Why atheist churches are parasites on true Christianity

Rev Gretta Vosper is an atheist but leads West Hill United Church in Toronto, Canada.

AW Tozer once wrote: "If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference."

There's a church in Toronto where they're determined to find out whether that's true. Its minister Gretta Vosper has been quite open about her lack of faith in a supernatural being for years, though it's only recently that she's called herself an atheist (in solidarity with bloggers in Bangladesh murdered for their lack of faith). But this was a step too far even for the famously liberal United Church of Canada, of which her church is a member, and much to her disgust she's facing a Church review body.

Vosper's approach ticks all the boxes in a post-Christian spiritual-but-not-religious world. An entirely one-sided Guardian report into the affair explains that for her, 'God' is a metaphor for goodness and an life lived with compassion and justice. Services at her church emphasise moral teachings rather than doctrine. "The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week." One man shares about his weight loss.

According to the article, the tipping point for the church was the decision to drop the Lord's Prayer in 2008, resulting in the congregation plunging from 120 to 40 (it's now around 100).

However, the ones who are left are all in favour, according to the Grauniad. "West Hill is the future of what religion will be like," says Jim Hyland (65). "We're thinking and saying what the rest of the world is scared to, but moving towards."

And recent addition Eve Casavant (44) was "delighted to find the same sort of church she had been raised in, save the burden of belief". "It's like that sense of community without the barriers," she says. "It's a beautiful thing and it is too bad it's not being as embraced as it should be."

I wrote recently about Vosper and West Hill, trying my level best to be fair and even doing a bit of philosophy. I applauded her honesty while concluding she was mistaken. But if this is the kind of thing that's being seriously said and written about the enterprise, it's time to call out nonsense for what it is. So here goes:

1. Some religions, like Buddhism, are vague on whether there's a God. Christianity is not one of them. 'Exist' is a tricky word, philosophically (I know, it's complicated) but if you think God is only a metaphor, you aren't a Christian in anything other than a cultural sense – like Richard Dawkins.

2. If you aren't a Christian, you shouldn't pretend you are. Don't have "services" for a non-existent God. Don't sing hymns you don't believe. Don't pretend to baptise people into a Church you aren't really part of. And don't keep land and property that was given by people who sincerely believed in the God you don't and use them to propagate beliefs that would horrify them.

3. Christianity is about more than global concern and community-building. It's about grace, forgiveness and redemption. Don't imagine you can keep the form of religion without its reality. It's like keeping the shine without the gold or the sparkle without the diamond.

4. Ditching the Lord's Prayer is incredibly arrogant. Part of being a Christian is that you don't get to choose which bits of it you like and which you don't. By all means argue – that's what theology is – but accept you stand in a historic tradition and you can't step outside it and still be a Christian.

5. West Hill is not the future of what religion will be like. It exists only as a parasitic growth on real Christianity. It's religion evacuated of power, reduced to a parody of itself, with no resources beyond the collective niceness of its members.

6. Beliefs are not burdens and doctrines aren't barriers. They help to define us. If you get rid of beliefs, you're left with nothing to belong to. And it's by examining our beliefs and probing our doctrines that we develop spiritual and intellectual depth and complexity. If we turn our backs on doctrine, all that defines us is what we used to believe – and that's not enough.

7. For goodness' sake, be honest. In England we have Sunday Assemblies, founded by Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, a nice man. He's an atheist who wanted the church experience without the religion bit, and it's caught on – but he doesn't call it church. I have no idea what they'd think of you, but they have every right to say the same: don't pretend to be something you aren't. 

8. You won't like this, but here it is: what you think is outmoded language about a non-existent God speaks to millions of people around the world. In countries that had left this primitive superstition behind, millions are adopting it enthusiastically. The future of Christianity doesn't lie with those who intellectualise it to the point where there's nothing left in it worth turning up for; it's with those who believe and trust that Jesus is their Saviour, and think it's worth devoting their lives to finding out what that means.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods