'Atheist Churches' Embrace Sunday-Morning Music

By Kimberly Winston
Religion News Service

HOUSTON (RNS) Atheists may not have hymns, but that doesn't mean they ain't got the beat.

In the so-called "atheist churches" that have popped up across the globe in the last year -- there are Sunday morning gatherings for nonbelievers in London, Houston, Boston and Calgary, Canada, with more planned for New York and Melbourne, Australia -- music plays as central a role as it does in many churches and synagogues.

The intention of the music is similar: to uplift the mind and the spirit of listeners and prepare them for the meaningful message at the heart of the gathering.

At London's Sunday Assembly, which attracts as many as 300 people and frequently turns people away at the door, the music has included songs by Queen and Stevie Wonder. At Houston Oasis, a community of nonbelievers established last fall, there are covers of popular songs, rewritten renditions of old songs and original music as well.

"We say we are a community grounded in reason, and music is a part of that," said Mike Aus, Houston Oasis' founder, leader and a former Lutheran pastor. "The music we include is intended to inspire and improve your life somehow."

A recent Houston Oasis gathering that drew 80 people featured the singing of Smythe and Taylor, a Texas-based award-winning musical duo who performed John Waite's "Missing You," James Taylor's "The Frozen Man" and their own "Heaven's Not the Great Beyond," about an encounter with a homeless man who may -- or may not -- be Jesus.

"'Hey, Man, what's the secret,' I yelled as he faded from my view," sang TC Smythe, the female half of the pair. "He said,'Treat a stranger like a friend, my friend, just do what you can do. And live your life full every day, and one more thing before I fly, If you want to get to heaven, don't wait until you die.'"

Smythe, who books musical performers for each of Houston Oasis' Sunday morning gatherings, said she looks for music that "fits the mission of the organization" and she always tells the guest musicians that they will be playing to a crowd of atheists, humanists and agnostics.

"I don't tell them what to play, but I do try to make sure they leave the hymnal at home because it would not be as well-received," she said. "I say, 'Sing a love song, a good story or something that you are proud of.' We are not here to give glory to God; that's not our purpose."

Which is not to say that the music at Oasis doesn't have a purpose, she said. In fact, it's not much different than traditional church music.

"The value of the music is to add punctuation to the flow of events," Smythe said. "It does prepare the room to listen to something. It makes the room very respectful, and that is what we are after."