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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. Ivan

    IF THEY ARE ATHEISTS WHY DO THEY NEED A CHURCH ???

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

      We don't. These are the usual pastor/con-men that run all the other churches.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
    • truthsayer

      to hangout in...at least they are not chanting to a nonexistent invisible sky-daddy god

      January 5, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
      • EBH-NYC

        truthsayer, for people like you these boards are much more fulfilling. Here you get to openly mock and fire off snarky retorts to people who disagree with you. That is far more satisfying to your type than simply gathering among like-minded individuals and respectfully celebrating your non-beliefs in so-called 'churches'.

        January 5, 2014 at 1:02 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Same reason religious people do — a little social interaction.

      You DO know that Jesus's preferred method of devotions was to lock yourself in a closet and pray in private, right?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:51 pm |
  2. eddie

    Can someone please tell me how evolution got started? I'm not talking about Darwin's theory, I'm asking about the very beginning. What was the first thing that evolved and what did it evolve from. Tell me or point me to a website where I can start reading on it.

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

      Your previous efforts at looking for this information may have run aground on your terminology. You seek information not about evolution but about abiogenesis, a separate process. Try using that term in your search engine, and you should get more productive results.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
  3. cacique

    A church?
    What is the need for them peoples to have church other than making money off their "non-believers." Well, I suppose that part is the same as the rest of all churches. Making a buck...
    The fact is, when they gather at church to worship a god that does not exist or any kind of deity they feel close to or not, they are worshiping god. Wanting it or not.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
  4. DonJuan1943

    I learned all this stuff from reading Mark Twain's "Puddinhead Wilson" at age thirteen. I'm not sure if I've learned very much since then. But I did go to Vietnam in the 1960's; and "defend to the death" these peoples' right to dress up like Jeff Bridges and Cyndi Lauper. Now, proudly, I have outlived Mark Twain! ...unless 80 really is the new 70. God seems to be keeping me from taking myself too seriously. Pull my finger.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
  5. rrinbr

    DOLLA DOLLA BILL YALL

    January 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Vic

    The norm used to be that people differed on who God is, and not whether He existed or not. It takes a layman to see to that there is a God just by looking around!

    January 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
    • tony

      . . .seeing with the light created inside the sun a Million or so years ago, that finally just reached earth.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
      • Ann

        Um, it only takes 8.3 minutes for the sun's light to reach the earth. Better go with stars instead.

        January 5, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Nope. The photon that leaves the sun's surface was generated about 30k to 40k years ago. Once it broke free of the sun's core, it took several months or so to reach the sun's surface. Then it only took 8 seconds to reach earth.

          January 5, 2014 at 1:37 pm |
    • Damocles

      And when you look around at nature, what do you see?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Humans looked around and saw gods until the most curious among them decided to study the whys and hows. When humans realized that there were perfectly natural explanations for the wonders of the world, the gods went away. However, until we understand that final great mystery - death - some gods will remain.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      OK, I just finished looking around. Didn't see this God dude anywhere. Certainly nobody wearing a name tag. Give me a hint. What does he look like?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
  7. Linda

    I am really tired of trying to read ideas from other people about the topics that were written, only to find of nasty hateful things written in here, from supposedly, "religious people". I wish that people of all beliefs would "grow up" and behave like adults and stop verbally attacking anyone who is not "exactly like them", and that goes for the atheists as well.
    I do not think that atheist wanting to form groups, and go to them is going to "go away", any more than religious people wanting to form groups and go to them is every going to go away, and I think that that is a good thing.
    Often when people join together in groups they can support, encourage, inspire and help each other, and do a lot of good in this world, and you don't have to be religious to accomplish those things.
    As far as the original atheist group splitting, well, as some other article said, their are many different kinds of atheists , or "non-believers", and as those people, who have differing beliefs are unlikely to agree on many things, then for those of the members to break off and form other groups, would be normal.
    I see it as very similar to all of the Protestant Religious groups that broke off from the Catholic Church, and all of those groups, as well as the original Catholic Church are all still doing well.
    I feel as though there have been many "non-believers" out there, who felt rather alone, in spite of the fact that there actually have always been a large number of them, simply because they did not feel that they could either admit publicly to being "non-believers", or get together publically.
    Now, I think that these people feel braver, and more able to not only admit that they are not religious, but get together with other people, that as Christian Mingle always uses the phrase for, are "of like mind".
    It is a good thing for people who are "of like mind" to be able to get together with other people, who share their same beliefs, and be supportive of each other, and do good for others.
    Having been an "atheist" or a "non-believer" my entire life, as has also most of my family, as well, I would have to say, whether any of the believers choose to believe it or not, we are all really nice people, really good people, who are their for others, and help others, just as they are. We aren't any different aside from not believing in the existence of a God in Heaven. If we could all just come to see all of the ways that we are similar and not different, then we would also see why "non-believers" getting together, just as believers do, is in most cases a very good thing, for all of the same reasons that religious people getting together is hope to someday see the verbal "attacks" from both sides stop, but, as there are not only good people on both sides, but also people who are not, I suspect that the attacks will never stop.
    I just hope that the good people on both sides can come to realize, that those who do the verbal attacks are a very small number of Jerks, and do not represent the majority of the people, who are much more alike than they realize.
    "non-believers" are like people all over the world who worship other Gods, and have other religious beliefs, all good people, who just need to get to know that about each other, so that they can come to respect and like each other.
    I hope to see at least progress in that areas in my lifetime.

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

      As a Christian I say amen to your post. We can discuss without arguing. We can be respectful, not demeaning.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  8. Grego

    Atheist Church? Touche'!

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

      Straw Man

      January 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
  9. Wolfgang Herden

    It seems, that an internal reflection, is a important part, for every human being, inspite of their faith, that there is a personal god existing. It is surely a fact, that everyone thinks about the sence of live and ethics, also he has no religion. Why not, to have a secular church with some rites and ceremonies to get a good spirit and beware a sane soul. The last secrets of the world no one knows, but its no mistake, to have consciousnes that are existing.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
  10. Bob Bobson

    Christian Friends,

    Leviticus. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians.

    Can you clarify?

    Why can't I own Canadians?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
  11. woodie

    I don't believe in Atheists. They are unbelievable.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Thus Spoke a Modest Proposer

    When you encounter someone who professes to be an Atheist, take the most personally advantageous action: eat him.

    Atheists are high in protein and a good source of B vitamins and amino acids. They tend to be greasy, so otherwise watch your intake of fats and cholesterol. Remember, you have nothing to fear except law enforcement as long as you have braised, roasted or broiled the Atheist to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees.

    They are also good in casseroles and fricassees.

    It has been brought to my attention that since only a small percentage of the US population identifies as Atheist, a domestic shortage will soon ensue. The problem of the necessary importation of foreign stock is a real one, and though logistically challenging, should be met with by the harvest of readily available European animals. Atheists are common in Europe since the great conflagrations of WW II and the Cold War. The horrors perpetrated by Nietzschean inspired Fascism are not easily forgotten. And the long and draining Cold War–necessary defense against the wholly Atheistic social and economic philosophy of Marx and the realized atrocities of Stalin, et al.–has left Europe moribund and stagnate. The irony that so many Europeans have responded to the historical horrors of Atheistic philosophy by embracing Atheism themselves is delicious. I suggest we take advantage of it: literally.

    Make no mistake. I am an Atheist myself. But I will never reveal this to the world. It serves my interests to call myself a Christian.

    Do not bore me with notions of how I should obey my "inner moral sense". My moral sense is nothing more than a genetic imprint, a primitive survival advantage I have outgrown–much as I have outgrown the need for God. I can discard them both easily. They are worthless to me. After all, God Is Dead and the only good is what is good for me. I am the Superman. I am Beyond Good and Evil.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
    • Lise

      You are boring, also.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
    • Linda

      You are also religious, but pretending to be an atheist.
      How very clever, and what a great way to fan the flames of hatred between two groups of people, who are so alike, but who often don't realize it.
      We "non-believers" are very much like the gays.
      We have existed forever, living among you, as your family friend, who watches your dog for you, when you need that, the nice neighbor, who shovels snow for the elderly, maybe even your close friend.
      Most of us, will never "come out of the closet", because we fear the repercussions for us, and our children, so many of you will never guess that we even are "non-religeous", just as many of you will never guess who the gays are living among them.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
  13. Jeb

    My Friends,

    There are currently 41,000 different denominations of Christianity.

    If there was only one Jesus Christ, how is this possible?

    And what is the true Christian church?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
    • Damocles

      The true church is the one that a believer is a member of. Truly lucky coincidence.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        Lucky? Or maybe God's will? Or ... could it be ... *SATAN* !?

        January 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
  14. tony

    Nice Troll Article.

    Take a non-typical situation and make like it's the norm.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:39 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Why not just say "I didn't bother to read it because it didn't interest me", rather than pretending you understood what it said?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
  15. EBH-NYC

    These so-called "churches" would have better success if they openly mocked, sneered at, and villified Christians during their "sermons". That would tend to attract the kinds of atheists you find in these comment sections.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
    • truthsayer

      I enjoy mocking religion and all the foolishness it represents...it makes me feel warm inside.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
      • ArchieDeBunker

        Just think how "warm" you're going to feel the instant after you die! That horrific scream you hear first – the scream whose terror and utter desolation you will be surprised to find is your own.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          And you're really going to enjoy hanging out with a god who allows eternal suffering for anyone? Yuck! I wouldn't be able to handle it. I'd be vomiting the whole time in between begging god to stop the torture.

          January 5, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
    • Fred G. Sanford

      And it would make their meetings so much fun too.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
    • EBH-NYC

      Look! A few new recruits already! Next we'll need to think of a name. How about the 'Church of Snarkiness' or 'The Condescension of Christ"?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  16. Bob Bobson

    Friends,

    I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Leviticus.15:19- 24.

    The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
    • ArchieDeBunker

      Try reading the ENTIRE Bible and then understanding that those old mores which you love to cite when you vilify Christianity (because you're grasping at any straw you can find) were essentially dead 2000 years ago. Just like your beloved pagans' sacrifices of human beings on the altar of false gods.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
      • Observer

        ArchieDeBunker,

        SAME perfect and "unchanging" God in both testaments. Guess he just got smarter when Jesus came along in the New Testament, right?

        January 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  17. H. Lee

    I think this is just adorable.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:37 pm |
  18. Bob Bobson

    Friends,

    When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Leviticua.1:9.

    The problem is my neighbors.

    They claim the odor is not pleasing to them.

    Should I smite them?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:37 pm |
    • truthsayer

      you can only make such a sacrifice at the temple...and the temple is destroyed.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
  19. Bob Bobson

    My Christian Friends,

    I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath.

    Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death.

    Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
    • steve

      You are a moron. That is old testament. get it straight

      January 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
      • tony

        But the new testament is a collection of contradictory essays and letters, written by people who were not there, 60- 300, years after the events and parables claimed, then cherry picked by a few self serving popes and put into a single book.

        That makes it how different from the old testament?

        January 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        I believe he acknowledged that it was OT when he cited Exodus as the source.
        Did you have a point, or are you trying to whittle down your oversupply of insults?

        January 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
      • Lise

        Then you will have no problem shutting your mouth about gay people, RIGHT??

        January 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
        • Uncle Albert

          The sin of gays are dealt with quite clearly in the New Testament.

          January 5, 2014 at 12:51 pm |
      • Bill Fat

        Yeah, that New testament makes so much more sense...lol

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

      Instead of worrying about your neighbor, perhaps you could stop stealing text verbatim from The West Wing.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        Generally allowable under the "fair use" doctrine.

        Also, you seem to think it was original with _The West Wing_ but I think Aaron Sorkin wasn't above a little lifting himself.

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

          You say it's "fair use" but not when he attempts to pass it off as his own. If a student attempted to pass this off without a proper citation, s/he would fail.

          January 5, 2014 at 1:56 pm |
  20. RollyB

    There are many failing churches. What I read sounds exactly like a church, whether failing or succeeding, goes through. People splinter off, people stay. Some of those staying, claim they aren't getting what was promised.

    They would do better to have a dynamic leader, who does, week after week, give the sermon on self improvement.
    As for the atheist true believers, the winning formula for them will ultimately be the same.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:35 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.