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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. Dave

    I love the irony of this article being posted on a religion blog. Hilarious.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm |
    • doobzz

      I love the idea of you thinking a belief blog is exclusively about religious belief.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:02 pm |
      • EBH-NYC

        True. We could be talking about Obama instead. Any Obama atheists about there?

        January 5, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
  2. Buglebutt

    Sorry, for some reason when I copied and pasted a certain portion of the article, the whole thing was pasted. Here is what I intended to say:
    "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?" Of course it can survive. Society is evolving to embrace atheism. As in Christianity, it stands to reason that it would split into different factions as there are different TYPES of views, means of expression, etc. But one of the main purposes people go to church is for social purposes. The same would stand in this type of "church". People of like minds, coming together together to share their views and enjoy a sense of "community". People like to have a sense of belonging and being accepted. I believe it will survive and this will be one of the main reasons

    January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
  3. Idiots

    These people are absolutely stupid. Get a life.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
    • DaveYoung

      agreed – they seek meaning via nihilism

      January 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm |
    • Buglebutt

      It appears to me that that is exactly what they are trying to do. To gain a sense of community.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:01 pm |
  4. Stan

    "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." If you seek Me, you wil find Me." You can't fill the spot in your sould for God which God put there when He created you with anything else but God. You will see. May God open all your hearts reading the above article and all the posts here.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Humans have worshiped literally thousands of gods throughout history. There isn't a single shred of evidence to support the existence of any of them, not even your god. If your belief that that you are the center of attention of a higher power brings you comfort, good for you. But not all of us need that delusion in order to be good, happy people.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm |
      • Mach4

        It is not lack of evidence that God, the creator, exists but a suppression of evidence.
        You did not come from nothing. You are not a product of matter plus chance via a primordial soup to the you via the zoo.
        It is impossible.

        January 5, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
    • hee hee

      Oh the emptiness. My heart – how it aches. How did you know? HOW DID YOU KNOW?

      January 5, 2014 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Andrew J. Smithson

    So...this is some kind of joke, right? They kept the very worst part of religion (CHURCH!) and discarded everything else. They look like hipsters, are they hipsters? That explains everything.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
  6. Kent Gray

    Just another Protestant sect. They'd make good Episcopalians.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
  7. sticky-armadillo

    One question remains. Do they have the time child and will they be eating his entrails on their tummy's?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
  8. Kent Gray

    Just another Protestant sect. They's make good Episcopalians.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
    • Buglebutt

      Or Unitarians. I have an atheist couple as friends who have long belonged to a Unitarian church. They say different people speak on interesting (non-religious) topics each week and socialize. Sounds to me like this is exactly the same as what the article is stating.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm |
  9. David

    Money. That's all it is about...doesn't matter what doctrine is taught. Doesn't matter what words are used or what beliefs are held. Bottom line...money

    January 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Money or power. Some people look at a crowd and think "I can profit from that". It's sad, but there are always victims who will fall for it.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:02 pm |
  10. Rob

    Never have I seen people devote so much time and effort to something they don't believe in.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Read up on World War 2. Quite a few people — possibly including some you may know personally — spent a lot of time, effort, money, and frequently body parts dealing with Nazism, which they didn't really believe in, either.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
    • earth_dweller

      They're celebrating what they do believe, not what they don't. As an atheist, I celebrate life here and now and the mystery and beauty of nature.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm |
  11. Buglebutt

    "January 4th, 2014
    09:00 AM ET
    Share this on: Facebook Twitter Digg del.icio.us reddit MySpace StumbleUpon 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?" Of course it can survive. Society is evolving to embrace atheism. As in Christianity, it stands to reason that it would split into different factions as there are different TYPES of views, means of expression, etc. But one of the main purposes people go to church is for social purposes. The same would stand in this type of "church". People of like minds, coming together together to share their views and enjoy a sense of "community". People like to have a sense of belonging and being accepted. I believe it will survive and this will be one of the main reasons.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
  12. Diego

    An atheist church..... ready to franchise, branching out into cities......has sermons.....probably takes money....now splitting sounds like a Church to me....dedicated to a religion of non-believing, but still a religion. Hogwash! The problem isn't the Supreme, whomever He or She may be, the problem is humanity

    January 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
  13. Jazzybee

    There can be no such thing as an atheist church. It is now agreed that the word "church" is derived from the Greek kyriakon i.e. the Lord's house, a term which from the third century was used, as well as ekklesia, to signify a Christian place of worship.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
    • Mary

      They call themselves an Assembly. You need to stake a claim to that word, too?

      January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Sure, but if you go back far enough the PIE keue just meant "to swell". All words are used 'incorrectly' if you go back far enough. It is the nature of language to change.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
  14. kws11

    This sounds more like a marketing war between comedy clubs.

    You wanna get with people to discuss how to focus on improving yourselves and the world? Well, there's the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, secular food banks, the YMCA, Big Brothers, Big Sisters...

    Gathering together to seriously proclaim that you "very seriously don't believe" is too stupid to be taken seriously.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
  15. David Don

    How do you have a church that does not believe in a God? Why not just open a diner and meet there?

    January 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Personally, I think the whole thing is silly. I don't need to join a group to not believe in god.

      I do know that there are some people who miss the sense of community that they used to experience when they were believers. I think these "atheist churches" appeal to those people.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
  16. Right is Wrong

    This is SO funny! ! ! Maybe they DON'T believe in a higher power, but they sure do believe in RELIGION. Hahahaha. More funny articles like this, please.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:51 pm |
  17. Uncle Albert

    I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.

    ---Albert Einstein

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

      "It was, of course, a LIE what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
      - Albert Einstein, letter to an atheist, 2/24/1954

      January 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
      • Uncle Albert

        Albert Einstein was clearly a Deist. That is a LONG way from being an atheist.

        January 5, 2014 at 1:03 pm |
        • Observer

          Uncle Albert,

          Yes. He didn't believe in the SAME God you apparently do.

          January 5, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      In a 1950 letter to M. Berkowitz, Einstein stated that "My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment."

      January 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
      • Uncle Albert

        The man was a confirmed Deist. Which is a LONG way from being an atheist.

        January 5, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
        • Observer

          Uncle Albert,

          An agnostic is NOT a Deist.

          January 5, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • David Don

      Always a favorite quote of mine

      January 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
    • David Don

      Even Darwin admitted to being agnostic.....

      January 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
  18. Fred G. Sanford

    There are 41,000 denominations of Christianity and only one Christ.

    At this rate it will take Atheists another hundred thousand years to match that level of ridiculousness.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
    • Uncle Albert

      No, since atheists create their own morality and belief system on the fly, they have already topped it-in spades.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
      • Fred G. Sanford

        How does this make them any different than Christians?

        January 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Poor Albie. It must be terrible to need someone to tell you how to be a good person. I'm sorry that you lack the simply compassion and humanity to make choices for yourself.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
        • Uncle Albert

          Define "good".

          January 5, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
        • Weston

          And yet you lack the compassion and thoughtfulness to not leave a petty response to Albert. Well played genius ^_^

          January 5, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
  19. sticky-armadillo

    Science damn you Allied Atheist Alliance!

    January 5, 2014 at 12:47 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.