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The Oregonian: Atheism in Portland -- Establishing a 'church,' facing Christmas (Q&A)
Author: Melissa Binder
Posted: December 18, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

A congregation gathered in Portland Tuesday night to socialize, celebrate life and inspire one another.

It felt like a church service -- a band on stage led the room in sing alongs and speakers urged the seated crowd to be positive and filled with awe -- but this gathering was strictly secular.

The event was the first Portland meeting of the Sunday Assembly, a self-described "godless congregation that celebrates life," according to the organization's Facebook page.

Sunday Assembly congregations are popping up all over the United States. Portland was the last U.S. stop for Sanderson Jones, one of two British comedians who founded the organization. He's been on tour for about two months, he said, launching Sunday Assemblies in cities in the United Kingdom and America. Next up, Australia.

The service isn't just for atheists, said organizer Bernie Dehler.

"You're not going to be insulted by what they say here," he said. "You'll only be insulted by what they don't say, and you'd have to try hard."

The goal, Jones said, is to celebrate life, not proselytize disbelief. It's a service that has all the benefits of church -- including music, a sense of community and talks designed to inspire -- just "without the God bits."

Attendees sang along to "Louie Louie," "Not Gonna Back Down," "What A Wonderful World," and "Lean On Me." Portland State University philosophy assistant professor Joshua Fost gave the keynote talk, encouraging the congregation to wonder with awe at the patterns and beauty found in nature.

About 130 people attended the event, which was held at the Ambridge Event Center in Northeast Portland. Two Christmas trees decorated the front of the room, and coffee and cake encouraged conversation after the service.

We talked with Fost, who has been teaching at PSU for five years, about his thoughts on Sunday Assembly and the challenges of facing the holiday season as an atheist. Fost is the author of "If Not God, Then What? Neuroscience, Aesthetics, and the Origin of the Transcendent." His direct responses are in italics.

Why would atheists want to hold a gathering that so clearly resembles a religious worship service?

Easy answer. Because it's fun, socially supportive, and meaningful.

Certainly religious people get benefits from the whole history of the church that have nothing to do with their religious beliefs: Getting together, seeing people, just the whole social aspect of it.

Opportunities to contemplate beauty and reflect on life are also incredibly valuable. The platform of a church service, he said, brings together an array of experiences that support a healthy life.

If you're not religious, you can join a hiking club or go bird watching or go dragon boating, and people do all of that, but those events possibly don't have all the special ingredients that make church special.

Do you think the establishment of a church-like organization might turn off some atheists?

Yeah, sure. That's possible. But the solution is easy: Don't go. If you're not a joiner, don't go.

Some people might be too individualistic for regular group gatherings, he said, and that’s fine. It isn’t expected. But he doesn’t understand why anyone would feel that this kind of organization shouldn’t happen.

If there are atheists out there who think this shouldn't be done, I don’t understand why. I don’t get it. It doesn't seem like it's trying to make people fit into some mold or anything.

How do you see the establishment of an atheist “church” impacting the community's relationship with other religious groups in Portland, or with the city as a whole?

I hope it does.

Certainly one of the first responses you usually hear from religious people about non-religious people is that we have no moral framework, which is ridiculous. That's just crazy talk.

It's possible that if the groups grow roots and start going into the community and doing good works of some kind... there would be some religious people who would say, ‘Hey, it looks like you don't need God to be good.’ And that would be a fantastic message to understand.

What are your hopes for the church? Do you hope it becomes a regular thing?

Frankly, I'm not sure if I’m a joiner or not, despite my presence tonight. I might be more of a solitary type, but I’m not sure because I haven't had the opportunity, where there was a steady community like this.

I would love, at least in principle, to be experiencing that often. I certainly hope it succeeds, because there are definitely people who want it.

Fost said even if atheists don’t want that kind of community, they probably need it.

I don't think 8-year-olds want to go to church on Sunday, but by the time they're 20 they probably have benefitted from it.

Let’s talk about what Christmas is like for atheists. Do atheists face unique challenges during the holiday season, as opposed to non-Christian religious groups?

I don't think so. Really Christmas has become such an American institution. American Christmas has become in many ways a secular holiday.

Winter solstice celebrations and festivals were happening long before religious groups, particularly Christians, “commandeered” the holiday, he said. He knows atheists who celebrate the solstice, and said he thinks that is a cool idea.

But Christmas isn’t off limits to non-Christians, he said.

There is still time at home with family and cats sitting on our chest and so on. All of that makes the holiday lovely.

What advice do you have for atheists frustrated by all the religious traditions that surround Christmas?

Find other atheists.

There is some amount of cultural exclusion, because America is predominantly Christian. It can be a little sad to realize that so many people around you are in effect living on a different planet, if they really believe.

What you see at Christmas is an echo of the fact that American culture and even government seems to have drifted into an adoption and even endorsement of the majority religion. That can be really frustrating for people who believe passionately in separation of church and state. The holiday itself is just a reminder of that.

How can religious groups, particularly Christians (given that Christmas is largely a Christian holiday), love and respect atheist friends and family during the holiday season?

They just have to not go out of their way to be religious. Happy holidays, you know, fruitcake. Whatever kinds of conversations you want to have.

Most of my neighbors and religious friends are not proselytizing to me ever, so all they have to do is keep being themselves.