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?
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.
About this blog
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.
Wow in only a few years they have had their Reformation!
According to an article in The Dandy Goat, the canonization of Church of Atheism founder Christopher Hitchens was also a factor in the schism.
The original intent seems very worthwhile:
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.”
The splinter group in NY seems more like a drinking club where the central point is to *itch about believers.
I wonder what the MBTI personality types are for atheist.
Just give the Atheist April 1 as a Holiday and they will be fine...............
Go look up how many times Easter has fallen on April 1 over the centuries - (& Good Friday, etc. too). Many times.
This is what happens when people form groups, be it religious or not. Humans are a strange lot.
It's not the lot but the comp-lot they have been exposed to.
Correct me if I am wrong but if you think either there is or is not any consciousness behind the universe as a whole isn't the next logical step to second guess yourself?
Is it not enough to say we do not know, yet? BTW you are obviously not religious, the religious never say correct me if I am wrong when it comes to their religious beliefs.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I'm pretty sure I have.
Follow the Shoe!
No! Follow the gourd!
The Church Of Monty Python, all hail Brian.
Hahahah!!! Thanks for that !
He's NOT the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!
Atheist church? What do they serve to the congregation, Air Soup? Just more con artists adding a new wrinkle to an old game.
I was just thinking that the founder should be beaten just for wearing that ridiculous sweater, but then I read that he's a standup comedian so I guess that makes it okay.
Maybe it's like a twelve step program for those who are addicted to religions. AA? Coincidence?
Can atheists, the right-hand collaborators with the devil succeed in this world which is in the diabolical grip? In the short run, they can. But eventually the whole hell will get loose upon them!
You do realize that atheists don't believe in big daddy baddie and more than we believe in big daddy goodie, right? The concept of Satan is every bit as silly to us as the concept of the Judeo-Christian god.
And then after your well-thought out description of logic ... (*sigh*) ... we get this. The devil. Really?
I hope the human race can survive this nonsense.
It doesn't matter what you think. Once you repudiate God, you become a friend of Satan. For this is what he has been doing all along, to repudiate God!
By all means, show the evidence this god of yours exists, or satan.
Until you can show either or both exist, your is just conculsion from speculation, and therefore rejsted by logic.
"atheists, the right-hand collaborators with the devil"
You just violated one of your gods top 10 no-no's by bearing false witness.
Until you can prove this devil of yours exists, and then show any connection to atheists...you are bearing false witness.
Care to try again "christian"?
In logics, the term "bearing false witness" does not apply. Only "valid" or "ivalid" applies. Whether you are for, or against. Thetre is no such thing as "neutrality" in logics. Either you are with God, or with Satan! This is why I urge you, return to God, while you can.
Either you are with god or with satan?... the other infinite number of possibllities include many scenarios where neither god nor satan exist.
Please provide evidence that either or both exist...until then it is just conclusion based on speculation.
Take a class in logic.
Do you realize how absurd your thought process is? God and Satan are concepts made up by man to control man (whether that is good or bad is another debate)....there is absolutely no proof otherwise. So how can you be with or against someone that is just merely a concept in your tiny mind?
"Who's the more foolish, the fool? Or the fool who follows him?" - Obi- Wan Kenobi
Oh yeah, Satan'll open up a can of whoop ass!
I'd convert if I could just watch Satan open up a jar of olives.
Kosher or halal?
10 points! Best answer!
I'd be happy with Dole, or even the grocery store brand.
I bet you're waiting for the food-printer to hit the market?
Not sure why you would organize atheism, kind of the point that you don't have to be there every Sunday and such.
Its mildly amusing to check out various events on occasion, but something like a defined church I don't see as particularly necessary, just turn it into an entertainment building or something.
I don't believe in any gods= atheism
I believe in at least one god = theism
I don't know if there are any gods = agnosticism
I don't believe in any gods (but I wish I did)= occultism
I believe in TV = American publicism
'I believe in nations' is what's being broadcasted around the planet.
It's not the only abuse of science I'm afraid of though, at first there was only a wheel.
Actually this discussion is fruitless... nothing points to anything.. so I´ll relax my moody head to a nearby stone and doze off...Donah..//
Give me a moment to crawl back under it.
Why do people seem to always leave me, a Deist, out of the equation? I feel slighted and many of the founding fathers would also.
"Founding Fathers" ?? vodve they got to do with religion or anti ?? They founded a "nation" and it still is a mess (again) after Bill.... Hillary..!! you come back you hear ??! Donah..//
I believe that gods are actually aliens = scientology
´no seen any..!! Donah..//
atheist church – isn't this a contradiction in terms?
a-theism is, a church is merely a building.
4 year or 10 years terms..?? Donah..//
Given the gender distributions between atheists and theists, Church remains the best place for men to find women to date, whereas Sunday Assembly has become a fabulous place for men to find other men. Hey, it's all about location.
But why would I want to meet someone who believes the whole bible story...I've had enough women with mental illness.
Odd though that you would use the word "fabulous" though.....
What ever happened to the local pub?
My neighbor was just telling me the other day that the frozen food section at the grocery store is where he met his wife !
I met my husband in prison!! (Don't worry, we both just worked there!)
Protecting us from what type of criminals though?
That's exactly my point.
Having a job without knowing why means you believe more in the system (which in itself produces all kinds of criminals) than in the people on the other side of the bars.
Isn't that a religious approach of life too?
Um, I just didn't understand the relevance of your question. Now, after your last comment ... I just think you're a little nuts. Buh-bye then.
yo may have point..´neffah thought of thát.. Have a fat cigar... from Havanna... Donah..//
The best thing about atheism is you don't have to do anything, because your not forced to believe anything. Will atheism survive?
Of course it will. Just with no meetings.
Heh heh, good point. Is there some suggestion that the failure of this 'church' will lead to it's former members believing in gods and monsters again? Or will they just stay at home watching the grand Prix on Sunday mornings like proper atheists?
Actually Bob (and other Christians) you’ll find that most (ex-Christian) atheists don’t believe for one or more of the following reasons:
The concept of an immortal being makes no sense to us.
The concept of an all-powerful being makes no sense to us.
The concept of an all-knowing being makes no sense to us.
Throwing the three together into one being effectively cubes its already dispositive implausibility.
We tend to have a good working knowledge of the age, size and history of the Universe. The idea that a being would create the entire thing – with 400,000,000,000 galaxies, EACH with 100, 000,000,000 starts and even more planets, then sit back and wait 13,720,000,000 years for human beings to evolve on one planet so he could “love them” and send his son to Earth to talk to a nomadic group of Jews about sheep and goats in Iron Age Palestine (while ignoring the rest of the 200 million people then alive) makes no sense to us. We can’t help but ask ourselves, “did God make the Jews or did the Jews make God?”
The answers usually proffered for what we see as basic logical flaws in Christianity – “you have been blinded by your lack of faith” “God moves in mysterious ways” “God is outside the Universe” or “our minds are too small to understand the greatness of God” are never satisfying to us. We see a retreat to mysticism as the first refuge of the cornered fool.
The common argument, “well, what caused the Big Bang?” with the implication that, because we have only theories and no iron clad explanation for the Big Bang yet, the Judeo-Christian god must have caused it – does not make sense to us. “I don’t know” does not equal “god” to us, much less the Judeo-Christian god. It is entirely possible that the current iteration of the Universe is one of an infinite cycle, that our Universe is one of an infinite number in a multiverse or that time itself began in the big bang. In any event, We feel the answers to such a question are much more likely to be found in Einstein’s equations, quantum physics, large particle accelerators and radio telescopes than in Genesis Chapters 1 through 20. We’re crazy aren’t we?
We do not see miracles in things like tornadoes missing a certain trailer in a trailer park, cancer going into remission or Tim Tebow winning a football game.
We understand that Christianity is one of many, many religions in the World, and we don’t think that we were lucky enough to have been born in the one part of the World that “got it right”. Likewise, we know how all faiths evolve, morph and change over time and do not think we were lucky enough to have been born in the one generation that “got it right.”
We tend to have a basic knowledge of history and know that there is nothing magical or special about the supposed history of the Jews, gospels, letters, apocalyptic story (Revelation) and other materials that found their way into the Bible, in that they are largely indistinguishable from the other mythology and religious writings of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.
Human beings are terrified of their own deaths and we see the various religious beliefs that try to “wish it away,” such as reincarnation, living happily ever after in Heaven with Jesus, having your own Mormon planet etc. as nothing more than childish stories for the more näive, timid minds among us.
We do not see morality as predicated upon a belief in the supernatural. We accept that one can be moral without believing in the supernatural and that doing so is no guaranty that one will conform to the norms of society that people call “morality”.
“You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” is not a convincing argument to us, or even a relevant point, because an inability to disprove something is a far cry from it being true. We cannot prove that the Hindu gods Shiva or Vishnu do not exist either, nor Santa Claus for that matter, but that is hardly a reason to believe in them. It is not even evidence for their existence. It is impossible to prove a negative in this context.
When one looks at the various Christian beliefs that were once firmly believed – Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, people living to be 700 or 900 years old, the Red Sea splitting, water turning into wine, a talking snake, a man living in a whale’s belly, people rising from the dead, Jesus driving demons out of people and into pigs – but which are now acknowledged by most thinking people to be mere mythology, it is pretty hard to give a lot of credibility to what’s left.
It is hard not to consider Christianity as based on circular reasoning. Most Christians believe in God because the Bible says so, then turn around and say they believe the Bible because it is the word of God. To draw an analogy, “I believe Mao Zedong was a great man because The Little Red Book says so, and the reason I believe The Little Red Book is that it was written by Mao Zedong, who was a great man.” Do you even have the slightest idea of how your Bible was compiled over the centuries or who decided what to include and what to exclude and on what grounds? Can you even name one of hundred plus authors who contributed to it? One of the many people who decided what got in and what didn’t?
To be bluntly honest, the more one comes to understand mother nature, the less reason there is to believe in a god and the more one understands human nature, the more one sees why so many of us still do.
So, before you next proudly proclaim you know the secrets to life, death, the origins of life on Earth and the origins of the Universe, simply because your parents or priest taught you some comforting stories from Greco-Roman Palestine as a child, you might like to reflect upon the overwhelming enormity of the claims you are about to make and the complete paucity of evidence that underwrites those claims.
Would it be out of line at this point to exclaim, "Amen, Brother!"? Well stated, Colin.
Well said Collin.
Best summary I've ever seen. Thank you.
The only thing you lack is a "good working knowledge" of what is as plainly obvious as the nose on your face. 😉
And would you like to refute any point I made, or are you content to smugly dismiss what I said as willfull blindness?
Brilliant summary. It would be good of you to post this on a website/blog so that it could be used as a reference by those who are interested.
The atheist "church" is simply a gathering place for people who want to socialize with others in their area. There are many people who attend church that no longer believe in the Desert God myths because for them, church attendance has a cultural and social value.
There are former Christian preachers whose stories are worth reading. See "The Clergy Project"
´Can´t claim you´re right...nevertheless... your thinking is acceptable.. Go with the stars.... Par Ardua ad Astra.... Donah..//
Colin, interesting reading. I respect your position as an non-believer. However, I believe your concept of God and your reasoning for non-belief are somewhat flawed. Flawed in the sense that you believe science has all the answers, when in fact, science is still in it’s infancy and has a long way to go to fully understand the purpose of existence.
You view the non-existence of God in a fashion very similar in manner to how science itself [not too long ago] viewed the hidden universe of quantum physics? You’re not absolutely sure there is no God, but without proof, you prefer to take a stance of non-belief rather than apply yourself to prove it one way or the other.
As for myself, my belief and understanding of God is a personal matter shared with my fellow man in faith who are open to knowing and exploring who God is.
1. Science never claims to have all the answers. And if you insert "god" where science hasn't come up with an explanation, all you are doing is making "god" smaller and smaller (i..e. god of the gaps).
2. "You’re not absolutely sure there is no God, but without proof, you prefer to take a stance of non-belief rather than apply yourself to prove it one way or the other." The default stance on any proposition lacking proof/evidence shoudl be doubt. Do you believe in everything before you have if invalidated or do you reserve judgement on believing in something until sufficient evidence has been presented?
Asinine. People will try everything to avoid God and still try to fill the God-shaped hole that is inside all of us.
Your statement is in fact asinine, since there is no evidence anywhere of any of the thousands of gods men have worshipped.
You can fill your hole anyway you want. Just leave mine alone....lol
Your God is just one of many Gods and relligions made up by man for man.
In reference to the article.....most atheists dont want some kind of religion or place of "worship" or study.
God shaped hole – I feel like I should be a special and favorite creature.
Don't mind them P.B. "That is why the mind that focuses on human nature is hostile toward God. It refuses to submit to the authority of God's Law because it is powerless to do so."(Romans 8:7)
"the authority of God’s Law"
That's a tripple whammy….you are kidding right?
NO !! he is honestly misguided.... Donah.. aka Jaycee..//
The funny thing about that bible you've quoted is how so many chrisitian are willing to live by only a small part of it. "It HAS to be true, it is the bible, it is the word of god!" Yet we no longer hear about churches killing unbelievers, sons of sinners, adulterers, women who aren't virgins on their wedding night, working on sundays. Nor do you see their animal sacrifice altars. My favorite is the "suffering for eternity" if I don't let god save me from himself making me suffer for eternity.
There is no "hole" in me for god because any space is filled up by my desire to live my one life to its fullest before it's done. To engage in thought provoking conversations, enrich my community, work hard, be happy, and better my self for the sake of just being a better person. The sad conundrum is religion tells you to be good "or else", so they do, but is it truly being good to be good or is it putting on a face just to avoid judgment. I have no such judgment from a petty and hate filled god hanging over my head, my deeds are mine and mine alone. Can you say the same?
wow, OBA, a quote!
way to phone it in
I am more of an agnostic, yet I tend to listen to my conscious. Who know there may be highly ethical pagans, and yes there are highly unethical religious folks : commit a sin and pray for forgiveness, kind of defeating the purpose of being religious. I am ok with religion, but I can't stand how those folks are judgemental and they tend to interfere with the rights of other people, and on the flip side I can't stand atheists who want crosses removed from cemeteries. Besides if you're an atheist, how can ou be offended ny something that doesn't exist?
It is the belief, and the pushing on others of that belief I have the issue with.
When I go into a court roon and the 10 commandments are on OUR walls, or IN god we trust on OUR money or on OUR courthouse walls ( which by the way is a lie since all of "we" do not trust in gods)...that is what is offensive. The number of times the supposed to be non-judgemental christians telling me I'm going to hell for not believing in their impossible and ridiculous book, is offensive.
When the christians learn what Jesus allegedly taught them, we may be able to start getting along, but since I have never met a christian who didn't judge first and ask questions later, they will continue to offend everyone else.
Or even worse; printing names of countries all over our globe.
I've never met one human who didn't judge first and ask questions later
Look up Buddha.