There has been a schism in the world of the atheist church. Yes, you read that correctly. The Sunday Assembly has suffered its first defections, and a new group has emerged which calls itself Godless Revival. You can read all about it here.
Religion without God strikes me as a completely stupid idea, to put it mildly, yet it has achieved a fair amount of traction in recent years. Let us remember the late great Dame Irish Murdoch. She did not believe, as she put it, in a personal God, but she did believe in the utility of prayer. Again, the now retired Don Cupitt, who used to be very well known, started off a movement with his book The Sea of Faith, which was dedicated to religion as a purely human construct. Most recently of all Alain de Botton has written a book on a similar theme. The idea seems to be that while God does not exist, and while religion is a purely human invention, it is nevertheless both useful and pleasing to go to church. Hence the Sunday Assembly, a meeting place for unbelievers, where you can experience community, reflect, and sharpen your ethical endeavours.
There is something Catholics can learn from this. It is not that churches should be foci of community in a society where many long for community and do not find it. We know this already because we have been told it by no less an authority that the Lord Himself who makes it quite clear that the people of his own day were “like sheep without a shepherd”. We do not need atheists to tell us about the importance of community, as this is a concept that predates the emergence of atheism by many centuries; if atheists have cottoned onto the idea themselves, it is because they have stolen the concept from Christians (Not that that should worry us: the more people who access Christian patrimony, the better).
No, what Christians need to learn from the phenomenon of atheist religion is that the term “atheist religion” is an oxymoron. There is no religion without God. Going to a church or meeting place without the intention of worshipping God is a complete and utter waste of time. We need to understand that any form of church which is not firmly God-centred and God-oriented is not really a church at all, but the mere husk of what was once a church. There is no religion, can be no religion, without faith.
This is not to say that ethical endeavour without faith is useless – that would indeed be a heretical assertion. It is to say that we should flee the danger of liturgies which are primarily about ourselves and not about God, and we should fear the prospect of our churches turning into community centres in all but name. In the end, you go to church for one central reason: to save your soul. Everything else is secondary.
If I thought that God did not exist, I would not bother with religion. But God does exist, He calls us to eternal life, and so I do bother with religion; indeed because nothing is more important than saving one’s soul, I bother with religion more than anything else, I hope. But the idea of going to church if there were no God, and without an opening to the transcendent, is not only not my cup of tea, it is also something that simply makes no sense.