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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. grinch

    As an atheist myself, the whole idea of an atheist congregation seems stupid and pointless. The Sunday assembly does sound like a cult.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:13 am |
    • Adman

      The Atheist looked at all the religions and what their people were doing... and exclaimed
      "Thank God I am an Atheist".

      January 5, 2014 at 11:49 am |
  2. Christian7

    "Only God is good." - Jesus Christ

    January 5, 2014 at 11:13 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      "Ye are all gods." --Jesus Christ

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

        which god?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:18 am |
      • Christian7

        Isaiah 45:5:
        "I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God"

        January 5, 2014 at 11:19 am |
        • snowboarder

          I think the followers of most gods have stated much the same thing.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:23 am |
        • sybaris

          That is the perfect illustration of circular logic

          January 5, 2014 at 11:33 am |
        • Christian7

          What circle?

          January 5, 2014 at 11:35 am |
        • sybaris

          Circular Logic/Circular Reasoning – A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:42 am |
        • dm

          Darth Vader: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force. 😛

          January 8, 2014 at 11:32 pm |
    • snowboarder

      @chis, not a single word supposedly uttered by the fabled Christ was written down within decades of his purported death, yet we have thousands of "direct" quotes. the veracity of the entire collection is clearly dubious.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:18 am |
      • myrtlemaylee

        Wrong again. There were quotes written down within decades of His death. Jesus is historically mentioned elsewhere. Please don't conflate opinion with fact.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:26 am |
        • snowboarder

          @myrtle, that is a blatant lie. there is no contemporary mention of this jesus character.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:32 am |
      • Christian7

        Matthew is considered to have written everything down as it happened. He was a tax collector with writing skills.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:32 am |
        • snowboarder

          @chris, the supposed gospel of matthew has been dated to about 70ad. two generations after the supposed events.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:33 am |
        • sybaris

          The authors of the gospels are unknown, not first hand accounts nor written when the alleged events occurred.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:47 am |
      • lngtrmthnkr

        boarder,not so dubious,in that era there was no media as we have today thus all information was relayed by word of mouth and passed down to generations. Story telling was the entertainment and knowledge of the day. So if somthing considered miraculus or unusual occured,it would be retold over and over.

        January 5, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
    • P666540

      Yet other religions establish very similar (nearly identical) moral guidelines with their (false, you claim) gods. How would you explain that? Don't you think that it is unfair for (your) God to condemn His creations to hell?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:25 am |
    • Christian7

      Wind me up again – I can say more things!

      January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
  3. athiest

    As the topic here is godless, it is pointless to discuss "Sunday services made much mention of “whizziness” and “wonder”—but rarely spoke of God’s nonexistence". Since it is non-exist, why speak of? Just speak of anything but god, that is the whole point and what athiesm means, right?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:12 am |
  4. Penn Jillette

    If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

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

      Rather an unscientific opinion. LOL. How can you possibly know what would happen in the scenario you outline? It's simply your opinion.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:29 am |
      • snowboarder

        science is of the observable word and religion is of the varied imaginations of men. there is nothing unscientific about that.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:37 am |
        • snowboarder

          "observable world"

          January 5, 2014 at 11:38 am |
      • bostontola

        10's of thousands of religions, 1 science. What is unscientific about that?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:40 am |
      • doobzz

        I am a scientist, and I've worked with hundreds of scientists from all over the world and nearly every religious belief or non belief you could name. Whatever their personal or religious beliefs might have been, we all did science the same way and it worked exactly the same way for each and every one of us.

        Science is observable, verifiable and repeatable. If all our science knowledge was suddenly wiped out, the physical world would still follow the same rules of science that it does today.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:55 am |
      • snowmom7

        Not his opinion at all, that is the thing about science, it is the rules of nature, whether humans are here to know it or not.

        January 5, 2014 at 3:50 pm |
        • Mopery

          But...but...god 'n stuffz!!!

          January 5, 2014 at 5:34 pm |
  5. Ray

    As an atheist/agnostic, I don't agree with the idea that atheism should be a church or a religion period. Let the Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, etc, go about their day, and everything should be alright.

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

      Agreed.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:15 am |
      • bostontola

        Lots of Christians choose to not go to church also.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:22 am |
  6. CommonSense

    Atheism is a religion. How ironic.

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

      How did you draw that conclusion?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:16 am |
  7. P666540

    Has your God smote any tribes in His wrath lately, or was that just a phase It went through in Deuteronomy?

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

      Apparently the christian god used George Bush to kill tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:20 am |
    • doobzz

      I was listening to a radio preacher the other day who was going on and on about the sin of homosexuality and how AIDS is god's judgement for it.

      He kept talking about how many millions of children have died from AIDS, and I couldn't help wondering why god was judging a bunch of babies for being homosexuals. It's even more cruel than when he drowned them all.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
  8. Kenman

    Only on this network would Godless Revival be a "Belief" blog subject; that's why your stock has dropped CNN, your anti-Christian, unwilling criticism of Islam that's killing people daily, and your anti-Americanism, is growing old and tired and you look just like all the other hateful, bitter, liberal propagandists that cannot maintain a decent audience in America, even with all the liberal backing you can find from far leftists like Soros!

    I know I'll hear now from your atheistic base, and it won't be kind, but who cares.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:09 am |
    • snowboarder

      soros? seriously? do people still listen to glenn beck?

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

      Interesting you list all those things...yet you come onto this site, read its stories and compelled to comment. I think the advertisers are paying attention to the fact that those who seem to dislike CNN are still coming by and checking it out. Cha-Ching $$$

      January 5, 2014 at 11:17 am |
  9. 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 |
    • Gordon

      How about it's a way for atheists to get together for social and educational reasons.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:17 am |
    • sybaris

      Apparently you're not much into socializing and stimulating discussion

      January 5, 2014 at 11:22 am |
      • doobzz

        Or spelling.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
  10. Alias

    Katie Engelhart wrote this article with an agenda.
    The way she uses 'church' is clearly meant to confuse and distrot the facts.
    These organizations do not exist to talk about the lack of a god, they want to bring the community together for the betterment of all involved. They do need a charismatic leader to thrive, but churches or any other organizations do as well.
    I hate propaganda.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  11. Religion?

    Without God you have ..........Chaos. The biggest argument against atheism is the atheist, what could a sermon possibly be about? You are a really good person well because Bob said so.....that's comforting.

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

      Fear of some magical guy in the sky is the only thing stopping you from causing chaos? That is pretty scary.

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

      without god you have chaos? who tells you these ridiculous things?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:14 am |
    • sybaris

      "Without God you have ..........Chaos"

      which god?

      Regardless, by your logic any non-christian region or country should be in total chaos and that is simply not the case

      January 5, 2014 at 11:31 am |
      • sybaris

        Chaos

        [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEl9kVl6KPc&w=640&h=360]

        January 5, 2014 at 11:43 am |
    • doobzz

      "You are a really good person well because Bob said so.....that's comforting."

      Well, at least "Bob" exists.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
  12. orangeboy

    There's an app that allows exploring whether god really exists. Might be something to use in group discussions in atheist "churches" and regular churches.
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=borland.doesgodexist

    January 5, 2014 at 11:07 am |
  13. Dana

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHbYJfwFgOU&w=640&h=360]

    January 5, 2014 at 11:06 am |
    • Science Works

      Bill gets to tell Ham to his face – Ham invited Bill to the creation museum for a debate.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:09 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Good.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:13 am |
      • snowboarder

        the creation museum? talk about fantasy land.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:15 am |
        • Science Works

          The video is the cause of said debate !

          Ham had been hoping to attract the star of TV’s “Bill Nye The Science Guy” to the northern Kentucky museum after Nye said in an online video last year that teaching creationism was bad for children. The video was viewed nearly 6 million times on YouTube.

          http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/creation-museum-in-ky-to-host-bill-nye-debate/2014/01/02/ecd41420-73cf-11e3-bc6b-712d770c3715_story.html

          January 5, 2014 at 11:37 am |
  14. Evert van Vliet

    Funny thing is that everybody mentions something which makes sense but then acoustics screw things up.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:06 am |
  15. DowMan57445744

    Thank God I'm an Atheist. Get it? He/She made me disbelieve, because He/She is telling me that He/She doesn't exist.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:05 am |
    • doobzz

      Did you think that one up all by yourself? Because it's only the hundred fifty thousandth time I've heard someone make that joke. Get it?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
  16. swohio

    The fact that they even refer to themselves as a "church" is beyond ludicrous. The very word "church" references a body of believers who worship God. Since atheists don't believe in God, and basically worship NOTHING, the very concept is a joke. Let them go into schism as much as they want. What does it ultimately matter?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:05 am |
  17. bostontola

    It is amusing to read some of the comments on atheism.

    Some try to make atheism and science equivalent. Why the talk about the acceptance of evolution as a reason atheism is wrong? Most atheists are not scientists. They tend to accept scientific results, but they are not the same. When people take ignorant shots at evolution they don't nick atheism, they reveal their own ignorance.

    Some criticize the use of the term church. Who cares what you call the meeting place? Would you prefer synagogue, or mosque?

    Some use the schism as evidence that atheism will collapse. There are over 40,000 Christian denominations.

    I've never met 2 Christians with exactly the same set of beliefs. I've never met 2 atheists with the same beliefs. So what, news flash, people have their own beliefs. They will congregate by similar beliefs and cultural priorities.

    Atheists that want to feel part of a community will congregate. As more atheists feel comfortable with their beliefs being public, communities will form. Some will form more agnostic communities, some more anti-theist, some in between. Some Christians will be threatened by this. They will worry that their children will see an alternative to their community. Christians have competed well for a long time. The RCC is prepared and is competing well with their new pope. I look forward to the US becoming a place where atheists can feel comfortable.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      "...people have their own beliefs. They will congregate by similar beliefs and cultural priorities."

      It's called politics, collectively we all make the same observations though.

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

      I agree, you are spot on. I'm looking forward to attending the first atheist meeting in my community!

      January 5, 2014 at 11:19 am |
  18. Shawn

    As an Atheist, I can say the leaders of this "church" are simply looking to dip into the same money schemes as the Catholic Church. And the "atheists" who fall for it are fools.

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

      They might be on to something. I always wanted to start a new religion to scam more people out of their money. People will believe anything if you tell them they will go to a nice place when they die instead of the reality (6 feet under).

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

      Soon we will have a Pope for the Atheist as soon as some money rolls in !

      January 5, 2014 at 11:37 am |
  19. stevie68a

    All religions are man made. The only accurate description of "god" is this: We are one. That "one" is the One.

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

      Science does tell us that we came from a single living human being (soul).. Religions say it was Adam.. the first man created. About the soul ... science does not know much at all. Mankind has progressed since centuries and we may be on Mars soon.. but yet we do not know about the soul much.

      Reality is.. the atheist is also going to go 6 feet under when he/she dies as are people of all religions. The body will decay and bones fragmented. What about the soul? Which religion has answers about the soul? Look for that.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:16 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Exactly as god is, the soul is invisible, undetectable, and irrelevant. Same for unicorns.....and sin.....and Easter Bunny.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:21 am |
        • Adman

          Easter bunny and unicorns may be non existent... but you as a human being knows that soul exists. Yet you don't know much about the soul as science has no ability to grasp the knowledge of the soul. No living man can deny that he has a body. You can see it, touch it, but the soul you cannot. You can only feel it.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:42 am |
      • snowboarder

        assuming there is even such a thing as a "soul".

        there is no particular reason to believe that there is. it seems ironic that there is no possible way to detect anything in the "religious" realm.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:22 am |
      • G to the T

        "Science does tell us that we came from a single living human being (soul)..." Ummm, no it doesn't. If you have a citation I'll take a look, but evolution doesn't work on the individual level it works at the species level. True, they've found evidence for a "mitochondrial eve" but that indicates a bottleneck in the gene pool, it was never intended to suggest she was the first "human".

        January 5, 2014 at 1:42 pm |
  20. Peter

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155388/dawning-of-the-sea-otters

    January 5, 2014 at 11:04 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.