On November 11, 2013, Religion News Service reprinted an Associated Press story by Gillian Flaccus on the development of “atheist mega-churches”. These have the rather revealing name “Sunday Assemblies” (perhaps an allusion to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God—in the hope of emulating the success of the latter?). The story described a recent gathering of this type in Los Angeles: “It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Several hundred people, including families with small children, packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational talk and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.” Apparently there now are similar “churches” in other US locations. The movement (if it can be called that) began in Britain earlier this year, founded by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two prominent comedians (I am not making this up). The pair is currently on a fundraising tour in America and Australia.
The AP story links this development to the growth of the “nones” in the US—that is, people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in a survey. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a major center for religious demography) found that 20% of Americans fall under that category. But, as the story makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand all these people to be atheists. A majority of them believes in God and says that they are “spiritual but not religious”. All one can say with confidence is that these are individuals who have not found a religious community that they like. Decided atheists are a very small minority in this country, and a shrinking one worldwide. And I would think that most in this group are better described as agnostics (they don’t know whether God exists) rather than atheists (those who claim to know that he doesn’t). I further think that the recent flurry of avowed atheists writing bestselling books or suing government agencies on First Amendment grounds should not be seen as a great cultural wave, in America or anywhere else (let them just dream of competing with the mighty tsunami of Pentecostal Christianity sweeping over much of our planet).
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family. This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety). Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”. This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.
As far as I know, the term “denomination” is an innovation of American English. In classical sociology of religion, in the early 20th-entury writings of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, religious institutions were described as coming in two types: the “church”, a large body open to the society into which an individual is born, and the ”sect”, a smaller group set aside from the society which an individual chooses to join. The historian Richard Niebuhr, in 1929, published a book that has become a classic, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. It is a very rich account of religious history, but among many other contributions, Niebuhr argued that America has produced a third type of religious institutions—the denomination—which has some qualities derived from both the Weber-Troeltsch types: It is a large body not isolated from society, but it is also a voluntary association which individuals chose to join. It can also be described as a church which, in fact if not theologically, accepts the right of other churches to exist. This distinctive institution, I would propose, is the result of a social and a political fact. The denomination is an institutional formation seeking to adapt to pluralism—the largely peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities in the same society. The denomination is protected in a pluralist situation by the political and legal guarantee of religious freedom. Pluralism is the product of powerful forces of modernity—urbanization, migration, mass literacy and education; it can exist without religious freedom, but the latter clearly enhances it. While Niebuhr was right in seeing the denomination as primarily an American invention, it has now become globalized—because pluralism has become a global fact. The worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, which I mentioned before, is a prime example of global pluralism—ever splitting off into an exuberant variety of groupings.
The British sociologist David Martin has written about what he called the “Amsterdam-London-Boston axis”—that offspring of the Protestant Reformation that did not eventuate in state churches—the free churches, all voluntary associations, which played an enormous role in the British colonies in North America and came to full fruition in the United States. This form of Protestantism has pluralism in its sociological DNA. One could say that it has a built-in denominational imperative: “Go forth and multiply”. American Protestant history is one of churches splitting apart, merging, splitting apart again. Churches have divided over doctrinal differences, ethnic or regional ones, or because of moral or political differences. Almost all Protestant churches split over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, as they divide now over what I call issues south of the navel. American Lutheranism was for a long time split into ethnically defined synods, though this has now been replaced by basic doctrinal disagreements. Roman Catholicism has been protected from Protestant denominationalism by its centralized hierarchy, but it has become “Protestantized” in a different way: Against its deepest ecclesiological instincts, it has become de facto a voluntary association—with the result that its lay people have become vocally uppity. Even American Jews have organized in at least four denominations. (Joke: An American Jew stranded on a desert island built two synagogues, one in which he goes to pray, the other in which he would not be found dead), Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus in America have all fallen into the denominational pattern. The same pattern appears in secular movements (for example, the various “denominations” of American psychotherapy). Even witches have managed to create a denomination, Wiccan (I understand that they want the right to appoint chaplains for hospitals or in the military). Why should atheists be an exception?
The First Amendment is the icon invoked by all denominations in America. But its basic legal principle is reflected in everyday American mores. When I came to America as a young man, someone told me: “If you don’t want to do something, just say that it’s against your religion”. I had difficulty imagining a situation in which I could plausibly use this recommendation. I asked: “But won’t they ask what my religion is?” The response: “They wouldn’t dare.”