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. solowd

    This whole thing is ridiculous. A big bonus of atheism is that you don't have to belong to a church, and these idiots decide to make churches. Insanity.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:24 am |
    • Alias

      Churches do a lot of good for their members and potentially the community as well.
      Why not have one without all the myths and threats of eternal suffering?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:30 am |
      • lilyq

        Um because people need to know what's coming and how to avoid it.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:33 am |
        • dlm

          "Impossible to see, the future is." - Yoda

          January 8, 2014 at 6:14 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        My Christian religion says a good person goes to Paradise (Sheol), but some like to threaten using populist literature.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:33 am |
  2. Kate

    Colin, thank you for encapsulating very eloquently the reasons gods and religions make no sense. I wish I had the nerve to print it and hand it to my southern baptist relatives, but they would just say the devil made me do it. It never ceases to amaze me that christians seem to think you cannot have morals without their god and that if you don't believe in their good god, you must believe in their evil god.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:23 am |
    • lilyq

      You can have them but you're not giving credit to the Author.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:26 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      What demon spirit does your family believe possesses you Kate? The Klavins are often experts on demons, as they used to were the name of a demon over their heart.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:26 am |
    • Kathy Willis

      Kate let me tell you some things. Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is GOD ALMIGHTY. Acts 2:38 , in the Bible , you need to read it, this will tell you how to be saved . Also many things this bible that we know is real has many things written that are coming true to this day. Satan is real, people like you who don not believe in GOD are witness to that. You are beguiled everyday by him, he has only the power to play against your mind, and from the looks of it, he is doing a very good job on atheists all over the world. I will continue to pray for you, because there is a judgement day soon, and I would like more than anything for people with your beliefs to be saved.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:38 am |
      • sybaris

        Quoting the bible is like an 8 year old stabbing at you with their pretend Star Wars light saber............ cute and ineffective

        January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am |
      • Cedar Rapids

        Judgement day soon huh? Same claim as been made for the last 2 thousand years.
        Good luck with that,

        January 5, 2014 at 2:02 pm |
    • sybaris

      Right Kate, it would fall on deaf ears which is a symptom of willful ignorance and marginal education. Morals evolved from the success of the group. Unfortunately that fact is not revealed until some measure of undergraduate education has been achieved in anthropology and sociology which underscores that religion requires ignorance to perpetuate.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:47 am |
  3. IdahoRaised

    Thats awesome. Religious churches dont have to pay taxes. So I'm just assuming but Atheist churches shouldn't either correct? Reading this article all I could think about was group up going to church and I would love to have the chance now as a free thinking adult to attend an atheist church locally!

    January 5, 2014 at 10:23 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Freedom of Religion is why churches don't pay taxes, so no; these fools have to pay.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:24 am |
    • lilyq

      You could be a trail blazer and start your own.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:25 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Church sucks man. Why would an atheist church be any better? Just boring stupid stuff.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:25 am |
      • John P. Tarver

        Atheists want to wear their good clothes too.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:28 am |
        • Apple Bush

          Oh, right man. That registers with me man.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:32 am |
        • John P. Tarver

          Registering is very important, otherwise your dope may run down your arm and on to the floor, should that magic carpet ride be your seeking.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
  4. Bru Hilda

    Bunch of Tea Party trolls!

    January 5, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  5. lilyq


    January 5, 2014 at 10:21 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      All the negatives of organized religion and no Jesus, what a gyp.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:23 am |
      • lilyq


        January 5, 2014 at 10:27 am |
  6. steven

    All I want to know is. Do they also take collections and offerings and who gets it?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:19 am |
    • billbfit

      With the creation of these new "churches," maybe church burnings will come back in vogue?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:27 am |
      • I've changed

        .Way to keep the conversation at a level you can understand.Ignorance,fear and hate of anything you don't like.Well done.Now get off to church and spread the WORD.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:36 am |
    • I've changed

      I doubt the cash will be going to the pastor to buy more bling.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:33 am |
  7. Speak the Truth

    Since 1876 New York has been the home of the Society for Ethical Culture. This nontheistic humanist congregation meets each week in its large building at 64th and Central Park West. We gather to learn how to live better lives and how to make the world better for others. We offer a nontheistic Sunday school for children and hold weekly services. Like many others we have let go over debates of god existence as we feel this question really doesn't matter. What is more important is what one does rather than what one believes and our motto is Deeds Before Creeds. We founded the Legal Aid Society (now called the ACLU, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, and we're co founders of the NAACP. We championed the abolition of child labor in this country. Sadly despite being in operation for over 140 years and with 23 congregations nation wide most people still don't know we exist. The author of this article didn't even point out that currently we are hosting the aforementioned Sunday Assembly.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:19 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Republicans of an era past.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:21 am |
      • Christian

        Christians are not all Republicans. There are lot of us who are proud democrats that are also christians. In fact if Jesus is leaving with us he will be more D. (loves the poor, believes in fairness and equality like everyone should get fair equal health care access, everything he teaches is so against what the tea partiers are doing).

        January 5, 2014 at 10:41 am |
        • John P. Tarver

          I think it would be very difficult to find a Democrat in Central Park in 1876, or a member of the NAACP in 1912 who was not a Republican.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:45 am |
    • Speak the Truth

      Nice try troll. But Felix Adler, the founder of ethical religion, was not a republican. However, I can see by your postings you're only posting to upset people. How sad.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
  8. Saraswati

    This conversation has been going on for decades, and in many ways centuries. The Unitarians were a predominantly traditional (positive) atheist secular humanist group by the 1960s, but a growing acceptance of "spirituality", and in particular the growing Wiccan subgroup, has upset a lot of "traditionalists" who have left for the Secular Humanist association. Others stay and work on the diversity.

    But these groups both have core belief systems that are more than "atheism". There's no more point to an atheist organization than an aunicornist organization. Groups like the Unitarians and Secular Humanists and various zen groups have well spelled put beliefs and you know whay they stand for. Between these groups you'll see movement, fluidity and splits just as in any group of va.guely related belief networks. Within No group without that is going to last for long. There is no such thin as "atheist" beliefs and realistically can be no community except when atheist belong to a larger network of belief.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:17 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      The Unitarian acceptance of traditional fallen Angel/Devil worship is not atheism.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:20 am |
      • Saraswati

        You do not appear to be familiar with Unitarian-Universalism. No such belief exists.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:35 am |
        • John P. Tarver

          "Wiccan subgroup"

          January 5, 2014 at 10:48 am |
    • Reality Check

      Not sure Unitarians would agree that they are an atheist church. Not sure that they would disagree either as atheists are certainly welcome.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:29 am |
      • Saraswati

        No, they are not an atheist church. However, the majority of UUs do not believe in gods making it an atheist majority church. However, it has become slightly less atheist over the last 4 or 5 decades which has caused unhappiness in some parts of the community. Accepting pagans is widely seen as admitting irrationaiity into a comunity in which rationality is a fundmental tenet.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:38 am |
  9. Apple Bush

    Really it should be more like the M.o.o.s.e. lodge or the Masons or something.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:15 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Free Masons require a religion, as part of an whole person.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:18 am |
      • Apple Bush

        Yeah man exactly. It is good to be a whole person man, rather than a partial person you know?

        January 5, 2014 at 10:22 am |
        • John P. Tarver

          Spiritual impoverishment makes life less of an experience.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:30 am |
        • Devil's advocate

          How can you be sure as while you are alive all you are doing is having one experience or another.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:32 am |
        • Apple Bush

          Well yeah man. I thought you meant like missing limbs and that freaky shit...

          January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
  10. Patriotic Chritian

    If there warn't no gawwwd he wunt ha' put "In gawwwwwwwd we trust" on our money... which PROVES thar iz a gawwwwd unless yew r knot sew brite. The fact that crass Blabtists misused a political office tew git the slogan printed on our bill in the past century don't make it not really gawwwds idea.... cuz my cult-leader told me so.The Patriotic Christian Gawwwd of Uhmerika iz the won trew gawwwwd.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:15 am |
  11. Mike in SS

    I have never seen a group more hell bent on a "cause" than this...well, except fore the Westboro Inbred Baptist Church. Just as dumb.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:14 am |
    • Crox Newz

      I can't wait to see this on Crox 'News' Daily Outrage. Something along the lines of: "This is just another example of godless commie muzlum Obammie's agenda to destroy America"... blah, blah...
      Gotta go make the popcorn before their cartoon starts...

      January 5, 2014 at 10:21 am |
  12. NorCalMojo

    It was a pretty silly idea anyway

    January 5, 2014 at 10:13 am |
  13. John P. Tarver

    Jim Jones was an atheist too, just drink the kool aid.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:11 am |
    • truthprevails1

      He sounded rather psychotic based on the following transcript of his last rantings: http://employees.oneonta.edu/downinll/mass_suicide.htm.
      Psychosis is not always pertinent to belief or disbelief...it happens regardless.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:27 am |
    • myweightinwords

      By some accounts, Jim Jones believed he was god, so he believed a god existed.

      He was also delusional and very drug addicted.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:47 am |
      • Dandintac

        There is slim evidence that Jim Jones was an atheist. He had Communist sympathies, but there are many Communists who are also Christian or other religions. The best evidence seems to indicate that he was a lunatic, who would say whatever it took to gain a personal cult following. Who knows what his true convictions were. We do know that he founded a church after witnessing a faith healing. We do know that he was the head of a religious movement. We know also that he founded his church with the help of a Methodist minister. We know that his mother was hyper-religious and believed that she had borne a messiah when Jones was born. We also know that many of his followers had FAITH in him–absolute faith.

        Jim Jones was also a very admirable integrationist, who welcomed blacks and all races with open arms. Should we conclude therefore, that integrationists are evil? Hitler was a Catholic–does this automatically make Catholicism evil?

        January 5, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
    • I've changed

      Jim Jones was an atheist?No true Scotsman.He was one of yours-Pal.Deal with it.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:54 am |
      • igaftr

        Jim Jones was a self proclaimed atheist...that much is true. He was also a megalomaniac and had MANY delusions...and useed LSD and other drugs regularly...basically he was insane.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          I can't help but observing a link with money and other forms of addiction.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
  14. Apple Bush

    I am in favor of atheists on occasion. On the other hand like, like just chill and what not, right?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:11 am |
    • Charm Quark

      How are you? having trouble with my self esteem, you know I decay almost instantly, thankfully into an up quark most of the time, but as a Deist, I am almost always over looked, sigh. I think I need a virtual hug.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:17 am |
      • Apple Bush

        Wow man like that just blew my mind man! We be cool man.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:23 am |
        • Charm Quark

          Fake AB, man up man and use your own handle man you childish twerp man.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:28 am |
  15. godot001

    a cult is a cult is cult ……………….

    January 5, 2014 at 10:06 am |
    • billbfit

      Funny how cult and cu*nt are such similar words.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:30 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Generally, to be considered a cult, a group has to have a charismatic leader who draws followers, isolates them and controls them.

      Not seeing that here.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:50 am |
  16. DC

    nobody gives a hoot about atheists

    January 5, 2014 at 10:05 am |
    • NYOMD

      And I wouldn't give a rat's asz about religious people if they would leave the rest of us alone. No such luck.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:10 am |
    • Apple Bush

      I give two hoots because some of them are nice people that I like very much.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:13 am |
    • igaftr

      Considering the fact that the two top inidividual philanthropists in 2012 were athesist, and another of the top 5 is agnostic, there are MANY charities that "give a hoot about atheists".

      January 5, 2014 at 10:22 am |
    • Reality Check

      According to Christian theology, God gives a hoot and by extension those who follow God give a hoot. So I guess maybe you are an atheist who needs to feel a little love – virtual hug, bro.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:46 am |
    • sybaris

      2/3 of the world doesn't give a hoot about christians

      January 5, 2014 at 10:52 am |
  17. kenrick Benjami

    Atheist Churches, more churches, hmmmm.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:03 am |
  18. mike

    there is no sutch thing as a "atheist church"

    January 5, 2014 at 10:02 am |
  19. Joe R.

    "Let us pray to our god evolution who made all things work through chance and accident." (Wait does that mean they're really not atheist?)
    "Whatever you feel is right. Continue to live that ideal. After all the laws of this land were based on Judeo-Christian ideals, so we reject them."
    "Umm.....bless America!"
    "April 1st will be arriving faster than we realize. Our celebration committee needs volunteers for our most important holiday."

    January 5, 2014 at 9:58 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      And you got those from where?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:03 am |
      • Cedar Rapids

        No response joe? Were you just bearing false witness?

        January 5, 2014 at 1:54 pm |
    • Charm Quark

      Joe R
      And where pray tell did Judeo-Christian ideals come from? Try to give an honest answer, it would be so refreshing.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:12 am |
    • sam stone

      troll cvnt

      January 5, 2014 at 10:15 am |
  20. Vin

    The word they should consider dropping is "church", not atheism. As much as I want to like the idea, I can't. What's the point of a "godless congregation" if they don't discuss the silliness of religion, the beauty of the universe, and the power of science? Nonetheless, good luck to them. At least it's a small step in a direction away from religion as it exists today.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:56 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49
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.