In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home – NYTimes.com

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BATON ROUGE, La. — It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.


There was just no mention of God.

Billed as Louisiana’s first atheist service and titled “Joie de Vivre: To Delight in Being Alive,” it was presided over by Jerry DeWitt, a small, charismatic man dressed all in black with slick, shiny hair.

“Oh, it’s going to be so hard to not say, ‘Can I get an amen?’ ” he said with a smile, warning people that this was going to be more like church than they might expect. “I want you to feel comfortable singing. And I want you to feel comfortable clapping your hands. I’m going to ask you to silence your cellphones, but I’m not going to ask you to turn them off. Because I want you to post.”

As Mr. DeWitt paced back and forth, speaking with a thick Southern accent, his breathy yet powerful voice occasionally cracked with emotion. The term may be a contradiction, but he is impossible to describe as anything but an atheist preacher.

Mr. DeWitt acts so much like a clergyman because he was one.

He was raised Pentecostal in DeRidder, La., a small town near the Texas border. In 2011, after 25 years as a preacher, he realized he had lost all connection to the religious point of view that had defined most of his life. He left the church and found himself ostracized in his hometown and from his family. Since then, Mr. DeWitt, 43, has become a prominent advocate of atheism, giving lectures around the region and providing an emotional counterpoint to more academic atheist exponents like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.
 

Written By: Dave Thier
continue to source article at nytimes.com

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  1. There might be a place for this where atheists are in a small minority and isolated in a sea of fundamentalists, but it is simply not needed in places with large non-religious sections of the community, who participate in social or cultural events which are not religion orientated.
    Music clubs, gardening clubs, sports clubs, educational groups, etc in these areas, simply do not raise religious issues.
    The religious denominations tend to gravitate to activities around their own cliques.

    • In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

      There might be a place for this where atheists are in a small minority and isolated in a sea of fundamentalists, but it is simply not needed in places with large non-religious sections of the community, who participate in social or cultural events which are not religion orientated.
      Music clubs, gard…

      I think it’s needed where ever people desire it. Just like there is a large percentage of theists who don’t like communal bonding while many do want that, it should be the same for atheists too.
      It will be a little weird, of course, because there would be no sacred texts for guidelines, but I say let happen what’s going to happen.

      This is a momentous time in the evolution of Homo Sapiens- there’s going to be a variety of ways humans are going to move away from acting like children looking for guidance and acting like adults and making their own way and accepting the consequences.

      I guess it’s a cultural difference, but Brits seem a lot more annoyed and opposed to atheists getting together and bonding than Americans are. Of course there will be the inevitable “see, atheism is also a religion” type comments from guilty theists- but so be it.

      • In reply to #3 by KRKBAB:

        I guess it’s a cultural difference, but Brits seem a lot more annoyed and opposed to atheists getting together and bonding than Americans are.

        I haven’t got a problem with atheists bonding. I just don’t think you need to copy the church to do that. The way I see it is that all the good stuff the church has to offer is really what can be found in any typical family setting: emotional support, childcare, hobbies, cooking, food/drink, gossip, education, charity, days out, sports, etc. So why not build a sense of community around those things and skip the hymns, sermons & preacher.

  2. Maybe its because I am a reserved Brit but I think I’d rather pull my own teeth out with rusty pliers than attend something like this. I definitely don’t need to be in a church like building to feel I have a “sense of belonging”. Also spirituality is such a loaded term as it implies the existence of the supernatural or at the very least a transcendental awe of some higher power.

    I feel no such force in my life. I experience an awe of the majestic scale of the universe, particularly when I look at the night sky and speculate how long the light took to reach me ( 100 years , 1000 years?) or which stellar event the atoms that make me came from, but I’d definitely not describe that feeling as spiritual.
    For me personally I’d rather celebrate being alive by doing something I actually enjoy doing like catching a science lecture, spending time with my child or going for a long run. Swaying and singing doesn’t do it for me.

    Other people may feel differently and that’s fine, it seems fairly harmless ( providing Jerry doesn’t turn to teli-atheist-avangelism!)
    It does make me reflect on a comment that I read from a fellow Brit atheist who said that the difference between Brits and Americans is that Americans have a greater need to believe in things more powerful than themselves and if they don’t find it in religion they will find it elsewhere. I’m starting to think he might have had a point.

    • In reply to #2 by mr_DNA:

      Maybe its because I am a reserved Brit but I think I’d rather pull my own teeth out with rusty pliers than attend something like this. I definitely don’t need to be in a church like building to feel I have a “sense of belonging”. Also spirituality is such a loaded term as it implies the existence of…

      Wait a minute there buddy- Americans have points while Brits get to have pints? :)

      • In reply to #4 by KRKBAB:

        In reply to #2 by mrDNA:_

        Maybe its because I am a reserved Brit but I think I’d rather pull my own teeth out with rusty pliers than attend something like this. I definitely don’t need to be in a church like building to feel I have a “sense of belonging”. Also spirituality is such a loaded term as…

        Ha ha typo, corrected now! Can you get pints in the US though? I remember drinking beer in New York when I was there but I can’t remember what size quantity it was..

        Incidentally I’m not annoyed at the idea of Atheists bonding I just think the idea of doing it in a mock religious setting seems bizarre ( to me ) . I see lecture halls and pubs over pints (or wine or whatever) as much better venues to bond. When I left the Catholic church at sixteen there was nothing I missed about it; least of all the group think; chanting at the same time and singing hymns which still leaves me cold. As I said different strokes for different folks.

    • In reply to #2 by mr_DNA:

      Maybe its because I am a reserved Brit but I think I’d rather pull my own teeth out with rusty pliers than attend something like this. I definitely don’t need to be in a church like building to feel I have a “sense of belonging”. Also spirituality is such a loaded term as it implies the existence of…

      Religion sucks the joy out of life and I’d much rather use Sundays for fun. Worse yet, the idea of an atheist church is demeaning, disgusting, and will give the religious nutters a chance to gloat about “atheism is a religion.”

      • In reply to #10 by MelM:

        In reply to #2 by mr_DNA:

        I think Greta Christina nailed it in her article recently posted here.

        Of course, when atheists do create communities and support services, plenty of believers will respond by saying, “But that’s ridiculous! How can you create communities around something you don’t believe in?” Yet another way that atheists can’t win: we’re heartless and uncaring if we don’t create community, laughable and incomprehensible if we do

        The point is, they will criticise atheism under any circumstances and in any way they think they can get away with. There is little giving of opportunities, and plenty of invention of them. It’s worth considering how they will twist any new idea and knowing how they twist existing ones, but it’s a bad idea to allow ourselves to be overly inhibited by how they might or might not react, particularly for the sake of strengthening or weakening debating points.

  3. I can well imagine how useful this could be for atheists in bible belt country. It is always difficult being different, especially in small communities. Perhaps this sort of thing will give others the confidence and support to ‘come out’, so to speak.

  4. This interferes with my other church, the holy clubhouse at the golf course. It’s amazing how often I hear religious words out there on the course, like “Jesus Christ!” and “Goddammit!” :o)

    • In reply to #9 by holysmokes:

      This interferes with my other church, the holy clubhouse at the golf course. It’s amazing how often I hear religious words out there on the course, like “Jesus Christ!” and “Goddammit!”

      There is a bit of a music dichotomy in our village around Xmas/mid-winter time. There is the choir rehearsing carols in the church hall, and the local musicians with electric guitars etc having a singaround and gathering, with party music, songs, and “Rockin’ around the Xmas tree”, in the pub across the road.

  5. Nothing wrong with using religious buildings for atheist and secular meetings – I for one would be delighted to see Richard and Lawrence hold a meeting in a disused mosque!

    The moment an atheist modifies their behaviour for fear of what faithheads may think, say or do in respect to these gatherings, the atheist has given the theist some kind of street cred’.

    Screw the faithheads! – it matters not that they may read something into these gatherings to support their terminally ill arguments such as ‘see – atheism is just another religion’.

    To suggest that we atheists ‘ought’ to be satisfied with the golf club and the like appears to say that non-believers shouldn’t gather where ever they like and in any format they choose.

  6. I imagine a lot of atheists/non-believers might get a bit hot under the collar about a so called Atheist church, I cannot claim to be entirely in favour of the idea. I do feel if anyone can engender the sense of community many loose when they leave a church, and which so many seem to need, then DeWitt is the man. I think we need to accept that many people need this kind of community meeting; if there is no non-theistic alternative then the churches win. I know there are, in reality, many non-theistic alternatives, chess clubs or poetry groups could qualify. Many churchgoers would, in my view, need a degree of handholding to find the secular replacements for church. DeWitt may well fulfill that roll. Good luck to him.

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