The Atheist Church in London Draws a Larger Crowd at Its Second Service

It turns out that the “atheist church” started by British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans is only getting more popular. The initial gathering a month ago had about 200 attendees. Yesterday’s gathering drew in about 300!

Esther Addley was there and was drawn in by what she saw:

Image from the January gathering of the Sunday Assembly (via Tim Dalinian Jones)

The service opens with a song, led by Evans and an enthusiastic band at the front; instead of a hymn, however, it is “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen (“We’ve chosen something that allows hamming it up to the max”). The service features a reading, a moment of reflective silence, even a collection to pay for the rental of the church, during which people are invited to turn in the pews and greet those sitting beside and behind them. The plan in future is to engage members in community-based good works.

There is also a sermon, of sorts, on the day’s theme of “wonder”, which sees Dr Harry Cliff, a particle physicist from Cambridge, talking about Dirac’s equation predicting antimatter (“the most amazing theory in history”) and the enormous statistical odds against the universe existing in the first place. The congregation then stands to sing Superstition by Stevie Wonder.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this idea just because it too closely resembles a church service. The idea of gathering as a community, celebrating life, and doing good work is not owned by any religious faith. The idea of indoctrinating people with made-up stories parading as truth is. We can do without that.

I really hope this takes off. Not because it’s necessarily something I would attend myself, but because it would be so wonderful and meaningful for a lot of atheists who want that sort of experience.

For now, Jones is only expanding the church by having a second service in the afternoon next month. But who knows where this could go…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Haha UK

    Does this shout “cultish” to anyone else?

    • chris

      cult:a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object….this doesnt sound like that at all.

    • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

      surprisingly… no.

    • Mario Strada

      It sounds “Churchy” to me. Not cultish. I will agree that it makes me slightly uncomfortable. Probably because I have had to fend off too many “Atheism is a religion” and “It takes more faith to be an Atheist” over the years than I care to remember.

      At the same time, the biggest issue with Atheism and free thinking movements is our lack of community outside of online groups. Part of me reacts against these gatherings,. especially those that follow a religious footprint like this one, but on the other hand, we should not let the religious prevent us from sharing our basic humanity and our desire to congregate with those like us.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

        And what is going to happen when a man ask a woman for her phone number or out on a date?

        • JohnnieCanuck

          She will either agree or she won’t.

          Given that this isn’t going to be a place like a large convention where anonymity will provide cover for bad behaviour like treating people as sex objects, I expect the few assholes in attendance will curtail their proclivities and they will be mostly unnoticed.

        • Jennifer T

          Nothing much. This isn’t the USA.

        • Pattrsn

          I imagine it would depend on the method and the context, just like in any other situation.

          • http://twitter.com/Attacusatlas1 Attacus Atlas

            Yeop.

  • rg57

    Time will tell whether this was a good idea. It all depends on what it evolves into.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

    Personally, I would love to have something like this in my community. The only thing my husband and I have against churches is all the religious crap. We’d love to get together on Sunday morning for coffee, an inspirational talk, some music, a little charity work, and some time to sit around talking with our neighbors. Honestly, I think most of the church goers that I know only go to for those reasons, and really don’t buy into all the religious crap, they just like the community, so they keep going for that. I don’t see anything wrong with someone treating atheism as a “religion”, since it’s not an organized religion, no one has the authority to say how it should be “practiced”. If my atheist church offends you, then tough!get over it. Don’t join it and go start your own atheist group that fits your definition of atheism!

    • Revyloution

      Preach it sister! :)

    • Thackerie

      “We’d love to get together on Sunday morning for coffee, an inspirational
      talk, some music, a little charity work, and some time to sit around
      talking with our neighbors.”

      This is what I get from attending a Unitarian church, as do a lot of my fellow atheists.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

        Ah, yes, I have a huge amount of respect for the Unitarians. If there was a UU church in our area we would certainly check it out and likely be members. I attended one for a while as a kid, my parent were not religious but were concerned about raising kids in the highly religious state of Utah without religion, so they took us to the UU church. We have all since drifted away except one of my sisters who went back when she became a single parent of two young children. I think she does buy into the religious part, but as a single parent the community and support she gets there is also extremely important to her.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      i just moved to, FSM help me, TX. i may be going to church soon. because it’s what People Do, here.

      i had dinner with my new neighbors last night. they are Decent people. sure, she’s a conservative christian who believes too many people on welfare and medicare are draining this country of its essence, and he’s a tattooed SSI recipient who can’t work because of “back problems” but can drink a lot of beer and play video games all day. but they are essentially nice people and i’m going to get along.

      we even talked about politics. i was very diplomatic and non partisan. sometimes, it really helps to have a degree in divinity.

      they don’t know i’m queer yet, but the wife didn’t seem to bothered when i spoke of a gay friend. she shrugged and was all like, “yah, some people are gay. so?” she wants to garden with me and take me to her church, and hey? why the hell not? it’s neighborly.

      • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

        I moved to Texas 4 years ago. I hid my viewpoints for a while. I call it my “disguise” since they don’t see me for who I am but instead what they want to see.

        If I could have been ok with attending a church, I could have remained “ambiguously christian”. But I want to be me. I want to ask questions. I want to have intellectual conversations with intelligent people.

        I have found most Texans to be anti-intelligence and anti-science. I have a small group of friends now who I can be myself around. I don’t bother trying to get along with the theists anymore. Too much effort.

        I do still put in the effort for my neighbors though.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I don’t need flash backs to my childhood.

  • Phil Cleaver

    Our Unitarian Church is 30% Atheist, 30% Agnostic, and 30% other. Last Sunday we sang “Rivers of Babylon” and “Lean on Me” and the sermon was actually about atheism and the Unitarian Church.
    A lot of atheists are against any kind of gathering on a Sunday, I know, but a lot of us really enjoy getting together and having all the benefits of a church, minus dogma and belief in the supernatural.

    • jkusters

      I was going to say something similar. Two weeks ago, our service centered around Stevie Wonder’s messages of “moving to the highest ground” and the “sermon” was about second chances. We had our in-house band treat us to two Stevie Wonder songs. Sure, the occasional service does talk about religion, but in my fellowship, at least, it’s never preachy. It’s more of a “here’s something intellectually interesting about this particular religious person.” (And our fellowship also has a reasonably high percentage of open atheists, like myself, and we’re serving on the Board of Trustees, so it’s not like we’re shunned. :-)

  • Revyloution

    I would attend every Sunday. The idea of a particle physicist just talking about the wonder of life would be worth it. Then, turning to a fellow human that I never met, and making an instant friend.

    To those who call this a cult, I’d like to remind them of the hard science of happiness. Over and over, cognitive scientists have shown that contentment and happiness are achieved by having the maximum number of social contacts. An organization like this can easily provide a large number of potential contacts, therefore increasing social cohesion and harmony. This isn’t about telling people how to live, or who to have sex with (or not to), but about bringing people together to witness the joy of existence. There is nothing wrong with that joy, it’s what was good about religion before we realized it was all bullsh*t.

  • ringtailroxy

    I’m not to sure about this. It’s too easy to see it as a mockery of religious ceremony, especially since it adheres so closely to the “traditional” church-schedule… sing, hear a sermon, socialize… do good deeds in the community…
    I also spend an annoying amount of time explaining that “atheism is not a religion”.

    I think it would be better if another day was chosen and the meetings where not held in a church.

    • tsh1971

      Actually it sounds like a Kiwanis Club meeting: Singing, a speaker on a different topic every meeting, socializing, and community service projects.

      I think alot of non-religious community groups follow this basic pattern.

  • Thin-ice

    Having spent 46 years going to church 3 times a week has immunized me against EVER wanting to attend something that looks, sounds, or smells like a church service. Ever.
    But if other atheists find that it is something they can relate to, go for it! For non-believers for whom church culture has never been a part of their life, I can see how it would be intriguing. But I can’t see many de-converts who spent decades immersed in church culture wanting to be reminded of it again!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      The only thing that brings me back to church is a dead loved one.

      • meekinheritance

        Do you mean Jesus? ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    One of the big things that bothered me about church (Catholic mass) was the singing. I love music. But I can’t sing, so I would just stand there very still only moving my lips. Even more so… I dislike those “praise bands.” They tend to sound very bad and extremely cheesy. That is what I see when I look at this picture. I love Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now… but I like it when I’m running or cycling or beating up zombies.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      you should try a Black Church. no, really. when i was young and living in the almost all white country area, i went to church a couple of times with the neighbors. omg it hurt my ears. but a Black Church choir? pure heaven. it’s the only reason to go to one, frankly.

      do you know of Mahalia? let me put it to you this way: Aretha Franklin sang at her funeral, and was honored to do so.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ke0braNvNs

      who cares that it’s religious? i sure don’t. i can listen to this forever. if i’m wrong as an atheist and i end up in heaven praising jeebus forever, i’ll be sitting next to her, listening to her singing. ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/billhaines.net Bill Haines

    “Superstition” is a great choice, one of my own personal faves. :)

  • http://twitter.com/Attacusatlas1 Attacus Atlas

    I want to go to there.

  • Zach Harkey

    Sigh.

  • biblebeltatheistchick

    Why do I not have one of these where I live! It would be amazing to have a social network of unbelievers I could connect with just like the churchy people do. It would make me feel like I had something to look forward to on Sunday, and make me feel less alone in the Bible belt.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

      If you want a group, then start one. Meetup.com is pretty effective. I help run one in Abilene, TX. Took us a while to get going (2 years). We have about 40 members (20 active) and we pretty much just do social gatherings and are a small community of non-believers. We gather once/month officially. A few of us provide money to keep a website and Meetup.com pages functional.

      Community is great. I’m not so keen on the church format here. It would be better if the format was not so sermon-like. Maybe just a community center with activities would be better.


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