When atheists go to church

The conversation between atheists and Christians on Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of blogs and newspapers is usually aggressive and unpleasant, with atheists talking about the flying spaghetti monster on one side, and Christians threatening fire and brimstone on the other.

Hot-tempered debate has been a problem between the two groups for a very long time. Atheists still face social discrimination in countries such as the USA, and they are persecuted in several Islamic nations, and the injustice of that fuels strong feeling. Since the 19th century, atheists have often promoted their position using polemic and ridicule against religion, alongside rational debate. In modern times, this emotional response has surfaced most prominently in the writings and tweets of Richard Dawkins, who has accused religious believers of being delusional.

But the approach of new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens now seems to have been superseded by a more reasoned and creative attitude. It’s been fostered in part by the philosopher Alain de Botton, with his book Religion for Atheists, and in the School of Life and the Sunday Assembly, both of which offer unbelievers the experience of church, but without the dogma and deity. Preachers at the School of Life have included Ruby Wax, Terry Eagleton and Grayson Perry, who have respectively preached on the ego, evil, and kinky sex.

Now Andy Hill, a journalist on the Metro newspaper who’s more often found writing about the history of beer and ‘9 reasons Great Yarmouth is way cooler than you think’, has recently confessed that even though he’s an atheist, he’s developed a fondness for dropping into his local churches with his young son. He writes:

One autumnal Sunday morning last year, I was out with my lad and on a whim ducked into St Philips, a fancy gothic-revival jobby by my old flat. Inside, it was even more stunning, a mighty, cavernous stone grotto dripping with art and flickering in candlelight. About three dozen friendly pairs of eyes swivelled around to watch us enter.

There was a little carpeted area off to one side with toys, where I sat quietly with my lad and listened to the service. A twinkly middle-aged lady in a pristine robe was telling a story about sharing, which is actually really lovely when you think about it. Then everyone started singing – a kindly stranger handed me a hymn book, open at the proper page – so I joined in.

After the service, we all had tea and biscuits and a nice chat about what was going on in the neighbourhood. All the old ladies made a fuss of my boy… Did I consider them ignorant for believing in god? Obvs. Was I smiling anyway? Absolutely.

Andy ended up appreciating the feeling of community, the link with older generations, sermons which connect with current affairs, and the free biscuits and juice for children. All of them available ‘in more than 30,000 gorgeous venues all over the country… with the noble aim of uplifting spirits and providing gentle moral encouragement.’

He concludes: ‘It’s OK if you think “The Church” is weird. You’re right, it is. But churches? They deserve nothing but praise.’

His positive and creative approach is surely a better way for atheists and Christians to talk to each other.

Hear Andy Hill talk about why he thinks atheists should try church.

Read Andy Hill’s article, I’m an atheist who goes to church – here’s why you should too, on the Metro website.

Photo: jcsullivan24 under CC BY-NC 2.0