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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. Alias

    As I said many pages ago, this is propaganda.
    The article is void of facts and reason.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
  2. Malik

    Church:
    noun
    a building used for public Christian worship

    Atheism:
    noun
    disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
    • Snafu

      Driveway: A place to park your car.

      Parkway: A place to drive your car.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm |
      • theridge

        Fluoride: an element that reduces IQ and calcifies in your body.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
  3. RandyF

    Whether you are selling Jesus, Allah or no god at all it still a business racket.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
  4. Richard Daly

    I must say, as an atheist, that when you start talking about atheist churches, you have fallen into the religion trap.
    Count me out!

    January 5, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
    • Lee

      Me too.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
    • mainepotter

      More peer group pressure to conform. They are just like religion and just as divided into splinter groups that all think they are the only ones doing it the right way. Groupthink.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
  5. what the

    Honestly, im not religious, but whats the point of an Athiest church? To all gather together to NOT worship or believe in something. Sing hymns of disbelief and bake cookies with no ingredients in them to send to fundraisers nobody attends? Theyd be better off doing something else. Maybe congregate and find out how they make no damn sense.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm |
    • Elliott Carlin

      post-o-the-day. you win the internets.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
    • 1grub

      The point is to be a part of community, something that is being lost in today's society.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
  6. John

    Its interesting that this article falls under the heading "Belief Blog"! Human nature forces us to believe in something to explain our existence. Atheism is a belief is self and ones interpretation of his or her existence and how to be moral and good citizens of this corrupt world. Atheist profess to have the answers on how to live and you can tell that they are awfully divided as the first "congregation" has already split! I am glad that I have a supernatural God to prescribe morals and a way to peace an love, other than some corrupt human being coming up with a set of man made thoughts and twisted prescriptions! Must be the devil playing with their minds to create more confusion.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:01 pm |
    • Snafu

      Are you saying you are more 'moral' than an atheist?

      January 5, 2014 at 9:03 pm |
      • John

        No i don not thinks so at all, in fact you could argue the opposite if you wanted to. I believe we are all atheists when is comes down to it and unless God shows us otherwise we will continue to be atheists. Like Malik said atheism is a noun.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
    • Observer

      John,

      Christians aren't nearly as STUPID as you apparently think they are. Most of them are bright enough to figure out that it's not a good idea to go around killing everyone, for instance. Not all of them need a 2,000-year-old book to figure this out.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
      • John

        I don not think they are stupid at all, I think you misunderstand me. I believe that we are all in need of Christ as mediator between God the Father and us. This gives divine wisdom and understanding about our existence and how to be moral citizens in this world.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
        • Observer

          John

          Where do the morals come from when people BELIEVE the Bible is WRONG about such things as slavery and beating helpless children with rods for discipline?

          January 5, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
      • Alias

        christians are stupid enough to believe anything in writing that makes them feel goog.
        The bible and this article are two good examples.
        The author keeps throwing the word 'church' into everthing. The atheists call it a gathering or assembly.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:19 pm |
      • John

        Observer

        Morals come from a God given conscience that we are all born with. As humans we have a way to ignoring it and doing terrible things.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          You have no evidence of a god, so you cannot presume that a god installed morality.

          January 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
        • mainepotter

          Morals are determined by groups of people to guide behavior. They vary from group to group. When somebody, not a supernatural whatever, has it all figured out, please let me know.

          January 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
    • Anthony Crispino

      Hey – the devil is playing games with people in more ways than one if you know what I mean:

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JuSfRgh0Vo&w=640&h=360]

      January 5, 2014 at 9:08 pm |
      • Observer

        That's a riot. Even the reporter was clueless about where he was ("Boca Rattan, Florida"). Classic!

        January 5, 2014 at 9:12 pm |
    • CausinAscene

      John,

      Your argument falls short on many levels. Talk to any Historian or Theologian, they will confirm that what you state is true of the "Atheist" movement is true also of your "Supernatural God" and possibly your "Special Sect or Cult" of a religion..I can't think of an individual "Religion" that hasn't had some sort of split in their respective histories. And all of them with the exception if Islam, are admittedly written by Man..or groups of Men, more often than not powerful men who wanted to keep it that way and indeed have for many years..many many years...

      January 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
      • mainepotter

        Islam too. No exceptions to man-made.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
    • Bryon

      John,

      It is sad that you need a God to give you morals. Most of us are taught morals from our parent or just figure them out. But, people like you need to be given them from some imaginary deity.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
  7. Malik

    isn't a church a worship??? and isn't atheism a belief that their is no god???? so why the hell would their be a church of atheists, the contradicts the foundation of atheism. in my opinion its atheism doesn't even exist.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
  8. Recompress

    Idiocy.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:54 pm |
  9. Goodnight CNN posters

    If I laugh any harder I'll wet my chair.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
  10. Topher

    Hope everyone is staying safe inside and out of the winter weather.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
    • Observer

      Amen.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:54 pm |
    • Alias

      Greetings from Florida, we might see some frost tomorrow night.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm |
  11. Great Atheists in World History...Nicolae Ceausescu

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3lTw0WMhpg&w=640&h=360]

    January 5, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
    • Observer

      Just another tyrant who wanted to be "God" in his own country.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
    • On the fringe

      The fringe of humanity sure does have some nutcases. Take that Xtian sect who also follows Santa Muerte. They still sacrifice people now and then. Then there was another Xtian-based sect who sacrificed a baby about a year ago. The news report described most of the members as being college-educated. Of course these were people who murdered in the name of their religion, as did many involved in the various inquisitions. It's not as easy to draw that kind of purpose when talking about individuals who don't hold a certain belief.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
      • Elliott Carlin

        Good point. When xtheists kill, they never do it for a reason.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
        • On the fringe

          Correction: "It's not as easy to draw that kind of parallel regarding purpose when talking about individuals who don't hold a certain belief." And sorry, Elliott, when despots from history killed, they most certainly had their own selfish reasons. Organized religion was an obstacle for them among other obstacles. Drawing a parallel between these figures and the types of regimes they ran and atheism in a free society is, well, just silly.

          January 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
  12. Robert Raulerson

    Gawd gave me Free Will? Okay, I choose not to be an Xtian. What? I will burn in Heck forever? That don't sound free to me!

    January 5, 2014 at 8:47 pm |
    • That's a first

      Let me know what Heck is like if you wind up there. I hear it's not as bad as hell. I heard it sounds like a neck.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:50 pm |
  13. Andy

    Typical losers. Not wonder they're failing.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:46 pm |
    • Realist

      ____________________

      .. http://www.GodIsImaginary.com ..

      .. and thank goodness because ..

      .. he emanates from the ..

      .. http://www.EvilBible.com
      ____________________

      January 5, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
    • paperbottoms

      The self righteous Andy (as seen above) thought that his comment would actually benefit this ridiculous article and thread. When Andy is not making brilliant arguments, he usually can be found writing life goals on college ruled notepaper and shoving it up his ass.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
  14. fjcqpowiwewfc

    Religious idiots are a brainwashed, weak-minded, illogical, ignorant, gullible, irrational bane to society and the cause of most of the conflict in the world.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:44 pm |
    • Right

      That's the way I like my bulls hit, all in one place just piles and piles of it, move over and let me get a better sniff.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:47 pm |
    • theridge

      I agree! I have faith in God but no man or religion. What to you believe in?

      January 5, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
      • G to the T

        If you have faith in "God" (i.e. El/Yahweh) then you do have a religion. You just don't have a fellowship.

        January 6, 2014 at 12:03 pm |
        • HalS

          No one would allow theridge in their "God club". Even they think he should be locked away and medicated. He sees dead people in the "spiritual world" and thinks the Rockefellers and the Rothschild's worship Lucifer. I told him they're just Capitalists. Other than schizophrenic, he must be one of those anti-capitalists as well.

          January 6, 2014 at 11:21 pm |
  15. Robert Raulerson

    Gawd is omniscient. IT knows everything! So Gawd knew I was never gonna believe in IT. It's all according to the Big Plan. Not to worry.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
    • XYZ

      That doesn't mean He doesn't know you and wants you to believe. Will you?

      January 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
      • Robert Raulerson

        If IT wants me too then why don't I? The Will Of Gawd can not be denied! Or can it?

        January 5, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
    • Roddy McManus

      Yes, you are correct. It simply means you are reprobate.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
    • CoedBathroomsNondadFathersGaysFirst

      2
      2

      🙂

      January 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
  16. Robert Raulerson

    Did you know the female Black Widow Spider eats her husband after they, you know, do the Wild Thang? She freakin eats him! And you tell me an om-ibenevolent Gawd created this world? I guess you'll tell me spiders have Free Will won't you?

    January 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
    • theridge

      What is a Gawd? You from Arkansas?

      January 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
    • Answer

      Ya god gave you "free will" that you have to accept it; in order so you can have free will.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
  17. Great Men of Atheism

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnPvb9HtSWw&w=640&h=360]

    January 5, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
    • On the fringe

      The fringe of humanity sure does have some nutcases. Take that Xtian sect who also follows Santa Muerte. They still sacrifice people now and then. Then there was another Xtian-based sect who sacrificed a baby about a year ago. The news report described most of the members as being college-educated.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
  18. JJ

    I think these atheists are just fucking with Christians and getting a laugh out of it. It appears to be working.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm |
    • Free Holiday Nuts

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

      January 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
      • JJ

        Lol..that was awesome. I had never seen this and I thought I had sought out all Dawkin's videos. I've had Christians say these things to my face when they found out I'm atheist. They would ask me what keeps me from raping and murdering. Really!

        January 5, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
      • Hate mail

        Sounds like the fundies comments on the BB !!

        Funny stuff !

        January 5, 2014 at 8:56 pm |
    • Answer

      We love fucking with your heads. It's a great day when the freaks roll out of their sundays to come redeem their religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
      • Joe

        You are a hippy.

        January 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
    • theridge

      won't be laughing in the afterlife tho hahahaha!

      January 5, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
      • Answer

        Oh the proxy threat.. laughable as always.

        Tell us how are you planning to get to heaven yourself? And what kind of job are you going to be doing up there?

        LOL

        Are you going to be a garbage man? HAHAHAHAHAH

        January 5, 2014 at 8:30 pm |
      • Answer

        "There is certainly no garbage in heaven... no siree."

        "It is so beautiful and clean; it's magic."

        LOL

        January 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
    • Exactly

      Atheist church = so many punch lines so little time

      January 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
  19. On atheist churches

    It must be a really bad economy when churches cut costs by offering less of their core product for the same price.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:24 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.