’s Humanist Community, at least one thing, or rather person, will be notably absent: God.

Greg Epstein is Harvard’s humanist chaplain, and as a recent CNN article reported, he’s modeled the Humanist meetings after a traditional religious service. He explains:

“My point to my fellow atheists is, why do we need to paint things with such a broad brush? We can learn from the positive while learning how to get rid of the negative,” he said.
“We decided recently that we want to use the word congregation more and more often because that is a word that strongly evokes a certain kind of community—a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world,” he said.
“It doesn’t require and it doesn’t even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”

This invites several thoughts in response:

1. It’s worth noting how persistently human beings, regardless of creed or culture, desire certain things: belonging to a community, making a positive impact in the world, etc. This Humanist group, as well as others like it, are evidence to the fact that there is much shared ground of a sort between even atheists and Christians.

2. This broad, natural affinity can certainly help form the basis of warm relationships between the two groups. But it can also be the basis for a respectful challenge from the latter to the former. For example, if a relationship is such that it allows friendly dialogue, it’s worth asking why these similarities exist.

3. No doubt many atheist view the inclination toward community and effecting positive change as developments of the evolutionary process. But in that line of thinking, my question is why any of it matters. We’ll soon die and both we and our work will be forgotten eventually. There is no transcendent person who cares for our well-being or even survival. And impersonal forces, by definition, likewise have no such concerns. We can’t even say that the survival of our race should be considered a “good” thing. After all, who or what defines “good,” and why should our form of life be privileged over others anyway?

4. On the other hand, Christianity confesses core realities that make our common human desires intelligible: a personal, moral Creator who has made us in his own image, a definite direction to history, a significant role for human beings in the same, etc.

5. With all of this, I’m by no means the first person to point out that people who remove God from the picture often seem to borrow meaning and purpose from the theistic worldview they leave behind, despite the fact that their own perspective ultimately can’t support it. I would argue that this itself is evidence that we all bear image of God and therefore can’t help but act in ways consistent with his reality.

6. On a slightly different note, I don’t share Epstein’s view that a close knit, thriving community can seemingly exist without some kind of defining set of beliefs. Time will tell, but communities that lack shared beliefs and commitments usually don’t inspire a great deal of loyalty and involvement. Ironically, this is a lesson the Christian church has had to learn the hard way many times throughout its history.  

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