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After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last?
Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have begun to franchise their "godless congregations."
January 4th, 2014
09:00 AM ET

After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last?

By Katie Engelhart, special to CNN

LONDON (CNN) - The Sunday Assembly was riding high.

The world’s most voguish - though not its only - atheist church opened last year in London, to global attention and abundant acclaim.

So popular was the premise, so bright the promise, that soon the Sunday Assembly was ready to franchise, branching out into cities such as New York, Dublin and Melbourne.

“It’s a way to scale goodness,” declared Sanderson Jones, a standup comic and co-founder of The Sunday Assembly, which calls itself a “godless congregation.”

But nearly as quickly as the Assembly spread, it split, with New York City emerging as organized atheism’s Avignon.

In October, three former members of Sunday Assembly NYC announced the formation of a breakaway group called Godless Revival.

“The Sunday Assembly,” wrote Godless Revival founder Lee Moore in a scathing blog post, “has a problem with atheism.”

Moore alleges that, among other things, Jones advised the NYC group to “boycott the word atheism” and “not to have speakers from the atheist community.” It also wanted the New York branch to host Assembly services in a churchlike setting, instead of the Manhattan dive bar where it was launched.

Jones denies ordering the NYC chapter to do away with the word “atheism,” but acknowledges telling the group “not to cater solely to atheists.” He also said he advised them to leave the dive bar “where women wore bikinis,” in favor of a more family-friendly venue.

The squabbles led to a tiff and finally a schism between two factions within Sunday Assembly NYC. Jones reportedly told Moore that his faction was no longer welcome in the Sunday Assembly movement.

Moore promises that his group, Godless Revival, will be more firmly atheistic than the Sunday Assembly, which he now dismisses as “a humanistic cult.”

In a recent interview, Jones described the split as “very sad.” But, he added, “ultimately, it is for the benefit of the community. One day, I hope there will soon be communities for every different type of atheist, agnostic and humanist. We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there'll be congregations for every godless palate."

Nevertheless, the New York schism raises critical questions about the Sunday Assembly. Namely: Can the atheist church model survive? Is disbelief enough to keep a Sunday gathering together?

Big-tent atheism

I attended my first service last April, when Sunday Assembly was still a rag-tag venture in East London.

The service was held in a crumbly, deconsecrated church and largely populated by white 20-somethings with long hair and baggy spring jackets (a group from which I hail.)

I wrote that the Assembly “had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our ‘priest’ wore pink skinny jeans.”

I judged the effort to be “part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.”

The central idea was attractive enough. The Assembly described itself as a secular urban oasis, where atheists could enjoy the benefits of traditional church - the sense of community, the weekly sermon, the scheduled time for reflection, the community service opportunities, the ethos of self-improvement, the singing and the free food - without God. I liked the vibe and the slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

Shortly thereafter, Assembly services began bringing in hundreds of similarly warm-and-fuzzy nonbelievers. The wee East London church grew too small, and the Assembly moved to central London’s more elegant Conway Hall.

The Assembly drew criticism, to be sure—from atheists who fundamentally object to organized disbelief, from theists who resent the pillaging of their texts and traditions. But coverage was largely positive - and it was everywhere.

In September, a second wave of coverage peaked, with news that the Assembly was franchising: across England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States and Australia. That month, the founders launched a crowd-funding campaign that aims to raise $802,500. (As of mid-December, less than $56,000 had been raised.)

Still, prospective Sunday Assembly franchisers seemed exhilarated. Los Angeles chapter founder Ian Dodd enthused that he would “have a godless congregation in the city of angels.” In November, his inaugural Assembly drew more than 400 attendees.

But as the atheist church grew, it began to change—and to move away from its atheism.

“How atheist should our Assembly be?” wrote Jones in August. “The short answer to that is: not very.”

Pippa Evans, Assembly’s other co-founder, elaborated: “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity. But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations.”

Warm-and-fuzzy atheism gave way to not-quite atheism: or at least a very subdued, milquetoast nonbelief. Sunday services made much mention of “whizziness” and “wonder”—but rarely spoke of God’s nonexistence.

The newer, bigger Sunday Assembly now markets itself as a kind of atheist version of Unitarian Univeralism: irreligious, but still eager to include everyone.

In a way, this is a smart move. According to the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, but just a fraction of those identify as atheists.

A godless congregation is likely to draw crowds if it appeals to what Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, calls “big-tent” atheism, which includes “agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, nontheists, anti-theists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, materialists, ignostics, apatheists, and more.”

But atheists who wanted a firmly atheist church—a Sunday Assembly where categorical disbelief is discussed and celebrated—will not be satisfied.

As the Sunday Assembly downplays its atheism, it also appears increasingly churchlike.

Starting a Sunday Assembly chapter now involves a “Sunday Assembly Everywhere accreditation process,” which grants “the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.”

Aspiring Sunday Assembly founders must form legal entities and attend “training days in the UK,” sign the Sunday Assembly Charter and pass a three- to six-month peer review. Only then may formal accreditation be granted.

This is not an East London hipster hyper-localism anymore.

Selling swag and charisma

Organized atheism is not necessarily new. French Revolutionaries, for instance, were early atheist entrepreneurs.

In 1793, secularists famously seized the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, to build a “Temple of Reason.” They decorated the church with busts of philosophers, built an altar to Reason, lit a torch of Truth - and brought in an actress to play Liberty.

A half-century later, French philosopher Auguste Comte drew acclaim for his “religion of humanity,” which imagined an army of secular sages ministering to secular souls. London has hosted formal atheist gatherings for almost as long.

History suggests, then, that there is nothing inherently anti-organization about atheism. As Assembly’s Sanderson Jones puts it, “things which are organized are not necessarily bad.”

To be sure, Sunday Assembly members in the United States say they've long wanted to join atheist congregations.

Ian Dodd, a 50-something camera operator in Los Angeles, had long been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church; he enjoyed it, but wanted something more explicitly irreligious.

Nicole Steeves of the Chicago chapter found herself yearning for a secular community—a “place to check in and think about things bigger than the day-to-day”—after having her first child.

But it is one thing to support an atheist "church" - where the ‘c’ is small and the effort is local - and another to back an atheist ‘Church’ that is global and centralized.

The former responds directly to the needs and fancies of its community. The latter assumes that its particular brand of disbelief is universally relevant—and worthy of trademark.

Centralized atheism also feeds hungrily on charisma, and Sanderson Jones, who resembles a tall, bearded messiah - and who, despite the SA recommendation that Assembly hosts should be regularly rotated, dominates each London service - provides ample fuel.

But it remains to be seen whether the Sunday Assembly’s diluted godlessness is meaty enough to sustain a flock.

“Because it is a godless congregation, we don’t have a doctrine to rely on,” explains Sunday Assembly Melbourne’s founder, “so we take reference from everything in the world.”

So far, Assembly sermonizers had included community workers, physicists, astronomers, wine writers, topless philanthropers, futurologists, happiness experts, video game enthusiasts, historians and even a vicar. The pulpit is open indeed.

My own misgivings are far less academic. I’m simply not getting what the Sunday Assembly promised. I’m not put off by the secular church model, but rather the prototype.

Take an October service in London, for example:

Instead of a thoughtful sermon, I got a five-minute Wikipedia-esque lecture on the history of particle physics.

Instead of receiving self-improvement nudges or engaging in conversation with strangers, I watched the founders fret (a lot) over technical glitches with the web streaming, talk about how hard they had worked to pull the service off, and try to sell me Sunday Assembly swag.

What’s more, instead of just hop, skipping and jumping over to a local venue, as I once did, I now had to brave the tube and traverse the city.

Back in New York, Lee Moore is gearing up for the launch of Godless Revival - but still speaks bitterly of his time with the Sunday Assembly network.

Over the telephone, I mused that the experience must have quashed any ambition he ever had to build a multinational atheist enterprise.

“Actually,” he admitted, “we do have expansion aims.”

Katie Engelhart is a London-based writer. Follow her at @katieengelhart or www.katieengelhart.com.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Church • Faith • Houses of worship • Leaders

soundoff (4,535 Responses)
  1. snowboarder

    I'm an atheist, but they look like a bunch of hipsters.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:02 am |
    • G to the T

      Too true. Hipsters are a great example of what people will look back on and shake their heads about.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm |
  2. DowMan57445744

    While congregating might sound hypocritical, it does serve a few purposes. Since the religious nuts have so much influence over governments we need to group together to assure checks and balances. It's great publicity for us. And we should receive the same tax right offs as the religious folks in order to show the absurdity of such tax breaks. In a perfect world, Atheists congregations should all disband once we gain equal footing, like we have in some European countries. But, just like in religion, people will hijack it for financial gain and in-fighting will be problematic.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:02 am |
    • DGW

      Which only proves that the superiority that atheists claim is completely bogus. They are like every other human being - prone to foolishness and illogical nonsense.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:08 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Atheists don't claim to be superior, liar. Does your god appreciate your lies because it's not as big a deal when it is toward atheists?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:10 am |
  3. Gawd

    It's time to put an end to this absurd, magical, religious nonsense.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |
    • adfjpjijljil

      By forming an absurd, non magical things ?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am |
      • Gawd

        By living in reality and not some fantasy world.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:05 am |
  4. Donna

    Atheist and church in the same sentence? Thats a oxymoron.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
    • Ole Olay

      What is a purpose of such a 'church'?? Just get together and discuss how they don't believe in things that they think don't exist??? Hilarious. Bunch of loosers, have nothing better to do

      January 5, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  5. adfjpjijljil

    A belief is a belief. You call it a God, or you call it an Atheist, a belief is a belief.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:59 am |
    • tony

      I don't believe.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |
    • Gawd

      I don't believe you either. Atheism is the lack of belief in an imaginary guy in the sky.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
      • JeniW

        Who taught you "guy in the sky?" Maybe that person(s) was wrong.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:11 am |
  6. adfafd

    I remember a history lesson. A wise King decided that every religion in existence was mixed with good and bad. So he decided to form the most perfect religion of all by taking only "good" parts of all existing religions at the time. Alas, he didnt realize that he was just adding one more religion, which will end up with both "good" and "bad" in the times to come. That what he did just added another religion to the list.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
    • tony

      I don't believe you.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
    • igaftr

      Except for the fact that atheism is not a religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:02 am |
  7. Scott

    ROLF! 🙂

    January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
  8. Tony

    These are not churches, unless they are worshipping themselves...

    January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
    • wilf

      They could be churches if they worshiped humanity. But alas they are churches because they worship money

      January 5, 2014 at 11:08 am |
  9. tony

    Those two are just another pair of the usual religious pastor/con-folk who figiure out that running a church is an easier way to make a living than working.

    But the church-denomination market is getting saturated, so they tjhough they could con afew atheists instead. It isn't working.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
  10. Mary

    Isn't " atheist church" an oxymoron?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
    • Dan

      They shouldn't use the word "church". That should be reserved for the place where gullible sheep go every Sunday and hand over 10% of their income to child-molesting charlatans.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
    • Alias

      Depends on your concept of 'church'.
      i always thought a 'christian scientist' was an oxymoron, until I learned how low the bar could be set for scientists.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
    • Sam

      Yes it is. It's like vegetarians who eat tofu that tastes like turkey for thanksgiving. Really?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:10 am |
      • Ann

        What's wrong with that? (Not that I particularly care for it, myself.)

        January 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm |
  11. Harley

    "It is appointed to all men [and women] to die...and then the judgement." (Hebrews 9:27)
    I'm guessing that my atheist friends are banking on the Bible quote above NOT coming true. Can you just imagine the looks on their faces when they find out (on that day) that it WAS true? Ouch...

    January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
    • tony

      The trouble (for you) is, that you'll never know.

      How was heaven for the eternity before your soul became a human foetus?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:59 am |
    • sybaris

      Quoting the bible is like an 8 year old stabbing at you with their pretend Star Wars light saber.........cute and ineffective

      January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
    • JGN

      Oh, did you write that? No, I remember, some king wrote it about 500 years ago and put it in a book he called the bible.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
    • snowboarder

      the bible is a collection of myths and fables. we don't expect any of it to come true.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
    • One one

      No worse than Christians discovering that Allah is the real god and they were wrong all along.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:06 am |
    • WhenCowsAttack

      Just another loving Christian creaming his pants imagining other human beings tortured and burned for all eternity.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:07 am |
    • wilf

      After death one has no face it turn to dust.even if you believe in a god you have to admit your body will have decade

      January 5, 2014 at 11:12 am |
    • dm

      "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." - Yoda, Star Wars 😉

      January 8, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
  12. truth be trolled

    A when a standup comic founds a church based on no religion, you really HAVE to know something isn't going to work out.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
  13. Dan

    There is no god. Grow up.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:54 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      But you can't say that, people will start to kill, rob and enslave one another..Oh wait a minute...

      January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
    • Kuta

      Proof of a Godless universe?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
      • tony

        We're here.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |
        • DGW

          Same argument that Creationists use. You'll have to do better.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:10 am |
      • sybaris

        considering that pesky lack of evidence for any god of any religion it is more honest to say that there is "probably" not a god

        January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am |
      • One one

        It's a fair question. But How do you go from "proof of godless universe" to instead, believing an invisible magic man had an evil talking snake tempt a woman, made from a rib, to disobey him, whereby he punishes all future humanity, then later changes his mind and decides to lift his curse by impregnating a human woman with himself and having himself tortured, killed, and raised from the dead, and if you believe all that, you get to live forever in heaven after you die, but if you don't, he will torture you in hell forever ?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:11 am |
    • Rob S

      How do you know there is no God? What I think you mean to say is "I don't believe there is a God".

      January 5, 2014 at 11:08 am |
    • JeniW

      Why does it matter to you that people do believe in God? Does that make it acceptable to disrespect those who do believe?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:15 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Do we have to respect them and if so why?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:16 am |
      • One one

        Great question. It's one thing for people to believe a magic man killed himself to save us from his wrath of eternal torture after death, and that if you do not believe this, god will send you to hell to burn forever. But it's quite another to teach this to other people's children and use them to promote your religious enterprise by trying to put prayer, creationism, "one nation under god", and the ten commandments in schools and other public places.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:27 am |
  14. eric

    Like moths to a flame, atheists are to God.

    They are becoming the very thing they mock and condescend to lol.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Dan

      You believe in an invisible magician in the sky, talking snakes, people rising from the dead and walking on water, magical ribs, etc.

      LOL

      January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
    • tony

      I'm an atheist and I wouldn't dream of going to their or any other "godless church".

      They don't represent any atheists I know of.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am |
      • One one

        I agree, there is something about it that bothers me. Kind of reminds me of the hippy communes. That didn't last either.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:16 am |
    • bob

      So, you're too thick to see the satire in a bunch of athiests making an athiest church for the express purposes of making cash money?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:06 am |
      • DGW

        Yes. Satire. That's what it is.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:11 am |
    • One one

      That is just soooo deep. I'm impressed !

      January 5, 2014 at 11:14 am |
  15. stefonte

    For belivers, there is a core, a base, a foundation, rules and many factions.
    I am a non believer but I do not need the community of other non believers...there is no need to gather because there is no core, base or foundation, there is just life (to live). Our reasons of non-believe are different.
    I have a large circle of family/friends but I dont care what they believe in, because if it gets you through your day then its good for you. The demographic of those that attend these new churches seems as if they are searching for answers because they dont know themselves what to believe; they just don't want to believe in that (christ, buddah, etc). And they go to find structure, well there is no structure to not believing, thats the point. I dont know lol

    January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Scott

      The only salient comment in this thread, my applause to you.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:56 am |
    • Jim Jimson

      Agree. I do not need other people to agree with my atheism and certainly I don't need to celebrate it at a weekly meeting. There is no God, there never has been and there never will be. I don't think about religion from one month to the next until some lunatic religious type starts spouting the bible or some other religious credo as 'truth' – give me a break

      January 5, 2014 at 10:59 am |
    • Dan

      Maybe they just want to hang out with people that don't spew religious nonsense all day.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
  16. Scott

    Will there be an article next week about the quadruple-amputee wrestling federation? I think the best part of this fluff piece is that it is meant to give Christians the fuel to have a conversation with recruits, er, i mean (ahem), atheist co-workers. Now you can be condescending and full of crap all at the same time. Brilliant efficiency. CNN needs to get out of the Faith-promoting game.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Scott

      Please keep in mind that not all religious people are "condescending" in the same manner that not all atheists are venom spewing religion haters like Dan.

      Scott
      Another Scott 😉

      January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am |
  17. Erik

    Atheists are just as bad as religious folk if they have congregations, and that they are so fixated in believing there is no god when there is much proof of that as there being a god.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Scott

      No, you're wrong. Definitely way way more proof that there isn't one, have you seen the scoreboard recently?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:54 am |
      • Kuta

        Can't wait to hear this one. What proof is there (besides theories) to rebut the anthropic universe?

        January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          It's easier and much more honest to admit that we don't know than to make the silly claim that some invisible and undetectable sky wizard chanted the universe into existence over six days with magic spells.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        I don't see any proof that there is no god, I just see that the people who claim that there is a god have no proof at all, so the logical stance is rejection of the claim. God is obviously invisible, undetectable, and seemingly irrelevant, so it only makes sense to disbelieve.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:59 am |
        • tony

          The collection plates is prettry goog indication.

          Somehow all of god's other creatures survived this world for thousand/millions of years . But you don't see animals running around with collection plates do you?

          January 5, 2014 at 11:10 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          So when a club collects money, it means that the object of the club really exists? So if I form a club about unicorns, and at some point pass a collection plate, unicorns will suddenly exist?? YAY!!!!! Unicorns are going to be real!!

          January 5, 2014 at 11:12 am |
    • tony

      Atheists don't. These are just the usual religious faker/con-men

      January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
  18. Donah

    all in all we are different... I am I... and you are YOU and "if" we meet... it´s wonderful... so said Suzie... and I second thát.... Donah..//

    January 5, 2014 at 10:52 am |
  19. Loth

    Is disbelief enough to keep a Sunday gathering together? – No. But the desire to commune with others of your own way of thinking, outside of a church, is. The desire to be "out of the closet" and not marginalized or looked down upon, is.

    This group is fracturing because of commercialism. The "founders" are cashing in. Sad.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:52 am |
    • tony

      That was their obvious intention from the start.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:05 am |
  20. Saifuddin Ansari

    to unite you need a common believe. to believe in no god could be a common believe, but you need to convince youself that everything exists itself without any constructive plan. if you can't then you can not stay with your firm believe. to believe in one and only Almighty God would set you free, and unite your hearts.
    there is an accountability of your actions and you will be rewarded accordingly.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:51 am |
    • sybaris

      which god?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Alias

      Wouldn't improving the community be a cause worth uniting for?
      Oh, wait, you already said "to unite you need a common believe", as if that were a fact or something.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:56 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Why would an atheist need to believe that everything exists without a constructive plan?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
    • JGN

      Not being burdened with 'one god' is exactly what has set me free. I'm not sure how you can possibly have your eyes open and view what humans on earth do as' constructive'; I see us as an incredibly destructive race bound to destroy the planet we live on. I suppose it might provide some comfort if I believed there were either a god to fix this mess or someplace to go after this planet has become uninhabitable, but I prefer to keep my awareness of the vast difficulties in hopes we might find some solutions, rather than waiting for the all-mighty daddy to fix our broken toys.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.