Why would atheists want to be part of the church?

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This is the third blog post in the series about Christian Atheism. Links to the previous posts are below:

  1. Why is an atheist getting confirmed?
  2. Our obsession with belief
  3. Why would atheists want to be part of the church?
  4. (Planned) What does religious language mean to Christian Atheists?

My last blog post argued that people often overstate the importance of holding certain metaphysical beliefs to being Christian, at the expense of other important aspects such as community, living ethically, sacred space and enjoying cultural heritage. I’m not going to write at length about what the church offers, that is a matter for your personal preference and taste. But I do want to answer the question of why an atheist might want to be part of a church, despite not sharing all the beliefs of other members, and why the church ought to include these people.

Why Anglo-Catholic worship?

Worship at St Pauls Bow Common, as some of you will now know first-hand, is Anglo-Catholic, AKA ‘Smell and Bells.’ The idea is to appeal to use all the senses and appeal to the heart as well as the head. You get the smell of the incense, and the sight of the rising smoke catching the sunbeams coming through the lantern roof. The stark, brutalist concrete building contrasts to the vicar’s bright vestments and ornate images. The familiar rhythm and sound of the liturgy forms a background to your own thoughts.

This is a marked contrast to my Irish Presbyterian upbringing, where worship is plain and minimal, seeking to avoid any distraction from the scripture. The sermon is the centrepiece of the service, and could last 45 minutes. Prayers were long too, and always extemporaneous. Eucharist was celebrated four times a year.

The evangelical protestant desire to strip worship down to ‘the essentials’, mirrors the desire I wrote about in my previous blog: to strip Christianity down to a core set of metaphysical beliefs. Worship that focuses on literal statements of belief, like creeds and some sermons, sit uneasily with my belief that religion is a human creation.

I prefer for a church to create the time, space and inspiration for me to explore my own thoughts, rather than be told ‘the truth’ explicitly in the sermon or prayers.

As at the Dragon School, so still for me
The steps to truth were made by sculptured stone,
Stained glass and vestments, holy water stoups,
Incense and crossing of myself – the things
That hearty middle-stumpers most despise
As ‘all the inessentials of the Faith’.

John Betjeman, ‘Summoned by Bells

Isn’t all this possible without religion?

So why go to church when the needs for community, culture and a place to think can be met elsewhere, without all the problematic religious stuff. As my boyfriend has pointed out, I could just download the ‘Headspace’ app like everyone else. The simple answer is Yes, of course I get most culture and community outside the church. Involvement with the church is something I do in addition to everything else, not instead of.

The vast majority of my community (ie friends) continue to be outside the church, most of my cultural consumption is outside the church and even when it comes to religious reflection or thinking on ethics and philosophy, I am primarily influenced by secular sources as well as groups I am part of such as Humanists UK.

The Anglican church does have some unique offerings, even if these are often the result of historical wrongs. For example, at university I lived opposite the stunning gothic college chapel picture below. Such a grand building probably only exists because of excessive tithing of peasants to pay for it. Cruel, religious oppression is the historical source of much of Western Europe’s heritage.

Christianity’s dominance in the West didn’t just produce buildings, it has influenced our literature, art, music, the way we talk and think. Whether it was a good thing or not, it happened, and the ripples of Christianity will continue throughout our secular culture for some time yet. I love how Philip Pullman, an outspoken atheist and critic of religion, describes this as being like ‘a piece of barbed wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree.’

‘I am a Christian Atheist; a Church of England Atheist; a Book of Common Prayer Atheist; You could add a King James Bible Atheist, if you want. All those things go deep for me; they formed me; that heritage is impossible to disentangle, like a piece of barbed wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree. I’ve absorbed the Church’s rituals and enjoy its language, which I knew as a boy, and now that it’s gone I miss it.’

Philip Pullman, quoted in ‘Christian Atheist’ by Brian Mountford.

The church as national heritage

I’m not pointing out the origins of Christian heritage to argue it should be confiscated or the church shouldn’t, centuries later, ‘enjoy the spoils’. But I think the Church of England in particular ought to have a sense that it is a national institution, not a private club. While legal ownership of the buildings might be with the Church, in a sense, the whole nation has ownership of the Church and its heritage.

Just as our College Chapel was intended to be a space for the whole college, not just its small self-identifying Christian community, so the heritage of Christendom should be viewed as for all of society and not just those professing particular metaphysical beliefs. The Church of England is the established church, so it includes every inch of land as part of a parish, and every person as a parishioner. The sub-set of self-identifying members who attend regularly or hold a certain set of beliefs do not get to claim exclusive access to what is a national asset.

What can Christian Atheists offer the church?

As well as there being good reasons for Christian Atheists to want to stay in the church, the church itself will benefit from including us. With our view of religion as a human creation, we can offer rich new understandings of religious beliefs. We also provide a balance for the church, against entering a vicious cycle that will see the church shrink and become ever more evangelical and exclusive.

I view religious belief as a human creation, just as I view secular art and thought as human creations. And I subject religious belief and practices to the same critical reflection as I subject the books I read, the music I listen to and political or ethical arguments I hear. By looking at religion in this way, we can learn more about the humanity that created it as well as ourselves today. This is akin to biblical scholars, who now look at the ‘Who’ and ‘Why’ of bible passages, not just taking them literally at face value and out of context.

Increasing numbers of people are unable to believe in a supernatural god and other ‘impossible to believe’ things that go with it. I fear that if people like me simply leave the church, and hand it over to the more evangelical members of the church, things will only get worse. The insistence on believing certain statements and in a certain way will only get stronger, in turn driving more ‘liberals’ out of the church. This vicious cycle will see Christianity decline into irrelevance and inaccessibility to everyone except for a small hard-core.

I’m not just being alarmist, I have already seen this happen to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland that I grew up in. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has seen its membership decline steeply: by 40% between 1975 and 2015. The Presbyterian Church loses 3,900 members per year. Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick, a professor at the Presbyterian theological college, warned last year that if current trends continued they were left with ’55 more years until the last Presbyterian switches the lights off.’

Professor Kirkpatrick has since been dismissed by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, because he criticised its increasingly hard-line stances on radio. Presbyterians concerned by the direction of the church had said that they were afraid those who spoke out would be removed, and they were proved right. Queens University Belfast have now dropped their link with the Presbyterian theological college. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has now excommunicated people in same-sex relationships from full membership, and to drive the point home have banned the children of same-sex parents from being baptised. Lord Alderdice, a respected figure in the church, has voiced concerns that the ordination of women might be the next target, though it’s possibly an academic point given that there have been no female candidates for ordination in the last three years.

Why has the Presbyterian church decided to retreat into this cold, ugly form of exclusionary fundamentalism?


This might all sound a world away from the ‘broad church’ of Anglicanism. But I would point out that the Presbyterians were known as the church of ‘dissenters’, and now those who dissent find themselves on the outside.

Because you made it this far…

The video below is the world’s largest incense burner, which takes 14kg of incense at a time apparently. We don’t have anything this big at St Pauls Bow Common.

The clip below is from the John Betjeman poem I referred to earlier in the post.

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