It’s Sunday morning and I am going to a Sunday church service for the first time in more than 20 years. Like a growing number of Seattleites, I’m an atheist, and do not, as a rule, go to church. But this isn’t a religious mass.
It’s the Seattle Atheist Church, a weekly meet up at the University Heights Center.
The event is more like a lecture followed by a group discussion than it is a liturgy. There’s no bread or wine standing in for the blood and body of Christ, but there is other, non-ritualized food on offer (glazed donuts, bagels, and coffee). There’s no priest, just a young man named Ryan reading a rather heady paper, “Expecting Short Inferential Distances,” about trying to talk to people who have a different point of view.
Ruth Walther, one of the cofounders of the “church,” which is about four years old, introduces the lecture by prefacing it with the group’s creed—critical thinking, scientific naturalism, and secular ethics. “We’re totally against the supernatural,” Walther told me beforehand. “We try to be good, and we argue a lot about what it means to be good. And that good works in nonmysterious ways.”
In other words, there will be no woo-woo.
About two dozen people sit in the dark wood auditorium as Ryan reads from the paper. When he’s finished, they arrange the chairs in a circle. Walther passes around a stuffed unicorn, which serves as the talking stick. The members share stories about how they’ve grappled with talking about controversial subjects with those who don’t share their point of view.
Topics are chosen at a quarterly meeting and voted on by some of the 50-odd active members: “How Much Can Science Contribute to Ethics,” “Ethical Solutions for Homelessness,” “Existentialism.”
But is it really “church”? Given that atheists don’t believe in organized religion or a higher power, why would a group of them have a Sunday meet up and call it that?
“The word ‘church’ helps set expectations for folks who are just discovering us on Meetup or Facebook as to what they might find if they show up on Sunday,” explains Jack Thompson, a software engineer. He wears a gray T-shirt that says, “Keep Calm and Trust Science.”
“We have movie night and board games and picnics, and all the churchy stuff,” Walther says. The Friday before, a dozen members gathered to watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about the late children’s television host Fred Rogers.
Seattle ranks among the least-churched cities in the U.S. In 2015, in a survey by Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas, Seattle tied with Portland and San Francisco as having the most people—37 percent—who don’t have any religious affiliation. These people are called “nones.” (Comparatively, nationwide, 22.8 percent are nones.)
Patricia O’Connell Killen, PhD, a senior university fellow and professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, coedited a book about the region’s odd religious nonidentity called Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone.
“What’s different out here and has been since [the] earliest Euro-American settlements is there really has been no single religious denomination or religious group that has been able to become the dominant social reference group,” Killen says.
Since the book came out in 2004, Killen says among the “nones,” the number of vocal atheists and agnostics have grown—10 percent are atheist and 6 percent are agnostic—a perhaps not-coincidental parallel to the rise of Amazon and the influx of new residents.
“Every time you move, you sever social connections and when you get to a new place, you have to rebuild them,” Killen says. “And you move often enough, you may be disinclined to rebuild them.”
Even with such a large number of non-God-fearing citizens, there doesn’t appear to be a huge market for an atheist “community.” Another nonprofit atheist group, Seattle Atheists, claims a couple thousand participants, with about 400 active members. Atheists don’t, it seems, bond over atheism itself.
“[It’s] still relatively modest for being one of the nation’s largest atheist communities which is a curious thing,” says George Juillerat, vice president of the Seattle Atheists. “Here we are, up in the liberal bastion of the Northwest, perhaps people feel there isn’t such an encroachment upon separation of church and state.”
Back at the Seattle Atheist Church, at the end of the service, members mingle in smaller groups. “I would like a place where I can just know, no matter what I say, no one is going to say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’” Walther says.
Here, she’s preaching to the converted.