Whatever floats your godless boat

I am non-religious. I always have been despite the best efforts of a Church of England Primary School, and those two or so years I spent in the company of Spiritualist friends, seduced by their ideas of an afterlife. I’m a happy non-religious, non-worshiping, atheist human being with as much good as bad to my name. When I turned my back on tempting religious ideas I didn’t find it a struggle and I know that I am fortunate because of this. I know that many people are isolated, excluded and cast out when they doubt religious teachings. For some, identifying as an atheist is a life changing event – sometimes even a life-endangering event. I think it’s important not to judge people who approach their atheism in different ways than I do, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes other atheists make it difficult.

When Sunday Assembly became a thing, and when it’s popularity soared, it made me feel uncomfortable. For as long as I have been open about my atheism I have been questioned about my ethics and morals and what I live for. The person that I am is the person I became without religion and I am proud of that. I have personally never needed church and, in some ways, find the concept of belonging to a church congregation – being a part of a ‘flock’ – creepy as fuck.

I have read horror story after horror story from friends about the awful things they had to endure growing up in families who heavily relied on the church, and I vowed to myself long ago to never take the good and ignore the bad. The sense of belonging offered by the church must be lovely, and the giving-back-to-the-community aspect is nice and all – but can that good ever erase the terrible? No.

When I encounter people on the streets offering to pray away cancer, aids, crippling disease and more… or trying to entice people to join their congregation and speak in tongues I feel angry and disgusted. There is nothing appealing about organised religion and it’s traditions for me, and that includes church congregations – even parody, feel-good, ‘we all love the universe‘ ones.

I don’t believe in any gods, but I do believe in humanity. Unlike gods, humanity isn’t perfect and has never claimed to be. That’s why I like it. When tragedies occur I am always moved by the selfless acts of people who run towards the danger to help those in need. When there is a natural disaster, a famine or some other global crisis, I am moved by the generosity of those who don’t have much to give. When I do my food shopping I am moved when I see the basket at the front of the store collecting food for the local Food Bank always overflowing onto the floor with donations.

I get the need to belong. I’ve tried belonging to atheist and secular organiations but they never felt enough, or they tried too hard, or didn’t represent atheism in the way that I identified as being non-religious. After spending so long trying to find belonging I realised that to do so I needed to look away from organisations and just live.

I’m an old-fashioned atheist. I’ve never needed my atheism to make friends or to feel a sense of belonging or meaning, even though for a little while I thought the opposite. I am not defined by what I do or do not believe in. I don’t feel a desire or need to congregate with others on a Sunday morning and give thanks or to celebrate life. I celebrate it every day, and I get meaning from the people around me, and music, theatre, art, the cinema, a good book, writing, my job, going for coffee, libraries, museums, my community, learning new skills and many, many more things.

I have never felt the need to clap, dance or sing about these things that are touching and moving and inspire me.  It doesn’t seem satisfying enough, and I have heard people sneer one too many times at the atheists ‘who need church after all’. I don’t.

Yet, some atheists need church, and as mind boggling as that is to me, and as physically uncomfortable as it makes me, I understand that. Whatever floats your boat, right? Leaving religion is difficult. I understand the need for a support network for those who have started to doubt their religious teachings, or those feeling isolated or lost after leaving their religion. I just hope, deep down, that one day that celebration of what we are, and that sense of meaning, belonging and wonder can be found away from religious traditions – secular or not.

Published by

Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

3 thoughts on “Whatever floats your godless boat”

  1. Hi Hayley, good post as ever. I just wanted to make one comment – I’ve been deeply involved with setting up Sunday Assembly Brighton (I’ve even been the host at a couple) and I completely share all of your discomfort about such an idea. The thing that changed my view, however, was seeing that this kind of godless Sunday morning “service” is something that is positive in its own right. We don’t put the services on to satisfy a “need”, we just do them because some people like to listen to evidence-based, interesting talks, poetry and to sing Beatles or Abba songs with other people. In a similar way, people don’t “need” skeptics in the pub, but many people do just like the idea of it.
    When it comes to booking speakers for Sunday Assembly, I have started with my SitP contact list, so that the “sermons” have a robust , skeptical basis and so that our monthly services celebrate reality rather than made up mythology or any particular doctrine. We don’t bang on about metaphysics or atheism, we just assume that such mythology is irrelevant and we go from there. So yeah, nobody would really say they “need” an atheist church, but at the same time it seems that lots of people enjoy godless Sunday morning get-togethers

  2. Well said, both of you.

    I’m convinced that most church goers don’t believe in god, how could they, given that it simply doesn’t make any sense? But it’s really the fellowship aspect that they find so appealing. Perhaps this is the real reason behind the continued and puzzling existence of religion?

  3. Interesting post. I am not an atheist, nor am I a follower of any established organised religion. I tend towards panentheism, and this view is informed by science rather than metaphysics. (I am good company; Max Planck’s belief in some sort of Intelligent Mind pervading the universe came about entirely through ‘the study of the atom’, as he put it.)

    There are a number of reasons for not dismissing the possibility of such a Mind. Computer scientists such as Brian Whitworth have described, in great detail, those properties of the universe which are almost impossible to explain if the universe is an independently-existing, accidentally-arising entity, but which follow quite inevitably from the premise that the universe is a simulated reality.

    Contemporary research in physics suggests that there is no ‘stuff’ – I.e. independently-existing matter – which makes up the universe. Rather, matter and consciousness are completely intertwined. (See Groblacher & Zeilinger ‘An Experimental Test of Non-Local Reality’, Nature 2007.)

    This research has led at least one scientist – Dr. R. C. Henry, Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Johns Hopkins – to abandon his lifelong atheism (much to his own amazement). He states that it has been shown, conclusively, by experiment, that the universe exists only in our minds and that we live in a ‘mental universe’ – exactly what Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington concluded in the first half of last century. The good Professor opines that the failure of most scientists to accept what the data are saying is ‘a psychological problem, not a physics problem’.

    Then there are the philosophical self-contradictions of materialism. Scientist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup covers this area thoroughly in his forthcoming book, provocatively titled ‘Why Materialism is Baloney’. (Professor R. C. Henry also commented that he ceased to be a materialist when he realised that there is no ‘material’!)

    Finally there are the experiences of people entering altered states of consciousness – ‘awakening’ experiences, near-death experiences, mystical experiences, psychotropic drug experiences etc. The message from these experiences of apparently enhanced and extended consciousness is remarkably similar – that the universe is ‘not composed of dead matter but is rather a Living Presence’ – in Dr. Richard Bucke’s memorable phrase.

    What am I saying? I’m suggesting that ‘belief in god’ (or belief in some sort of vast Intelligent Mind underlying the universe, if you prefer) is totally separate from ‘belief in the literal truth of a holy book’ or ‘belief in an old bearded magic man in the sky’.

    I am continually surprised that most atheists of my acquaintance appear to think that their metaphysical choice consists of EITHER atheism OR total acceptance of the tenets of a bronze-age Organised Religion. The third way – the discovery of Max Planck’s god; the god revealed (or at least hinted at) by science and by direct human experience, never seems to pop up on the radar. Which is a great pity as it is IMHO a far more fascinating possibility.

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