Atheism starts its megachurch: Is it a religion now?

The non-religious Assembly is perhaps the fastest growing church in the world — and it’s coming to a mall near you

BY 

Atheism starts its megachurch: Is it a religion now?(Credit: Artur Bogacki via Shutterstock/Salon)

Organized Atheism is now a franchise.

Yesterday, The Sunday Assembly—the London-based “Atheist Church” that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over—announced a new “global missionary tour.” In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.

The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.

There’s more to come: In October, the Sunday Assembly (SA) will launch a crowdfundedindiegogo campaign, with the ambitious goal of raising £500,000 (or, about $793,000). This will be followed by a second wave of openings. “ The effort reads as part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.

Like any attempt at organized non-belief, the Sunday Assemblies will attract their fair share of derision from critics. But the franchise model might dismay some followers too. For a corporate empire needs an executive board; a brand needs brand managers; a federation needs a strict set of guiding tenets—and consequences for those who stray from the fold. And isn’t that all wholly opposed to Freethought?

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That’s not to say that Assembly founders are moving forward blindly. What should not be overlooked is that as the “atheist church” becomes more “Church” than ever, it is working to downplay its Atheism—opening itself up to a broader kind of irreligiosity.

As of now, Jones is still tweaking the message. But he’s confident in the model: “It’s a way to scale goodness.”

Amen.

*

I went to my first Sunday Assembly last April. Then, we were a crowd of several hundred heathens, gathered at a crusty deconsecrated church in East London. 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. Many attendees were modish 20-somethings, and pretty obviously hungover.

I did not need to be sold on the idea (explained nicely here by philosopher Alain de Botton). Like the Sunday Assembly’s founders, stand-up comics Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, 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.

Evidently, I was not alone. A few months later, SA was boasting 400-600 regular attendees. As the hype mounted, Evans and Jones began receiving emails from all over the world from would-be Sunday Assembly founders.

Jones admits that he had aspirations to expand from the get-go. Eventually, the founders opted for a controlled unfolding, choosing to personally license and launch 22 Sunday Assembly branches within a 2-month period.

One new Sunday Assembly will launch in Los Angeles, in December. “We’ll have a godless congregation in the city of angels,” laughs Ian Dodd, a 53-year-old camera operator, and one of the chapter’s founders.

For a number of years, Dodd—a lifelong atheist, apart from “a brief period as a young adult when I went looking for that something more”— had been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Santa Monica. And for a while, he liked that well enough. “The Unitarian Church has this idea of ‘radical tolerance.’ It respects everything. It’s all good. Well that’s fine on one level, but at some point it becomes a little diluted.” Dodd was looking for a more robust secularism. In January, he caught word of the Sunday Assembly. A few months later, he was sitting across from Sanderson Jones at a pub in Hollywood, plotting the Assembly’s LA debut.

“The church model has worked really well for a couple of thousand years,” Dodd muses. “What we’re trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus.”

*

Organized Atheism will require paperwork.

recent article by the newly-minted Sunday Assembly Everywhere (SAE) network outlines the SA affiliation process: Interested groups must apply for a Sunday Assembly charter and license agreement, “which will give you the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.” The next step is to form a legal entity, probably an “unincorporated association… which allows you to have a bank account.” And then, training from SA HQ, either in the UK or via “webinars and telecals worldwide.” If all goes well, aspiring founders will be invited to sign “A SAE Stage I Charter. This is a ‘provisional license,’ which gets you running your Sunday Assembly using our tried-and-tested formats and themes.” This is followed by a peer-review process and evaluation by other SA chapters. Nailed it? A “Stage II Charter” will be issued, granting full SAE membership. The model is inspired by TEDx.

In his press release, Jones refers to “hundreds and, if all goes to plan, thousands” of new SA communities.

Eventually, Jones and Evans hope their Assemblies will offer more church-like services: Sunday school, weddings, funerals. Nicole Steeves, a 36-year-old librarian who is launching Sunday Assembly Chicago, told me that since becoming a mother, “I have keenly felt the absence of what I think are the best parts of a church: friendships built on common beliefs; a built-in network of helpers for child care, sickness, etc.” Stuart Balkham is launching Sunday Assembly in Brighton, with his wife Anita. Balkham, a 31-year-old trained architect who now works as a music festival organizer, was inspired by his Church of England upbringing. “The Sunday Assembly is unabashedly copying a lot of established Church traditions, but removing what many people feel uncomfortable with if they aren’t religious.”

As the atheist church becomes more church-like, however, it seems to be deliberately downplaying its atheism. Where the Assembly once stridently rejected theism (at April’s Assembly, Jones poked fun at the crucifixion), it is now far more equivocal. “How atheist should our Assembly be?”, Jones wrote in a recent blog post. “The short answer to that is: not very.”

“‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity,” Evanselaborated. “But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations. Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the UK anyway, are not defined by their non-belief.” At a recent assembly, Jones opined: “I think atheism is boring. Why are we defining ourselves by something we don’t believe in?”

… Because that’s what atheism is?

Evans and Jones must clearly tread softly. Their model is not about de-converting the religious, or bashing theists, or decrying the lunacy of faithfulness. And indeed, their “radically inclusive” model was always going to appeal to atheism’s cagier cousins: humanism, unitarianism and agnosticism.

Yet I wonder if the Assembly risks diluting its brand if it continues to shed its muscular non-belief. Might it become McAtheism: a Secular Lite version of its former self? The Sunday Assembly refusing the “atheist” label seems akin to Ms. Magazine deciding that “feminist” is a bad word after all.

Still, the timing is certainly ripe. There is a growing openness to viewing religion/irreligion as a spectrum, rather than a dichotomy—and to institutionalizing faithlessness. Look at Harvard University’s wildly successful Humanist Community. Or Florida’s first publicmonument to atheism. Or efforts to hire secular army chaplains.

Ronald Dworkin’s forthcoming (and posthumous) Religion Without God promises to be an erudite commentary on this trend. “The familiar divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude,” Dworkin wrote in an excerpt published in The New York Review of Books. Dworkin argues for a more religious irreligiosity, a “religious atheism.” To this end, he quotes Albert Einstein, a noted atheist:

“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

*

There are a lot of ways this could flop. For starters, atheists might not like it. “One challenge in the discussion that’s occurred on the rise of atheist churches so far,” explains Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, “is that it tends to overlook the fact that the majority of involved atheists and humanists aren’t actually interested in personally being involved in a congregation atmosphere.”

Even amongst followers, it could be that the Atheist Church model is only palatable when it is decentralized and hyper-local. I wonder if the original Assembly’s draw was, in part, its rookie vibe: its mistakes, its silliness, its earnestness, its East London-ness.

There are lots of fun ways to play this out. Imagine that Sunday Assembly Everywhere does take of with rip-roaring success. Will London become secularism’s answer to Vatican City? Might the Atheist Church subdivide into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of godlessness? Will Atheism have its own Great Schism? Its own Martin Luther, touting a new and better way to not believe? Or might the Sunday Assembly go the way of the American megachurch: migrating from young urban centers to prefab suburban main streets?

Either way, Sanderson Jones is confident that the model will spread. “We have the most natural human urge to do this,” he insists: to organize ourselves around institutions of meaning. I am inclined to agree that “Live Better, Help Often, and Wonder More” is a lovely motto to build around.

And as for detractors? “I don’t expect much objection from religious communities. They are happy for us to use their church model,” Jones muses. “I think it’s more aggressive atheists who will have an issue with it.”


37 thoughts on “Atheism starts its megachurch: Is it a religion now?

  1. All they need now is a slick band, big sound system and you’ll have….

    Wait a minute.

    Silly idea really.

    Could be a good way to claim tax free benefits though.

  2. ANd Bones thinks this is a good idea.

    Oh well their only competition in the battle for the souls of men will be Hillsong, C3, Rick Warren and churches like that.

    See, people need something. So they just copy CHristianity. ANd bones they probably will have rock music. ANd offerings. And if the leaders get rich, Bones won’t bat an eyelid.

    What we are seeing in these days, is the attempts of the iKingdom of Darkness to pull out all stops and defeat the Kingdom of light,

    Gay marriage, Islamic terrorism, atheist churches and church-attacking bloggists.

    But the gates of hell won’t prevail. So in the end you will lose Bones. Not to late to repent though.

  3. and it’s not a “church”. they just call it that to get members.
    You’d probably fit in there.
    ANd Greg might find a better place to get ordained.

  4. ANd Bones thinks this is a good idea.

    Yeah only you can get that out “Silly idea really.”

    But the gates of hell won’t prevail.

    But science will.

    So they just copy CHristianity. ANd bones they probably will have rock music. ANd offerings. And if the leaders get rich,

    Which would make them PS or HS.

    Don’t forget the 75%+ salary packaging benefits.

  5. “But science will.”

    You think so? So now you’re an atheist? I thought it was just a matter of time.

    “Don’t forget the 75%+ salary packaging benefits.”

    Do you know much about Senior Anglican clergy?

    Greg probably does…

  6. Anglican Diocese of Melbourne

    Stipend Determination Number 25
    Total Remuneration Package (Full time) 49,056
    Superannuation (15%- Parish Contribution) 7,358
    Housing value 12,730
    Total 69,144
    Other stipend details
    Maximum salary sacrifice percentage 30%
    Vehicle allowances:
    Depreciation allowance 4,560
    Standing costs- paid as reimbursement
    Running costs 21 cents per km

    The Archbishop-in-Council has maintained the eligible fringe benefits up to a maximum of
    30% of the total remuneration package. This is similar to other Anglican Dioceses.

    http://www.melbourne.anglican.com.au/parishportal/registryinfo/Documents/Guidelines%20for%20Stipend%20Determination%2025.pdf

  7. So now you’re an atheist?

    An enlightened Christian – or is it post-Christian. An adherent of Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity.

    But yeah atheism does look attractive after discussions on here.

  8. I could get ordained easier in a pentecostal church than in an Anglican church…in fact I got my clergy credentialling from the Full Gospel Church after just one meeting with a ‘bishop’ back in 1991 when I was working for Teen Challenge and thought being a credentialed clergy would be beneficial in my ministry – it was – but by crikey – can you turn to your neighbour and say ‘weet bix packet credential’…

    Whereas with Anglican ordination, it will take a minimum of three years formation and study along with many many meetings with the people charged with discerning vocation in the diocese (discerning chaplains), anda positive report form them, before the Bishop would even contemplate ordaining someone

  9. The Anglican ministers I’ve met wasted three years. They would have been better off hanging out with Full Gospel people, staying in love Jesus, believing the Bible and then getting their credential from one meeting with a “bishop” who loved God and knew how to preach.

    “discerning chaplains”

    Yeah right, Spong got through…

  10. That’s not a bad salary package if they are like the Rev on that sitcom. Sit around having crisis of faith, playing soul music in church, and not having any idea what to say to a fellow Vicar who is in love with a man and realizing he won’t become a bishop. he should go to the US Episcopallans become bishops there.

    And there are many pentecostal pastors who would love to have the salary package you gave Bones. And if that housing value is all they put on free accommodation in AUstralia, I think I’ll become a vicar.

    Just three years? Okay, where do I sign up!

    And Greg, if you told people what you believed now, you wouldn’T get ordained that fast.
    And even if you did, you wouldn’t get a vicars salary.

    And three years is nothing compared to what the Catholic priests go through.

    Though you have to start to question the value of that.

    Every group starts with low formal qualification requirements. And ironically, that’s when they have the most effectiveness. Look at the Methodists etc.

    And the first disciples.

    Higher education doesn’t make for a better Pastor.
    Take a look around.

    “But yeah atheism does look attractive after discussions on here.”
    Actually I often think the same thing. That if I believed what you did, I may as well be an atheist.

    ANd Bonhoffer wasn’t for gay marriage, foul language, and wouldn’t have said that science will prevail against the church.

    I think you need to re-read him.
    I don’t think you’d get on with him. He practiced what he preached.

  11. I could get ordained easier in a pentecostal church than in an Anglican church…

    Some of my dvd sermons are titled Pastor Bones…

  12. “can you turn to your neighbour and say ‘weet bix packet credential’…”

    I could if there were some Anglican priests here.

    I think the difference between you guys and me is that you probably got into pentecostalism and only read up on this liberal theology trash later so felt that you were duped. I knew about liberal theology when I was younger and saw how bankrupt and meaningless it was.

    Maybe in 10 years you’ll come back. I know that deep down, it’s hard for you to kick against the pricks. (sorry that’s a bible reference)

    I think you were probably good guys way back in your zealous years. You’ve just forgotten.

    So, here’s the plan. Bones, Greg and Wazza should all regain their previous pure faith, go back and become Anglican vicars and revive it!

    You’re not as Godless as you try to make out you are.

    Pretty convincing though…lol

  13. “Some of my dvd sermons are titled Pastor Bones…”

    Well put them on youtube and let Chris Rodenburgerschmureger or whoever he is critique them line by line.

  14. I think the difference between you guys and me is that you probably got into pentecostalism and only read up on this liberal theology trash later so felt that you were duped. I knew about liberal theology when I was younger and saw how bankrupt and meaningless it was.

    Bahaha

    I studied New Testament theology in the 80s at University of Queensland before completing my Bachelor of Theology in the 90s.

    I actually thought the liberal stuff was crap.

    But then I saw how bankrupt and meaningless evangelical theology was.

    Don’t you have questions about hell? What about the biblical genocide accounts?

    Come on down liberal theology.

  15. The God that causes endless human suffering on the basis of not intellectually acknowledging him is no better than the terrorists who went around shooting people for not believing in Islam.

    Except it’s worse.

  16. Well put them on youtube and let Chris Rodenburgerschmureger or whoever he is critique them line by line.

    I preach for free. I doubt Chris R would be that worried about me.

  17. Greg, I’m Q not Doug…

    I understand the breadth of theological positions. I still have hope for the CofE. There are still some good people who don’t believe like you! 🙂

    Bones…I wonder if i know you! lol We really should get together for a beer one day.
    For what it’s worth I see a difference between OT genocide and the concept of hell.

    So Bones, why don’t you become an Anglican Vicar?

    Mr Bean in Four Weddings and a Funeral is my favorite priest. Along with his sermon about water and wine.

    Anyway, Peace guys. You’ll come back from the dark side one day.

  18. So Bones, why don’t you become an Anglican Vicar?

    Will one day.

    Trying to wrench myself from the Pentecostals.

    But that’s not easy.

  19. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  20. The tares assemble!

    Their vision is goodness, and their idol is self. Their anthem will be ‘Imagine’, and they’ll claim to not be religious, but, deep down know they are just as religious as the Catholic cult.

    Religion: ORIGIN Middle English (originally in the sense ‘life under monastic vows’): from Old French, or from Latin religio(n-)‘obligation, bond, reverence’, perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’.

    To bind! Yes, they’ll bind themselves to a corporate self-willed desire to ignore God, and thus, by disassociation, declare His reality.

    Can you bind tares?

    The interesting ting is that as long as they pretend to ignore Christianity, God and the Bible they will, by their very antichrist practices promote interest in God, the Bible and Christianity.

    Hilarious.

  21. We will begin to see a resurgence of Christianity.
    Looked at the news today. Muslims murdering and torturing people who aren’t Muslims, Atheist churches, a man trying to pick up women while naked in public and people just think it’s funny, gays attacking a company because they don’t feature gay couples in commercials, bikie wars in the streets – it seems like evil is taking over. But, soon more and more people will realize that there is no hope for the world without Jesus.

  22. Pastors who lie about others have no right to talk to anyone else about their lack of faith.

    Jesus spoke about them more than atheists.

  23. I don’t think that’s exclusive to pastors, Bones. Or to perceived lies. Or made up lies attributed to other people. I think it applies to everyone.

    Maybe you should get back into your New Testament to rediscover the grace, mercy and righteousness of God, and the power of repentance before you point the bone at others.

    What gets me about this flurry of indignant sulking and spite you are engaged in is the level to which you’ll go to brand people curtesy of your imaginative assertions, and yet show yourself to be more liable to charges as you engage in sustained passages of false accusations against people you perceive to be opponents, or fabricate evidence against people who have a different opinion or perspective to you on any number of subjects.

    Once you get a grip, like some blue healer with a fake bone, you won’t let go until you’ve sucked the juice out of your rubber comfort toy and torn it to shreds, wondering what the dickens it was that riled you up in the first place about that danged object.

    Must have been something, eh, Bones. We can’t just have a discussion, or even a debate without the slavering, teeth-baring hound of angry retorts and expletive cursing spreading the hate.

    Maybe you haven’t worked out that it sometimes gets hot in the kitchen, but the door is always open if you can’t take the heat.

  24. yet show yourself to be more liable to charges as you engage in sustained passages of false accusations against people you perceive to be opponents, or fabricate evidence

    That’s hilarious.

    You know when you said thinks like I’d rather take my kids to a gay bar than a Pentecostal church, I thought it was a joke.

    But it really does show the kind of person you actually are.

    You deliberately lie about them just to prove a point.

    Or to make yourself superior.

  25. Bones, mysteriously,
    You know when you said thinks like I’d rather take my kids to a gay bar than a Pentecostal church, I thought it was a joke.

    I’m not sure what that gobbledygook says, but didn’t say anything about you taking your kids to a gay bar. You did. I think Q might have commented, but I didn’t, so what are you on about?

    You really need to chill out a bit, Bones. Nothing is worth all this anger and spite.

    And laying down all this aggression because I said your prophet Tim Flannery told Australia to buy desalination plants instead of building dams because the rain wasn’t likely to come any more is rather over the top.

    He also told the Canadians the polar bears would be extinct within 30 years of 2009. But the polar bear populations are stable. I can’t help it if he was going around making heavy predictions which aren’t coming to pass.

    If it makes you any happier, and soothes your troubled mind, I’m very sorry I called him Mr Flattery.

    As I said on the other thread, you’re just building a hate file which you will bring out every time you are struggling in an argument. Now you’ve admitted as much. Well, you’re certainly showing us what kind of person you are.

    It’s called bearing a grudge, Bones, and it’s wrong.

  26. Anyway, to save the other contributors any more bother, I’m done with this particular argument, Bones. If you can’t move on that’s your problem. If it means I have to go to leave you to crow, then so be it, but it would be a hollow victory. I’m sure you’ll have some nasty last word, but what does that actually mean to anything in the great scheme of things. Zip!

    There’s far more to you than this, Bones! that’s for sure.

  27. Okay, guys off to bed. And giggling about the irony of Bones being upset over Flattery instead of Flannery after all the things he’s called people.

    Maybe Flannery is a kind of prophet? Some people go bananas when their prophet is insulted.

    Flattery….. and Steve is so magnanimous that he apologises for that?
    If you were Catholic I’d recommend you for sainthood.

    Nighty $#$#$#$#$# night guys!

    lol

  28. Steve:

    That’s what Bones said, wazza. He’d rather send his children to a gay premises than a Pentecostal church. That’s what I’m dealing with here.

    What about you? Would you send your sons to a gay club?

    https://signposts02.wordpress.com/2012/06/09/gay-marriage-%e2%80%a2-what-slippery-slope/#comment-33512

    It was pretty funny at the time. And no it wasn’t worth asking for retraction or forgiveness. I couldn’t care less what people think about me.

    But that’s the way you attack people.

    But yeah that’s your problem.

    You could always repent.

    We both could.

  29. Sheesh, Bones, I was quoting what you had said to give contest for the argument you created to wazza.

    That was me quoting you! What does that say about you.

    You need help, mate!

  30. It must be hell for your close relatives and friends. If you get into an argument with them you have this long list of old scores which come up and exacerbate the discussion. Many of them are totally irrelevant to the discussion you might be in.

    The first rule of relationships is to get over the present disagreement and let it be. You know, don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Settle it. Deal with it. Then move on. Don’t bring it up again unless it is the actual subject of a discussion.

    People who bear grudges can never win an argument because it is never over for them, even if someone apologises. It is marked down for future reference. It is sin.

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