Why atheists are starting their own global church
Pope Francis is significantly upping the Catholic Church's buzz quotient, but another congregation is hoping to take America (and other countries) by storm. Like Methodism and Episcopalianism, the Sunday Assembly is a British import, but with a difference: This church doesn't believe in God. It's motto is "live better, help often, and wonder more." It's striving to be a global atheist religion.
Stand-up comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans started the original Sunday Assembly in a decommissioned London church in January, and there are now five congregations in the Sunday Assembly Everywhere (SAE) denomination: Three in Britain, one in New York, and one in Melbourne, Australia. Starting Oct. 22, Evans and Jones are starting a "global missionary tour" to visit the four branch congregations and set up new ones in 18 other cities in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
The stated goal is to have "a godless congregation in every town, city, and village that wants one" — and hopefully 30 to 40 by the end of December. If they reach that goal, the Sunday Assembly says in a press release, "the 3000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world, catering to the fastest growing belief / non-belief group."
There are certainly enough atheists, agnostics, and humanists to fill up the pews, if they're interested. A growing number of Americans and Europeans fall somewhere toward the skeptical end of the organized-religion spectrum. And they're getting better organized, even aggressive.
But how is the Sunday Assembly different than a civic organization or social club, or even a TED talk, that meets on Sundays? (Jones says the church-expansion model draws heavily from TEDx, which franchises TED conferences around the world.) Are the atheists just trying to troll Sunday (religious) churchgoers?
It appears Jones and Evans are earnest in their quest to found the great atheist church. Nimrod Kamer at Don't Panic walks us through a Sunday Assembly service, and introduces us to the proselytizers-in-chief. (Warning, Samuelson throws a few F-bombs during the service.):
Jones and Evans promise that the Assembly "will solace worries, provoke kindness, and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday," and then they give a hint to some things a really good Rotary Club luncheon may not provide: "Life can be tough... It is. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn't fair. We want The Sunday Assembly to be a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved."
Katie Engelhart at Salon says she "did not need to be sold on the idea" of a godless church:
I don't think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church — a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food — without the stinging imposition of God Almighty. [Salon]
Harry Cheadle at Vice admits he started on his path toward atheism because he "wanted to stay home on Sundays." But the idea of an atheist church has him reconsidering his aversion to organized religion:
Since I'm an atheist, I'll base this claim on data: Studies have shown that those who go to church are happier, more optimistic, and healthier than others; attending religious services helps kids fight depression and by some (admittedly biased) accounts makes people more charitable. Obviously most atheists won't have a very good time gathering at a church or synagogue or temple where everyone is devoted to praising and beseeching an imaginary being, but if you believe these studies, they could do with attending something like church. [Vice]
Jones hopes that the Sunday Assemblies will start taking on some of the community functions traditionally performed by churches: Sunday school, weddings, funerals, non-religious baptisms (or "naming ceremonies"), among others.
But a funny thing is happening as Jones and Evans try to expand their godless religion, says Salon's Engelhart: "As the 'atheist church; becomes more 'Church' than ever, it is working to downplay its Atheism." That may not sit well with committed atheists; Ian Dodd, one of the founders of the nascent Los Angeles branch, tells Salon he found Unitarian Universalism "a little diluted." Engelhard frets that "the Sunday Assembly refusing the 'atheist' label seems akin to Ms. Magazine deciding that 'feminist' is a bad word after all."
The draw of a like-minded community might well overcome all that. It won't be the first time atheists have tried to band together, Nick Spencer at Theos tells Britain's The Guardian. In the 19th century, non-religious people formed hundreds of "ethical unions," focused on good works and community, with services structured along the lines of a church liturgy. They lasted for a generation or two. Spencer explains:
The reason for that was because you need more than an absence to keep you together. You need a firm common purpose. What you can see in these modern-day atheist churches is people united by a felt absence of community. I suspect what brings them together is a real desire for community when in a modern, urbanized individualized city like London you can often feel very alone. That creates a lot of camaraderie, but the challenge then becomes, what actually unites us? [Spencer, to The Guardian]
Ian Dodd, the Los Angeles Assembly co-founder, isn't daunted by atheism's definitional lack of common faith: "The church model has worked really well for a couple of thousand years," he tells Salon. "What we're trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus."