home
RSS
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. Rabbit Food

    I am not an atheist. I am also not a believer in any organized religion. That said the concept of an atheist "church" is flawed. To think that people can form a group based on a common belief, even one that I disagree with is reasonable. To form a group based on a non-belief is just silly.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
    • bostontola

      Why? The central idea is community, not belief or lack thereof.

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

        Exactly – there's no "higher" purpose, the only purpose is to hang out with like-minded people. Similar to a motorcycle fan club.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:46 am |
        • Rabbit Food

          Reasonable point. Better come up with something other than a church to call it then.

          January 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
        • Steel On Target

          Some people call them "Societies" and there are a number of them scattered around the US and world already.

          January 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm |
    • Doris

      I think it depends on what the group meets for aside from their non-belief. Maybe they would like to work with other atheists on charitable projects in their community. I'm not much myself for the church scene, but as someone else pointed out, the Unitarian Universalist churches have been operating this way in some areas to include atheists for quite some time.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:45 am |
  2. Gregg

    Many atheist groups are really hate groups. Do your own thing, fine. But if you mostly exist to criticize people of faith, you are indeed a hate group. If you are an atheist, and you can't stop talking about God or copying a church, you are a hate group. If your primary reason for existence is to oppose something, you are a hate group.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
    • bostontola

      How did you conclude that is what these groups are doing? Assuming with no basis, trademark of religion.

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

      Not a hate group. Just a group of people that point out stupid, irrational beliefs.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:42 am |
    • One one

      Most Christians believe all atheists will be sent to hell to be tortured for all eternity. And They worship a god they believe will send them there. Therefore they must approve and feel atheists deserve it. Therefore, most Christian denominations are hate groups.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:47 am |
    • snowmom7

      If you oppose bigotry, prejudice, discrimination you are a hate group? If you herald equal rights, respct and tolerance, you are a hate group?

      January 5, 2014 at 3:58 pm |
  3. Cameron

    One might think that people holding hands in the belief of nothing is mental masturbation at its finest, but then an article is written about a division in the way to believe nothing. The entire concept is no more cute in action than it was on the tee-shirt down at the head shop.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
  4. Pheadrus

    Where I agree that a congregation of like minded individuals meeting to discuss those things related to atheism might have some value, I disagree that it should be called a ‘church’. The strict definition of ‘church’, even with the more liberal use of the word in today’s hackneyed prose, there remains a religious attachment that smacks of absurd contradiction in the context of non-belief. Absurdity should be left to those who choose to believe in the illogical.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
  5. Jim

    Hey genius, calling religious people brainwashed do not exclude you even if you claim to be atheist. In fact atheists are just as self righteous, brainwashed and bigoted as "religious" people.

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

      No, genius, they are not. They are just rational human beings that reject stupidity.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
  6. eddierukab

    Why do they assemble? Is it so they can glorify no God? Dumb!

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

      $$$$$$$$

      January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
  7. Nathan

    From the year 2323:
    Godless Pastor: "Ahhhh, yes. The Great Bikini Bar Schism of 2013. It was a crucial moment in the non-church's history indeed. Gather round children while I tell you the story of how our congregation settled upon its sacred thong vestments and Dollar Pint Night Communion services."

    January 5, 2014 at 11:39 am |
  8. Steel On Target

    The word atheist and church never belong in the same sentence like that. Its just silly to try to treat atheism as if it was a religious organization. Atheism is nothing more than the normal mental state of all human beings until someone tells them differently or they create something on their own. Its not about doctrines that's for sure.

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

      I agree. Church is a misnomer. A gathering place would be better.

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

        Why do they have to gather? They celebrate the great nothing?

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

          It's good to hang out with like-minded people that understand that religion is idiotic.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:44 am |
  9. JeniW

    People are taught certain expectations of, and about God. When God is perceived as meeting our expectations, that confirms our expectations. The same is when God is perceived as not meeting our expectations, we are disappointed, angry, then decide that God does not exist. Perhaps it what we are taught to expect of God is flawed or at fault.

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

      A simple reading of the bible was enough proof to me that men created it since it has so many flaws. If there is a god, it certainly is not what is in the bible, unless god is as severly flawed as the bible.

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

        The Bible was written by men, for men, about men. Since humans are naturally flawed, then it should be expected that some teachings would be flawed.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
      • lngtrmthnkr

        some people project a severly flawed picture of God and the Bible also can be distorted and show an inacurate picture.The only true image of God is the one you have as an individual,having accepted him into your life and seeing the truth of his character for yourself. But the hard part is having the will to open up to him in the face of his distorted image(distorted by others)

        January 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
        • JeniW

          You are 100% correct.

          January 5, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • Damocles

      Eh, I can't speak for everyone obviously, but I don't think that's true most of the time.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:41 am |
  10. Jim

    Turning a buck is their religion. Why does a atheist need a church? I hope none of the true atheists fall victim to these vultures. I am catholic and believe you have a right to your own beliefs, but church and atheist do not mix. But money grubbing vulture and this BS approach to "church" sure does. Don't claim to be a atheist then worship anything.

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

      Actually, Jim, church and atheist can and do mix–at most Unitarian Universalist churches. I'm an atheist UU. I started attending in order to take my grandchildren to the R E program there–so they would never be so spiritually needy or ignorant that they could be drawn into a cult or any extremist or militant religion. My congregation has atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, agnostics, even liberal Christians, along with assorted humanists, transcendentalists, and others. I love the people and the intellectualism of the sermons and discussions. There is no dogma in UUism; however, there are principles that draw people together. Most members were raised in other religions (I'm a former Methodist), but found their true home in UUism–including the atheists.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:53 am |
  11. Rich

    I thought one of the perks of being an atheist is that you don't have to go to church.

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

      Well, you don't have to. That's the point.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:38 am |
  12. BigBankTheory

    It's always good to hang out with like-minded people that are not brainwashed stupid (like religious people), but obviously this approach is not working.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:36 am |
  13. Johnny 5

    As an atheist, I would still rather spend my Sundays, or whatever day, with family or friends outside of any church of any type. Churches are for napping and lowsy singers.

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

      I agree. Why go to church if you are an atheist?

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

        Sense of community. Social connections. Discovery of like-minded individuals. Support network in times of need. Etc. Lots of reasons to congregate besides actual worship of an actual god. "Church" provides many benefits beyond the god thing.

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

      At least we know all atheist churches are truly non-prophet.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:39 am |
    • Good one

      And especially LOUSY spellers.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
  14. Thomas Bayes

    I have attended conventions with an atheist slant, but I've never heard of an atheist church.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:34 am |
  15. Lou

    Donations – Check.

    Centralization – Check.

    Weird charismatic hipster figure – Check.

    Sectarian infighting – Check.

    Yup, sounds like a church to me. A social club where atheists such as myself can get together and discuss philosophy, science, and ideology sounds interesting. But the idea of an atheist church sounds ridiculous and unsettling.

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

      I applaud your honesty. Keep your $$ in your pocket, these guys want it.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:45 am |
  16. lesWS

    Most (but not quite all) atheists I read, hear, know . . . when they offer the rationale for their beliefs/nonbeliefs one almost always hears some complaint about the evils, stupidity, delusions, etc. of religion and the religious.

    To such "atheists" I suggest: LOGIC please. If you are an atheist, then your rationales for being so should describe why a model of creation is best explained other ways than with some sort of consciousness guiding creation's formation.

    But if your atheist impetus is religion, stop calling yourself an atheist and properly identify yourself as an antireligionist.

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

      No – it's not necessary to provide answers to what many consider the unknown to justify an atheist calling themselves just that.

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

        Agreed. My main point was that religion has nothing to do with whether there is a God or there isn't one.

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

          Ah – sorry lesWS – I see your point now.

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

      Really? The atheists I know simply do not believe in any gods.

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

        Lol, then you don't know many. The web is full of "atheists" in forums ranting about religion. Some of them are ranting right here.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:47 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          It would seem that an atheist can be someone who simply does not believe in gods AND "rants" about religion sometimes.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:51 am |
  17. Rod C. Venger

    The Church needs a band, man. It could be called, "No Direction"

    January 5, 2014 at 11:33 am |
  18. Theodore Hyczko

    What do you think will happen if you mock God

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

      which god?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:35 am |
      • Christian7

        The only One.

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

          Neo?

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

          There are about 400 "one true" gods out of the thousands me have worshipped...can you be more specific?

          January 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
        • G to the T

          And you don't even know his name?

          January 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm |
    • igaftr

      The same as will happen when I mock Dumbledore...the EXACT same thing.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:37 am |
    • Rabbit Food

      Nothing?

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

      The real question is what do you think is going to happen, Theodore? That concerns me more.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:48 am |
  19. Jen B

    Anybody want to join my atheist church? This Sunday we'll be going to a matinee showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Next Sunday, weather permitting, we'll try for a morning hike in the woods with coffee and hot donuts afterwards 🙂

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

      wow – you certainly put a lot of thought into that I see..... (eyeroll)

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

        I think she's being sarcastic, Doris (facepalm)

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

          OK – I'll head for an extra cup of coffee. 🙂

          January 5, 2014 at 11:48 am |
    • LouAZ

      “I can not understand why ministers presume to deliver sermons every week at appointed hours because it is humanly impossible for inspirations to come with clock-like regularity” – Sinclair Lewis

      January 5, 2014 at 11:35 am |
  20. Tonu

    Liked the article. I am a Jesus follower, and I think what they are attemting to do is great. I encourage all of you to examine your unbelief, research it, jump into it with both feet. Quit hiding in the shadows. But please, try to get a handle on your anger at those of us who a re believers. You anger will never produce a satisfying life. If your unbelief brings you peace, great.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:30 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Interesting. So those atheists that do not have anger concerning god belief or religion don't receive any advice from you?

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

      Most Jesus followers don't bother me at all. Some do make me angry. These are the ones that want to impose their beliefs on others by laws and manipulation of science and history curricula in schools. I will actively oppose that.

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

      So you would sign a pet!ition to remove all of the unconst!tutional references to religion, and religious laws that are ubiquitous in this nation? Such as the lie on our money, the line in the Pledge of Allegience that even the pastor who wrote it did not have...etc

      In order to remove roadblocks to peace, we need your support to remove these references from OUR government.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:35 am |
    • One one

      I assume you believe all atheists will be sent to hell to be tortured for all eternity. And I assume you worship a god you believe will send them there. Therefore you must approve and feel they deserve it. That sounds angry to me.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:38 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49
Advertisement
About this blog

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.