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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. joe

    Get real. These are just clowns playing who's in the club.

    You know what the real atheist church is? It's called science class.

    Sincerely,

    a real athiest

    January 5, 2014 at 7:09 pm |
    • Lester

      Oh, stop acting as if atheists are the only ones that are scientists. Absolutely abfreakinsurd.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
    • lisa

      favorite bumper sticker:

      "Too stupid to understand science? Try religion."

      January 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
      • Vic

        My favorite historic fact:

        "Christians founded all branches of Modern Science and the Modern Scientific Method"

        January 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm |
        • Observer

          They also heartlessly persecuted some of those scientists.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:19 pm |
        • Robert Raulerson

          Aristotle was an Xtian? Don't think so.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:21 pm |
        • Vic

          Many people confuse human corruption with God!

          January 5, 2014 at 7:23 pm |
        • Vic

          Aristotle was only a philosopher, he was not a scientist.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:25 pm |
        • Observer

          Vic,

          Total NONSENSE. Read about Archimedes or Euclid "The Father of Geometry".

          January 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm |
        • Observer

          Vic,

          You need a new "FACT".

          According to David Lindberg, Aristotle (4th Century BCE) wrote about the scientific method even if he and his followers did not actually follow what he said. Lindberg also notes that Ptolemy (2nd Century AD) and Ibn al-Haytham (11th Century AD) are among the early examples of people who carried out scientific experiments.

          – wikipedia

          January 5, 2014 at 7:35 pm |
        • Dave

          That is not completely accurate. The modern scientific method can largely be attributed to Galileo and Isaac Newton. Much credit also goes to the Arabs who invented the modern numeric system. The Greeks and Italians (Archimedes, Brunelleschi, Michaelangelo) weren't too shabby, either. Most people forget, there was also much progress going on in Asia. With some strong evidence of science in South America. The Aztecs to this day astound people with their knowledge of astronomy and geology/climatology. Engineering feats that compare to any major wonder on earth. But also there was one other historical caveat; The main employers during most of human history were the clergy and aristocracy. That is just a fact of the way society was built.

          Make no mistake about it, however. Over the centuries some very intelligent people derived and proved a means of truthfully understanding our natural world.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:38 pm |
        • Hipparchus

          This is total nonsense, the roots of every scientific discipline can easily be traced to Greece, Italy and Babylon long before Christianity became fashionable. It is patently ridiculous to give Christians credit when, as a group, they did nothing to further knowledge and actively fought to suppress knowledge that ran counter to their view of the cosmos.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:46 pm |
        • Vic

          I clearly indicated "MODERN." That is key!

          I am aware of the history that is presented here, and it continues on with the outstanding contribution of Christians—regardless of human corruption at the church, like any other system—in founding the branches of "Modern Science" and leading up to the foundation of the "Modern Scientific Method" by the Christian Francis Bacon.

          January 5, 2014 at 8:00 pm |
        • Vic

          "..the outstanding contributions by Christians—.."

          January 5, 2014 at 8:09 pm |
        • HalS

          Historic fact??!!! From where? Holy Land in Orlando, FL or the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY?

          January 6, 2014 at 2:47 am |
      • dpdonny

        Funny, I have listened to a plethora of Christian scientists, so your bumper stickers is foolishness!

        January 5, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
    • Emigdio

      i do have better things to do besides going to church on sundays, like mowing my lawn or filling the tank.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm |
  2. Robert Raulerson

    Xtians turn the other cheek. Sure they do.

    Xtians give all they have to the poor. Sure they do.

    Xtians beat the swords into plowshares. Sure they do.

    Xtians love their enemies as they love themselves. Read the Xtian posts here. Sure they do.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:08 pm |
    • Eye roll

      The people who post on here represent over eighty million people of the same religion...sure they do.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:00 pm |
  3. Melissa

    Atheism is NOT a religion, therefor there is no such thing as an atheist church. So these people are just children trying to annoy the religious. Incredibly immature.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:08 pm |
    • jay

      What is immature is believing there is some magical being watching over you.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:11 pm |
      • Melissa

        Yes, I agree. I'm an atheist. But these "atheism is a religion" atheists are making us all look bad.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
      • Slaveofd1

        Every thing that exist is Prove that there is a Creater and there are so many things(matter)in the universe.the existnce of the universe itself is a Prove that some one has created it.on the other hand there is not a single prove that God(Creater)does not exist.if one think sincerely about God and look for prove about God and ask him for help.Surely He helps.People deny it or accept it but they have A Creater.One day they will find it out.If one Search for God in this life he will find it here and will face it in after this life and if one reject and ignore the existence of God he will also find it out in after life that Surely God exist. DOES IT MAKE SENSE THAT THERE IS A CAREATION BUT NOT A CREATER.?

        January 5, 2014 at 8:07 pm |
        • HalS

          Many people who pray and ask God for help still die of diseases like cancer, they still go hungry, become or remain homeless, lose their jobs etc. Parents who chose to pray for their sick kids rather than take them to doctors (because God is all powerful and only he can heal) are charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment of a minor when the child dies. Are they not asking God for help and placing all their faith in the healing power of prayer and God? Where is God then?? Or is it just the minor prayers he can answer – like "Oh Lord, I need $5!". You look under the dresser because you don't securely place your money in a wallet and there is $5, laying on the floor. Oh Lord, it's a miracle!!

          Maybe you can answer my age old question. Who created the Creator?

          January 6, 2014 at 3:15 am |
        • G to the T

          You are a poor messanger for your god. I would stop if I was to to prevent any more people being turned away because of your failings.

          January 7, 2014 at 10:25 am |
    • doobzz

      You're pretty thin skinned if you think that people are constantly trying to personally annoy you. Or you're just a huge narcissist. Why does a small group of people getting together on the same day that you do such a threat to you?

      January 5, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
      • doobzz

        "is", not "does". Dang margaritas!

        January 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm |
      • Melissa

        You obviously don't know anything about what a religion actually IS. Get educated or keep your mouth shut.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm |
        • doobzz

          Take another big ass bite of assumption, Melissa. Having a huge martyr complex is encouraged by the bible and by religious people. Any time anyone even suggests that there's another way to think makes you scream persecution.

          A small group of folks who don't believe the same things you do gets together on the same day that you do and you think it's all about you. How arrogant.

          Come back to me when you're not in the 90% majority.

          BTW, I was a fundie for over fifty years, so I'll be glad to talk bible to you any day, rookie.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:26 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          Melissa: Manners are a valuable thing in this world...telling someone to shut up because you assumed something about them is rather ill mannered.

          January 7, 2014 at 10:33 am |
  4. Serge Storms

    We atheists tend to be stubborn and independent. I can see why some would want to form atheist churches but it's not for me, or most of my atheist friends. To make it work they'll just have to figure out how to divide up into like minded groups, sounds like that is what these folks are doing. Otherwise it will be like trying to herd cats.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
    • doobzz

      I agree. The only place I even discuss this is here, unless I'm asked directly. I became an atheist on my own and have had no desire to meet anyone on a formalized basis. I'd rather join friends for a meal, take a walk, watch the playoffs, paint, or just relax and pet my cat (that is not a euphemism, lol).

      January 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
  5. Answer

    CNN..

    It couldn't be posted last day because you had it saved for today, right?
    Just the kind of move that you would know would drive your christard readership up.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
  6. Robert Raulerson

    You believe in Gawd because you are terrified of yer own death. Is there one Gawdder here who will admit this?

    January 5, 2014 at 7:02 pm |
    • Vic

      We believe in God because it is evident by our existence, the universe's existence, revelation—natural & special, intuition, sentience, basic instincts, and common sense.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
      • Robert Raulerson

        "I don't wanna die! I don't wanna die! It can't be true! Not for me!"

        January 5, 2014 at 7:10 pm |
      • Observer

        Vic,

        Sorry, but "common sense" doesn't link well with unicorns, dragons, talking non-humans, slavery, discriminations, beating helpless children, etc.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:15 pm |
      • Lucifer's Evil Twin

        Which would be fine if this were 16th-19th centuries...

        January 5, 2014 at 7:18 pm |
    • ogre12

      Christians do not fear death because we know something you dont.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
      • doobzz

        No, you don't. We've heard all your claims. You don't know anything that every other person on the board hasn't also heard a thousand times. You just believe it.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:19 pm |
      • Lucifer's Evil Twin

        Liar

        January 5, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
      • dpdonny

        We know "Someone" that they don't.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:24 pm |
        • Lucifer's Evil Twin

          All hail the great and mysterious Oz...

          January 5, 2014 at 7:44 pm |
  7. PhilCo

    I don't believe an atheist church can survive?

    January 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm |
  8. Al_Satan

    Just a racket to make money.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm |
  9. Timothy Tebow - God's REAL FAVORITE son

    Well, at least we're coming to grips with the reality that atheism has become its own religion now, which is unusually honest.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      It is impossible for atheism to be a religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:05 pm |
  10. Vic

    More thought provoking:

    This is evidence that disbelief in God is unnatural. We may all disagree on who God is but to not believe in His existence is naturally unnatural.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm |
    • Robert Raulerson

      Yeah, it's 'naturally unnatural'. That's an example of how Gawdders 'think'.

      January 5, 2014 at 6:58 pm |
      • Vic

        We are all equipped with the same basics instincts, intuition and common sense.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
      • Answer

        Only freaks continue with their inferiority complex to promote their delusions.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:04 pm |
    • Observer

      Vic,

      Yep. There has been THOUSANDS of Gods. Believers were SURE EVERYONE was real.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm |
    • HalS

      I particularly like Lord Ganesh – the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom. Plus he's cute with the head of an elephant and the body of a Siddha. Although Shiva (aka Parameshwara) is the Supreme God (Creator), Ganesh remains my favorite.

      January 6, 2014 at 3:31 am |
    • G to the T

      I would agree that disbelief in the supernatural (and/or "god", little "g") may be innate as it can be traced back to recognition errors in pattern detection but I don't believe there's a Yahweh shaped hole in our hearts.

      January 7, 2014 at 10:49 am |
      • G to the T

        * may NOT be innate... dang it!

        January 7, 2014 at 10:50 am |
  11. Jonathan

    Instead of attempting to disprove the existence of Christ otr any other religious figure, why don't those religion haters, for once, read the message that was given. Atheist can't see the woods for the trees.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
    • sburns54

      If all the self-proclaimed BELIEVERS would actually read the message that was given- and actually follow it!- THAT would be a miracle.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
      • Jonathan

        It would be even better if even those non believers would also live the life.

        January 5, 2014 at 7:34 pm |
    • lisa

      Many atheists are atheists because they have read the message that was given them and are not convinced by the evidence regarding the message sender.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:09 pm |
      • Jonathan

        So a message, no matter the merit, becomes null in the absence of the author?

        January 5, 2014 at 7:32 pm |
  12. Bee lade

    If they let Westbro survive, why not this church?

    Least it's not as hateful as the others,

    January 5, 2014 at 6:52 pm |
    • doobzz

      Who is "they" and how do "they" have any say in whether this organization exists?

      January 6, 2014 at 11:43 am |
  13. Brian

    Most atheists at my school have acne or are fat or are otherwise unpopular. Some are flaming and obviously uncomfortable with their "orientation."
    I think being angry has much to do with being outspokenly atheist.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:47 pm |
    • Robert Raulerson

      Most Xtians I know eat their own boogurs.

      January 5, 2014 at 6:49 pm |
    • G to the T

      At school eh? Is that elementary or pre?

      January 7, 2014 at 10:52 am |
  14. Robert Raulerson

    The Church of No Church. The Gawd of No Gawd. Sounds good. Where do I sign up?

    January 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
  15. FrankinSD

    Because I'm not much of a joiner, I wouldn't normally care much about this church one way or the other. But the argument does contain at least one piece of good advice. They would probably be better off retiring the word "atheist." Just as a theist is someone who believes in God more than the evidence warrants, and atheist is someone who disbelieves in God more than the evidence warrants. They are both aspects of the same basic mistake.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
    • Science Works

      just a thought watch 60 Minute on CBS in about 15 minutes – you will see geology at work and the fire pit of hell maybe ?

      January 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
    • CTed

      No the disbelieve in god exactly as much as the (lack of) evidence warrants. There is exactly zero evidence for god therefore it requires complete disbelief.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm |
  16. CopytwittyKirkeMitty...............LAME.game.gay

    🙂

    January 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm |
    • Observer

      Grow up.

      January 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm |
      • CopytwittyKirkeMitty...............LAME.game.gay

        Mama! 🙂

        Mama's got a squeeze box

        January 5, 2014 at 6:49 pm |
  17. Nando

    The god that christians believe in seems utterly barbaric. The main ritual that christians engage in is the drinking of human blood and the eating of human flesh. Some christian sects maintain the blood and flesh are symbolic, while others insist is it transformed in the ritual into real blood and real flesh. Partaking of this barbaric ritual is supposed to appease this god, so that he does not condemn the follower to an eternal, extremely tortuous punishment known as hell. And the belief all revolves around the blood sacrifice of a human life, exactly as primitive tribes believed if they sacrificed a goat or a lamb or a virgin from their midst, the god would be appeased.

    And folks think that atheism has a negative connotation? Really?

    January 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm |
    • Bigwillz

      Most Christians do not believe this is the actual drinking of blood or eating of flesh. It is a commemorative meal for the Christian to remember what Jesus did for them. It is not done to appease God.

      Read the Bible for yourself.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:01 pm |
  18. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    It's the cookies isn't it? These two atheists missed getting cookies after Sunday school.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:36 pm |
  19. GAW

    You can only keep a parody alive for so long.

    January 5, 2014 at 6:33 pm |
  20. Mopery

    An Atheist church you say? Why that must be as good as the Vegan Steakhouse...

    January 5, 2014 at 6:32 pm |
    • Kirk

      Fifty points for that one.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:33 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.