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March 20, 2009

First Church of Nobody

This is a phenomenon that has always fascinated me: atheists gathering together in a church-like setting to talk about -- well, I'm not exactly clear on that part. I can understand that some people would choose not to believe in God, for varying reasons, but it seems a little strange to meet regularly to talk about it, or to passionately evangelize for the cause.

Yet as this Washington Post article points out, the human need for community and companionship cannot be evaded even in the most self-centered of religions.

Richard Lints, a professor of philosophical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass., said the humanist desire for greater community is understandable. He believes God "hard-wired" humans to need it.

But he said he doubts humanism can sustain itself in the local congregations Epstein envisions because community is not a natural part of humanism, where the individual is the ultimate source of meaning. If humanism becomes concerned with the "greater good," and a sort of natural moral order that implies, it starts to resemble religion and humanists will back away, he said.

The community at the center of the Post's report was initiated by the humanist "chaplain" -- a rather paradoxical title -- at Harvard. And he offers a rather paradoxical reason for bringing fellow "believers" together: "Salvation is here on earth. . . . We have evolved over 14 billion years without purpose. Now we want purpose, we need to build it into our own lives."

If humanism were true, the purposelessness of life would indeed be the universe's greatest tragedy. Yet real purpose is not something that can be created from within.

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