Skip to main content

Atheist Churches: What Role Does Religion Play in Society?

Joel is a psychologist researching topics of religion. He has a BA in psychology, an MA in education, and a Ph.D. in behavioral analysis.

What is the significance of atheist churches?

What is the significance of atheist churches?

Religion Is Good for People

Putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not religion is true, data is flooding in that religion is good for people.

It has been known for some time that participation in religious organizations and adoption of religious beliefs is linked to significantly better self-control, goal-setting, self-correction, sense of personal identity, self-worth, and self-esteem, and a severe reduction in loneliness when compared to those who do not participate in religion.

In fact, in their August 31st, 2013 podcast titled “Why Are Atheists More Intelligent,” the hosts of the atheist podcast Reasonable Doubts looked at some of these studies, arguing that high intelligence—especially the slow, analytical thinking brought on by continued education—tended to serve as a compensation for religion in most of these areas, save for loneliness.



Religion Is Inherent to Human Nature

Looking at early childhood studies, the podcasters stated that religious presuppositions of design and purpose were inherent and intuitive, “We naturally grow into [these beliefs], and we have to be taught out of them …if forced to answer quickly, even educated scientists would seem to be more sympathetic to agent causation explanations.”

Participation in Religious Organizations Makes People Happy and Healthy

In a 2015 study conducted by the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, the institutions found that participation in religious organizations is strongly linked to sustained happiness. This study compared religious participation to a number of alternative routes to existential fulfillment—which included continual education—and found that religious participation trumped education in terms of personal fulfillment.

And this isn’t just for the healthy person. A 2005 study found that people suffering from chronic illness and pain sought out—and found—an effective coping mechanism in certain kinds of religious beliefs and practices.

The Rise of the Atheist Church

These emotional, mental, and physical benefits of religious practices and communities may explain the rising trend of “Atheist Churches”—most notably Sunday Assembly—which are being seen increasingly throughout America and Europe.

Sunday Assembly gains its momentum from the fact that—as people leave the faith of their upbringing—they miss the community and the ceremony. Sunday Assembly imitates the format of the religious church: music, meditation, inspirational talk—just without any reference to God or religious belief.

Sunday Assembly is still a relatively young movement, and it remains to be seen how this religious imitator serves to replace the positive impact of actual religious organizations on their participants. High-profile spokespeople within atheist circles are quick to point out that Sunday Assembly is not, by definition, a religious organization.

Doubts Regarding Atheist Churches

Says leading atheist speaker Michael Luciano, "The idea that you're building an entire organization based on what you don't believe, to me, sounds like an offense against sensibility, there's something not OK with appropriating all of this religious language, imagery and ritual for atheism."

Research sheds some doubt on whether the ritual of Sunday Assembly can take the place of religion, however. The London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center looked at a number of different activities that were similar to religion—such as charity work, involvement in political organizations, sports, and involvement in community organizations. Arguably, all of these mimic aspects of church. They involve gathering together in a community around a cause and participating in self-affirming activities, but all of these worked like a sugar rush: fulfilling in the short-term but ultimately leading to a higher rate of depression over the long-term.

Does Belief in the Transcendent Make a Difference?

Clearly, the community aspect is part of what accounts for the success of religion. This and other studies have shown that those who entertain religious beliefs but do not also participate in some kind of religious community (picture the hermit bent over his Bible) do not enjoy the fulfillment that these studies show.

One could argue, however, that participation in a religious community is fundamental to—at the very least—Christian belief, as seen in biblical passages such as this:

Hebrews 10:25 English Standard Version (ESV)

"...not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."

If nothing else, passages like these show that early Christians discovered a principle later confirmed by science—that participation in religious community is important to human flourishing.

But religion is not just about community participation. If it were, then the other activities this study looked at—such as community organizations—would have served the same function as religion. Religion also references the transcendent: that life has purpose beyond mere physical existence.

The value of this idea has been recognized, for instance, by Denmark scholar of Religious Studies, Jeppe Sinding Jensen, who states that “if religion is a fiction, it is still a useful fiction.”

There are two facts to take away from all of this. The first is that studies have shown that humans have a fundamental and intuitive sense of the design and purpose of the world around them from childhood—an instinct that people revert to when not consciously thinking about it.

The second is that humans seem to flourish in communities that support one another toward a common, transcendent purpose—that is, religion. Religion gives a person a purpose and identity. Not a physical purpose and identity, but a spiritual one. That humans seem to need this spiritual identity should at least be cause for consideration.

Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.