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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. CAM

    By definition the word "church" cannot work here. Particularly the origin of the word itself.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:51 am |
  2. fdgsr

    Truth cannot be ordained or ordered. Reason can be ordered only by Truth. Atheists cannot be organized any more than believers can be ordered to believe or not to believe. Atheism is in the mind and so is theism. Each schism is an attempt to reach out of error to Truth. The is only one true religion, the Religion of Truth. Truth is God, God is Truth. Atheists believe in Truth, or they could not be atheist. If what you believe is not true, you believe falsely and if do not believe what is true, you believe falsely. All else is belief in Truth,, who is God.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:51 am |
    • igaftr

      The truth is that men create gods, thousands of them, and no one has any evidence that any exist.
      Capitalizing the word truth does not mean that any gods exist.
      That is the truth.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:47 am |
  3. happyfrenchman

    well, I guess these fools can make atheists look as stupid as some other churches make the christians look. Didn't take very long did it?

    January 5, 2014 at 10:50 am |
  4. Ann

    I think freedom of religion should be equivalent to freedom to build model airplanes.

    If you want to build model airplanes, there should be no law preventing you from doing so. Of course, three may be laws that might affect the way you build your model airplanes ... safety laws about equipment, environmental laws about toxic glue, etc. You should not get an exemption from obeying those laws just because you want to build model airplanes.

    If you want to spend all Sunday morning building model airplanes, or meeting with other people to build model airplanes, that's just fine. Spend as much time on it as you want.

    However, please don't pressure me to build model airplanes. I'm not interested.

    If you make money buy selling your model airplanes, or the parts, or lessons in how to build them, you should pay taxes on that income. You should also pay property taxes on the property you use for meetings.

    The fact that you build model airplanes, and I don't, doesn't mean you're a better person, or that there's something important missing in my life that I would find if I would only just build a model airplane.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:50 am |
  5. scott bleyle

    Without a "higher power" there is no heaven,no hell.Poor dead Atheist,all dressed up and no place to go.

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

      To which I would reply, poor religious believer, all dressed up for the party and the party is just not going to happen. Life is heaven and hell, there is not another version awaiting you so you might make the best of the only chance you are ever going to have.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
    • john

      why does it have to be a HIGHER power and not just ANOTHER power?

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

      "All dressed up and no place to go."

      That IS sad. Though not as sad as wasting the one life we actually have getting ready for a party that doesn't exist.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        There's a few other ways to waste life as it's is, not to mention the planet.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am |
  6. Ed

    Atheism is about two things: the lack of belief in any deity and working against the corruption that comes from a centralized organization that is not subject to any oversight.

    Church type organizations may initially be formed by groups of like minded people, but there has never been a mechanism that prevents the inevitable rise of the dictatorship of a very charismatic personality. These are the people (Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Joel Olsteen, David Miscavige, etc.) who have the ability to take a philosophy and twist it just enough to allow them to control almost all aspects of the lives of the membership. It is very rare for church-like organizations to avoid this evolution.

    At the very least, political organizations like American Atheists and Americans United for Separation of Church and State should initiate programs to regularly review these groups to insure that they are not imposing excessive burdens on their membership and that no cults of personality are forming within the groups.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am |
  7. Laura

    so, why should an atheist congregation be any different that others? we are all human with the same foibles, whether we recognize the existence of God or not.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am |
  8. Saraswati

    Anyone who is focussing more on what they don't believe than what they do believe needs a therapist more than they need a church. Anyone who doesn't know that hundreds of nontheistic belief communities have existed for centuries, some for millenia, needs a history lesson.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:48 am |
    • JGN

      I could not agree more. A belief system which is not based on a god becomes a nonsensical farce when you require your 'followers' to attend 'services'; you are merely aping religion when instead you could be going on with your rational non religious life. To me it's no better than satanic black masses which ape catholic religious rites. Get a life, people! If you are an atheist prove it by BEING one!

      January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
  9. Hyptiotes

    This is an Onion article right? If not, I'm afraid that there is only one true form of atheism. Atheists should stop not believing in other false non-gods. If they fail to not believe in the true non-existent god, there could be serious non-consequences to this. Before you know it atheist groups will fall apart because of the irreconcilable differences of their shared non-beliefs.

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

      lol

      January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am |
  10. rltmd317

    I am a little confused the definition of church is A building for public, especially Christian worship. Why then are atheist calling their meeting places churches. I think most must believe they just want to be different.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:46 am |
  11. Patrish

    I have no interesting in going to church and I'm not convinced there is a supreme deity, so why would I want to go to something like a church to met with others with the same view? What is the point? Heck, we could go to a happy hour and have as much fun and still talk. The idea that you want an Atheist church indicates to me that you are still trying to fit in somewhere. A true atheist, doesn't need these trappings.

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

      All an atheist is is a person without a belief in gods. In most cases they need community as much as the next human.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am |
    • Adman

      Anyone who says "There is NO God" has already recited half the kalimah of Islam. The other half when completed reads
      "There is no God, but GOD" (In Arabic : La ilaha il Allah"
      When people disassociate themselves from all the traditions of different religious beliefs and search for truth... they will find it.
      An atheist, I think is a thinker and not just sheep.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:57 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Your god is just as invisible, undetectable, and irrelevant as the god of the christians. You can make no measurement of any process to prove otherwise.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
    • John

      You ask what's the point? Being an Atheist is very lonely, not many around you are Atheist. Being part of a community creates a sense of community, allows you to meet new people, new couples, create new friendships, learn about other cultures, practice your teaching skills, fun, feel more secure when you have others who share same goals, expand your network, experience being in sync with others, experience an expanded intelligence, experience yourself as part of a greater whole, increase your ability to learn. Ok that's enough.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:12 am |
  12. Noyb

    I hope they're successful in their quest. Atheists perhaps don't have to be completely cynical and jaded, apparently they're putting their faith in man amd reason and community instead of god.

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

      Kind of makes me want to find Jesus.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:45 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Humanity and community are visible, detectable, and relevant. God is none of those three--so much so, that each no religion can claim any measurable result than another cult cannot claim.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am |
  13. djasp

    i don't get this. i had a work colleague who was a REAL atheist. he didn't believe in god and had nothing in common with it.. he considered himself "free from the chains of religion" and swore he'd never waste a single second of his life on a fake god. When i see these stories of atheists meeting in church, squabblng with each other over things like Love (some say its simply a chemical, and others think it goes deeper) but my point is, its Exactly like a religion, with all its denominations.. its so strange, i don't get it. if you don't believe in god, then fine. so why in the world would an entire group of people, meet in a building once a week, to talk about the lack of god, then so spend all their hard earned money to fly banners and billboards talking about "there is no god).. i mean, i don't believe in unicorns so i don't spend thousands on airplane banners saying "unicorns are a myth!".. its just so weird, i really cannot figure it out. i don't like the ballet so i don't watch them.. i don't hang out online going to ballet forums and railing on and on about how terrible ballet is, and blah blah.. some of these atheist denominations are more radical and religious than some people who actually go to church or are religious.. then theres the militant atheists... i just don't get it..

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

      Well said. Especially about not spending $$$$ so that others know you don't believe in unicorns. Great analogy.

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

      It sounds like you lost all faith in atheism. All joking aside, The concept was doomed from the beginning. The one thing that all atheists share is that they don't like having someone else tell them what to believe. I think this atheist "church" is trying to set up guidelines. I'm still holding out hope that it is all brilliant satire like the flying spaghetti monster. If not, good luck to them herding cats.

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

      An atheist friend of mine once said that he thought Madeline Murray-O'Hare did actually believe in God, because she spent so much time trying to disprove his existence and fighting against believers.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:52 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Do you understand how flawed and silly that argument is?

        January 5, 2014 at 10:55 am |
        • DGW

          Not an argument; an observation. Silly, yes. Just as she ended her life just like the TV preachers she despised - with her own talk show, asking for money to get the word out.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:02 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          You provided it as an argument when you claimed (along with your friend) that her actions demonstrated that she really did believe in god. Yes, the first part is observation, but the last part is contention/argument. You really don't understand how logic and syllog!sms work, do you?

          January 5, 2014 at 11:06 am |
    • Patrish

      Think you made a valid point. I don't want anything to do with religion, and I doubt if most people know I have atheist views. I don't need to broadcast my views, nor share them with others as I'm comfortable with them. Nor do I think I have to scream and shout there is 'no God'. If you want to believe in one and go to church your choice, but I don't want it shoved down my throat or assumed that I want to hear/read the bible, etc. I had all of that as a child, then teenager. Once out in the world my view of the world changed and I find I'd prefer to believe in dragons and unicorns rather than a grumpy God.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I understand, so I will try to help.

      Many atheists were raised in environments where they were indoctrinated into a particular faith. Because that indoctrination was so hard to break, the religion they were raised in continues to be a part of their psychology. Then, when these people see laws being put in place and rules being constructed because of some god or religion that has as much proof as Santa or the Easter Bunny, they comment about it not being right.

      I claim that if you had been indoctrinated for years and years that Unicorns were responsible for gravity and you had to go to buildings where unicorns were worshiped and discussed and laws were made based on what people thought the unicorns would think and do-–perhaps then you would understand and speak out against people making laws and changing society based on what unicorn believers think unicorns feel and think about our daily lives.

      Does that make sense? If not, I can explain it more fully.

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

        Never in all of your life have you ever seen an adult person come to faith in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

        January 5, 2014 at 11:04 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Yes. That's why it's a hypothetical situational @n@logy to get you to see the point. From the silliness of your objection, I take it that you missed the larger point entirely? Typical of a believer to do such a thing.

          January 5, 2014 at 11:07 am |
    • deuce

      Well, it's all just belief and congregation. Believing in God, and not believing in God are the same. They're both belief. You have no evidence either way. Also, people like to hang out with like minded people. That's all this is, just like an everyday church/mosque/synagogue/temple/etc. Nothing wrong with it. They'll still have to deal with power hungery egomaniac leaders who like to be worshipped as gods themselves, and put on a pedestal. Welcome to the zoo atheists.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Really? So belief in unicorns and nonbelief in unicorns are both just as likely and just as reasonable? Do you see what your mistake is?

        January 5, 2014 at 11:08 am |
      • Dandintac

        Deuce,

        You draw a false equivalency. This is like saying that "believing in Unicorns, or not believing in Unicorns–it's all the same, both are a belief." Come on! NOT believing a claim is not the equivalent of believing a claim.

        And believe it or not (ha ha)–you too, either believe or you don't. If you say "I don't know..." or "I have not concluded..." or "I am undecided..." then you're not a believer–are you?

        When I say I'm an atheist–it means only that I don't believe the god claim based on the evidence I've seen.

        Furthermore, I think you do disservice to the millions of priests, rabbis, ministers, etc. out there. They may believe things that I do not, but it is grossly unfair to sweep them all into a category of "power hungery egomaniac leaders who like to be worshipped as gods themselves". A few maybe, but most of them are decent people. Deluded, yes, but not evil by any standard.

        January 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm |
  14. Daniel

    This is no different than believing in God. How deliciously stupid....

    January 5, 2014 at 10:44 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Yes, not believing in god is the same thing as believing in god. Sure.

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

        No but going to church and pretending it's not church sure is dumb.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:54 am |
  15. Walt

    More smug hypocrisy. Atheist's going to church when they deny the Church. I'll never claim aloud to atheism again.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
  16. Moki the Cat

    Calling it a "church" is ridiculous. The fact that most of them want to continue meeting at the "dive bar where it was founded" lets you know exactly what this movement is. A place for people to get together and drink.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:42 am |
  17. Food for thought

    I have to bring up this point.

    If there are no gods, then regular church contains just as many of them as an atheist church. If there is one big one that is everywhere all the time, same situation.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:41 am |
  18. Ralph_in_FL

    As long as they do not get into a war over which god they do not believe in.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:41 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      Those most likely will end up on e-bay the true non-god can join Wall street beating around the bushes.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
    • djasp

      its already happened.. i saw two atheists going at it HARD over the concept of love.. one denied it and the other said it was very real.. they went at each other for like 2 hours.. i never knew "not believing god" could cause such religious strife

      January 5, 2014 at 10:46 am |
  19. Lionly Lamb

    Oh what a tangled web life weaves when many people practice to deceive...

    No matter what you do, your mind is always doing something else...

    Know yourself better than one knows others...

    January 5, 2014 at 10:40 am |
  20. Alias

    Wow. A lot of christians really feel threatened here.

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

      why are the athiests holding meetings in a church??? why not a club, basement, someone's house but a church??

      January 5, 2014 at 10:41 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Everything is already occupied.

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

        It would make a lot of christians feel better if they called it something other than 'church'. That doesn't necessarily change what it is.
        Kind of like people wanting gays to have civil unions.

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

      There are also a lot of giggling agnostics.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
      • Ken

        As a politically and religiously agnostic person, I am not giggling at all. This only serves to prove how foolish and myopic people really are.

        January 5, 2014 at 10:45 am |
    • DGW

      Not threatened. Vindicated. The atheists have proven that, as much as they believe that they are superior to the "ignorant believer in fairy tales," they are really no different.

      January 5, 2014 at 10:48 am |
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