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Atheists Start Their Own 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.
 
 
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Organized Atheism is now a franchise.

The other day, 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?

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.”

 
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