The Sunday Assembly’s American Tour

Last Monday night, I attended a meeting of the Sunday Assembly in New York City. It was the first U.S. stop on their 40 Dates and 40 Nights tour, in which cofounders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans are barnstorming across the country to drum up support and excitement for launching satellite congregations in, as they say, “every town, city and village that wants one”.

Pippa Evans and the band warm up on stage at NYSEC.

When I attended the NYC Sunday Assembly over the summer, it was at a midtown dive bar called Tobacco Road. It was a good starter space, but as I said at the time, not exactly in keeping with the image the Sunday Assembly is striving to present. I’m happy to report that they’ve found a new, and in my opinion more fitting, home at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a huge, gorgeous and historic meeting hall on Central Park West just north of Columbus Circle.

Sanderson Jones exhorts the crowd.

Like past meetings of the Sunday Assembly, this one was half humanist sermon, half rock concert, with short talks and sermons on nature and gratitude combined with music from an excellent band. But most of all, it was to raise awareness of its missionary efforts. The Sunday Assembly is seeking to expand beyond its home base in the U.K., to start offshoot congregations all over the world, and doing that, of course, takes money. They’ve created an Indiegogo fundraising page, as well as a pitch video that explains what they’re trying to accomplish:

As mentioned in the video, they’re attempting to raise 500,000 pounds. It’s a jaw-dropping sum to be sure, but then again, they have grand ambitions, and I’d bet even this amount is trivial next to the budget of any large church. If you like the idea of a godless, humanist congregation spreading across the world, go help them out!

While I’m on the topic, I also have to report some less encouraging news: as new as the Sunday Assembly is, there’s already a schism. A few weeks ago, a group of the original NYC organizers split away, claiming to be discontented with the Sunday Assembly’s lack of sufficiently explicit atheist advocacy, and formed a competing group they’re calling Godless Revival. (See also this article on Religion Dispatches which mentions the split.)

In principle, I’d wish success on an endeavor like this. Competition is healthy, and I think there ought to be plenty of room for two atheist congregations in New York City (how many churches do we have, after all?). But I’m skeptical of the necessity of splitting off like this, and even more dubious about the hostile language they used in doing so. Most of the charges they made – calling the Sunday Assembly “anti-atheist”, “more like a church service”, a “new-age religion”, even comparing it to Scientology – I’ve found to be unsubstantiated.

While the Sunday Assembly doesn’t beat you about the head and shoulders with its godlessness, no one would ever mistake it for anything but the atheist, secular humanist organization it is. Personally, I’m perfectly well convinced that gods don’t exist, and I don’t need continual reminders of that. I’m much more concerned with what follows from that: questions about how we live, how we form our morals, how we lead meaningful and happy lives, how we live together in community. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

Besides, from what I’ve seen of it, the Sunday Assembly must be doing something right. They’ve drawn big crowds at every meeting I’ve been to. Even better, the attendees aren’t the crotchety-old-white-guy demographic that too often defines atheism, but a young, diverse group of people, including significant numbers of women and people of color. This is just the demographic that we can and should be attracting if we want to present a positive, inclusive and appealing image of atheism. I don’t expect everyone to agree with the Sunday Assembly’s ideas or its emphasis, but my philosophy is, don’t mess with success!

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  • Theory_of_I

    I think being able to get together with others who share the godless point of view is beneficial, especially if it provides a forum for the exploration of the means of counteracting the all-pervasive god-culture and it’s harmful influences. I’m less inclined to favor such gatherings if they appear to simply replicate religious assemblies.

    There is nothing inadvisable about like-minded people sharing time together, enjoying fellowship, establishing new friendships and promoting alliances, but there could be a greater sense of direction if the participants spent some time considering various ideas that could address the harmful effects of the god-culture and possibly find effective means, socially and politically, to oppose the religion machine and it’s promoters.

    If the Sunday Assemblies have only the attributes of a club with no greater mission than the affirmation of non-belief for the congregants, the prospects for long-term success are questionable. From a PR standpoint, it could end up looking like a group of people gathering weekly to celebrate *NOT* being invaded by Brain-Eating Amoeba. (there’s an analogy in there somewhere…)

  • Leo Buzalsky

    “Most of the charges they made…I’ve found to be unsubstantiated.

    Yeah, I went and read that piece you linked. They really didn’t make an attempt to substantiate their charges and – worse – used logical fallacies where they did. For example: “The fundraiser for this tour was, in part, to pay themselves some pretty hefty wages according to sources inside their organization. It only takes some grade-school addition skills to see why they feel a pressing need to spread across America. After all, we saw how well that worked for L Ron Hubbard.” It would seem their argument is that charlatans have become rich on the gullibility of Americans in the past, therefore that is what Jones and Evans are doing and you can believe our sources. Cherry picking, anyone?

  • Michael Sabani

    We held one that I organized in Marietta yesterday. We had a great turnout, a couple of younger families (like my own) and a diverse group of people. Held in a coffee shop, all were welcome. No rock concerts but a local music act of a husband and wife who are my good friends played.

    Sanderson reached out to me once and never replied to my emails.
    I guess Marietta and 35 people wasn’t a big enough show for them! But we had a great time and will be doing it again, and won’t be officially affiliated with the Sunday Assembly movement at all.

  • Korey Peters

    As the co-founder of the Calgary Secular Church I confess to watching the development around the Sunday Assembly with a great deal of interest (because I think secular organizations like this are needed) and more than a little jealousy (I wish I had their resources and was surrounded by 10 million potential attendees!).

    At the CSC we are not scared to use the word “atheist”, although we always try to surround it with “secularist” and “humanist”. I really don’t feel like the term “atheism” is enough to drive a group forward. All it really says is that you don’t believe that gods exist. Where do you go from there?

    Well, we’ve tried to take that starting point and build a superior ethical system around it, and then a superior community around that ethical system.

    Curiously, (and I only mention this because I know it’s an issue within the wider atheist movement) we’ve had excellent buy-in from women in general. My co-founder is a female, half my board is female, and many of my most passionate and helpful advocates are female. Our meetings are often more than half female. I suspect this is because we are so focused on moving forward into better ethics, better people, better societies, and not at all on “let’s prove there is no god!”.

    Actually, we try not to mention “God” at all. It happens, and when members want to talk about some aspect of their de-conversion, I never stop them. I think it’s an important part of their lives. But I always try to take their statements and try to point them forward into positive action in the world.

    Anyway, just my two bits. If anyone is ever in Calgary, come visit us! We have an amazing brunch. :)

  • skyblue

    This post was very interesting because just this week, I had a very rare Sunday off work, and thought I’d try to find something like this. And the Sunday Assembly was in town this week – but on Friday, dammit!

    I looked into the Ethical Humanist society (which my parents went to in the 60s and 70s but I had never been to), but their weekly lectures are all different and I wasn’t excited enough about that one to spend the time getting all the way there. I would still like to check them out in the future though.

    I ended up going to a Unitarian church. My family went for a while as a kid and I remember a mix of learning what various religions believe, and “be a good person” lessons. I went once to this particular church a few years back and liked some aspects, but could do without the occasional religious topic. This week, there was no supernatural or religious talk, and some thought provoking talks on social issues/ethics/etc. If it was like that every week, I’d be thrilled, and that sounds like the Sunday Assembly. Your sentence “I’m much more concerned with what follows….” is EXACTLY how I feel. I don’t want to hear anything about God one way or another, or spiritual energy or whatever.

    That’s a shame about the Sunday Assembly split, it sounds completely unfair and inaccurate to call it “new age” or compare it to – really? Scientology?
    It’s interesting how amongst atheists, some people are really interested in talking about atheism itself, and some aren’t. I wonder if there is a correlation with recency of de-conversion or fundamentalist background.

    In any case, I’m jealous you got to go to Sunday Assembly! I hope it takes off.

  • paulhavlak

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention that the New York Society for Ethical Culture is not just “a huge, gorgeous and historic meeting hall”, but a more than century-old freethinking community, part of the Ethical Culture movement, already assembling every Sunday. I hope that as new humanist communities sprout, sharing of facilities and cross-fertilization continues, regardless of stylistic differences.
    (Says I, a member of Houston Oasis and other fellow-traveling communities.)

  • kraut2


    I hated those Sunday services as a kid, why for fuck’s sake would I join another congregation?
    I hold with Groucho. No, that one:
    “My experience is that people are most likely to listen to reason when in bed.”

  • Jorge Agudelo

    I would go one step further and say that even if the wages thing was
    true, it would make no difference at all. Organizing such big and wide
    reaching events probably takes an amount of time and work comparable to
    starting a small business. There is no reason why they should not be
    rewarded for it.

  • Keith

    So it’s basically a secular church, preaching hipster politics?

    I guess the main problem I see with things like this, is that they tend to inevitably become insular and dogmatic after a period of time, because it’s just the same audience and the same speakers over and over again. That’s what this seems like, just another circle jerk for progressives.

    Just drawing a crowd isn’t a sign they’re doing anything “right”. Fundamentalist churches draw crowds, hangings and executions used to draw crowds. If it’s just a popularity contest, then they’re doing it “wrong”.

    A lot of churches use live music and community events to draw in the crowds, and then proceed to bombard them with dogma and guilt them for money. Tried and true technique.

    I don’t like the idea of anything that is modeled as a “church”, and which gives “sermons”. I don’t know if all that language is supposed to be clever or ironic, or whatever, but I don’t like it.

    I can see why people would be skeptical about the integrity of the organizers. It’s not only crazy right wing religious people go around preaching BS and taking peoples money. Lots of charities and so called progressive organisations are full of egotistical arseholes out on personal vanity crusades.

    However, having said all that, I’m still willing to go along to one and check it out for myself, because I realise everything I just said could be a whole lot of cynical horseshit.

  • Errant Endeavour

    I’d like to make a suggestion/question for the betterment of the Sunday Assembly. As a big fan of comedians like Dara O Briain and Tim Minchin (I even have the lyrics to Storm on my wall), I think it would be a good idea to have comedians at the events, with secular or atheist or critical thinking stand up routines. Humour is a great way of analysing social norms and criticising them (just think of xkcd, for one, The Onion for another), as well as lightening the mood, creating bonds, and in a way – though I don’t think this would be of great use at the SA (preaching to the choir) – gaining new members. Does the SA already do comedy, or is it mainly music? I’ve never been, you see.