Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

For those uncomfortable with the level of overt spirituality even within relatively liberal denominations, such as Unitarian Universalism, secular communities offered a different option.

… Making a congregation happen basically meant putting on a big show on a regular basis. Somebody needed to book bands, find speakers, set up chairs, pick up snacks.

But for secular congregations, there are no training videos. There are no “Church planting” experts to help them grow roots. They’re starting from scratch.

Oh the humanity! Sunday Assembly and Oasis — the two movements that Hill cites as leading the charge for God-free gatherings — both provide assistance for founding new groups. And Sanderson Jones of Sunday Assembly is no stranger to the video camera.

Hill’s report is, oddly enough, most engaging when she turns to the academy and the think tank:

Linda Woodhead, a scholar of religion and culture at Lancaster University in Great Britain, told me that structured communities just aren’t easy to form. “Meeting in a building with the same group of people every week … I don’t think there’s any natural need for that,” she said. 

Woodhead believes that communities can be hugely important to people, of course—but you can’t just meet for the sake of community itself. You need a very powerful motivating element to keep people coming, something that attendees have in common. …

Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at Pew Research Center, says that about one-third of nones fall into the category of “principled rejecters” of organized religion or “principled embracers” of atheism or humanism. But the majority of nones are just indifferent to religion. “On what basis would you pull them together?” Cooperman asked. “Being uninterested in something is about the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilizing cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.”

Or listen to this.

“Even though it no longer made sense to her to believe, she felt a gaping hole where her Church — her people, her psalms, her stained-glass windows — used to be,” Hill writes about Justina Walford, her lonely ex-believer.

What Hill fails to engage is what seems a rather obvious question: How does one replace even the idea of being in communion with the personal God whom Christians gather weekly to worship? How does one fill that void? Addressing it does not require being a theist.

There is something almost heroic about the efforts of Sanderson Jones and his friends to find joy in the universe they believe is godless and free of any afterlife. This could be the stuff of sympathetic longform reporting. Instead we’re left with a report about what a drag it is to arrange for coffee and donuts and to set up chairs.

Post image: A cover of Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood depicts Hazel Motes, founder of the Holy Church of Christ without Christ.

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