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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. Uncle Sam

    Very odd premise.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:24 pm |
  2. Ok

    "Why don't prayers work?"

    Obviously because you don't believe in God yet you want him help you LOL!

    January 5, 2014 at 12:24 pm |
  3. ThefirsttosanctifycorruptionNaive

    .
    .
    .
    🙂

    January 5, 2014 at 12:24 pm |
  4. ace

    This is stupid, Atheist church goes against one of the many reasons people are atheists to begin with.
    Atheism is not believing in god or gods, but what makes atheists so against religion are mindless religious groups and organized religion. So forming a church of that would form an organized group with 1 certain belief system, and thats something that makes atheists hate religion in the first place... wth are these guys thinking thousands of years to even begin pushing away human society from religion and the first group they form is a church.... /facepalm

    January 5, 2014 at 12:24 pm |
  5. Fred

    An atheist church is a contradiction in terms.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
  6. John Paul I

    An atheist church? hmmmmm..... "I DON'T BELIEVE IN GOD BUT.... LET ME HELP YOU PRAY! lol How ridiculous.

    An atheist church is like a foodless restaurant... everyone starves and the owner goes broke.

    An atheist church is like a quick-lube station without any oil or other lubricant... the customer's cars will quickly grind to a halt.

    An atheist church is like a mall without a product... the mall quickly goes bankrupt.

    An atheist church is like a cloud without rain... everyone dies of thirst.

    An atheist church is a church of fools.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
    • tallulah13

      An atheist "church" is a very silly premise and has a very limited appeal. However humanist meetings are quite popular among atheists, where they can meet and discuss things like ethics and science, and plan community service. These things are valuable.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
    • Mark

      All churches are churches of fools, since they believe in a magic sky fairy. Atheist churches are foolish though. Why emulate something so evil? It is like joining a hate group when you don't hate anyone... since Christianity, in particular, is a hate group.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      lots of lubricant in your church, jp1? is that what the priests use to grease up the alterboys?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
  7. edwardst35

    The Atheist Church is the Church of Satan. You never have a church without believing ins SOMETHING. Maybe they worship tree roots, or pot, or black crows, who knows?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
    • edwardst35

      This is a classic example of CULT worship.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
      • ace

        just goes to show you everything turns bad when it becomes a church / religion lol

        January 5, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
  8. BB

    A bunch of yuppie atheists deciding they need a "church" to attend on Sunday mornings is hilarious. Last time I checked, there were plenty of secular organizations with group meetings to attend.

    Militant atheism is NOT about the lack of belief in a higher power.
    It is the belief-the positive belief-that there is not and CANNOT be a higher power in the Cosmos.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Wow, you've done no research at all, have you. Please tell me that you're a christian with such poor reasoning skills? And please, continue to not check facts or use logic when sharing your views. Thanks!!

      January 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
      • John Paul I

        I'll tell you, Capt. Obvious, that YOU are an irresponsible fool – a complete jerk – who knows absolutely NOTHING and has NO reasoning skills at all but who loves to wax intelligent on the Internet where he thinks no one will take him to task. Go back into your hole you totally ignorant creature.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:28 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Boring troll is boring......yaaaaawwwwwnnnnn

          January 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
    • John Paul I

      They're trying to make a statement that they can be as cool as real churches by play acting and are trying to get a voice in our society. That's all this is about. However, the motive is arrogance – a total ugly lack of humility, and love of their own sin that makes them, in the words of Jesus Christ, "suppress the truth in unbelief."

      January 5, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
  9. Ok

    Who cares about atheists? They will burn in hellfire anyway

    January 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
    • edwardst35

      God cares about Atheists because He needs tinder to start his fires.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
    • Hate Mail

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

      January 5, 2014 at 12:28 pm |
  10. bostontola

    I dont know if there are any Gods, but I believe there are no Gods. I am as certain as a human can be that the Abrahamic God(s) are false. I'd characterize myself as an agnostic atheist.

    I also enjoy getting together with people. I am a social person. Would I financially support an organization that gets other similar people together to discuss things? Yes. Would I want a leader that spends their time thinking about the big picture and composing a weekly thought provoking essay for discourse? Yes.

    In a sense I do that already. I pay to attend TED, and to hear other speakers. They are not weekly, and there is a question whether every week would have a great talk, but I would still value it.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
  11. ShirleyW

    I'm just surprised to her that Atheists actually have a church, I just thought it was your belief that you didn't believe in God and left it at that, until they're in conversation with someone who does believe in God then they try to convince that person that there isn't.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
  12. Communism = Atheism

    North Korea = Official atheist state

    Enough said

    January 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
    • Damocles

      I'm sure someone will be along shortly to provide you with a list of Official Religious States.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
  13. Bill S

    The athiests may not Agee now, but they will all see eye to eye in hell.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm |
    • Damocles

      Mmmm... I love originality in a post.

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

      why only atheists, all the people who don't follow your religion also will go to hell right?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
  14. UUWho

    As a Unitarian Universalist, I wonder why these "not quite atheist" folk don't try out their local UU congregation? We have been the "big tent" for about 50 years, welcoming and including everyone from liberal Christians to atheists, in a church-like setting. It seems that the hipsters who are flocking to these new churches need to reinvent the wheel and make sure it continues to be all about them. No baby-boomer church for them...

    January 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Thank you for that suggestion, UU.

      I actually just looked up the organization in my area, and there is a meeting place about forty-five minutes away. I am seriously considering visiting next sunday. Considering my current situation, it seems like it might make sense to meet some somewhat like-minded people. Wish me luck!

      January 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
  15. TammyBakerMakeuptalknextweekFayeyou

    ..
    ..
    🙂

    January 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
  16. Sunflower

    "Atheist Church"!!! when you call a building church, temple, mosques, synagogue....this can mean only one thing, place of worship God. Why can't atheists come up with some new name for their establishment?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
    • Defenestrater

      The definition of words change over time. No one *dials* a phone anymore because they no longer have dials, they have keypads. But it sounds better to say "Dial 555-1212..." than "Keypad 555-1212..."

      And if you want the atheist to be original, then Christianity needs to get rid of all its atavistic concepts, such as Christmas and Easter.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm |
  17. Crosswinds

    By its very nature, the mind of the atheist is carnal from the outset, being void of the nature of God.......

    Galatians 5:19-21......

    19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,

    20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

    21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
    • Colin

      1. "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.

      Adolf Hitler April, 12th 1922

      January 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
    • Bob Bobson

      I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7.

      In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
      • BOH1066

        bob, don't try and use logic. it will only fail and frustrate you, while giving the 'christians' another comment to respond to with one of their various casting us all into hellfire quotes. you can't have a rational argument with people who actually believe the bible is divinely inspired. for example, bring up the whole council of nicea, which is when/where the doctrine of transubstantiation was established officially and see how far you'll get......

        January 5, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
    • Flappy

      You don't know any atheists do you?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
  18. Colin

    Atheism is not so much a conclusion as it is an approach. Show me evidence for the existence of the Judo-Christian god, for Shiva, for Allah, for Yahweh or for any other god figure and I will evaluate it.

    In the absence of any such evidence, I am confident to say that there is no reason to believe in any of the above sky-vapors.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
    • Communism = Atheism

      That's part of faith. Jesus said "Blessed are those who have not yet seen me"

      January 5, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        Gullible are those who believe yet have not seen.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
      • Doris

        Your moniker is stupid. If you don't know the difference then there's no reason to read any further.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
      • Colin

        Have you ever wondered why there are absolutely no biblical statements in favor of healthy skepticism, but literally hundreds (like the one you quoted) in favor of blind acceptance and gullibility?

        Only those selling junk cars consider it a sin to look under the hood -:)

        January 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
        • meee

          Ain't that the truth.

          January 5, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
        • Sandra

          Colin: Brilliant. Thank you.

          January 5, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
    • Crosswinds

      John 18:37-38......

      37 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

      38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm |
      • Colin

        "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so."
        – Adolf Hitler, to General Gerhard Engel, 1941

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

          Whatever his conviction was, Adolf Hitler rose to power and operated as an extreme socialist, and NOT as a Christian!

          January 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
    • Vic

      Just look around!

      Our and the universe's existence is the evidence of God. We are not required to be rocket scientists to discern that truth; otherwise, it is impossible.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:28 pm |
      • meee

        Oh, because we and the universe exist, ergo it was created by an anthropomorphic super being. Right. That sure is really, really persuasive. Or, am I just supposed to accept that proof deprived conclusion on faith?

        January 5, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
    • BOH1066

      not only can they not present evidence, they would argue against evidence. belief in the face of lack of evidence is the definition of faith........

      January 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm |
    • Your Neighbor

      You are looking for 'proof'? Try NOT breathing and see what happens. That's the same God who gave you air to breathe...

      January 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm |
  19. Vic

    That sounds like a mock movement channeling Christianity. They are calling for not solely catering to atheist communities and moving to a family-friendly venue. They are already experiencing schism, hence denominations. Could that be a reverse-psychology attempt at reaffirming the Christian Church, let's say, a grassroots effort?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
    • Michael

      There's no reason at all to draw that conclusion from this article. You are seeing what you want to see.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
  20. Broiledwicanstabletwo

    .

    🙂

    January 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
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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.