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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. Charm Quark

    As a modern day Deist I wonder why we cannot all get along. I certainly do not believe in a personal god that watches my every move and will pass judgement on me. All of our man made gods are of course myths that the hucksters have promoted for wealth and power, period. So just to define my idea of a Deity would be the thing that started the process of life on our little rock, nothing supernatural, but the answer will probably be solved by humankinds quest for knowledge. So I invite agnostics, atheists and all theists no matter the god they believe in to join together in that quest.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:33 am |
    • saggyroy

      We can't get along because your god is wrong and mine is the correct god.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:39 am |
      • Charm Quark

        saggroy
        But my Deity has no dogma, tome or opinion for that matter, probably It/He/She is merely a process that we "just don't know" about yet. Nothing to fight about.

        January 5, 2014 at 8:46 am |
    • Science Works

      The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullsh-it-Busting and Critical Thinking

      In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) – free to read if you have a card.

      http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/03/baloney-detection-kit-carl-sagan/

      January 5, 2014 at 8:44 am |
  2. bob

    Just as power hungry adult males have always used religion to control others, so do these "atheists". It's simply control freaks on a power trip.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:25 am |
  3. erin

    I don't understand the need for centralized Churches in religion, and I sure as heck don't understand it for atheism!

    January 5, 2014 at 8:15 am |
    • QuintoBlanco

      A sense of community is valuable. A friend of mine has left his church after years of soul searching. He is not exactly an atheist, but hasn’t felt good about the church doctrine for years.

      The toughest thing for him is to leave behind the community. These people were his friends, almost like family. Going to church twice a week made him happy, even if he didn’t agree with the sermons.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:22 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Community stops where there's no longer any accountability though, as such 'church' goes beyond believe.

        January 5, 2014 at 8:25 am |
      • truthprevails1

        Very valid point. It is probably one of the reason's that christianity took the hold it did and has remained for so long, but with the information age comes new ways of socializing and sharing and thankfully less need for religion.

        January 5, 2014 at 8:26 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          Actually there has never been a void, taking a hold of anything that goes beyond community where one has a voice remains rather questionable.

          January 5, 2014 at 8:29 am |
  4. Homie

    I guess I will stick to practicing Dudism.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:13 am |
  5. Reality # 2

    Churches for atheists? Give us a break!! It is obvious a money-making con. We will see when said "church" files their IRS Form 990 this year.

    For the real atheists out there:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" are converging these religions into some simple rules of life e.g. Do No Harm.

    No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:12 am |
  6. Organic1

    I knew if you called something a church it would make money.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:09 am |
  7. JasonWentworth

    Sunday Assembly is nothing more than the expression of Sanderson Jones ego and desire for personal profit and recognition. Same for Lee Moore's Godless Revival. There will always be people who feel the need to impose their particular belief structure on others. I am not sure why this is – possibly some lack of self-awareness and contentment that leads them to solicit confirmation by convincing others to join with them in their particular form of communion. There is certainly no problem with people believing whatever they like, but any form of proselytizing should be outlawed.

    January 5, 2014 at 8:09 am |
  8. Ben Moushon

    Saw that coming "10 Reasons an Atheist Church is the same as a Regular Church" http://wp.me/p21Eej-tV

    January 5, 2014 at 7:53 am |
  9. jakibros

    Amazing... the atheists of the world are constantly bashing how religion causes wars amongst the human race, but even they can't "just get along" in their atheist vs humanist anti religion. All of it sounds more like people choose to use any excuse, religion or irreligion, to not get along.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:51 am |
    • beyond the arc

      I'm not a Unitarian Universalist, but I've never seen any of them get into conflicts with others. I believe the more inclusive, the less conflict. And that sounds like the original teachings of Christ to me.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:54 am |
      • igaftr

        That's funny, but if jesus taught that, he got it from the Buddha.

        January 5, 2014 at 8:05 am |
    • QuintoBlanco

      I think you are mistaken. Most atheists are not against religion, they just don’t believe in God. They don’t believe it’s wrong for other people to believe in God.

      Likewise, quite a few religious people are uncomfortable with formalized and highly organized religion. Even if they themselves identify as (for example) catholic or protestant.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:06 am |
    • Really

      Don't you even dare try to put them on the same level, just don't. They're not killing each other.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:15 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Religion takes on a few more forms than the godly versions with promises for after one dies.

        They ALL claim utterly nonsense in order to live life as if it's heaven on this planet though….without any of it it just might come close.

        January 5, 2014 at 8:21 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Except of course this argument is because one group is starting to act religious so it doesn't invalidate the argument.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:58 am |
  10. Ben Moushon

    Reblogged this on Thinking & Driving and commented:
    Time will show that Atheism and atheist churches will be no different from Christians and Christian churches. Members will argue over proper "doctrine" and judge one another based on who's a better non-believer. Hypocrisy will abound and at the end of the day the only difference will be who their "prayers" are directed to.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:50 am |
    • QuintoBlanco

      In the original concept of an ‘atheist church’ that is the point. A church that is not that much difference than a religious church and offers the same kind of community. But without a requirement for its members to believe in God.

      I understand the current discussion, because the emphasis on the word atheist seems to imply that not believing in God should be the accepted doctrine. At the very least a non-religious church should be accepting of agnostics. And ideally non-affiliated Christians should be welcome as long as they are willing to respect the beliefs of other people.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:18 am |
  11. beyond the arc

    There are two kinds of atheists in this picture. One kind, seen in this "church," strives toward the highest good though without serving a deity. The other kind just wants to spit on believers. The first kind I can respect.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:48 am |
    • igaftr

      "two kinds of atheists"...funny...I only ever see the one type of christian...the one who is quick to judge others such as you have done here, the one who tries to force others to believe as they do or judge them for not believing.

      Jesus allegedly taught you not to judge others, and to work on making yourself the best self you can be...have you not learned this most basic lesson?

      January 5, 2014 at 8:23 am |
  12. A. Anderson

    NO......it's not a religon! hahahaha

    January 5, 2014 at 7:47 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Correct, it's not, which is why when one group tried to make it one the split occurred.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:00 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Religion doesn't exist, there's an awful lot of people who claim all kinds of nonsense in order to hope to be rewarded with some kind of gain in life..it's called politics, what happens afterwards doesn't count other than the (collective) heritage to be claimed as a 'right'.

        Emotional stuff is best shared on a small scale and the rest is an anonymous scientific story…a global one for the time being.

        Fact is that we are collectively adapted to live a life according to 'locally' 'respected' variations of make believe, the more we gain the more we believe it's okeledokely.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:20 am |
  13. A. Anderson

    NO...........its not a religion! hahahaha

    January 5, 2014 at 7:46 am |
  14. billy vidal

    this religion is psss now f0r 666 final judgement,,, because using the name of son of the god JESUS ,,,, but in 2016 ,, the removing of all virus in christianity ,the 999 final judgement,,, 100 % death,, is the penalty and removing of the etnics,, this is the causes of ignorant of the leader,, many life will sacrifice,, the words are always no GOD but everyday all are using the products of the god, food, his moving talking and many others,,,, DNA cant built without body of the god called gravity,,, causes of many idiot scientist member of this religion many life now are sacrifice to the death,, now many people knows what is a god,,, what is the prove of this religion,, and how can escape this for the death penalty ? that is the effect of too much believe to her genuis scientist,,? with artificial brain made in china,,

    January 5, 2014 at 7:41 am |
    • Damocles

      Oxygen deprivation due to the popularity of putting a plastic bag over one's face to facilitate the sniffing of glue. Sad.

      January 5, 2014 at 7:46 am |
      • simple simon

        I knew a sniffer. The fumes actually gum up the brain!

        January 5, 2014 at 7:51 am |
        • Damocles

          I knew a couple of proper genuises that thought huffing freon was the way to go. It was for one of them.

          January 5, 2014 at 7:54 am |
    • ?

      Rocky Mountain high in Colorado, how is the weather in Denver, Billy?

      January 5, 2014 at 8:22 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Ever heard the expression "word salad?"

      January 5, 2014 at 11:16 am |
  15. For the atheists

    True story on New Years eve my best friend came over (who is a devout Catholic BTW) and we watched "The Conjuring". I said, "This movie doesn't scare me does it scare you?" And she said, "Are you kidding me? I want something like that to happen, then we'd finally have proof that there is something."

    I think that about says it all right there. Peace to you.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:39 am |
    • Mark

      If one mans opinion says it all, you might want to look at Jesus instead of your friend. Jesus is not religion.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:10 am |
      • Mopery

        Why settle on someone as powerless as Jesus, why not worship Zeus or Odin or Osisris or Apollo or Ra or Amaterasu or Cthulhu or Quetzalcoatl or Marduk or.....

        January 5, 2014 at 5:39 pm |
        • Joseph

          They're all just different expressions of man's attempt to know and express God. There is only one God, always has been and always will be. God is the source of existence, God is existence, God is life. There can only be one God, a little logic with some common sense and a little understanding will help you to comprehend this. Man has managed through the ages to express and worship God in over three thousand different ways, it makes no difference, they're all worshipping the same one true God in their own fashion and manner.

          God is the totality of all [nature] seen and unseen. Your problem is with religion, not God.

          January 5, 2014 at 6:24 pm |
      • dlm

        As Lord Vader spake onto thee "I find your lack of faith disturbing." 😉

        January 8, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
    • Spurgeon3333

      What your "friend" and others, especially proof demanding atheists and non-believers, need to realize is no tangible proof will be forthcoming as any proof that would satisfy the whole would render what Christ did on the Cross as unnecessary and that will never happen. Think about that. Faith is the cornerstone of Christianity and any tangible evidence of the existence of God other than what we already have; the perfection of life, the perfection of earth, the cosmos, the story as told to us via the Holy Bible, would only serve to deny Christ the right He earned on that Cross to be the sole path to salvation through faith and trust in Him and our Father, God. God is basically telling us that demanding more evidence of His existence, of the existence of Heaven, of the existence of an afterlife is not going to happen. We have enough information, as listed above. His Son, Jesus, will not have suffered and died in vain, for nought. If you read the Bible from cover to cover then you will come to understand at least this much, no mere human could've come up with such a story of salvation. No other religion out there has a "god" that came to earth as a mere baby and was raised up and crucified on a cross or suffered in any way, especially the way Jesus suffered, just so that which He created could be saved. Why did it have to happen in this way? Because God is a just and righteous God who cannot look upon sin of any kind. Without Jesus we all would die a permanent death.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:03 am |
      • Ann

        A just, righteous, loving, and omnipotent god ... who was completely powerless to fix what he thought was messed up in the world by any other way than demanding a human sacrifice. Yep, makes sense.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:48 am |
      • AndyB

        Why is blind faith so important to God? What's his end game here? He created a race of people against their will, just so that he can test them according to a set of arbitrary rules, before sending the vast majority to a hell he created for eternity. And we're meant to love this guy? It almost doesn't make sense.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:07 am |
  16. marculyseas

    This is non-news. Who cares?

    January 5, 2014 at 7:39 am |
    • truthprevails1

      It's a belief blog where articles about varying beliefs exist. If you want news, don't come to a belief blog.

      January 5, 2014 at 8:02 am |
      • AndyB

        I assume he was referring to the article, not the blog.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:09 am |
  17. lean6

    Anybody who expected this particular group of people not to implode or collapse under their own weight, is pretty naive or full of themselves. Quite simply, there is no unifying theme in Atheistic relativism, so the concept of a "church" makes no sense. They'd better just be happy with the chance encounters on comment boards about any subject that they can steer towards religion.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:36 am |
    • Ann

      Agreed. I can understand wanting the sense of community ... when I moved to a new town, people often suggested the best way to meet people was to join a church. Still ... an atheist church community sounds a lot like people trying to have a meeting to discuss how they don't like football.

      We're a very diverse group. We're better off joining other groups that share our own interests about something else.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:15 am |
  18. J. Frank Parnell

    thanks for the brilliant input.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:35 am |
  19. J. Frank Parnell

    thanks for the brillant input.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:33 am |
  20. beyond the arc

    The universe is much better off in God's hands than those of humans. Word.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:16 am |
    • igaftr

      The only gods known to exist are the thousands men have created.

      January 5, 2014 at 9:21 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        The universe is doomed as it is any way.

        January 5, 2014 at 9:28 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.