The Sunday Assembly Comes to New York

This past weekend, the Sunday Assembly, an atheist congregation that got its start in the U.K., came to New York City as the culmination of a swing through the United States. I was in attendance, and I’ll be happy to tell you all about it!

I have to admit that when I first got there, I didn’t have high expectations. The venue was a Manhattan dive bar called Tobacco Road, tucked away on a grimy, dingy side street next to the Port Authority that was an obstacle course of construction barriers and idling buses. It didn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d come looking for a transcendent experience of atheist spirituality. But when I saw this sign-waving protestor on the sidewalk outside, I knew I’d come to the right place:

The lone protestor. His signs read “Demoniac Heathens #1 Jones #2 Pippa Evans; Demoniac Hypocrite #1 John Gambling”; “Demoniac Hypocrites Have Seized Religion”; and “God, Please Remove These Silly Ungreatful Demoniac Hypocrites From The Planet”. The organizers were chuffed that an actual protestor had turned up. “You can’t buy that kind of publicity!” was the sentiment, and I agree.

After the swelter and dazzle of a late June day, the interior of the bar was a cool, dark cavern. Tobacco Road’s usual selling point is its skimpily dressed female bartenders, but since that wasn’t the image the Sunday Assembly organizers wanted to send (and good for them), the staff had been asked to cover up for the occasion; some had, others hadn’t. The bar was nearly empty when I got there, but there was a curtained-off room in the back with a stage where the sound crew was tuning up.

I was worried that just a handful of people would show up, which would have made for an agonizingly awkward service. Happy to say, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was one of the first to arrive, but then people started coming, and kept coming, and kept coming. By the time we were ready, the bar area was packed, with a crowd that I’d guess was close to two hundred people. That turnout must have surpassed the organizers’ wildest expectations, because the room in the back had enough chairs for maybe a third of that! When the service started, it was literally standing-room-only.

Even better, the attendees weren’t the monochrome old-white-guy crowd that’s too often the norm at atheist meetings. It was a much more diverse throng of people, tilted toward the younger end of the spectrum but with a wide spread of ages represented. There were a noticeable number of people of color, and (in my unscientific estimation looking out over a dark, crowded room) a very close to even split between men and women. In short, it was just what the atheist movement can and should look like. Whatever the Sunday Assembly did to attract this crowd, it’s something that other atheist groups should be studying!

The main organizer for the NYC service was Sanderson Jones, a U.K. stand-up comic who founded the original Sunday Assembly in London. With a wild mane of hair and a long beard to match, he looked like a yuppie Moses, but had the enthusiasm and energy of a rock-concert promoter. That was appropriate, as it turned out.

I’d come to the Sunday Assembly with no expectations, knowing very little about what was going to happen. What it turned out to be was a rollicking, high-energy service that was half humanist sermon, half rock concert. It started out with some classic rock-and-roll songs from the very good house band, including the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” (an excellent humanist anthem!). The crowd was encouraged to stand, clap and sing along with the lyrics which appeared, karaoke-style, on a screen above the stage.

Sanderson Jones and the house band exhort the crowd.

Sanderson Jones took the stage, briefly, to discuss what the Sunday Assembly is all about. Then there was a short sermon (speech? lecture?), delivered by Chris Stedman from the Humanist Community of Harvard. I was skeptical about this choice, since Stedman’s soft-shoe, speak-no-evil approach to religion is the kind of thing I’ve often found fault with. But there was nothing about his speech today that I found objectionable. He spoke about his evangelical past and his two coming-out experiences, once as gay and once as an atheist, and about the evidence that community involvement, not religiosity, is the major predictor of charitable giving and civic engagement.

Chris Stedman speaks on atheist community.

There was a reading by Michael De Dora of CFI, and then a short presentation from two filmmakers who showed us clips from their in-progress documentary about the Clergy Project, “Refusing My Religion“. Then Sanderson took the stage again, delivering (preaching? we need better words) an argument that atheism by itself is “boring” – not believing in gods is a bare minimum, a floor, but not a fully-fledged philosophy by itself. Instead of treating that as a stopping point, we should be using it as a springboard into a life of greater happiness and meaning. (One of his best lines: “Atheism is the diving board, life is the ocean.”)

Insofar as I’m any judge, the service was a major success. The organizers seemed to think so too: they took up a collection near the end, passing around two pitchers which came back stuffed with cash. Although they’d initially planned for this to be their only Stateside visit until the end of the year, Sanderson announced on the spot that they were planning to make the New York Sunday Assembly a monthly meeting to run throughout the summer.

Sanderson Jones, delivering an atheist sermon in fine Old Testament style. (Sort of.)

Speaking for myself, I had a great time, and when it happens again, I have every intention of going back. Atheists are known for being non-joiners – it’s practically in the definition – but there’s a real need for groups like this. Socialization among ourselves, visibility in the wider community, exhortation to put one’s moral principles into action: these are all things that we need and that secular community groups like the Sunday Assembly can provide. It’s too early to tell whether this particular one will thrive, but the next meeting will be the major test, to see whether it can sustain the same level of participation and enthusiasm that was in evidence this weekend.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • foobar

    Talk. Speech. Remarks, Lecture, Lesson, Tirade. Eloquent, Fervent, Forceful, Uplifting, Stem-winding Exhortation.

  • Steve Bowen

    I had a cut down taste of the Sunday Assembly at the BHA conference in Leeds a few weeks ago. I have yet to attend the London venue but intend to when I find the time. While I am not a fan of the Alain de Botton approach to creating atheist churches, Sanderson’s events don’t feel “churchy” at all and I applaud his choice of a “dive bar” to hold the New York assembly. There is a danger that these events are made to be too pious as a way of deflecting possible criticisms from the conventionally chuched that atheists are ‘doing it wrong’. No doubt some will criticise this assembly for salaciousness or inappropriate choice of venue. But so what? It’s not for them.
    Out of interest Adam, if it continues which would you rather attend, UU or SA?

  • mkbell

    I was there too and thought it worked really well. It was uplifting and fun. Good write up.

  • mkbell

    Steve, I know that you didn’t ask me about UU vs. SA, but I’ll give you my answer anyway. As a UU humanist, I would prefer the SA service format but until there is a real institution with social justice programs attached, I would not want to give up having a UU church as well.

  • Mutazilites Freethinker

    GOOD ARTICLE…Very interesting development for the Nonbelievers.
    I am following this up with keen interest cause having lived a freethinking life almost single handedly amidst omnipresence of theism – Christianity and Islam, and knowing that Afrikans are “notoriously religious”, i dreamed a decade ago exactly that kind of Assemby that I would have called Socrates philosopher Temple..!
    Tactically and strategically I think (and feel) its the best way forward to bring together/organized otherwise seemingly anarchist by attitude Atheists.
    it is very inspiring..!

  • GeorgeLocke

    Whatever the Sunday Assembly did to attract this crowd, it’s something that other atheist groups should be studying!

    two questions: what did they do to attract the crowd? I live in Jersey, and this is the first I’m hearing of it. where was it publicized?

    the next question: where will the next meeting be publicized? When/where will it be, etc?

  • Sally

    This sounds great. Does it matter that if something like this were to grow, it would reinforce the argument that atheism is a religion? I figure either it doesn’t matter or if it does, then it might be better identified as a humanist Sunday Assembly rather than for “atheists” per se. Thoughts?

  • Sven2547

    I don’t mean this to be insulting, but Sunday atheist assemblies like these remind me of nicotine gum for people who are trying to quit smoking. It’s a stepping stone to help you fulfill a craving, which is helpful, but I think the long-term goal should be to not have cravings anymore.

  • Adam Lee

    While I am not a fan of the Alain de Botton approach to creating atheist churches, Sanderson’s events don’t feel “churchy” at all and I applaud his choice of a “dive bar” to hold the New York assembly.

    It was extremely unchurchy, for sure. Personally, although I enjoyed the service, I’d prefer they move it to a different venue. There’s nothing wrong with meetups in pubs, I’ve been to lots of them, but we atheists already have enough of those! I think it sends a message that clashes with the tone and atmosphere the Sunday Assembly wants to project. I’m not saying we need an altar and stained glass, but something just a bit more sedate and family-oriented would be more suited.

    Out of interest Adam, if it continues which would you rather attend, UU or SA?

    That’s a very good question. I do have a certain commitment to the very atheist-friendly UU church I attend – I’m friendly with most of the people there, and the minister performed my wedding, so I’m not planning to quit outright. But if the Sunday Assembly becomes a regular thing, I’d like to go at least some of the time, particularly if it’s only once per month. That’s my thinking right now, anyway!

  • Adam Lee

    I meant to put up a post about the SA ahead of time, but never got around to it (oops). I did mention it on Twitter, and they also got some advance coverage on the New York Post, Gothamist, and a few other media outlets, as well as on Friendly Atheist.

    I believe the next meeting will be in July (July 28?), but don’t quote me on that. I’m not sure if the details have been nailed down yet. I’ll definitely put up an advance notice on Daylight Atheism next time, when I know. I assume the details will also be on their own site,

  • Adam Lee

    That depends on what the craving is. I certainly don’t think the Sunday Assembly is designed or intended to help wean ex-believers off the trappings of religion, like nicotine gum is for cigarettes; it’s a full-fledged alternative in its own right, for and by atheists.

    I think there are perfectly good and defensible reasons for atheists to gather like this: to socialize and make friends with others who think as we do, to be exposed to more volunteer and charity opportunities, to connect with other activists in the secular community and hear about the work they’re doing.

  • GeorgeLocke

    cool, thanks.

  • smrnda

    I think Libby Anne on Love, Joy Feminism noted that a reason she wasn’t active in a local atheist group was meeting up in a bar wasn’t the best venue for a person with kids on one of her older blog posts, so more family-oriented wouldn’t be a bad thing for many people.

  • smrnda

    A lot of whether or not this is necessary may depend on the region where you live. I’m in an educated, secular, urban area where I don’t get religion shoved in my face on daily basis, so I don’t feel a craving for something like this, since I feel like I’m in a nice, secular, friendly area most of the time, and being an unbeliever where I’m at is normal. I can be involved in an organization without worrying I’ll get subjected to overt religiosity.

    For atheists and secular humanists who are living in much more religion-saturated areas, this could be a huge thing and a good space to just be comfortable as themselves. Imagine showing up to do some volunteer work for an ostensibly secular organization and it opens up with a prayer – it’d be frustrating, so you might want a clear, visible place to go.

  • Steve Bowen

    My local chapter of the BHA rents a seminar room at the University of Kent one Sunday a month. I must admit, the academic atmosphere does add a certain gravitas… and we usually adjourn to the bar afterwards:)

  • Steve Bowen

    As a brit living in a de facto secular society, if not a constitutional one, I don’t see this as a nicotine patch. Church attendence isn’t a big thing here so the Sunday Assembly becomes an addition to other opportunities to socialise without religion. Also it is unusual for religion to get brought up in sports or cultural events and organisations so it would be more about actively seeking out other atheists than avoiding the goddies.
    My impression of the US however is that Church going is much culturally entrenched and freethinkers have less opportunity to get similar social interaction without tripping over religion, even during ostensibly secular activities. It maybe that some people may see the Sunday Assembly the way you do for this reason, but it still has value in its own right.

  • David Simon

    Confusion. Adjectives?

  • GCT

    What in the world are you talking about?

  • abxnomore

    It’s about community not cravings nor religion or spirituality.