Rabbi Lord Sacks touts atheist churches

The Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Sacks, has a piece at at HuffPo: “Worship at the atheist altar,” whose title is just a wee bit misleading. Yes, he does urge atheists to worship at churches, and describes one of them in London, but his real point is that even “church”-going atheists are doing it rong.

It is, so the reports say, the first atheist church in Britain. Set in a former church in Islington, hymns include Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” The altar is surmounted by an image of saintly former pop star turned physics professor, Dr Brian Cox. In place of a sermon there is a stand-up comic routine, and instead of readings from the sacred texts, there is a power-point presentation on the origin of dark matter.

It sounds terrific, though as a Jew I have to advise the organisers: If you want to flourish, make sure there are whisky and fishballs after the service.

Well, Sacks’s attempt at humor falls a little flat, but I have to say that I’d rather get a root canal than worship at that atheist church.  An altar with Brian Cox on it? Really? Don’t they know that atheists don’t have gods? And if I want a stand-up routine, or a talk on science, I’d rather trawl the internet.

The whole thing sounds like an ineffectual substitute for church—much like Tofurkey substitutes for a vegetarian’s Thanksgiving turkey—but to each their own. I doubt that this type of faux worship is what atheists would suggest to fill the lacuna left by the faith we strive to dispeal.

But what Sacks really want to say is that atheist churches can’t substitute for the real thing, for they leave out the important thing: the meaning that can come only from God. For those artificial religions just do bad things, like make Stalin a god.

The holy church of atheism Islington-style takes its place in a long line of attempts to create a religion without God. The most famous was that of August Comte, the man who when asked where was God in his scientific theory replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

The most terrifying man-made religion was, of course, communism, eventually recognised by its former devotees, among them Andre Gide and Arthur Koestler, as “the god that failed.” But 19th century intellectuals, hearing the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the retreating sea of faith, were full of suggestions as to what might replace religion as a way of celebrating the human spirit.

It’s as if Sacks is offering us a choice here: Stalin or Jesus.  But of course there’s humanism, which isn’t a religion but a worldview, and doesn’t demand idolatry.  In the end, says Sacks, humanists can’t bond in the same way as the faithful, so there’s no divinity around which to weave a web of empathy:

In short, we seem to have a natural disposition to worship, perform rituals, sing and celebrate together, feeling our separateness momentarily dissolve into the experience of community. The trouble is: it depends on what we worship. Absent God and we tend to end up worshipping ourselves.

What distinguished monotheism was its insight that the only thing worthy of worship is the Author of all. The worship of less than all — be it science, reason, class, race, the nation state, wealth, power, success or fame — is idolatry, and we have no evidence to suggest that idol-worshippers are more tolerant, easy-going and capable of laughing at themselves than those who feel secure in the everlasting arms of a caring and forgiving God.

Real community, the kind that you can rely on to give support in times of crisis, is made of something deeper and more demanding than singing ’70s songs together. It means sharing a world of meaning — hard to do if you believe that life and the universe are essentially bereft of meaning. It involves a willingness to sacrifice in the name of high ideals. Religions create communities because they have a sense of the holy, and are thus capable of inducing real humility, knowing how small we are in the sum total of things, yet redeemed from insignificance by the love and grace of God.

Sacks is wrong, of course, for people can sacrifice for the ideals of humanism: the idea that what gives meaning to our lives isn’t God, but the chance to help others (both human and animal), and leave the world better than when we found it.  We don’t need redemption from anything, and I doubt that the Swedes and Danes, largely atheistic yet not devoid of meaning, feel a deep need for redemption.  We are not born sick, but we can be better than we are.

Religion, is, of course, the real Tofurkey, for it offers the most deceptive plate of all:

41 Comments

  1. Tom
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a great idea: its an opportunity for fellowship, and to learn something in a casual atmosphere. Pretty much the same thing we had in college with a few professors: We we gather at a local campus pub, someone would make a proposition, and we would bat it around for a couple hours. I learned more genetics at that bar than I did in class. A couple times we were also charitable, taking up a collection for a student that was hurting.

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      I can go with the pub environment or a back room in a pub so that whole families can turn up [I'm avoiding the word "attend"] & all voices are of value

      But a church set up? Sitting in rows listening to talking heads pontificate? Rituals? No way

  2. Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    “Absent God and we tend to end up worshipping ourselves.”

    fMRI scans show that people really are worshiping themselves even if they believe in god. Trying to make a distinction between “real” religions and this atheist church is a difference that makes no difference.

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      From a different perspective, people invented the gods and did so in our own image.

      Not always physically in our image, as when they were given the bodies of animals, but certainly mentally. So many of our gods have been invented as jealous, angry, covetous, and definitely lustful. Well, maybe not so much lustful in the case of YHWH/Jesus, as a voyeuristic obsession with what everyone else does.

      So, “Absent any real gods, we invented them ourselves in order to worship something; anything.”

      • Sastra
        Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Every version of god is made “in our image” as long as there is something, anything, mind-like about it. There always is … or we naturally start to protest that the god sounds much too much like nature — and not enough like god.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      I’ll believe that theists aren’t “worshiping themselves” when they don’t make God in their own image. Show me a believer who says “the God I worship is disappointing, morally empty, and fails to embody anything I really personally care about, relate to, or value — but I still recognize it as God and I worship it” and I will grant that okay, this person is not really just worshiping themselves.

      But I will have a problem with that “worship” part. I bet the rabbi would, too.

      • Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

        Believers in Olympian gods.

        • Sastra
          Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

          No, the Olympian gods were flawed but still represented virtues and abilities the pagans cared about (Beauty, Wisdom, Hunting, Bravery, etc.) If anything, the Greek and Roman gods were even more anthropocentric than the Abrahamic ones.

  3. Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    “In short, we seem to have a natural disposition to worship, perform rituals, sing and celebrate together, feeling our separateness momentarily dissolve into the experience of community.”

    Speak for yourself, Rabbi Sacks! I don’t recognize myself in that sentence in the least.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Maybe, maybe not. He’s described behaviour at large sports and music events fairly accurately.

      • Larry C
        Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

        Not a chance. I do not have a natural disposition to worship and neither do most people as far as I can tell. We are taught and even indoctrinated to worship. I believe most people who are brought to church as children are brainwashed to worship their parent’s god. I don’t worship athletes or musicians either even though I have played a lot of sports as well as watch them. I’m also a musician and I enjoy live music, but I don’t worship any musicians. I admire their ability and the hard work associated with becoming an accomplished musician. That is not the same as worship.

  4. Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Tofu is a wonderful food — so long as you don’t try to pretend that it’s something that it isn’t. One of my favorite dishes is Ma Po Tofu, and it’s wonderful in miso soup.

    But try to make lasagna with tofu instead of cheese? Disaster.

    Same deal with carob. It’s another lovely legume, but don’t try to make me believe it’s chocolate!

    Can’t say the same about religion, though….

    b&

    • Marella
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      All religion is something trying to pretend to be something else. It’s a money making power grabbing enterprise, pretending to be a community.

      Ma Po tofu is awesome.

    • neil
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      For me, religion is not tofu, it is stinky tofu. It makes me gag just to be near it.

  5. Sastra
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    In short, we seem to have a natural disposition to worship, perform rituals, sing and celebrate together, feeling our separateness momentarily dissolve into the experience of community. The trouble is: it depends on what we worship. Absent God and we tend to end up worshipping ourselves.

    The word “worship” is a deepity; it has two meanings — one of them benign, one of them extreme — and trades on the resemblance in order to equivocate between meanings. In that way, it’s like the term “spirituality.” You have to figure out what is meant before you jump on board or throw it out.

    One interpretation of “worship” is to appreciate, value, and celebrate. Another interpretation of “worship” is to blindly and fully lose yourself in mindless devotion to something that subsumes and consumes you, as lower into higher. Can you guess which one atheists do? And can you guess which version atheists abhor?

    Right. You get a cookie.

    Nice little equivocation there, rabbi — but no cookie for you. You’re being sneaky and intellectually dishonest and atheists easily see what your adoring congregations do not.

    What distinguished monotheism was its insight that the only thing worthy of worship is the Author of all.

    And what distinguishes atheism is two insights:

    1.) Human beings should not Version #2 Worship anything because doing so does not humble us — it makes us arrogant.

    and

    2.) God doesn’t actually exist.

    I would really love to have Rabbi Sacks address his criticism of atheist churches (or of atheism in general) given that not insignificant little second point. Think about it, please.

    If God doesn’t exist and we figure this out — or even if God DOES exist but we sincerely don’t think it does — then what the HELL are we supposed to do? What would you advise? Believe in it anyway because it just feels so gooood to worship? Fake it? Invent a God made in our image in order to avoid the terrible fate of “worshipping ourselves?” I don’t think that’s going to work. It never has.

    Or would you have humanity crawl into a hole and howl in dismay forever, using the same stellar reasoning as someone who advises a person with a fatal disease to avoid making the most of the life they have left and just go kill themselves this very moment? Is that what you would do? Is the world both so worthless and pointless that it looks like crap next to immortality and God AND YET ALSO so wonderful and special that it looks like only God could explain it? That’s a neat trick.

    But you still get no cookie.

  6. Veroxitatis
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Well. I would have no truck with atheist churches. Nonsensical contradiction. However, surely there is one song above all others which the “worshippers” should be singing, and that is John Lennon’s “Imagine”.
    There is however another angle to this quite different from that canvased by Sacks. Dawkins has, on occasion, called himself a “cultural christian”. He seems to rejoice in the architecture, the language and, possibly even, the liturgy of the church or, at least, the singing. On a recent visit to South Georgia over the Christmas period he went in search of a church so that he might participate in the singing of carols. I am sure many so called Christians are really atheists or agnostics attending for similar reasons.

    • Gordon
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      My mother-in law goes to church most Sundays but at 92, when I can assume she is serious, she has given very strict instructions for an atheist funeral. To make sure she has even found an atheist to run the event- an ex-minister who has, so to speak seen the light, and give her very detailed orders.

  7. Occam
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    “What distinguished monotheism was its insight that the only thing worthy of worship is the Author of all.”

    Monotheism as auteurism ? Truffaut would be proud. But in that case, we’re all critics. The particular auteur cherished by Rabbi Sacks is up for a Razzie. Or, as we say in French, a Gérard de la création.

  8. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Religions create communities because they have a sense of the holy, and are thus capable of inducing real humility, knowing how small we are in the sum total of things, yet redeemed from insignificance by the love and grace of God.

    I would argue that this is ass backwards. Communities form first and Religion is an artefact of the social cohesion. In many parts of the world more and more people are living in towns and cities (I’m talking of populations in the 10,000 and up range). Moving houses, moving jobs, different generations living apart and… social cohesion falls then religions wither.

    It would be interesting to map the degree of church attendance against the size of the community.

  9. Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

    – That was Laplace, not Comte, Mr. Sacks. Comte wasn’t even a scientist!

    • Mary Canada
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      That’s what I was thinking

  10. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    “Religions create communities because they have a sense of the holy, and are thus capable of inducing real humility, knowing how small we are in the sum total of things, yet redeemed from insignificance by the love and grace of God.”

    Communities. That would be what separates Us from Them. What arrogance it was for the authors of the OT to claim that Yahweh had made them the Chosen Ones over all others. Of course, they only had in mind a couple of dozen neighbouring kingdoms, because those were all they knew of.

    Now that Science has shown that there are hundreds of thousands of millions of galaxies, many of them with thousands of millions of stars, now the rabbi can claim humility in the face of the vast universe.

    How strange that the only purpose he can find for humanity is for us to fear and obey an invisible invention of that same humanity.

    In the absence of any deity, we are resposible for making our own purposes. Why insert the extra step of having some people put words in the mouth of a deity for us to obey? Oh, right. Power for the priests.

    We can see that we are a part of the cosmos that is aware of itself and its grandeur, ephemeral though we be.

  11. Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Whatever you do, don’t mix nattokinase with grilled tempeh. Non-overlapping, texturized vegetable proteins.

  12. Dave
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    “… an image of saintly former pop star turned physics professor, Dr Brian Cox.

    I was expecting Brian May when reading this part – more of a pop star, don’t know about physicist.

    • Posted February 26, 2013 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      May is an astronomer but an amateur one and not a professor.

      Cox fits the bill as a former pop star. He played keyboards in a band that had several hits including a number one. And he’s a professor of physics.

      • David
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

        Brian May has co-authored scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature, and after a long hiatus in his studies eventually obtained a PhD in astrophysics. So he is not a full-time professional scientist, but the word ‘amateur’ doen’t seem quite right either.

        • Posted February 26, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

          I meant that May doesn’t get paid for his scientific work. That’s what I meant when I said that he *is* an astronomer, but an amateur one. It wasn’t a comment on the quality of his scientific work.

          But I won’t quibble, my point was just that the description is a better fit to Cox than it is to May. Hardly an important point, I’m not sure why I made it, now.

  13. Gordon Hill
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

     The Sea of Faith Network began in the UK about thirty years ago “Exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation…”

    Whether it is a religion depends on how one characterizes such, but the founder, Don Cupitt, a former Anglican priest, has developed what he calls The Religion of Ordinary
    Life
    . (now to see if the links work) ;-)

  14. Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    ….and are thus capable of inducing real humility, knowing how small we are in the sum total of things, yet redeemed from insignificance by the love and grace of God.

    The man of god is lying to our face here. The religious person sees that the world was created for man, just for man! To talk of humility here is to take what scientists have been saying that we are small spec in big scheme of things and then put in the doorstep of religion.

  15. neil
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    “It’s as if Sacks is offering us a choice here: Stalin or Jesus.”

    That would be some choice coming from a rabbi.

  16. Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Atheists churches have men and women sitting next to each other.

    An abomination unto the Lord!

    You wouldn’t catch orthodox Jews making such elementary blunders and offending their god with such deviancy.

    For God’s sake, put a mechitza in your atheist churches, before you really mess up what a church should be like.

  17. Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    BBC clip from the ‘church':

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-21325805

    There’s also the touring “Infinite Monkey Cage”, which has a “Let’s all laugh at religion” feel, as well as its wider promotion of science and scepticism. Perhaps that’s closer to the US evangelical TV specials than the weirdy-beardy copy of Brit-god in Islington.

    I enjoyed Infinite Monkey Cage, because overall it’ still a positive attempt to promote science.

    But to be honest, rather than the Islington atheist church I’d rather attend the church next door because I prefer gospel to Queen, and for all their godliness there are some really genuine decent, if misguided, people in churches.

    Dawkins is pretty keen on much of the British Anglican worship. Like any pop-chart religion has some great music, and some real crap (at a recent Methodist Christening I attended some of the hymns were tortuous). But some has been written, designed, to be uplifting, and it is – if, for an atheist, you put aside any literal religious content.

    Maybe atheists would do better attending local churches, if they like Sunday community, but simply be up-front about their atheism. That doesn’t mean you have to leap to your feet shouting “Bollocks!” while the rest of the congregation shouts “Alleluia!” I know it sounds weird, but hey, I know some people that have attended Celine Dion concerts.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      Maybe atheists would do better attending local churches, if they like Sunday community, but simply be up-front about their atheism.

      I suddenly had a humorous vision of atheists pursuing a strategy similar to the one put forth in the pro-gay marriage “We’ll marry your girlfriends” video. Oh, you don’t like outspoken New Atheists going around in public arguing that there is no God and religion and faith are not such great things, do you? You want us to shut up and stay out of the public sphere?

      Okay then. Fine. We’ll join your churches. Your places of worship. We’ll be there.

      And we’ll outdo you in all the charity-work and hymn-singing and community-building, too — all the while blithely mentioning on a regular basis that no, there is no God and we don’t believe in all that supernatural stuff and we see no reason to I mean it’s all beside the point, isn’t it?

      And we’ll be sooooo good at being churchgoers and synagogue observers and mosque attenders that everyone there will just love us — and where are your theology and apologetics now, huh? What happened to God? Where did actual belief go now that you’ve made your case about how super duper special faith is that we all ought to have some along with a heaping helping of metaphors and oh, church is so great only when it’s done in the traditional way?

      Hey. Don’t push us.

  18. TJR
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    “The most terrifying man-made religion was, of course, communism”

    Hmm, I agree that its right up there in the top 5, but Islam, Popery and the Aztec religion all give it a good run for that all important number 1 slot.

  19. brian faux
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    I wish people would use `pretend` instead of taking my name in vain.

  20. David
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    The quote attributed to Comte is usually attributed to Laplace in conversation with Napoleon. Unlike many such quotes, this one does seem to have an identifiable source:

    http://www.eoht.info/page/Napoleon+Laplace+anecdote

  21. peter
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Sacks gets his ass thoroughly kicked when he tries to take on any atheist with substance. So from now on perhaps he will just continue to take on the silly atheists.

  22. Dominic
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    I read about this place a while ago & thought how pointless. If you need community, go & do some volunteer work. I am not lacking because I need no god. What do these people lack to have to go to ‘celebrate’ atheism?

  23. rr
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Shorter Sacks: I really want to keep my job.

  24. Paul S
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    My only response to this kind of drivel is; ack. The only people who have a need to worship are the ones who’ve been told they need to worship. An atheist church, what’s the point? How does gathering a group of people together to perform silly rituals help anyone? I, like most people, meet with others because we share an interest. Do people who go to church gather around afterwards and talk about the sermon, or do they talk about their families and interests? I’m guessing it’s the latter.
    I’m also tired of the tripe “Absent God and we tend to end up worshipping ourselves“, or the familiar “We need something more important than ourselves”. To me that statement is basically saying, “I’m the most important person in the world, but I don’t want to seem arrogant, so I’ll be less important than an imaginary god, but I’m still better than you”.
    What frightens me most about the religious is when they make their empathy conditional on a divine being. If you require god for empathy, are you really a good person or are you just putting on an act?

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