The formation of the Sunday Assembly in London, and its offshoots in other parts of the world, have attracted the attention of the media; however, such types of nonreligious gathering are not entirely new. Nathan Alexander provides an overview of the historical forms of ‘atheist churches’, and highlights some of the issues faced by both old and new secular alternatives to religion.
The Sunday Assembly, an ‘atheist church,’ was formed in London in 2013, with offshoots in a number of cities in the UK, the US, and Australia soon following. These churches seek to replicate the ‘positive’ aspects of regular churches – the community, the ritual, the singing – only without the dogma. The media have taken notice of these churches, making irresistible comparisons of atheists with other religionists, most recently concerning a reported ‘schism’ between the London and New York chapters of the Sunday Assembly. What’s often missing from these kinds of media discussions, however, is that these atheist churches, and many of the dilemmas they face, are far from new. As people began to give up religion in significant numbers in nineteenth-century Europe and North America, many thinkers grappled with secular alternatives to religions, including what could be described as atheist churches.
Perhaps the first attempt to transplant religious ideas into a secular framework occurred during the de-Christianisation of the French Revolution. A succession of cults dedicated to reason, to the ‘Supreme Being,’ and to theophilanthropy, sought to mimic the trappings of religion except in a deistic or atheistic guise. Under these various cults, leaders celebrated festivals of reason, introduced a secular calendar, and recast literary and philosophical figures as secular saints. These new state religions did not survive the tumult of the Revolution, but they did lay the groundwork for the nineteenth century in which a number of similar – and more successful – attempts at secular replacements for religions were made.
One of the most prominent figures in this regard was a founder of sociology, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who established the ‘Religion of Humanity.’ Comte believed that society was progressing from the theological and metaphysical stages into the positive stage – the final stage in his tripartite scheme – leaving orthodox religions behind, but he still believed a secular religion was necessary to fulfil humans’ religious needs and to promote altruism, a word Comte coined. Comte’s religion worshipped humanity in the collective but elevated women to the highest place of worship since Comte believed women represented the highest form of altruism, motherly love. Under this new religion, temples of humanity were erected and a new calendar was encouraged for adherents, with months named for famous historical figures, among them Shakespeare, Saint Paul, and Aristotle. The Religion of Humanity attracted followers not just in France, but throughout Europe and the Americas as well. Comte’s religion, however, was not universally praised. Some non-religious people objected to the authoritarian tendency in Comte’s religion as well as its assumption that the wealthy would be the natural rulers. Comte is remembered mainly as a founder of sociology though his Religion of Humanity has few followers today.
Another secular leader who experimented with alternatives to religion was Robert Owen (1771-1858), the Welsh socialist. Owen wanted to overthrow all religions since he saw them as the chief impediment to establishing a utopian society based on a new view of human nature. As part of his utopian movement, he established Halls of Science in a number of cities in the United Kingdom where services were held each Sunday. These services included sermons on ethical or philosophical issues and hymns on virtues that Owen saw as essential for the functioning of his socialist communities, like temperance, liberty, and benevolence. Owen’s antireligious ideas influenced the British Secularist movement, led by George Holyoake (1817-1906) and later by Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891). When members of the Secularist movement expressed a desire for greater community, Holyoake adopted secular hymn books and ritual observances of marriages and burials, partially as a way to bring women and families into the fold. Bradlaugh, on the other hand, saw the movement as purely political in nature and rejected any attempts to ape religion, although his status as one of the leading atheists in Britain meant he was asked (and he reluctantly agreed) to perform many roles, like officiating at marriages, that were traditionally the jurisdiction of priests. Holyoake and Bradlaugh also clashed over the role moderate religious people should play in their movement. Holyoake maintained that the only way the movement could grow was to admit non-atheists, but Bradlaugh argued that there could be no compromise, since the aim of the movement, as he saw it, was the total elimination of Christianity. The friction between Bradlaugh and Holyoake led to the formation of rival groups, though the National Secular Society, founded by Bradlaugh, has continued up until the present.
Unitarian churches, for their part, have long been known for their liberal Christian doctrines, but one such church, South Place Chapel in London, gradually moved away from all supernatural claims under the leadership of the American abolitionist Moncure Conway (1832-1907). The chapel had its roots in late eighteenth-century America but was officially founded in London in 1822, before Conway became the leader in 1864. Conway himself had moved from Methodism to Unitarianism, and, by the time he became head of South Place, had rejected all religious dogma. His Sunday services offered readings from world literature and world religions, as well as lectures about the latest science. Conway inscribed the walls of the chapel with the names of the great religious and literary figures of history.
Conway left the chapel in 1884 to focus on writing and scholarship and was replaced in 1887 by Stanton Coit (1857-1944), another American, who was influenced by New England transcendentalism and the secular offshoot of Reform Judaism, the Ethical Culture Society of New York. Coit believed in the importance of ritual to create community and saw the chapel as a place to promote philanthropy, rather than to dwell on intellectual matters. But Coit’s changes did not sit well with the members and he left amicably in 1891, with Moncure Conway returning to take over until 1897. Coit formed the West London Ethical Society and established other Ethical Societies around the UK after his time at South Place. Following World War One, however, these Ethical Societies had become divided over, among other things, whether to support the war effort, as Coit did, or to adopt a pacifist stance. The societies persisted after the war, but did not maintain their pre-war numbers. South Place, meanwhile, struggled after Conway’s departure, but was moved to a new location in London in 1929 and renamed Conway Hall. Fittingly, the Sunday Assembly now holds its meetings in Conway Hall.
As we have seen, all these atheistic substitutes for religion have struggled with similar issues: How should they incorporate religious rituals and ceremonies while remaining secular? Should non-atheists be welcomed into their communities? How should these groups engage with political issues? Who has the authority to lead such congregations? How can these organizations build a foundation that will persist beyond a generation? These are questions that modern atheist churches struggle with – as, indeed, do many religious groups – and will only become more pressing as secularisation continues and non-religious people seek to create new communities. Examining the experiences of past atheist churches might provide a guide for modern atheists as they begin to confront these issues.
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Nathan Alexander is currently a PhD student in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. He completed his BA (Honours History) at the University of Waterloo and his MA (History) at Wilfrid Laurier University, both of which are in Canada, where he is also from. His research project examines the views of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers on the idea of race in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World, with special focus on the United States and Britain. Nathan is also an Assistant Editor of NSRN online and a member of the Nonreligion and Secularity team.