Last week, I hosted Louisiana's first ever truly "secular service," a Sunday service that was similar to a traditional church service by providing ministry to its participants in the form of music, fellowship, and a message from a person in a pastor type position -- but without any reference to the supernatural. The service, which was covered by The New York Times, helped spark a national debate about atheists adopting religious expression such as prayer.
But while the gathering in Louisiana's capital city had some of the hallmarks of a church service, it no more resembled a typical worship on a Sunday than a political rally or a sporting event. During the service, I played everything from Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" to fun.'s "We are Young" to genres native to my great state such as zydeco, all music that draws a sharp, unmistakable contrast from religious music that is meant to draw participants away from the here and now and toward the supernatural. Furthermore, in a religious service its leader is assumed to have supernatural guidance or empowerment whereas my service was driven by the idea that we're all equal participants.
All of this is what kept my secular service from becoming a religious service.
Indeed, my service was not about creating a religion among non-believers -- it was an attempt to build a community. Now, of course there are already many different kinds of secular communities in existence, from political activist groups to film- or book-oriented lecture series. But what I sought to do with my service was create an atmosphere akin to a fellowship where a high level of care for your fellow participant is required. One, after all, can participate in a meet-up or a lecture series one week and then not take part the next, which has little or no effect on the gathering itself. It's sort of like one empty seat at a big rock concert. In a fellowship, by contrast, there's an innate sense of responsibility within the family for one another's needs. The well-being of all is paramount.
Yet as I told those assembled at my service, atheists can create a fellowship-like environment or we can foment the kind of dynamic that you see in church, but in between services where congregants are checked on and cared for constantly. But, I insisted, any one of us can opt out of this framework.
For, unlike religion, which demands a certain level of participation, such as tithing, my secular service respects the diversity of each individual's needs. I told those gathered at my service that we're here to care for you, but if you don't want that level of attention, let us know and we'll leave you be.
So, my secular service was not about creating an atheist "religion": It was about fomenting love and community among non-believers. And I believe that there's nothing wrong with borrowing from -- or adopting -- certain aspects of religious tradition and making them work within a secular context. To turn our backs on traditions that may be meaningful to us or may work in bringing humanity closer together simply because of ideology resembles the fundamentalism of religion. An adherence to rigid ideology, after all, is far more "religious" than a secular service could ever be.
Jerry DeWitt is an American author, public speaker, and leader in the American atheism movement. He is a former pastor of two evangelical churches, who publicly converted to atheism in 2011 after 25 years of Christian ministry. He is the author of the upcoming book Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism, to be released June 25th.
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