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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. Adam J Read

    Humans are significantly affected by any story line that repeats in their minds. The reason history keeps repeating itself is because we keep repeating the same stories...such as those embedded in our religions. As we read them, the same assumptions of the original authors become embedded in our minds, and because of this, we often end up coming to the same conclusions as our ancient counterparts.

    If there is ever to be any success in a venue such as an atheist church, the best thing for them to do is to dig into the stories of the Bible, and come alongside of it with an equally complex side story, removing the borders of this jigsaw puzzle, and add to it characters that should have been in there all along.

    For instance, the Children of God should have had a mother from Day 1, and if we stick with the Hebrew, her name would have been something like Jehovah Rechem, or "God of the Womb." A prequel could be written as to what happened to God when he was a child to make him so quick to drown his own children in an act of rage in the Great Flood.

    It would also be interesting to explore the imagery introduced in the Bible, but never fully developed, such as the idea of the church being the Bride of Christ. Two thousand years is an awfully long time to make a lady wait, and she is beginning to look like a jilted bride that will never become a true wife...which makes Jesus a man that does not appear to want to commit to her.

    THESE are the kinds of stories that would draw a pretty wide crowd, as these parallel story lines would begin conversations that the church could never have. God needs to be held accountable for putting his son in harm's way, and if he were to have done it right, the Father himself should have come down and put his own life on the line instead of getting his son killed and calling it a "perfect sacrifice."

    There is much more exploring to do than even the atheists realize.

    AJR

    January 15, 2014 at 6:11 pm |
    • nev

      your explaination of the problems of the present,highlights the need for change in our antiquited religion,which greatly affected our moral and cultural development,Human needs today requires a focus on holistic approach,meaning the whole world and all of humanity shall be in the consciousness of everybody,Traditional religions still focus on individualism,his own survival and salvation,The internet is one of the key medium of change for this,and it is expected that the young people now must be aware and inculcated in this new perspective.its therefore our obligation,the enlightened ones to start now.

      January 15, 2014 at 7:52 pm |
  2. The Data Distributist

    What is "a humanistic cult"?

    January 13, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
    • dev

      creationist,evolutionists,humanists are all one in panthrotheism,a faith who believes in Gods self creation 13.7 billion years ago and the evolution of the universe from energy to matter ,to intelligent beings,all and part of God,this is the only way to explain reality or our existence beyond reasonable doubt,because it is already proven by scientific methods

      January 14, 2014 at 6:54 am |
      • midwest rail

        "...because it is already proven by scientific methods."
        An interesting assertion for which you have no proof.

        January 14, 2014 at 7:00 am |
        • dev

          the proof of the big bang is already proven last year in the most expensive laboratory in CERN Switzerland .The scientist who created the theory is Dr.Higgs,who was awarded the Nobel prize in particle physics,although the equation E=mc2 is already proven the last century resulting in the production of nuclear bombs and all the technological progress later including the internet,the CERN experiment was the final absolute proof of its validity.Of course the traditional religions we have since the start of our civilization will still be here for generations to come because its the religion that we have as necessity to conform to our needs for our times.But the future requires an evolved faith that will conform also to the future state of mind for the future human generations,That faith will be called Panthrotheism.the science based religionl

          January 14, 2014 at 7:40 am |
        • midwest rail

          I was not questioning the validity of science, merely the validity of your assertion regarding panthrotheism.

          January 14, 2014 at 7:49 am |
        • dev

          i am thanking you for recognizing its scientific validity,as for its being called panthrotheism,its a necessity to call it that way to distinguish it from traditional religions,a book is about to be published on this faith.Pan(God)-Anthro( humans) Theism( Religion) PANTHROTHEISM .A belief that we all came from energy E=MC2.that God willed Himself to become matter and we evolved from it,and we are the only intelligent being on earth who will be gradually given the privilege to implement some of His will to reality in the future,That we are only a part of Him .thats the basic dogma.

          January 14, 2014 at 8:20 am |
        • igaftr

          Panthrotheism is the belief that the character Panthro from Thundercats is a god....otherwise, the word does not exist, except in the mind of dev, who clearly wants to twist the findings of science into his wacky belief.

          January 14, 2014 at 9:09 am |
        • igaftr

          "and we are the only intelligent being on earth"

          That is just a lie. There are MANY intelligent creatures on earth, from slime mold, that has proven to have a collective intelligence that has problem solving abilities, to the elephants who have very high intelligence, to other top mammals, whales, dolphins, posses high intelligence.

          First off, intelligence comes in MANY different forms...we are among the higher intelligent creatures, but do not so quickly discount the others. Look at the intelligence required for a Magnificent Cuttlefish to be able to control his skin the way he does.....an intelligence we do not possess, and that is one example out of a million. Our intelligence works very similarly to hive intelligence that bees possess.

          Your assertion we are the only intelligent creature is simply wrong and quite ignorant.

          January 14, 2014 at 9:18 am |
        • authorextraordinaire

          Thank you for being an informed thinker. Those who use the cobbled together "Bible," as their supreme guide and reference on all things are unfathomable. They have no sense of history. Given the political system even that lack of knowledge is growing exponentially, "believing" that the earth and all of existence are a few thousand years old, "set down" by a small tribe at one time in one place–and "self -referenced" for all things is ludicrous–like a baby with a permanent pacifier.

          January 22, 2014 at 9:47 am |
        • King of Darkness

          Yeah Panthroism is scientific alright... except for the god part.

          January 14, 2014 at 10:39 am |
      • dev

        igaftr,there are numerous intelligent beings on earth but very few passes the mark test.Only the higher apes and humans passed the self awareness or mark test.God considered us humans as the only creature to establish religions through out history.and will be given the privilege of exploring Himself,We are now starting to go to Mars ,and possibly the whole solar system by the end of the century and next is our Galaxy,Why?that question explains the uniqueness of our relationship with Him.Scientifically analysing history with the use of computational methods ( using advance computer .the Nautilus ) had revealed some of His will by discovering that it has a direction,meaning a possibility of a manifestation of His will,with the coming of a very powerful quantum computer in he near future it is expected that He will reveal more of His will to us.

        January 14, 2014 at 10:03 am |
        • dev

          The NAUTILUS the super computer is in the University of Teneessee,the computer that predicts the future,and since we humans through His will are the most intellegent part of Him,will be task in the future to chart our History and therefore our destiny.

          January 14, 2014 at 10:19 am |
      • Salero21

        One good piece of evidence of the Total stupidity of atheism!!

        January 15, 2014 at 3:48 pm |
        • nev

          the Greek and Romans,in their times might have reacted like this when told that that a religion established by the Jews who believed only in one god instead of Zeus and the eleven others in Mt.Olympus are propagating their faith.Their polytheistic faith being threatend by the monotheism of the Jews,But today they ,the monotheist cannot enslave them,the panthrotheists.

          January 15, 2014 at 6:30 pm |
  3. IndyMike

    Churches split all the time. One group or another get offended by the pastor, the elders, the music or the style of worship. They break away and start their own church. It may or may not survive. Some will go away from the church completely and others will return to where it all started. The only problem with churches is that people run them. Because there are no perfect people ther are no perfect churches. If people were perfect there would be no need for church or religion.

    January 13, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
    • kathryn

      Yes, sounds like this group is having the same problems common to most churches. Which goes to show that a lot of the problems atheists attribute to Christianity should probably be more accurately attributed to the problems of organizations in general - whether the Rotary Club, your local church or your professional association - hypocrites, a power-hungry leader, people backstabbing each other. Unfortunately, it's just people being people and it's good for the atheist community to see they are no different. I expect an angry reply from someone shortly.

      January 14, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
  4. owlafaye

    Care to qualify that?

    With no god responding whatsoever, I would wager you are on a dead end street some 2000 years now.

    January 12, 2014 at 5:56 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      Dead end street for 2000 years? Well said and to the point of it all !!!

      January 12, 2014 at 6:14 pm |
  5. G. Y. Fortune

    It seems the is group is trying to move forward on the evolutionary scale, from fear of unknown nature, to self responsibility, An edited report cannot share the group's entirety. Perhaps they will mature beyond a "feeling" to awareness of the possibilities in community that are not tied to worship and religion.

    January 12, 2014 at 10:03 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.