Friday, January 27, 2012

Atheist Churches: I've Been to One.

The proposal to build an 'Atheist Temple' in the center of London has roused more controversy among the atheist community than any other issue before. Richard Dawkins immediately respondet that the money could be better put to better use. PZ Myers has already sneered at the very thought of something like that some time ago.

Meanwhile in the town of Düsseldorf, Germany, a kind of church service for atheists already exists. And it thrives. The semi-regular series of events is entitled "Aufklärungsdienst"; a play on words: derived from the german word for religious mass, "Gottesdienst" (which literally translates to "god's service"), and "Aufklärung", the German name of the historic period of the Enlightenment. Since its conception in 2009 it's been a huge success. The Düsseldorfer Aufklärungsdienst (DA) aims to pick up where the Enlightenment of the 16th century left, eroding away the dominance of religion by offering a better alternative: Humanism.

We want to be a counterpart to religious service, but at the same time we don't want to be a dry gathering of intellectuals.
Nonreligious people account for over 45% of Düsseldorf's population, but the influence of the churches on public affairs is growing. With the Aufklärungsdienst, Ricarda Hinz and her co-thinkers want to offer a forum for those without religion, help them find an identity away from faith and superstition.

Most of the atheists who oppose the idea of churches of non-belief cringe at the idea of secular ritual. I'm not quite sure what the critics imagine such a ritual might look like - perhaps herds of people unthinkingly repeating statements like "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" in a slow chorus and with an air of solemnity (in which case I could actually understand their aversion) - but allow me to give you a more realistic impression of what it was like:

As the lights slowly dim, the band starts playing - an interpretation of John Lenon's Imagine. While the music plays, the event coordinators walk slowly down the aisle. Ricarda Hinz is leading, solemnly carrying the event's mascot on a velvet cussion. It's a golden plumber.

The plumber gets signed by the speaker and the musicians at the end of the evening, and then is sold for €100 or the highest bid. "The plumber is our saviour", explains Ricarda. "One hundred euro covers the room's rent for the evening, so the plumber has the power to release us from our financial burden."
This tongue-in-cheek-attitude is what sets the Aufklärungsdienst apart from all other secular events I've witnessed. It's not just intelectually stimulating, it's fun. There are no grave discussions of the seriousness of our societal situation, there is no frustration at the forlornness of the never-ending fight against ignorance and superstition, there is no dry lecture on the sociology of religion.

Instead there is information presented in an entertaining way, and perhaps more importantly a sense of community is offered to a group of people who often feel like outcasts in a society that is permeated with religion on every level.
The evenings are not fun and games devoid of intellectual content either; the main component is still of informational nature. Besides the main speaker, there may be secondary speakers or secular entertainers of various kinds (My personal highlight was a reading from the "rhyme bible", a revised and annotated lyrical version of the creation story). As I already mentioned, the entire thing is accompanied musically. The bands differ, but the first song they play is always 'Imagine'. Snacks are provided, and you get to stick around for a lively discussion afterwards.
Rather than just some scientist holding a boring lecture accompanied by nothing but his poor powerpoint-skills, the presentations are a collaboration of the speaker and various secular artists. Even a lecture on a topic as dry as church finances becomes exiting and even hilarious when it is illustrated by caricatures from a great cartoonist, such as local icon Jaques Tilly.
The Aufklärungsdienst has just more to offer than your average freethinker's pub meeting. The events are intelectually stimulating entertainment; they are information coupled with community-building; they serve as a hub for networking among freethinkers.

Finally, for rationality to compete with religion on the marketplace of ideas, to transform society towards a culture of compassion, tolerance and reason, it takes more than presenting ourselves as merely not them. To make an impact we need numbers, and temples and services to celebrate Humanism might be just the right thing to finally let the public know about all the riches our philosophy has to offer.