A fascinating story from the Associated Press ran in several papers last week. It purported to chart the rise of a seemingly self-contradictory phenomenon: atheists who seem drawn to gather in church-like groups.  There are apparently a number of these around the world.  Members are reported to be pretty self-conscious about seeking the trappings of religion without the center figure of a “God.”  A photo that accompanied the story showed atheists at “worship,” a picture that could easily have been from any megachurch.

Atheism without God but with church?  It seems very different from many other trends, including the rising number—also noted in the story—who claim “no religion.” The story also links to the growing number who are “spiritual but not religious.”  These churched atheists seem to me to be more like the other side of that phenomenon, the small number who claim in surveys to be “religious but not spiritual.”  That is, rather than complying with the growing trend for religious people to be religious outside of formal structures, these atheists seem to want the structures, but not the spirituality, or the belief, or whatever we assume to be at the core of religion.

The reason this is so seemingly incoherent is because it is.  Atheists have a hard time being, well, “just atheist” in this culture.  America is swimming in religion, even today with growing numbers of unchurched.  Belief defines American culture, and the absence of belief is very hard to maintain.  Many atheists find themselves having to portray their atheism as a kind of belief, not as a rejection of belief.

This is evidence of the conditioning frame of religion in the culture and yes, in the media.  The mediation of religion has presented a form—the megachurch—which is the definitive current form.  Its mediation also conveys symbols and gestures of “the religious,” a conditioning frame that determines the terms of discourse about religion and about irreligion.  So, like religious authorities who must today exist in a mediated public frame, these megachurched atheists find themselves adapting that frame to an argument for a kind of religion without God.

That it is simply not a religion at all is testament to how determinative the mediated public religious sphere is.