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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. l33ter

    Particle physics? Sell swag? Franchise? Sounds like a money making scheme.

    I'll just go hang out at starbucks.

    January 7, 2014 at 11:01 pm |
    • Piccolo

      Evolution? Neva studied it. It must be wrong.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:16 am |
      • ECassious2

        Evolution...I have studied it as have many others. It is most definitely wrong.

        January 13, 2014 at 11:10 am |
        • Barcs

          So you are a biologist? Can you please give me exact examples where the scientific research is incorrect? Please present your alleged research. I love when people read biased religious sites and claim that's the same thing as researching evolution. Denying evolution is like denying that the earth goes around the sun, at this point. Don't use religious sites to learn about evolution and I won't use scientific sites to learn about your religion.

          January 13, 2014 at 1:05 pm |
    • nev

      particle physics,evolution ,are just a few scientific terminologies that will explain our existence in the future,the only way that we will be united into one scientific religion that will prepare us for the next step of our human evolution towards implementor of Gods will ourselves.We already have the environmentalists,conservationists and many activists who are now concerned of protecting nature,We have all the progress in science and technology directed towards the betterment of our lives.We are further inspired to explore the whole universe ,starting with the exploration of our solar system,All of this in history points to direction of change for the good of humanity,although the process of evolution subjects us to extreme stress trials,thats part of Gods will.

      January 14, 2014 at 7:20 am |
  2. Felix Sinclair

    I guess being honest enough to not rely on "believe us or else" hurts attendance.

    January 7, 2014 at 4:52 pm |
    • Former Xtian

      Maybe these guys should create a torture chamber and lock anybody inside if they do not agree with them and their views. After all, that's what a loving god does. Might as well follow his shining example. Torture, slavery & genocide are all great ways to show love and compassion... at least according to Christians and the "word of god".

      January 8, 2014 at 10:15 am |
  3. naturechaplain

    As a (non theist) Freethinker, I still mingle in Interfaith circles. In other words, I can get along with people of faith and those without. Where there is respect, relationship and a commitment to relevant collaboration, I'm IN. Hardnosed Atheism has never been attractive for these very reasons. The alternative to Church and Religion is Human Beings learning to find what is common and common sensical, then living responsibly alongside others who may be very different but still human.

    January 7, 2014 at 3:28 pm |
  4. Barcs

    If god exists, where did he come from? Are we to just assume that he was always there? How does something like that emerge? What's the cause of an eternal being? Theists constantly dodge this question. If everything in the universe requires an independent cause, then god must require one as well. The whole "he's eternal" argument is nonsensical and could just as easily apply to the energy in the universe (and it does based on the laws of physics). God's origin must be addressed, otherwise to defer to him as 'first cause' is a fallacy. It's basically a cop out. Oh yeah, the rules of the universe apply to everything except god, right? Prove it. Prove that there is an outside of the universe. Let's start there instead of just imaging that it exists.

    January 7, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
    • ksed11

      God didn’t come from anywhere. He has always been conceived (by both theist and atheists) as a necessary, self-existing being. One need not assume this. God’s necessity can be argued for. So asking how something like god emerges is a category mistake.
      The energy of the universe is not eternal as can be shown by the second law of thermodynamics.
      If the atheist objects to god being a necessary being, he must face up to the fact that, for him, the universe is likewise a necessary being. The scientific evidence, in addition to philosophical arguments, make this an untenable position

      January 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm |
      • lunchbreaker

        Whatever caused the univeres to exist is not recquired to be a sentient being, much less YOUR God.

        January 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
        • Pixel

          His point was that just as God falls under the category of "uncreated" things to a theist, matter and energy themselves would by necessity need to fall under the umbrella of the "uncreated." Whether you are a theist or an atheist, you put your faith in something clearly uncreated: atheists in the 'stuff" of the universe, theists in a person who created the "stuff." I'm sorry you have been hurt so badly to be so angrily reactive. The poster above didn't even say he was a theist, but you responded as thought he espoused a particular belief. He merely presented the fallacy in the "where did God come from" argument.

          January 7, 2014 at 2:54 pm |
        • Barcs

          Pixel, it's not faith to believe that energy exists. We know this for a fact. We understand the laws of physics and relativity. We do not know whether god exists, so to say that either position requires faith is flat out wrong. There is no fallacy in the 'where did god come from?' argument. It's a legitimate question that nobody can answer without invoking multiple fallacies and leaps in logic.

          January 7, 2014 at 3:04 pm |
        • Barcs

          Furthermore, 'Where did the universe come from?' is a valid question, but it's something we don't yet have an answer for and don't have the scientific means to study at the moment. Defaulting to god because we don't know the answer is fallacious. Nomatter what you insert into the equation it's impossible to study anything before just after the big bang expansion started. The point was that if you can say god is eternal, than anybody can say the universe is eternal and it holds more weight because we know the universe exists. To say that god must exist because the universe does is completely illogical.

          January 7, 2014 at 3:09 pm |
      • Barcs

        "God didn’t come from anywhere. He has always been conceived (by both theist and atheists) as a necessary, self-existing being. One need not assume this. God’s necessity can be argued for. So asking how something like god emerges is a category mistake."

        But how? You didn't explain it at all, you just repeated the argument. How can anything possibly exist (let alone an intelligent being), that did not come from anywhere? The necessity CANNOT be argued for because there isn't a single thing in the universe that has been studied by science that requires external interference to function. Not a single thing. There are certainly plenty of unknowns, but that isn't a case for god, it's a case for "we don't know the answer yet". Instead saying that the answer is god, people need to stop being afraid to admit they do not really know the answer. Agnosticism is really the only logical position to take.

        "The energy of the universe is not eternal as can be shown by the second law of thermodynamics"

        False. The 2nd law of thermodynamics is about entropy in a closed system. It has nothing to do with energy being created or destroyed, and by the way it cannot be as per Einstein's relativity. It can only change forms, so technically yes, it is eternal.

        "If the atheist objects to god being a necessary being, he must face up to the fact that, for him, the universe is likewise a necessary being. The scientific evidence, in addition to philosophical arguments, make this an untenable position"

        Why? What scientific evidence are you referring to? Why does the universe have to be a being? Couldn't the explanation be much more complex? Why does have to be god or nothing? Couldn't this universe be one of millions, and be a result of membrane collisions as m-theory suggests? The truth is we don't know how much deeper the rabbit hole goes, so to just assume it's god and call it a day, it not the type of thinking that will advance science. We should always be looking for answers instead of blindly believing thousand year old texts written by people that didn't know anything about the world scientifically.

        January 7, 2014 at 2:59 pm |
        • Kantus

          Now, I am not exactly well-versed in philosophy, but I can point you to this website which will, at the least, point to you that it seems very likely that there is a necessary being, that is, something which cannot fail to exist and can cause other things to exist. How we get from there to God is a separate question, which we can deal with later on.

          The site is http://www.necessarybeing.net/

          January 7, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
        • Thompson Clark

          Ok Barcs there is nothing that any Christian/Jew can tell you that will prove that God exists. God just is and will always be. You and the others that think like you are depicted in the Bible, as a foolish, blind, lost sheep. John 3:16 "He that believeth in me shall have everlasting life" Its belief that God exists not proof there will never be proof until Jesus comes back for his children. And by the way that thousand year old text is probably the main reason that this country exists.

          January 7, 2014 at 11:51 pm |
        • Barcs

          Thompson, how did you arrive at the conclusion that the bible is correct? What makes you so sure that you would risk your soul on that rather than Islam or Hinduism? I'm just curious because people keep stating things from the bible as if they are fact but nobody can explain how they know that this is indeed the case. Did you evaluate the other religions to determine this, or were you born into it and believe it by default since it's how you were taught? It know it's faith based, but I can't figure out for the life of me, how do make a decision like that.

          What makes you think the bible is responsible for the existence of America?

          Again, I'm not asking for proof of god, I'm asking where this alleged being came from. I frequently hear phrases like, "life can not arise from non life" and "intelligence can only come from intelligence". If this is the case, then god, as an intelligent living being has to have a source.

          January 8, 2014 at 3:02 am |
        • Thompson Clark

          Again Barcs asking for where he comes from is something that no one can explain He just was and that is our belief. I was born into this yes and I have my doubts like is this actually true and mabye Islam is the right way. All of God's children have their doubts its just how we are made is to doubt.
          For the America thing I cannot prove it so that is bad argument. I apologize. Where I was coming from was our Founding Fathers had a lot of enlightenment I guess from the Bible as they explained there actions by quoting the Bible.
          So what you are looking for ironically doesn't exist. You could read and study the Bible for years and still not get an answer

          January 8, 2014 at 10:11 am |
        • Thompson Clark

          Again Barcs asking for where he comes from is something that no one can explain He just was and that is our belief. I was born into this yes and I have my doubts like is this actually true and mabye Islam is the right way. All of God's children have their doubts its just how we are made is to doubt.
          For the America thing I cannot prove it so that is bad argument. I apologize. Where I was coming from was our Founding Fathers had a lot of enlightenment I guess from the Bible as they explained there actions by quoting the Bible.
          So what you are looking for ironically doesn't exist. You could read and study the Bible for years and still not get an answer because no one knows and the only one that knows is God. I'm sorry this isn't what your looking for but this is probably the best answer you can get.

          January 8, 2014 at 10:14 am |
        • Barcs

          I see what you're saying, but there has to be an explanation of some sort. Otherwise we essentially believe that an eternal god just happens to be the way it is. I mean really, what are the chances of that?

          January 8, 2014 at 10:59 am |
        • Thompson Clark

          Well what are the chances of the earth being created from a big bang?

          January 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm |
        • Barcs

          They weren't created directly from the big bang, they are a long term result of the energy expanding and reacting with other forms of energy and the laws of physics. But yeah the chances are probably like 99% that the earth came from the big bang expansion. There is a massive amount of evidence for it, unlike a creator.

          January 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm |
        • Just The Facts

          Thompson… You stated, "Well what are the chances of the earth being created from a big bang?…

          I can answer that. Answer: Zero.

          January 8, 2014 at 11:31 pm |
        • Barcs

          Oh yeah? Zero percent huh? Would you care to share your facts and knowledge about how you came to learn that this is the truth? Oh wait, there are none! 😆

          January 10, 2014 at 10:55 am |
      • IndyMike

        How can atheists conceive anything about God? They don't believe in God. If they do believe, then they are not atheists.

        January 13, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
    • 116

      Concerning God, we cannot look at him and understand with our limited understanding of him, God works outside of time and our dementions so the cause and effect rules do not apply to him.

      January 14, 2014 at 8:38 am |
  5. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    Rajinder Nijjhar – A retired lecturer in Metallurgy Preaching Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.

    In other words... a nutcase

    January 7, 2014 at 10:14 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      This is a 'Reply' to an earlier conversation that posted incorrectly... don't know why.

      January 7, 2014 at 10:17 am |
  6. Science Works

    RD for you it is OK to be ?

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3_n7TDL7lc&w=640&h=360]

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/06/the-universe-in-a-glass-of-wine-feynman/ by +Maria Popova 

    January 7, 2014 at 10:05 am |
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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.