Peter Berger: new atheist megachurches really about forming a denomination

Sociologist Peter Berger offers his take on the news that some atheists are looking to form their own megachurches.

How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family.  This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety).  Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”.  This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.

However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.

As far as I know, the term “denomination” is an innovation of American English. In classical sociology of religion, in the early 20th-entury writings of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, religious institutions were described as coming in two types: the “church”, a large body open to the society into which an individual is born, and the ”sect”, a smaller group set aside from the society which an individual chooses to join. The historian Richard Niebuhr, in 1929, published a book that has become a classic, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. It is a very rich account of religious history, but among many other contributions, Niebuhr argued that America has produced a third type of religious institutions—the denomination—which has some qualities derived from both the Weber-Troeltsch types: It is a large body not isolated from society, but it is also a voluntary association which individuals chose to join. It can also be described as a church which, in fact if not theologically, accepts the right of other churches to exist. This distinctive institution, I would propose, is the result of a social and a political fact. The denomination is an institutional formation seeking to adapt to pluralism—the largely peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities in the same society. The denomination is protected in a pluralist situation by the political and legal guarantee of religious freedom. Pluralism is the product of powerful forces of modernity—urbanization, migration, mass literacy and education; it can exist without religious freedom, but the latter clearly enhances it. While Niebuhr was right in seeing the denomination as primarily an American invention, it has now become globalized—because pluralism has become a global fact. The worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, which I mentioned before, is a prime example of global pluralism—ever splitting off into an exuberant variety of groupings.

The argument: a pluralistic society, created through a set of legal and social codes, encourages denominations. Thus, if atheists want to be part of an American landscape, they must adapt to the forms that give religious groups the ability to band together and rally to their cause.

I wasn’t sure why atheists would want megachurches when these don’t have the greatest reputations (though they may be popular and influential) but I’m even less sure that atheists would want to be part of denominations. Much of the story of American religion in the last 50 years is the decline of denominations, the trend toward more independent, non-denominational churches that are not constrained by hierarchies. Similarly, individuals have moved from seeking membership in religious organizations to a more individualized form of religious expression, immortalized as “shielaism” in Habits of the Heart and illustrated with the increasing number of “religious nones.” On one hand, denominations allow religious congregations to band together and exert more collective force but Americans also don’t like to be limited by social structures.

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