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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. Dan

    LOL...Hilarious! These guys whinge continuously about how Believers can't get along and now, founding their own organization, they prove that they are just as bad. So much for reason prevailing!

    January 5, 2014 at 10:39 am |
  2. t_wicker

    Here is why an atheist church will not work.

    Worship is an activity. The Bible is an instruction book not subject to interpretation or criticism.

    Atheism is a philosophical view and a critical analytical tool. When atheists get together there is nothing to do but fight.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:38 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Atheism is not any tool for any purpose.And specifically, it is a lack of a "god philosophy." Atheism is a lack of a particular belief. LIke "aunicornism" -–people who don't believe that unicorns actually exist.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:40 am |
      • djasp

        i don't believe in unicorns either but i don't meet weekly to discuss it with others, nor do i spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise that "unicorns are just a myth".. seriously, these atheists are really ridiculing themselves.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:51 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          How many US presidents were unicorn believers? What's that? None, you say? Oh. So how many were christians? Oh, all of them? Hmm.. So how many unicorn believers are trying to pass laws to suit their beliefs? None, you say? Oh.

          If 90% of the population believed in unicorns and wanted to have laws that honored them, would you blog about your nonbelief in unicorns, then?

          January 8, 2014 at 7:49 pm |
    • Alias

      You actually raise a good point. Of course, you did it in a very distorted and close minded way, but there is still a philosophy to most of these organizations. It does make sense that not everyone is going to agree on a purpose or methods.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  3. John P. Tarver

    We see today that science is turning Republicans away from Darwin's racism.

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

      The fact that most people have no idea if Darwin was a racist or not, should be proof to you that evolution is a separate issue from racism.

      Darwin was a racist, as were nearly all people in one way or another at the time ( and still today)...that has NOTHING to due with evolution as it is understood today.

      You keep looking at the roots ( well not really since Darwins work was predicated on others work before him) and not at the end result.

      Evolution is reality. The rest is just your smoke screen, and since most people don't have a clue as to the prevelant views of his day...trying to link Darwin and racism is just you trying to throw clouds into the REALITY of evolution.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:25 am |
  4. Frances

    ....and yet.....He lives!

    January 5, 2014 at 10:38 am |
  5. scott bleyle

    "Atheist Church",is that an oxymoron? Do they pray to twinkies,Buicks?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:37 am |
    • Pepsi in a can

      There is a big sign out front that says "No gods allowed".

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

      s b - NOT at all : BOTH are Faith-Based !

      January 5, 2014 at 10:40 am |
    • scott bleyle

      I thought the "latter day Saints" had this covered.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:40 am |
  6. Ken

    Evangelical Athiests. Saw that coming. They'll have a Richard Dawkins shrine and dogma out the ying yang. I remain the happy misanthrope. Stupid humans.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:36 am |
    • Science Works

      Yeah the BACKWARDS right wing ? By 19 % !

      The GOP’s Darwinism
      By Dana Milbank,

      Has the Republican big tent evolved into a house of worship?

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-the-gops-darwinism/2013/12/31/60c86524-7264-11e3-8def-a33011492df2_story.html

      January 5, 2014 at 10:44 am |
      • Ken

        One of the few groups that disappoint me more than atheists are devout followers of political parties.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:50 am |
        • Science Works

          Or the BS the religious groups spit out – like one group spending 2 million dollars to destroy the 1st amendment ?

          January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
  7. i12bphil

    How can you have a rift over a "lack of belief"? "We're not sure if what we don't believe is the same as what you don't believe."?

    I think what's happening here is that they know once they start having regular meetings to discuss their similar opinions (beliefs) and start rallying under a symbol as a group, atheism will be officially known as a religion.

    Saying that atheism is nothing more that a "lack of belief" is like a bald person saying they're not bald, they simply lack hair.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:36 am |
    • allenwoll

      i1il - They ARE both religions : Faith-Based religions !

      January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
  8. palusko996769

    Hmm, this is a pickle. What would Jesus do?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:35 am |
    • Alias

      jesus would add a second collection.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:37 am |
  9. stef1

    Psalms 14.1 The fool say's in his heart there is no God. God has given his creatures free will to rebel against him ,however this does not negate the fact that we all must face the judgement God, etheir at our inevitable deaths, or at his 2nd coming.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      LOL, yes, god is invisible, undetectable, and seemingly irrelevant, but only a fool would disbelieve. I think the Koran says something like that too, but don't worry, just because they believe even more devoutly than you, surely they're wrong and you're right. (Of course, believers of all gods use the same chemistry and math because they must, but god doesn't make his existence and will as well known as the rules of math and chemistry).

      January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
    • One one

      To a non-believer, this is how you sound:

      "The fool say's in his heart there is no Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny has given his creatures free will to rebel against him ,however this does not negate the fact that we all must face the judgement of the Easter Bunny either at our inevitable deaths, or at his 2nd coming.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
      • dm

        "I find your lack of faith disturbing." - Darth Vader

        January 8, 2014 at 7:44 pm |
  10. corey butler

    May God help these poor, lost souls!

    January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
    • allenwoll

      c b - They are no more lost than you - They just find themselves in a different sector of the same forest, namely Faith Forest !

      January 5, 2014 at 10:39 am |
    • dm

      "You will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." - Obi-Wan Kenobi

      January 8, 2014 at 7:45 pm |
  11. H.J. Simpson

    Coffee and dough nuts after? That's what counts. Mmmmm doughnuts.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
  12. MennoKnight

    One of the greatest lies that atheists like to believe is that religion is the great oppressor and killer of people but in the 20th Century the greatest killers were avowed atheists.
    I really want to know what is an atheist's answer to this fact?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Usually atheists misrepresent the outcome of Darwin's ant study and it's racist roots.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:36 am |
    • DowMan57445744

      Where's your source? Show me the data. Oh' BTW, Hitler wasn't an Atheist. Another lie you guys like to spread.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:40 am |
      • John P. Tarver

        Hitler was a populist Darwinist, like many atheists.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:50 am |
    • Remarque

      Why did you choose only the 20th century? In Mein Kampf, one of Hitler's arguing points against the Jews was that they were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. Even if he was an atheist, he used two thousand year old figures as his part of his argument, and people followed.

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

        How about we go to the 19th century and the English placing blacks in cattle pens, in accordance with "Origin of Species", as it says,: "blacks are cattle".

        January 5, 2014 at 10:52 am |
        • igaftr

          REALLY look at history and you will find the racism you speak of was prevelant during that time, and the primary reason was from the BIBLE...the cursed people of ham, painted black by god as atonement for the first murder.

          To try to link darwins evolution, with racism is very disingenuos. He and nearly everyone else was taught that black people were not human, and THAT all started with the bible.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:17 am |
    • Charm Quark

      Rather dubious fact you've got going there. December 1914 the good Christians on both sides lay down their arms and celebrate Christmas together, then get back to slaughtering each other again the following day. You seem to think that if the leaders are atheists that those that fight their wars are also, you would be wrong.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:42 am |
    • Toni Lehto

      Umm, Hitler was Catholic and Stalin trained in an Orthodox seminary...? As for Mao, the Chinese were mostly Taoists or Buddhists to start with so their souls were already owned by Satan, right?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:44 am |
      • John P. Tarver

        All lost their faith to the "science" of atheism, as promoted by the Nobel Committee. General Relativity was rejected by the Nobel Committee as part of that fascist political agenda.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
        • igaftr

          Hitler at no time was an atheist. He warred AGAINST the atheists, tried to erradicate them with the jews.
          He did not believe anyone cvould have morals if they did not believe in god, and the god he believed in was the Abrahamic god, though he did not like christianity either...same god though.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:12 am |
    • SundayMorningButNotAtChurch

      Hi, Mr./ Ms. Menno,

      Well...this is one of the standard arguments between believers and non-believers. And the standard response is to point out that (a) Hitler was a Catholic, with German military uniforms displaying "GOTT MIT UNS" (God with us) on the belt buckles; (b) while Stalin was an atheist, he did not do his killing in the name of atheism; (c) there are countless examples of believers killing in the name of their "God", and any of us can immediately name examples; (d) there are almost no examples of killing in the name of "nonbelief in a God".

      Anyway..that's the argument, but the validity can still be debated.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:46 am |
      • John P. Tarver

        It is a lot like claiming that although FDR was an ethnic Jew, he practiced Episcopalian.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
    • Charm Quark

      MennoCoward
      You ask the question and really wan to know, get a half a dozen answers but do not have the cojones to respond. Typical.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
    • mpr

      Stalin and Hitler may have been atheists (debatable in the case of Hitler), but there is no evidence that this had anything to do with their actions. That is they were psychopaths who just happened to be atheists. In contrast their are plenty of examples of people committing atrocities for explicitly religious reasons. (e.g burning people alive for heresy during the inquisition).

      To paraphrase Sam Harris, the horror of religion is that it gives normal people permission to do things which only psychopaths would otherwise be capable of.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:58 am |
    • igaftr

      Menno
      Your "fact" is not fact.

      To say that any atheists killed BECAUSE of the not believing in gods is a vast misrepresention of reality.
      To say that christians have killed BECAUSE of their belief is factual, since this was the reason stated by those doing the killing...their bible justified it for them.

      In the case of Stalin or Pol Pot, their killing was motivated by political, not religious views. In Stailins case, many who died , did so due to failed economic and political policies, which resulted in widespread famine.

      You are being very disingenuous when you suggest that atheism was the CAUSE of the killing, since history proves that it was not.

      With religious killing...there is direct evidence, such as Hitler warring with not just the Jews, but atheists, and handicapped peoples ( including h0m0$exuals, which he considered to be a mental handicap), and citing HIS GOD as the reason.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:10 am |
  13. Alex

    It is not the god(s), goddesses, or lack of thereof that are worshiped that is the problem it is the organizations built around them that is the problem.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:33 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      One Roman Goddess was 80% of their economy at the time of Christ.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
    • mjbrin

      Amen!

      January 5, 2014 at 10:39 am |
  14. Chris

    LOL, so humans are human no matter what. I am a Christian and have problems getting motivated to go to church. I cannot imagine going to a building with a bunch of other people to show a belief in Nothing.

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

      Then maybe you need a church that does something for the community instead of just going through the rituals and passing a collection plate.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:35 am |
  15. srcactus

    Everybody has to stand for something II think I'll stand on tradition.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:32 am |
    • DowMan57445744

      Traditionally, In a global sense, people didn't believe n your particular God. Taking into account the sheer number of people on Earth past and present, and the thousands of years we've been around, to be a traditionalist means acknowledging that your particular God is one of many.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  16. JCK

    Why would anyone form a church dedicated to something that , to them, does not exist ????

    January 5, 2014 at 10:31 am |
    • Alias

      I'll type slowly so you can keep up.
      Thses 'churches' focus on people and communities instead of myths.
      You do think people exist, right?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:34 am |
      • Misanthrope

        Unfortunately.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:37 am |
      • djasp

        why are you putting the word church in quotes?

        January 5, 2014 at 10:37 am |
        • Alias

          because 'church' implies worship, and they are not worshipping anything.
          It's almost like somoen wrote that headline with a motive.

          January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
      • Dan

        Other "churches" emphasize community as well.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  17. drake mallard

    The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fonz. May the Fonz be with you.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:30 am |
  18. I've changed

    The idea of Atheist churches is obviously going through some growing pains.It will be tough to organize as,like religion,everyone seems to want their own views to dominate the movement.Perhaps if they had a book full of unfounded claims and draconian rules it would have some direction.If they could convince people that they will be tortured forever if they don't follow the rulebook and believe the store, they could they could keep the flock in line with some good old fashioned FEAR.That could work.But maybe they're trying to stay away from that plan.Who knows?I'm sure religions have had a few problems with divisiveness over the years,but nothing comes to mind right now.I'm not sure calling them Churches is such a good idea,but they'll get it together some day.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:30 am |
  19. john.deatherage

    Isn't "Atheist Church" an oxymoron?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:30 am |
  20. Jeff from Upstate

    If you want to know more about Unitarian Universalism, then go here and read about it:
    http://www.uunashua.org/100quest.shtml

    January 5, 2014 at 10:26 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.