'Post-atheists' experiencing a big tent revival, minus the preacher

Chicagoans seek community, charitable giving, in ‘godless church’

July 16, 2014

(WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)
The congregation at Kol Hadash celebrates Shabbat with readings, music and the lighting of the candles.

This past week a couple stood in front of a local congregation carefully lighting the Shabbat candles. The Friday night service followed many Jewish traditions: There was a gifted cantor to lead the singing and readings, with excerpts like, “Illumination is not enough. To understand, we need enlightenment.”

But there was one thing missing – any mention of a higher power.

These members at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago’s northern suburbs are part of a growing trend. Polls show the number of people in the U.S. who don’t identify with any religion keeps increasing. So does the number searching for a sense of community, and shared values, outside of religious institutions.

Across Chicago, atheists, agnostics and humanists are finding each other with rituals that look a lot like church or temple—but without a God.

“The need for community is a human need, it’s not a religious need, it’s not a secular need, it’s a human need,” said Rabbi Adam Chalom, who leads Kol Hadash. “We need inspiration, we need beauty, we need community, fellowship, support through difficult moments, the chance to celebrate your family culture if that’s the direction you’re going.”

For some, this direction is far from new. All the way back in 1882, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago was founded to create a space for quote “deed beyond creed.”

What is new is the way this movement is now making a comeback. A group called Foundation Beyond Belief formed four years ago to increase charitable giving by non-church goers. This weekend, leaders from all over are coming to Chicago for what they’re calling the first-ever conference on the topic.

“As atheists, we don’t believe in an afterlife, we don’t believe we’re going to heaven or hell for that matter after we die,” said Hemant Mehta, who chairs the foundation and is the creator of a blog called the “Friendly Atheist.”

“This is the only life we have, this is the only world we’re ever going to live in. We might as well make it a great place to live in,” Mehta said.

Rabbi Chalom likes to call it ‘post-atheist’: “Let’s say you come to a conclusion that there is no God. What’s next? That doesn’t tell you how to live your life.”

One of his congregants has been struggling with that question since before his bar mitzvah. Mitch Gibbs started attending Kol Hadash three years ago.

“For me, it’s being able to have integrity with my beliefs,” Gibbs said. “I’m never asked to say anything I don’t believe.”

Gibbs said he loved the beauty he found in Jewish services as a kid. But early on, he said he would shut down when activities got religious. After he stopped going, he missed the sense of togetherness.

“I like the diversity of a community where you, because everyone has something in common, the walls between people are not quite so high,” he said.

On a recent Sunday in White Eagle Woods in Lyons, several people in their 20s and 30s played croquet in wet grass. This could have been a church picnic anywhere, just minus the church.

In fact, they were part of a godless church called Sunday Assembly that’s sprouting across the world. Their motto? Live better, help often, wonder more.

Jennifer Lyle came with her 16-month-old son to check it out.

“I really like having the idea of having a cohesive group or community to belong to so that when he gets to be school age and all of his friends are going to church, and do you go to church? He’s like, well, we go to Sunday Assembly.”

Lyle said she tends to stay quiet about her beliefs, especially at work.

“You might think that you’re the only in your office, or you’re the only one in your parent playgroup that is a non-believer,” Lyle said. “You feel very isolated, it becomes kind of like a secret, you don’t really want to bring it up. When you find a community of like-minded people, you say, ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’”

The post-atheist movement hopes to make it OK for people like Lyle to openly identify as a non-believer.

“People are afraid of telling their family members or their colleagues at work,” said Hemant Mehta. “And that’s a problem because when you tell people you don’t believe in God, they think you’re immoral, they don’t trust you anymore.”

Some members of the growing movement liken it to a big tent revival, just without the tent or the preacher.

Lynette Kalsnes covers religion for WBEZ. Follow her @LynetteKalsnes.