Sometimes you just have to laugh. What delighted presstitutes call “atheist mega-churches” have crossed the pond from Britain to America. “What would happen if they set up a ‘godless congregation’ that met to celebrate life, with no hope of the hereafter?” asks the UK’s relentlessly Progressive Guardian newspaper. Fasten your seatbelts, but don’t expect much turbulence.
The so-called mass movement was started early this year by two stand-up comedians (trying to be serious, apparently) in Britain’s equivalent to New York City’s Greenwich Village; in Islington, the ultra-Progressive epicentre of Progressive London. Atheists huddle in a cavernous abandoned church, on Sundays of course, with homilies accompanied by a woman on guitar and a man on microphone. It mimics dreary Christian services that may have made the church abandoned in the first place; not an optimistic sign.
These “mass-movement” events attract only a few hundred non-worshippers at a time, with the Progressive celebrity comedians at the kick-off meetings. Later, attendance may dwindle. Up to four hundred isn’t a lot among London’s eight million, and a normal Sunday attracts those numbers to my local Catholic church, at each of several Masses, equalled weekly by many faiths and Christian denominations across our largely godless capitol city. A few hundred atheists, attending a single special event in a predominantly atheist and agnostic zone, aren’t many – reminding sceptics of that coarse phrase, “couldn’t sell nookie on a troop-train.”
But I suppose they have to start somewhere; recalling that Jesus, who supposedly doesn’t exist, started with only a dozen (imaginary) apostles. Our supposedly non-Lord worked a few fictional non-miracles, on non-existent people presumably, then non-arose from the non-dead, and now the movement’s CEO dines off gold plates. Except that he lives in the workaday Vatican guesthouse, eats in the staff cafeteria, and spends part of his day kissing the hideously disfigured. Never mind.
There is a joke in Ireland where a ramshackle car full of nuns runs out of gas and they borrow a gallon from a remote farmhouse, carried in a rusty old bedpan. As they pour it carefully into the gas tank, a limousine pulls up containing the Rev. Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland’s most notoriously anti-Catholic politician, who remarks, “Sisters, I don’t respect your religion but I’m sure impressed by your faith.” We can maybe admire the comedians’ faith.
The comics are touring America and Australia, starting a “global movement” that US media describe, propagandistically and hopefully, as “mega-churches.” The atheist gatherings may fail to qualify as “mega-churches” for four reasons: because they own no premises, because they meet monthly at best, because they attract a few hundred instead of many thousands, and because the atheist gatherings don’t promise that Jesus will make you cash-rich over the next fiscal year.
Even the Guardian entertains doubts, quoting an academic who cites numerous, similarly atheistic, 19th Century “Ethical Unions” that sank without a trace. Moreover, Britain’s religious and irreligious people already meet “to celebrate life” in its secular sense, chiefly in what we call pubs. Yet today’s atheists may gather, says the newspaper, “to replicate the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.” As if we were bank-managers asked for a loan, let’s unpack the atheist business plan, starting with their aversion to ritual.
Ritual has sales appeal. My local, Jesuit-run, church on Mayfair’s Farm Street, with its Pugin Neo-Gothic altarpiece, vast pipe organ and full choir, performs a High Mass that is both cheaper and better than any Covent Garden opera – and that ignores divine content. London synagogues, featuring more than 4,000 years of ritual, are busy. When the immigrant carpenters and plumbers, and their drop-dead gorgeous ladies, throng out of the Ukrainian Church across from my club, traffic must stop. Say you were a contestant on the (presumably forthcoming) game-show Atheist for a Day, and were asked to recommend some new hit rituals. What would you propose?
As a youngster just after Vatican II, happy-clappy nuns told me that black Americans would throng to the newly populist Holy Mother Church, while the opposite happened; they fled in droves. Like many other Catholics, our black parishioners loved the ritual and tradition. Once Latin was replaced by clumsy modern English, and the Baroque music, organ and angelic choir fell to a duet of tone-deaf honky nuns belting out “Kumbayah” on an out-of-tune guitar missing a string, many black Catholics sighed sadly and returned to their relatives’ Southern Protestant churches where, at least, the music was good – far better than the 1960s Catholic equivalent to being water-boarded by Dick Cheney. To most of us, ritual mattered.
Moreover, ancient rituals can have more sales appeal than new ones. Timeless God fits well with seemingly timeless ritual. Bearded archimandrites in sumptuous robes, swinging fragrant censors beneath ancient icons in dark Orthodox churches, have a cachet not easily replicated in Danish Modern interiors. But it can be done. Ritualistic Orthodox Jews survive depressingly modern synagogues. Scientologists presumably have some secret rituals related to the space-alien meant to rescue earth-bound believers, at least enough to convince John Travolta’s check book.
So what do you tell the game-show host? What inspirational trappings can pack the “mega-church” with the next ten or twenty generations of pious atheists? Most attempts mirror my lapsed-Catholic scientist uncle, who emails me pretty pictures from the Hubble telescope depicting the vastness of the universe, and small encyclicals on the Laws of Thermodynamics showing the “eternal life” of energy (lasting only as long as Creation). It apparently gives him great solace, knowing that tiny unthinking bits of him will be knocking around the cosmos eons after he’s gone, rather as if he left a plastic mineral-water bottle in the Grand Canyon or peed on a wall in the New York subway. To me it’s more like, using a scientific metaphor, a swift kick in the joules (the energy of one newton over one meter). Indeed my body’s energy content is delighted with this, and my carbon particles are quite satisfied. Yet strangely, I am unmoved. So bloody what, if your hangnails live forever while you vanish down the cosmic toilet? A whole movement based on this concept doesn’t convince me to invest in its presumably forthcoming IPO.
What to suggest? Atheist Ayn Rand insisted that her corpse be laid out under a giant dollar-sign, which to me lacks taste. Genuflecting to a buzzing Van de Graaff generator symbolising energy, or some whirling animation of the “boundless Universe” (within its real boundaries), echo some made-up, pseudo-deep, three-bong-hit, 1960s Star Trek episode, where you just know that their spacesuits are pure polyester. A devout Jewish friend, Phil, scorns that the Unitarians traded “the Cross of Christ for a big question-mark,” so that option is no more satisfying. But the Guardian says that the organisers, busy renting 200 folding chairs for their so-called “mega-church” smaller than a hometown ice-cream social, are less interested in ritual and symbol than in community, but the best innovation that atheist Exceptional Americans can provide is adult games.
By adult games, I do not refer to those requiring latex costumes, handcuffs and a feather-duster, but rather kiddies’ hand-clapping games performed by grownups. Unfortunately, the still-pictures include no audio so we can’t tell what they chant as they clap, but it may include:
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye,
When you get old you just up and die.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And one more dead baby won’t matter at all.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean,
And nobody cared because their existences were purely accidental, while rhyme and metre are only methods of subliminal social control by pampered elites.
If better inspired, then the congregation could even wave their arms in unison, break into high-stepping, and bang out that show tune from Porgy and Bess, “I got plenty of nothing, And nothing’s plenty for me!” But the atheists seem sadly unenergetic and the song, lacking in the gravitas department, ain’t exactly Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor.
Okay, if atheistic ritual drops dead at the starting-gate, then what of atheism as community non-worship? Perhaps group gatherings can diminish their lack of cosmic meaning: “we may be here by accident but we’re all here together.” In other words, “we don’t matter, but you matter to me.” Swell, but does that pack one off to non-church on a rainy Sunday morning? If it does, even ignoring your immortal soul, may we infer something unfortunate about your psyche? Were you really breast-fed or was mommy fibbing?
Maybe weekly attendance discourages backsliding, as all good Muslims pray five times a day to keep God at the forefront of their minds. Like some atheistic 12-Step program, it may keep wavering unbelievers from sneaking into Evensong while they tell their chums they’re respectably drunk in a pub. Alas, this defence is no more convincing than Congregational Atheism overall.
Fundamentally, it’s hard to get excited about nothing, much less about Nothing. This is a flaw in the atheist business plan. Diet Coke may lack nutrients, but it has refreshing flavour and that is Something; ultimately, atheism peddles an empty can. Somehow the very notion of atheist group worship invites a parody of the old protest chant of British Leftists: “What do we want? NOTHING! When do we want it? NOW!”
To be fair, perhaps they long for companionship in a world supposedly dominated by believers, freeing them from loneliness…even while awash in anti-religious mass-media, a Progressive state that increasingly persecutes Christians for their Christianity, and an arrogant elite of atheist Chattering Classes, among whom talk of faith is social suicide worse than noisy flatulence at a posh supper party. In other words, they are lonely in a world crowded with their own kind. That should tell us something.
Moreover, these members of a lonely majority are jealous of a worshipping minority. They ignore the cause of such happiness and community, and focus only on the visible results. This resembles the cartoon cannibal king who, donning a battered silk topper, thinks he’s a European grandee. It’s the believer in sympathetic magic, insisting that bumpy toads cause bumpy warts. Even lasting British groups, of racing-pigeon enthusiasts or real-ale drinkers and so forth, gather because they believe in something, not because they believe in nothing.
In this respect, we meet that Sherlockian “dog that didn’t bark in the night.” It’s a treat for we who enjoy watching Nemesis overtake Hubris, who sit in the cheap seats and watch the Progressive crack-up. Better yet, it’s the posh VIP box overlooking what Pascal called “the God-shaped vacuum” in every human heart.
Atheists miss the Big Picture when they try to copy only the outward manifestations of belief. When a few dig deeper, they still miss it. An atheist former teacher of mine, who clearly longs for the certainty of believers but is too proud to admit it, prepares little “gotchas” for me. He recently cited a survey where an equal few wishes were fulfilled among one group that prayed for them, and another that did not. Prayer, he declared, does not work. I asked if I should give him a birthday present that is what I want or what he would want, meaning that he didn’t understand real prayer. Should I ask an omniscient God for the new job that I think I want, or for what He knows best whether it pleases me or not? Might greater needs trump mine? Ought I pray to accept His wiser choices with obedience and dignity? Another “gotcha” went down in flames, like a 1941 Messerschmitt over the English Channel.
But what of selfish prayer for eternal life, he demanded, looking more like Reichsmarshall Göring sending another wave of Luftwaffe airborne. It’s promised by God who longs for our company, I mused, mock-innocently buffing my nails, but even were it not, shouldn’t we be grateful for even a brief moment in His glorious creation? Isn’t He far more important, and more lovable and worthy of my attention, than me and my vainglorious wishes? Parachutes dotted the sky as enemy pilots jumped from their flaming Stukas and Dorniers: “Gott verdammt, English pig-dogs! Next time we will get you!”
Parenthetically, sampled and then sampled again later just to make sure, scholars report that Italian weekly church attendance, inspired by Pope Francis, rose by hundreds of thousands since March. So, only a few hundred atheists comprise a “mega-church” for our Progressive presstitutes, while a few hundred thousand new church-going Italians are presumably just gullible dolts, largely unworthy of mention.
Ultimately, atheists have little left but materialism, so they can imagine precious little to pray for except Me, My stuff, My haemorrhoidal dad’s recovery, My dog, My financial portfolio, etc. They’re largely unable to conceive of God, much less to adore Him above all else and for His own sake. Meanwhile, Nothing doesn’t draw crowds, and it’s hard work to start the atheist First Church of Me and get anyone else to attend even twice.
So, on spiritual matters, atheists resemble the deaf trying to dance, the colour-blind studying an abstract painting, or a teetotaller inviting everyone in for mineral water while we sneak down to the inn to enjoy an Armagnac or a fine brandy. Cheers!
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