Faithlessness, Skepticism

Response to Phil Playfoot’s Comment re: Atheist “Church”

This was supposed to be a response to a comment on the previous post “A Godless Church for Horsham?” but it’s a bit too long so I will post it here instead.

Here is the original comment from Phil Playfoot of King’s Church Horsham:

Hi Simon. Before I respond to your proposal, can I just say that Skeptics (American) is spelt Sceptics in the UK or is ‘Horsham Skeptics’ an American export?
I find it strange that there seems to be a huge amount of energy being expended to promote what you don’t believe in and criticise those who do believe in God! presumably the question about communal singing is in relation to singing songs at the atheist “church” about the god you don’t believe exists.
As has alreday been pointed out there are multiple orgainsations that have no basis of belief in God through which Christians and those who aren’t Christians already serve the community. Why create a specific organisation to enable those who don’t believe in God to work for the community unless you feel threatened by the impact of what the churches have done for hundreds of years?
There is already a church for atheists in Horsham called Kings Church Horsham and you are very welcome to attend and explore life’s big questions with us. You can even join us in serving the community in multiple ways. We really don’t mind and to the person who is “subversely volunteering”, you are very welcome as well and you don’t have to be anonymous! Phil Playfoot

Hello Phil, thanks for stopping by. I’ll respond to each of your points in turn.

Horsham Skeptics in the Pub is not an American export – not that it would matter if it was, of course. The first SitP was set up in London in 1999 and from those beginnings it has spread right across the country and is starting to spread internationally too.

We often have people point out to us that the UK spelling is “Sceptics” and indeed some SitP groups do use this version, such as the newly established group in Eastbourne. The main reason for the use of the K is to differentiate the kind of scientific scepticism promoted by SitP from other common uses of the word.

As you are no doubt aware, the word “sceptic” has several meanings. We most frequently encounter it when someone expresses doubt about something, or even disapproval. People often say “I’m sceptical of that” meaning they are opposed to something rather than being open to evidence. Scientific scepticism, whereby judgements are deemed to be provisional and subject to new evidence, is what we are referring to at Horsham Skeptics in the Pub. The K is a useful way of differentiating what type of scepticism is being referred to, but of course it only works in the written form. I use the C version when writing about classical scepticism or about the negative, contrarian use of the word. I use the K version when I write about scientific skepticism.

Your next sentence makes me wonder if you are referring to something I have written or to something you have wrongly attributed to me. You make a couple of assumptions which I must address before continuing.

I find it strange that there seems to be a huge amount of energy being expended to promote what you don’t believe in and criticise those who do believe in God! presumably the question about communal singing is in relation to singing songs at the atheist “church” about the god you don’t believe exists.

Firstly, the role of religion in the affairs of our species is like a hobby for me, just like fossil-hunting and writing. I suppose I do spend a fair bit of energy on all of my hobbies but don’t we all? If it seems strange to you that I spend energy on things that interest me then I accept that.

Secondly, you say I spend this energy to promote what I don’t believe in and criticise those that do believe in God. I do enjoy discussing religions and faith but I wouldn’t regard my activities as promoting religion and faith. Sure, I’ll readily admit that I am promoting what I do believe but there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that is there? In publicly stating something, I am inviting responses as I like to have my beliefs challenged. Another one of my hobbies is to actively seek to have my mind changed.

When you say I criticise those that believe in God, I am not sure what you are referring to. Of course I criticise religions or the religious when I feel they cause pain, injustice or sadness  but then I criticise atheists and humanists for the same reasons too. I don’t discriminate when it comes to expressing my opinion. I have friends who are believers in various religions and I don’t criticise them for their faith. If you think that I do criticise people because of their faith then you are mistaken.

I’m not sure about the point you make about communal singing. The reason I asked the question in the survey was that I was interested in whether those people who were enthusiastic about a non-religious “church”-style service would be interested in having singing at such an event. I was interested because I had heard atheists both in favour of and opposed to singing at these services and I wanted to find out more rather than making assumptions about it.As I am not a fan of communal singing, it would be very tempting to create a service where no singing occurred, but as I am sincere about creating something that the greater community would enjoy it is important that it reflects the wishes of potential attendees and not just my own tastes.

Whilst it is unlikely such a service would feature “songs about the God you don’t believe in” there are thousands of other songs we could choose from if we wish to sing together.

Please correct me if I am wrong but you seem to presume that an atheist “church” would be actively opposed to religious churches and that it would be actively anti-religious. This is not what we are talking about here. I have never heard anyone say they would like to set up a church where they talk about how horrid religions are or sing about how god doesn’t exist. Who would go to that sort of thing regularly? That’s why they have rallies in London and atheist conferences; one-off expressions of dissent from religion.

A regular church-style service would need to have far more going for it that just an anti-religion sentiment. The reasons for investigating the possibility of setting up such an event are wholly positive.
I’ll quote you here as I think this is important.

You say:

“Why create a specific organisation to enable those who don’t believe in God to work for the community unless you feel threatened by the impact of what the churches have done for hundreds of years?”

This is actually two questions rolled into one and to which you kindly provide what you think is the answer. Let me be very clear so that you don’t have to make similar assumptions in future.

Firstly, rest assured that I do not feel threatened by the impact of what churches have done for hundreds of years. I don’t deny that churches provide some fabulous things for their communities and I would not wish to stop them doing good works for whatever reason they choose. As I have told you before, I am a good secularist; I do not seek the destruction of religions and indeed I believe that secularism itself has a responsibility to guarantee the unhindered expression of religious beliefs, so long as those expressions do not interfere with anybody’s human rights. I take this principle very seriously.

So, why create this specific organisation at all? I want to provide people with a choice. Today, cohesive grassroots communities for non-believers do not exist, whereas they do exist for believers. From within those communities – groups of people united only by their faith – some good things emerge. Not only the visible things like feeding the homeless, but the more personal things, such as the sense of being part of a community itself and the everyday security of feeling that you are supported by like-minded, sympathetic people.

It is perfectly valid for a group of people who share a faith in the same version of God to decide to work more closely together, for the good of their community. It is equally valid for people who do not have faith in any god to decide to work more closely together, for the good of their community.

So the question really is why not? Can you tell me why godless people should not unite and work more closely together for the good of the community?

I do not want to impose some flash-in-the-pan publicity stunt on Horsham, just to prove a point that non-religious people can achieve the same things that church congregations do. I want a community united only by its rejection of religious dogma to exist as a real option for future generations. I want there to be a choice for those who want to be part of a community but that cannot make themselves believe in any of the gods.

You could say that lack of belief in gods is a flimsy basis for a community, but I think that basing a community on ancient mythology is flimsy too. In a world dominated by religion for millennia, the rejection of religious moral authority is not such a hollow cause to unite behind.

Finally, I have seen you make the tongue-in-cheek comment about King’s Church already being a church for atheists a few times now. Whilst it is easy for you to say those words, the reality is that last time I was at your church, I heard you give a long talk in which you painted a decidedly uncharitable and incomplete picture of atheists’ capacity to behave morally. An atheist church would inform people exactly how they can indeed apply ethics and morality to life without the need for reference to a deity. Secular humanists have so much more to offer a congregation than denigration of the faithful.

You run King’s Church for the good of its congregation and for the wider community, I am sure. A godless equivalent (in whatever eventual form its participants would like to see) would exist for the good of its congregation and for the wider community too. I think this is a principle enough people could support though I would of course like to hear good reasons why we should not try.


  1. Clive Adams
    March 12, 2013    

    Any atheists out there want to accept the invitation and go to King’s Church to see how willing they are to genuinely explore the answers to life’s big questions?

  2. Phil playfoot
    March 8, 2013    

    Hi Simon

    We may be speaking at slight cross purposes here regarding talking about ‘what you don’t believe in’. What I meant by that is that atheists are those who do not believe in god and that your effort in going on the radio, doing a survey and seeking comments is to creating a “church” to enable those who don’t believe in god to come together to support one another, celebrate the belief that god doesn’t exist and to serve the community based on that belief system.

    I agree with you that we should be able to gather withnwhoeverbwe want and thankfully we live in a society where we can all try and promote what we believe.

    I’m not saying that you criticise personally someone those who believe in God but that you criticise their belief. Surely atheism exists because the alternative of a belief in God is considered illogical or irrational by atheists and that is inherently critical in nature. I have never met a convinced atheist who is not critical of my belief! If they weren’t I guess they wouldn’t be atheists. Surely the whole point of bringing together those who don’t believe in God is inherently to provide some mutual support to that end and inevitably there will be a critique of those who do. For example you say that ‘basing a community on an ancient mythology is flimsy’. Surely that is a criticism. I’m not at all offended but how else would you describe that statement?

    In response to the question as to why like minded people shouldn’t get together to work for the good of society my answer would be that there are already plenty of charitable organisations that exist that have no foundation of belief in God.

    I would strongly contend your statement that I have publically given an “a decidedly uncharitable and incomplete picture of atheist’s capacity to behave morally”. I actually went out of my way to say that atheists can and do many ‘good’ things and that a belief in God is no guarantee that a person would be good and that in fact ‘religious’ belief has often been behind atrocious acts. Rather I talked about where the belief system of atheism logically can and has often taken someone and quoted some atheists’ own moral conclusion.

    Let’s keep talking!


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