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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

    community is clearly a good thing and organizing for the purpose of protecting our rights is positive, but divisions upon belief or disbelief, like all other artificial divisions of humanity, is a waste.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:29 am |
  2. Todd

    Atheism=form of self worship. "There is no God but me!"

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

      @todd, of course that is a common fallacy that the simple minded fall for.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:29 am |
      • pugh7755

        "Simple Minded" the core requirement for atheism.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:36 am |
        • bostontola

          Really? The old " I know you are but what am I" comeback?

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

          @pug, yes because blindly following the unsubstantiatable claims of the religious is so much more enlightened.

          thanks for the laugh.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:39 am |
    • bostontola

      Atheism is a form of no worship for most atheists and agnostics.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:30 am |
    • One one

      I want a god who takes a personal interest in ME
      I want a god who makes sacrifices for ME
      I want a god who will always love ME
      I want a god who protects ME when life gets scary
      I want a god who validates MY values and beliefs to be 100% correct
      I want a god who gives ME easy answers to life's complicated questions
      I want a god who will let ME live forever after I die
      I want a god who will let ME look down at all those people who disagreed with me and watch them burn in hell

      You see, my faith is really all about ME

      January 5, 2014 at 11:32 am |
    • snowmom7

      Really? Because atheists are more self-absorbed than Christians? Take a look around, I doubt it.

      January 5, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
  3. Lance

    HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 5, 2014 at 11:27 am |
    • Ratpacker88888

      I've been an Atheist most of my life and this is the dumbest thing I have heard of.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:31 am |
  4. GAW

    Now what about The Church of the Sub-Genius?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:26 am |
  5. tim

    These atheists are adopting the worst aspects of religion. They participate in group mentality where others tell you what to think. A true atheist thinks for himself.

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

      So a person who values thinking for themselves wants to tell others how they should think?

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

      And doesn't join these nutty entrepreneurs.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:26 am |
  6. John316

    Any time some group gets " Organized" ...it's all over ...and becomes about power and money....just look at the "regular" churches if you want to call them that....they are all the same....just with a different label and marketing scheme...

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

      "Your Jedi mind tricks don't work on me, only money." - Watto, Star Wars

      January 8, 2014 at 11:41 pm |
  7. octopus

    I'm organizing a new movement – OAWFSR: organization of atheists who follow strict Sharia rules.

    please join us in our disbelief.

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

      The minute you mention the word Sharia... it has some religious connotations. And an Atheist will not join your church.
      To an Atheist his religion is "There is NO God".
      Actually the minute he says that... he is taking half the witness of Islam... which says "There is NO God.....
      the other half when completed reads "There is no God, but GOD".

      January 5, 2014 at 11:53 am |
  8. someguysarerude

    How can there exist an atheist church? Seems a major oxymoron, and doomed to failure anyway.

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

      Thats what many of thought about facebook – buit that's also a 100% commercial venture.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:24 am |
  9. cnet

    Hahaha....

    It's funny how Atheists use rifts in churches as a reason that religion is dumb. It didn't take long at all for their church to experience a rift. lol. They very fact that they even have a church proves that they are exercising their belief as a religion...the very thing they say they're against.

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

      They are not us.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:25 am |
  10. Unknowian

    Organized Atheists, are as dumb of an idea as Organized Religion.

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

      Why?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:24 am |
    • tony

      You're confusuing organized with "congregating" and "worship"

      January 5, 2014 at 11:27 am |
  11. GAW

    This article seems to me like one of those Man bites Dog stories.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:21 am |
  12. jerry kerr

    Me thinks that most of these people don't realize that their neighborhood Unitarian Universalist (UUs) congregations are populated by mostly atheists and agnostics, who would welcome them with open arms. The UUs worship justice, the Earth, equal rights, things like that, and the word "God" is seldom, if ever used in most Unitarian Universalist churches. They are proof that you don't need to believe in God to justify getting together on Sunday morning. The people described in this article are basically reinventing the wheel. I suppose they may be turned off by the fact that a UU church has a minister, but I assure you, that minister is an employee who specializes in reminding the members that everyone is equal. I wish these atheists the best and hope they consider joining our free-thinking tradition that fought these battles a long time ago. One of our founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was considered an atheist in his own day, and is now the most quoted person on the planet.

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

      Good point, jerry. And now, some words from an early American Unitarian:

      "The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

      Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind." –John Adams

      (from A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America [1787-1788])

      January 5, 2014 at 11:24 am |
  13. Williemojorisin

    atheist church ..........Am I the only one who find this ironic ?

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

      Only if you think that these guys actually have any signicant atheist followers.

      Note they aren't getting much support from atheists on thios list.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:23 am |
  14. Twist

    I don't understand the need to give economic structure to atheism. If you're godless, as I am, it doesn't require any effort or thought. Religion is simply not on your radar screen. If you're looking for a community, its out in the street.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:18 am |
    • no

      What groups do you belong to? Any teams? Committees? Do you meet for any reason on a regular basis with at least 1 other person for any reason at all? Same thing.

      January 9, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
  15. wilf

    how can a group tat believes in god have a rift. Christians Jews and Muslims worship same god

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

      All of those groups you mentioned have had rifts. It is estimated that there are over 41,000 different Christian sects, many of whom are quite ready to claim others are not Christians.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:21 am |
    • pugh7755

      Not quite wilf, Christians do not worship the same God as muslims.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:44 am |
      • tony

        So therte are two "one true god" 's ???

        January 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
  16. wilf

    realy

    January 5, 2014 at 11:16 am |
  17. sybaris

    The difference between me and your god is if I saw a baby being ra.ped I would try to stop it.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:15 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Indeed. Also, I couldn't spend an eternity partying with a being who allows eternal torture of any humans when he could stop it. I'd be in the corner vomiting when I wasn't pleading with god to end hell suffering for anyone he let go there. I guess I'd have to be a christian to be comfortable hanging out with such a disgusting deity.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:18 am |
      • are122

        There is little more amusing then people that don't want someone controlling their lives complaining that events in life are not controlled.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:34 am |
      • Tobie

        You do realize that Jews were still being exterminated in concentration camps after Hitler had been "stopped", don't you?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:40 am |
  18. Felipe

    Didn't South Park do an episode or two about this some years back?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:15 am |
  19. justin philpot

    how does a group that does not believe in God have a rift? this seems to me to be about a stupid as a human can get.

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

      By your logic no one should ever argue

      January 5, 2014 at 11:17 am |
  20. myrtlemaylee

    One would begin to think that God isn't the problem with religion any more than the absence of God is the problem with atheist churches. One might think that wherever human egos get together there are problems, schisms, disagreements, inefficiencies & worse.

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

      hence our political climate.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:19 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.