Every year, approximately 4,000 new churches are started in the U.S. Out of that number, approximately 4,000 will receive no attention from the New York Times. So what makes Jerry DeWitt’s new church – located in a Hilton Hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – worthy of a feature in America’s greatest newspaper? Perhaps it’s because DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher, had the marketing savvy to bill his church launch as “Louisiana’s first atheist service.”
It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.
Atheist “churches” are a hot new trend and worthy of broader news coverage. But there is something about this story that strikes me as peculiar. See if you notice anything strange about this sentence:
With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.
The general newspaper reader will likely pass over that sentence without giving it a second thought. But for a journalist – particular one writing a feature for the New York Times – that should be a signal to start asking more questions. For example, the first query that comes to mind is, “If you are starting a new church in Lake Charles, why hold the first service in a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge – a two hour drive from where your chapel will be located?”
The second question that any journalist should ask is, “Is the service just a publicity stunt for a book launch?” As the press release DeWitt sent to announce the secular service notes, “The church service will also coincide with the launch of DeWitt's first book, published by De Capo Press on June 25th, entitled Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism.”
The release also adds, “Jerry DeWitt burst onto the national scene last year when a New York Times profile revealed his harrowing yet inspirational story.” That story, published in the New York Times Magazine, expressed a more skeptical tonne about DeWitt and his motives:
When I visited him, in late June, his house was in foreclosure, and he was contemplating moving into his 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser. This is the kind of environment where godlessness remains a real struggle and raises questions that could ramify across the rest of the country. Is the “new atheism” part of a much broader secularizing trend, like the one that started emptying out the churches in European towns and villages a century ago? Or is it just a ticket out of town?
There’s nothing untoward about DeWitt attempting to rebrand himself as an “atheist preacher” or getting publicity to hawk his new book – that’s the American way. But you’d think the nation’s paper of record would question whether a savvy publicist is using them for promotional purposes.
Aside from those unanswered questions, though, the Times article really isn’t all that interesting. A much more illuminating treatment of the “atheist church” trend can be found at CNN. DeWitt is mentioned in this piece too, but the main focus is on a meeting of the Humanist Community at Harvard University:
It’s Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a rapt congregation listens to a chaplain preach about the importance of building a community.
A few dozen people sit quietly for the hourlong service. Music is played, announcements are made and scholars wax poetic about the importance of compassion and community.
Outsiders could be forgiven for believing this service, with its homilies, its passing of the plate, its uplifting songs, belongs in a church.
If so, it’s a church without one big player: God.
In general, CNN does a much better job of explaining the phenomena and putting it in context. For instance, here is how the New York Times notes the rise of “nones”:
The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans appears to be on the rise. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that while only about 6 percent identified as atheist or agnostic, they were among nearly 20 percent classified as religiously unaffiliated. That was up from 15 percent in 2007, a greater increase than for any traditional faith.
Six percent among nearly 20 percent, which is up from 15 percent. Accurate, but not very clear. Here is a much better presentation of the same data by CNN:
In the last few years, the number of “nones” – those who don’t associate with any organized religion – has grown at a rate faster than any other group. Nones now represent one in five Americans, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll.
Although the number of atheists has grown, too, there are still a large number of “nones” that choose not to associate with the label “atheist.”
Both passages essentially make the same point, but while the Times's paragraph seems like an obligatory data dump, the CNN numbers appear to be included to increase understanding.
Both articles also focus on the community aspect of the services. While that’s an important angle, I hope we’ll see more features that delve deeper in the motivations and beliefs of the people who attend such services. As an introduction to the trend the “godless congregations copying Christian churches” is fitting. But if this is more than a passing fad, journalists need to report on something more than atheists singing pop songs in Harvard chapels and Hilton ballrooms.