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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. Billy

    The God of the Christian Bible Thumper is an immoral concept. The alleged god of this type gives free will, but demands belief, when belief is only attained from ancient writings that are easily interpreted in different ways by people. It is an unclear path that has resulted in over 40,000 sects. Furthermore, a god of this type is allegedly an active god, that intervenes on its own terms and judges people at the end of their lives. If I possessed that type of divinity, I would intervene when a young girl is being raped. That's the difference between me and this type of god.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:54 am |
  2. BB

    There is no room for God in an atheist church.
    There is too much hubris inside.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:54 am |
    • bostontola

      Baseless assertion. Trademark of religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:56 am |
    • sam stone

      As opposed to the hubris of the christians who feel they know the mind of god?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:59 am |
    • tallulah13

      There is no room for god in an atheist "church" because atheists don't believe in god. Why do believers have such a difficult time with this concept?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
    • Defenestrater

      Fortunately, there is no hubris in theist churches.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
  3. Jack Baker

    Misotheism.com is the answer. In God we no longer trust.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:54 am |
  4. Mr Tings

    No self respecting atheist would waste their time with any of these activities. Sunday mornings are for sleeping in late.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:52 am |
    • bostontola

      No true Scotsman, very logical.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:55 am |
  5. drennui

    Why is this news? Why do we expect atheists and atheism to be different from any other group of believers?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:52 am |
  6. martin2176

    All in for the money

    January 5, 2014 at 11:52 am |
  7. Peruna

    So what do they "preach" at an Atheist "church"? How to be a smug, arrogant bigot? How to ridicule anyone who doesn't have the same non-belief as they do? How to think only for yourselves and not give a crap about Humanity? Do they celebrate the accomplishments their great "non" heroes of the 20th Century: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Obvious troll is boringly obvious with several strawmen. Yawn.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:53 am |
    • Lise

      Non sequitur. Well done. As well as fact-free.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:54 am |
    • mj_texas

      No, atheists don't sit around and congratulate themselves for the crimes committed by other atheists in the past - why would we? Christians do not go to church in order to celebrate the Crusades, the Witch Trials, or the Inquisition.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
  8. fullsailale

    NO!! they will not survive. atheism is not a religion. these people are all a joke, they are all fake.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
  9. Valerie

    Hahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

    January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
  10. Chet Wily

    The Good News about Jesus Christ – God's Son, coming into the world, dying on The Cross for the sins of the whole world, and providing a way back for an intimate personal relationship with The Father – is foolishness TO THOSE WHO ARE PERISHING... so sad for them... deceived by their father, Satan... who will drag them right down into Hell for Eternity... and they don't even know it.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
    • JWT

      Yawn.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:51 am |
    • One one

      Thanks for the heads up.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:59 am |
    • sam stone

      self loathing sycophant cvnt. if you have the guts, go meet jeebus now

      January 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm |
    • Jane doe

      LOL. Do you realize that is the kind of ridiculous drivel that educated and otherwise intelligent people laugh at? That kind of hateful nonsense is PRECISELY the reason why your church is dying.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  11. There. Are. No. Gods!

    This is hilarious! I think nothing, I mean nothing proves that religion is nothing more than a money making scheme than this article. Let me explain. You take a natural human condition (atheism) because lets face it we are ALL born with out belief in any gods, and make a congregation and franchise it into "your order" and what do you have??? Religion or business. Hahaha this article is great, thanks for the laughs!

    January 5, 2014 at 11:49 am |
  12. J P Sartre

    God died long ago. Last year we finally murdered Truth. Justice is next.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:49 am |
  13. a hard member

    idiots

    religious people are idiots

    now atheists are being idiots

    January 5, 2014 at 11:47 am |
  14. Bob

    Atheists share no common beliefs by definition. I'm not sure why as an atheist I'd go to a "church". I prefer to not believe in private.

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

      They go there to party, dummy.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:49 am |
    • bostontola

      That is your right.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Many people crave community, and while it is true that all one needs to be an atheist is to not believe in god, there exists the chance that other common beliefs, needs or community benefit could exist.

      Personally, I don't feel compelled to attend a regular service or gathering, no need to join a group for regular meetings. However, I do, on occasion feel the pull and will attend public functions of like minded groups when the need arises, usually for holy days like Beltane, Samhain, Yule.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:53 am |
    • Jan

      Churches are often less about religious belief than they are about social cohesion and belonging. Folks who do not embrace a supernatural deity need that every but as much as folks who share a belief in a particular, supernatural deity. In an age where our living and working situations often lack much shared community, atheists recognize that religious folks have something very valuable in their church communities and wish to emulate it WITHOUT the religious requirements. But building community is hard, and simply not believing in a deity is very little shared experience from which to build it, so this new "church" will have to split and develop more shared beliefs and experiences within each individual group if it is to succeed in being what folks who started this are trying to build.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm |
  15. Ed Simpson

    Let's see, for centuries people have been arguing (and slaughtering each other) over the "right" way to worship God, and now people are arguing over the right way NOT to worship God. Insanity.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:47 am |
    • One one

      That's because people argue over everything, regardless of the subject.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:52 am |
  16. Jim

    So you go to church to make fun at criticize people who go to church?

    January 5, 2014 at 11:46 am |
    • Jim

      Sorry meant "and criticize" not at.

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

        That still makes no sents.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:54 am |
    • myweightinwords

      So....because they don't believe in god, all they must be capable of doing when gathered together is make fun of those who do believe?

      Maybe you should find a humanist gathering near you and attend. You might be surprised at what you find. Likely a lot of talk about philosophy and ethics, morality and community. Not a lot of bashing of people who believe differently.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:55 am |
  17. BO

    I If you believe in nothing you will call for anything.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:46 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I can't imagine that anyone believes in nothing. That would be stupid. I know some people believe in an invisible, undetectable, and irrelevant god that has as much evidence as unicorns, but that's "something," even if it is just a fairy tale about some big invisible sky wizard chanting magic spells for six days to make a universe that could flip into nuclear meltdown of "corruptibility" with one twist of one woman's wrist.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:50 am |
    • sybaris

      believing in mythological supernatural characters concocted by iron age goat herders is something better to believe in

      January 5, 2014 at 11:56 am |
    • Defenestrater

      I think I'll call for a pizza.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
  18. BO

    It's gotta be tough having no moral compass than a corrupted humanity.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:45 am |
    • Lise

      Why do you think you get a moral compass from a deity, no matter what name it goes by?

      January 5, 2014 at 11:49 am |
    • sybaris

      Morals evolved out of the success of the group, they weren't handed down to a gray bearded man on a mountain.

      By your logic non-christian people are immoral and that is simply not the case.

      Don't wonder why christians are regarded with such repugnance.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:52 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'BO' is an instance of a Strawman Argument.

      http://fallacyfiles.org/glossary.html

      January 5, 2014 at 11:53 am |
    • One one

      That's why people are giving up on religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:56 am |
    • jim

      About the 'moral compass' you say is lacking in non-believers, hold on a sec...
      Romans 2:14-16 King James Version (KJV) 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
      From other bible references, doing the 'Law' ends in caring for one another. If the above quote is not a 'moral compass' then what is it? Note: 'Gentiles' implies non-believers

      January 5, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
  19. Doris

    I would hope that, at one of these atheist church "services", that all forms of dogma are out the window, and therefore more time can be spent on discussions and activities related to ethics, community projects, and common charity goals for instance.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:42 am |
    • Bagel Mode

      I agree, Doris. Going on a bit of a tack, I think it would be better to throw out the "church" idea entirely, with its crazy aspect of "worship" that is commonly associated with it, and just put resources that used to go to churches and religions into community centers and secular charities -community centers where people can get together and help each other, and meet to discuss important social issues. Many such community centers exist, as you would know, and some have been central to my own life.

      Maybe that is too much of a departure for a lot of people, and maybe the change needs to be gradual as humankind leaves behind the old religious superstitions that some seem so caught up in, but I just detest the idea and the religious connotations of "church".

      January 5, 2014 at 11:51 am |
    • One one

      Exactly ! That's why people are giving up on religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:55 am |
  20. NM

    The church of Seinfeld. What do they believe in?... Absolutely nothing.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:41 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.