Beliefs Institutions

Atheists find a Sunday-morning connection with other nonbelievers

Mike Aus, founder and leader of Houston Oasis, a community for nonbelievers, welcomes people to a Sunday morning gathering that borrows some of the forms of church. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

HOUSTON (RNS) Sunday mornings at Houston Oasis may have the look and feel of a church, but there’s no cross, Bible, hymnal or stained glass depictions of Jesus. There’s also nary a trace of doctrine, dogma or theology.

Mike Aus, founder and leader of Houston Oasis, a community for nonbelievers, welcomes people to a Sunday morning gathering that borrows some of the forms of church. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

Mike Aus, founder and leader of Houston Oasis, a community for nonbelievers, welcomes people to a Sunday morning gathering that borrows some of the forms of church. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

But the 80 or so attendees at this new weekly gathering for nonbelievers come for many of the same reasons that others pack churches in this heavily Christian corner of the Bible Belt — a sense of community and an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the coming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.

“Just because you don’t believe in God does not mean you do not need to get together in community and draw strength from that,” said Mike Aus, a onetime Lutheran pastor who is now an atheist and founder of Houston Oasis.

“We are open to any message about life as long as no dogmatic claims are made.”

Still, inside the conference room in a nondescript office building on the city’s west side, it’s hard to ignore the structural similarities to a Sunday morning church service. There is live music played and performed by members that is intended to spur reflection as well as entertain; a collection is taken up in a passed wicker basket.

A banner taped to a window declared what might be called Houston Oasis’ creed. It pointedly says “we think,” not “we believe”:

“People are more important than beliefs.

Only human hands can solve human problems.

Reality is known through reason, not revelation.

Meaning comes from making a difference.

Labels are unimportant.  

Everyone should be accepted wherever they are as long as they are accepting in turn.”

The day’s message, delivered on a recent Sunday by Ray Hill, a former Baptist pastor and a longtime activist for civil and gay rights, would not have been out of place in many churches. All human beings, he said, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation are of equal worth and deserving of respect.

Texas-based duo Smythe and Taylor sing songs with an uplifting message at a meeting of Houston Oasis, a community for nonbelievers. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

Texas-based duo Smythe and Taylor sing songs with an uplifting message at a meeting of Houston Oasis, a community for nonbelievers. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

“Humans go out of this world the same way that they come in,” Hill wrapped up, as the room erupted in applause.

Afterwards, attendees gather for coffee at the back of the room before moving on to lunch at a nearby restaurant. There are plans for a kind of summer vacation Bible school for kids — minus the Bible, of course — and a charitable blood drive.

But don’t call this an “atheist church,” Aus insisted. He and other founding members are aiming for something new — a community that looks to nurture the common human qualities that can unite people.

“Homo sapiens is a tribal species; we thrive in community,” he said. “There are elements of church life that serve human needs but transcend church life, like the need to gather, the need to be together. We can offer those in a secular way.”

That offer is getting a healthy number of takers — attendance averages 70 people, but has hit 100. Twice during a recent gathering, volunteers had to bring in additional chairs to accommodate latecomers, and some attendees reported driving over an hour to get there.

It’s a diverse crowd, ranging from high school to retirement age and including a number of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. They came in casual attire, in tune with the jeans and black turtleneck Aus was wearing.

Houston Oasis is part of a growing trend. Atheists and other nonbelievers have long gathered for events with meaning and music, but in the last year, a number of nontheistic groups have initiated Sunday morning events that include elements of a standard church service.

Sunday mornings at Houston Oasis may have the look and feel of a church, but there's no cross, Bible, hymnal or stained glass depictions of Jesus. There's also nary a trace of  doctrine, dogma or theology. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

Sunday mornings at Houston Oasis may have the look and feel of a church, but there’s no cross, Bible, hymnal or stained glass depictions of Jesus. There’s also nary a trace of doctrine, dogma or theology. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

The largest is London’s Sunday Assembly, which meets in a former church and has been turning away people due to lack of space since its launch in January. There are plans to establish Sunday Assemblies in New York and Melbourne, Australia. Calgary Secular Church meets in Calgary, Canada, and several humanist communities associated with large U.S. universities have regular Sunday morning events.

Chris Stedman, author of “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious,” said the Harvard Humanist Community, where he is an assistant chaplain, has begun to incorporate more churchlike elements in its Sunday gatherings at the request of attendees, including reflections and inspirational readings.

“There is a lot to be gained by looking at the forms of religion and in the ways that people make meaning and assemble a community,” Stedman said. “As a movement, I think we will struggle to appeal to people who are leaving religion if we cannot offer them the structures that religion has offered them. People need to come together and talk about meaning and value.”

At Houston Oasis, members stress that any similarities to a church service are secondary, at best. If fact, it’s what second-timer Katherine Alspaugh likes least.

“What I like about it,” she said, “is to look around and see there are this many people who believe the way I believe and I am not alone.”

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • In Philadelphia, we have the Ethical Society, but this sort of group looks wonderful. Does anyone know of a group like this near Philadelphia, PA?

  • Must be weird to believe that this life is all we have!

    But atheist do have one “advantage”; since there is no afterlife they can kill, steal, rape, molest…do whatever they want without worrying about answering for it after death!

  • I sincerely hope that you avoid such things for other reasons besides hope for heaven and fear of hell.
    Some atheists are patronizing and believe that people who are moral out of fear of hell should not be dissuaded of their errors. I care about your faith being mistaken no more strongly than I get upset by people who believe that this year is the Cubs turn to win the World Series.

    I do object to those who consider it a personal failure when others don’t join their faiths. When I was a believer, I decided that it was blasphemy to act as if God needed my help, even a little bit. Treating God like a damsel in distress who needs you to be the white knight who rescues her from people like me is something you might want to reconsider if you have a shred of respect and a shred of fear for God.

  • But Daniel, your response begs the questions I’m sure you are familiar with: what “other reasons” are there for “avoid(ing) such things?”

    (And while I am a God-fearing, Bible-believing conservative Christian, I am also an expatriated Chicagoan. I fear that even God has given up on the Cubs (he said, kiddingly). (If you aren’t familiar with Steve Goodman’s “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” do check it out; it’s a classic:

  • I think it is more weird to be over the age of 5 and still believe in imaginary friends. I also think it is sad that people’s behavior is dictated by what benefits them in the end. If a person does good because they will get rewarded by going to heaven, then that pretty much turns that into a selfish act. If someone doesn’t do something bad because they are afraid that they will get thrown into some fiery pit, then again…selfish!

    I also think it is sad how some think that by telling some priest what they did wrong and saying a few prayers that that makes it alright. Even worse, they go and do it again and again, because, lets face it, saying a prayer is no big deal to them. If it was, they would only have to do it once. It is also crap how people manipulate and use phrases out of a novel to justify their bad behavior.

    This life is the only one we get; there are no second chances. One has to be the best person, here, now, today, because unless you break the law, the only person you have to answer to is in the mirror.

  • Southern Baptist says:
    “Must be weird to believe that this life is all we have!
    But atheist do have one “advantage”; since there is no afterlife they can kill, steal, rape, molest…do whatever they want without worrying about answering for it after death!”

    Advantage? Being part of the Houston atheist community for many years I know of no one who has murdered, stolen, raped, or molested anyone. It doesn’t take the fear of hell or the reward of heaven to make people act morally. It takes kindness and empathy…qualities found in atheists and in sometimes in religious people.

    It must be weird to believe in an afterlife without any evidence. This life is all I have and I’m going to live it the best and fullest I can. Surprisingly raping and stealing isn’t even on the radar for us…but helping people is. I am proud to be a part of this wonderful community.

  • It is weird to think of this life being all that there is. It makes this life all the more precious and makes me consider every action and every day in those terms.

    I guess it is almost as weird as having a get-out-of-hell-free card. Christians can commit all manner of offenses, even up to murder (see the Apostle Paul, or Ted Bundy who found God while on death row), and still be assured of a place within the pearly gates. I hope their victims have the choice of where to locate so they won’t spend too much time together.

  • @Roxy: Awesome answer!! I hadn’t thought about the last paragraph, though I am sure there’s a convenient justification for that, too!

  • What an interesting insight into you that you seem to think people want to kill, steal and rape. If your religion is all that keeps you from doing those things, by all means, keep believing. Then look up what the crime rates are in religious states and countries versus secular states and countries. And think about why.

  • So, let me understand you. If it weren’t for fear of an invisible sky daddy, you would be thoroughly pleased to kill, rape and steal? Your obsessions are not only telling but disturbing.

  • So what makes it wrong? I should be able to do whatever I wish so long as it is right in my eyes.

    And both of you, Lisa D. and Bo, please drop the liberal/secular progressive snarkiness. It accomplishes nothing and only makes you look intolerant and foolish while revealing your anger. There are and have been billions of people who believe; don’t denigrate them all because you believe in your own superiority.

  • “…what ‘other reasons’ are there for ‘avoid(ing) such things’?”

    Human empathy, Scott.

  • You *can* do whatever you want, Scott, good or bad, right now, this minute. There is nothing holding you back. That has been demonstrated time and time again, with a particularly egregious example on Monday.

    But if it’s something illegal and you’re caught, you’ll be punished. That’s how society works. Society decides what is bad behavior that needs to be punished, and makes laws.

  • No, GP, you aren’t getting it. Where does this “human empathy” you speak of come from? I mean, if evolution is true – and if there is no afterlife – then it matters not what I do or why I do it. In fact, ANYTHING I do that aids MY survival and helps me to propogate MY genes should be fair game, right? So where are you getting “human empathy” from?

  • I’m right there with you. I find it amazing that some believers actually think that about non-believers. Being raised Southern Baptist and going to a Catholic High School, I was hose-fed the same “thou shalt’s and “thou shalt not”s as everyone else, yet I looked around and saw so many around me, doing exactly the opposite, yet strapping on their Home Depot Halos on Sunday and expecting forgiveness.

    I find the plethora of built-in excuses for everything that religion supplies as the true evil in our world. People doing awful things and saying awful things and then using their religion as justification. I can’t think of any bombings done by atheists or any wars started by atheists.

  • Accusing others of ignorance because one cannot logically defend one’s position is like saying, “Well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you!”

  • Lisa D: While there is an plethora of evidence, I recognize that no amount of evidence or testimony is likely to change your view. It’s just so sad that L/SPs (and/including atheists) refuse to have the open minds they insist others have. Read “The Case For Christ” or “Evidence That Demands A Verdict.” There is more than sufficient evidence.

    Regarding my use of the word “ignorance” in relation to your knowledge about what you are denigrating has absolutely zero bearing on my ability to defend my knowledge of the truth. The bottom line is this: while I cannot prove God’s existence any more than you can prove He doesn’t exist, I CAN present an overabundance of evidence that He does.

    What you do with that evidence is completely up to you, of course, but the bottom line really is this (and in your heart you know it is): you are betting eternity that you are right. But what if you’re not? If you can truly imagine what the consequences of being wrong are, how can you possibly opt for that? And I will do anything to help you NOT make that choice, because I love you.

  • GP: And on what arbitrary basis does “society” make that decision as to what is illegal? Or right and wrong?

  • Lisa D: Re: “I can’t think of any bombings done by atheists or any wars started by atheists.” But you are aware, aren’t you, of the outright slaughter 100 million people, give or take, who were murdered in the 20th century by atheists ranging from Adolf Hitler (an occultist, actually) to Joseph Stalin to Mao Tse Tung to Pol Pot.

    Nothing even remotely or minutely similar to that – even conceptually – has ever been perpetrated by Christianity or any other faith (not even Islam, which is NOT a peaceful religion).

    Of course some atheists do wonderful things, and for those things they should be applauded. But some atheists – probably most – do little or nothing charitable. The good done by people of faith – no, let’s make it Christianity, since that’s what we’re really talking about and it’s Jesus Christ whom atheists most revile – so far outweighs any bad or wrong things as to be virtually incalculable. To claim otherwise – or to posit that non-believers have done anywhere near as much good – is simply absurd.

  • Hey Dan. 🙂 The Ethical Society is the closest we have in Philly to a “Sunday Assembly” group, although atheists are welcome in the Unitarian Universalist church as well. In NJ, the NJ Humanist Network has groups and meetings statewide, which aren’t as “churchy” as this one is, but maybe that’s just because no one has volunteered to host such meetings.My NJHN chapter, Gloucester County Humanists, currently meets in a library; if we had more members and donors, we could do something more like this. It’s really a manpower/money issue. I’m sure Margaret Downey’s Freethought Society members might also be interested in something similar, but again, we can’t sit back and wait for Margaret to do everything.

    Don’t forget that the Philadelphia Atheists Meetup will help an organizer start up a regular meeting/group. We have over 700 members. Just let me know if you want to volunteer!

  • The crusades come to mind where millions were slaughtered in the name of Jesus, then there was the Inquisition where thousands were put to death and tens of thousands died while incarcerated by the Inquisition, the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis were a culmination of 2000 years of Christian hate towards Jews, not to mention all the people who have been persecuted and killed by various churches throughout history because they either believed differently or found some scientific proof that the church was wrong in some instance or the other.

    I don’t revile Jesus at all, I just don’t think he was anything other than a really nice guy with some great new ideas who got screwed over in the end like often happens to nice guys with new ideas that go against the status quo. Kind of an Arab Martin Luther King Jr. (whose end was the same).

    Using your words and switching them up a bit: Some Christians do wonderful things, and for those things they should be applauded, But some Christians – probably most – do little or nothing charitable…and I add… without hope of recompense later on down the line.

    As far as the good does in no way outweigh the bad… wow, that one has been done to death throughout the years!! If you believe that then you must also think all the priests who give sermons, minister to the poor, etc. then go and have sex with little boys are given a “bye” because of all their “good” works? The archbishops who have knowledge of these atrocities and choose to hide the crimes are given a “bye” because of all their good works?

    I have absolutely no doubt that non-believers have done every bit as much good (and bad) as believers. If you think that the desire to be a part of a community, to serve one’s fellow man, and to give charitably is purely a Christian quality then your religiocentrism is as reprehensible as that of the Muslims.

  • The Crusades were of course horrible, and they were wrong (and while I have no idea how many died in toto, one number that seemed to come up in multiple searches is approximately 200,000. Too many, but nowhere near the millions you claim. In fact, the Crusades and Inquisition – also a horrible movement – combined probably don’t approach a half million, although too many to be sure.)

    The failures of the Crusades and Inquisition resulted from the fact that man is an inherently sinful being who, when left to his own motives, will do heinous things. That is what is and always has been wrong with the church – it’s composed of sinful, errant humans. But thankfully, they are forgiven through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. Not perfect, just forgiven.

    It’s appalling that you would actually blame the holocaust on Christianity. I won’t even honor that with a rebuttal.

    If what you say about Christ being a “really nice guy” is true and limited to that, then He was anything BUT a nice guy – he was a liar and/or a lunatic because He claimed to be the Son of God and the way to eternal life. If he claimed that and lied how could he possibly be good? To do that and deceive what are now billions of people would be evil.

    As to Christians’ motivation for doing good: Christians don’t do good works to get into Heaven or for the reward or the “recompense later on down the line” – they do them BECAUSE they’re going to Heaven and because loving your neighbor is what we’re commanded to do. No man, Christian or otherwise, can earn Heaven by doing good; we do good because it is the fruit of our knowledge that we will one day be in Heaven.

    No, priests who abuse(d) children (or adults for that matter) are not given a “bye” – they, like you, me, and everyone else, will be judged for their sin one day. And for the record I’m not a Catholic, although I was raised Catholic. I’m just a flawed sinner saved by grace and trying to take as many others as I can with me. Like you.

    I don’t know if I’m religiocentric or not; frankly I’m not even sure that’s a word. I suppose I am, but just what is reprehensible about that? Even Islamic “religiocentrism” isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s their belief that if you don’t acknowledge Allah and the Prophet they have every right to torture and kill you that is the problem.

    There is no question that more good has been done in the name of Christianity than any other faith (or non-faith). Look around you; hospitals, orphanages, pregnancy resource centers, adoption programs, AIDS outreaches, emergency and disaster response, homeless programs. Not every one of these is Christian in nature, to be sure, but c’mon Lisa. Yes, there are some non-faith entities that do some of these things also, but are you really so blind that you can’t see the overwhelming good Christians do?

  • Yes, there is good done by religion, there is also bad. The same can be said of non-religious groups. One is no better than the other. Non-believers feel sorry for those who are willing to set aside reason and indulge in a delusion. Believers feel sorry for non-believers because they think their eternal lives are in jeopardy. Neither can prove their beliefs to the other.

    Is it better to spend one’s life “faking” one’s way thru religious services, saying the prayers that mean nothing, and pretending to believe just to avoid the consternation and judgement that comes with admitting that there is no such thing as god? Or, is it better to realize that you are not alone, that there are other people out there that think and feel as you do, and to be true to yourself and stop lying to yourself and everyone else about what you do or do not believe? I think the being true to yourself option, in the end, is the best way to go.

    Regardless of whether one believes a god exists, a sane human knows that murder, rape, theft, and molesting are wrong and wouldn’t do it. All bets are off, though, if a person is mentally unbalanced, either genetically or has had their sanity compromised by some heinous act done to them.

    Religiocentrism is defined as the combination of positive attitudes toward the religious ingroup and negative attitudes toward religious outgroup(s) kind of like ethnocentrism.

  • The Crusades was done by CATHOLICS, not real Christians that don’t worship the Pope and pray to a dead woman!!!

  • “Where does this “human empathy” you speak of come from?”

    Evolution. Empathy is a positive survival trait because it facilitates cooperation. Cooperative groups are more successful that individuals. Studies have shown that behavioral traits can be passed on from parents to children.

  • “And on what arbitrary basis does “society” make that decision as to what is illegal? Or right and wrong?”

    In Western civilization, most laws are based on preventing or punishing actions that cause harm to people.

  • Lisa D: I have just two questions for you – and ixnay on the answering them with other questions!: 1) What makes you so certain that you are right? and 2) What if you are wrong? Please, really think about them both. Thanks, and I’m praying for you, BTW. 🙂

  • 1) I prefer to form my own opinions through direct observation and logical reasoning. In my 48 years I have never observed nor heard from a source reliable to me anything remotely supernatural. I require evidence or testimony from a reliable source in order to believe. As time has gone by and humans have evolved sociologically and scientifically, the ability to observe and measure our world has enabled us to explain what was previously explained as caused by some supernatural being.

    2) If I kick the bucket tomorrow I can’t think of anything I have done in my life that I regret or any choices I have made that I regret. I have made mistakes in my life (everyone has) and I have always endeavored to apologize, make it right, or learn a lesson. I have tried to be the best person (mom, wife, daughter, friend) I can be and I think if one can say that at the end of one’s life then that is enough. If it turns out that there is something out there; oh well, I did the best I could with what I have and that’s good enough for me.

  • OK, Lisa. I REALLY hope and pray that you will consider going beyond your own knowledge and belief, and weigh the evidence objectively (please see my post above from Apr 17, 2013 at 2:59 pm, which I don’t think you replied to).

    I would love to spend some time with you in eternity; I would really enjoy that. I hope that can happen. If you have any questions or would like to contact me, just reply and we can figure out how to get in touch. Thanks, and God bless you!

  • Haven’t the Unitarian Universalists been doing this for years? This looks like church for the unimaginative & non-athletic atheist. Pastor Mike Aus has him another flock!

  • Hi Janice.

    Your point is well taken. The Freethought Society is very diverse and that’s a problem we have. We have a range of people from libertarians to those like me who have more in common with Thomas Paine who considered collectives, like corporations, vast holdings of property, and inherited wealth the enemy of liberty. We are pretty much relegated to freedom from religion and anti-discrimination. Compassion towards immigrants or national gun registration? Forget it. My heart’s not in it to build a more robust FT Soiety containing libertarians because they are social Darwinists who offend me no less than the Gospel of Wealth Christians. Those “Christians” have usurped control of America’s religious institutions against those who are fighting a noble cause in spite of grossly unequal resources.

    The Unitarians are nice people. There is an array of Unitarian congregations nearby and my wife, more a deist than an atheist like me, might be at home there. “Anything goes” religion is what it feels like to me and I am simply too conservative, in a stricter sense of the word, to go for all of that.

    Manny (my son for those, unlike Janice, who haven’t met him) is in a Quaker school and I am known for saying that their claim that the light of God exists within every person, full stop, is such a positive claim that I will not object to it. My fundamental motivation for calling myself an atheist is that too many people assert that God exists within them and not adequately within other people. This assertion is a motive, or excuse, for discrimination, coercion, and abuse, too often rising to the level of violence. While I admire them in many ways and share many of their values, there is simply no way I can join them because, at the end of the day, they are theists and I am not.

    The Ethical Society is probably where I belong. Reinventing the wheel when a perfectly fine one exists doesn’t make sense.

  • If you parse the replies to your question, and your question itself, you will find the three answers Plato provided in “Crito” to why Socrates will not flee his execution. The three answers to why we do what is right are basically:

    1. We do what is right because it is right.
    2. We do what is right because we want to see ourselves as people who do what is right.
    3. We do what is right for rewards and fear of punishment.

    I like to think of myself as someone motivated by the first, second and third, in that order. But it is not always the case that I succeed.

  • Dan, give the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia a try. Their leader, Hugh Taft-Morales, is a great, friendly guy whose company I enjoy. He’s a wonderful speaker. He is on the Delaware Valley AU Chapter’s Clergy Advisory Board, and DVAU meets bimonthly at the Ethical Society Building on the 1st Weds (every other month). They do more than just sit around on Sundays. Your wife will like it there too.

  • Hitler said he was a Christian and was motivated by his beliefs to do the things he did. It’s very easy to find quotes on the topic. Sure, he got mad at the Church when the winds of history changed and it was clear he would lose and they decided to be critical. The soldiers who invaded Poland were blessed by cardinals and prayed for by Lutheran ministers when they paraded in Berlin prior to the invasion. Stalin was a seminarian. Stalin, BTW, begged the US, England and France to stop supporting Hitler I’m the early 30’s. Whatever we may accuse him of, the hands of Christians are not exactly clean in it.

    Pop Pot? Which government assassinated two of his predicessors and threw his nation into a bloody civil war just to get Cambodia’s government into the Vietnam war? That blood is on America’s hands too.

  • We’ve been there many times, besides my never having missed a joint event there with us. Susan wishes there were more younger people there and more people for Manny to hang out with. We think Hugh’s wonderful.

  • Yes, and clearly that’s what we run around doing all day. You’ll notice that most murderers are religious people who think they can still get into Heaven if they’re really, really sorry about what they did. It’s the truth, look it up.

  • You can’t be serious. Most murders are religious people? The worst murderers in history were atheists. Joseph Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong…THAT’S the truth so YOU look it up!!

  • Dear Mr. Hoffman, I’m a reporter in Philadelphia reporting a story about efforts to start a Sunday Assembly in Philly. If you’re interested in being interviewed please email me: [email protected] Thanks, Elizabeth