Could the Atheist Church Be Coming to the United States?

Sanderson Jones, one of the founders of the Sunday Assembly (a.k.a. Atheist Church) in London, is going to visit the U.S. this summer with the hopes of starting a few assemblies over here:

The aim is to build our network and lay the traintracks for the Sunday Assembly Crowdfunding Roadshow in the Fall. From emails, forum and newsletter sign ups, we can tell there is a lot of interest in LA, San Francisco and New York, so the trip will start and end on the coasts, but where should it go in between? There is space for two other cities, probably. Maybe three?

In order to find out where support is there is a Doodle poll, where you can say which other cities should be on the list (I have put the places where there has been most interest on the list – leave a comment or email us if your city isn’t on there and you think it should be).

I’m very excited about this. I know a lot of atheists think this is too far down the “religion-y” spectrum but, as we’ve seen in London, it’s working beautifully. It’s drawing in young people who might not otherwise care about their non-theistic identity. It’s a media magnet, too, drawing attention to the attendees and the fact that you can have the benefits of church without the trappings of faith/nonsense.

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.

  • JKPS

    I think it’s a potentially nice idea. Churches often provide a really excellent social aspect, and this is one way to achieve that same type of community feeling without any of the religious nonsense. But, atheists aren’t exactly immune to the same problems that crop up in church, like the cliques, and so I would still be cautious. However, I think I would attend. I’m kind of a socially awkward person and I don’t get out much, so this is would be a fine way to stretch my boundaries.

    • Shanasmiles

      I tend to find any church exclusionary. The people are congenial until they sense a disruption in the force because you may not be a solid member of their monolithic thought column. Then they become nasty, gossipy, and vindictive. I was raised in the church, attended private Christian schools my whole life, and lived at a baptist children’s home, which was enough to convince me that those types of association are completely undesirable to me. If other folks get some peace from it, awesome. But I tend to agree with your assessment of cliques, bullying, ostracism, and unethical leaders in church settings. I’m so socially anxious, I’m more of a misanthrope than anything and I’m sure that colors my perception as much as my massive negative religious experience.

      • randall.morrison90

        It sounds like you are describing the experiences some friends of mine had at the local atheist Meetups in Kanas City…of course, that may be a local phenomena since the Meetup Groups for atheists in Kansas City are dominated by three particularly controlling organizers…two atheists and one ostensible Christian.

        • Michael W Busch

          Cut it out with your KC rant. I say this preemptively based on your trotting it out on too many other comment threads.

  • snicketmom

    So far, Chicago is in the lead! I’d go to check it out and provide support, even though I’m happily UU.

  • http://twitter.com/egluttrull ElaineGroganLuttrull

    I wonder how Sunday Assembly overlaps/interacts with groups like the Society for Ethical Culture (in NY with other locations)?

  • asfdasdf

    How is this different than UU?

    • Natalie ._c-

      UU folks have syncretistically “borrowed” the trappings of many faiths and use them to, indeed, worship god, by whatever name you wish to call him.

      • Michael W Busch

        Depends on the UU. I know some who are entirely humanistic. But, yes, the organization is still predominately theistic (although depending on how the question is worded, it’s only a narrow majority – survey data put ~45% of UUs as identifying as “predominately humanistic”).

        • Amor DeCosmos

          At our UU church, 2/3 are atheist/agnostic.

    • Ian Dodd

      As an atheist and a member of a UU congregation, I can answer this. While the UU has a history of humanistic language (a UU minister co-wrote the first Humanist Manifesto), there has been a shift in recent years to a more “traditional” (i.e., faith-oriented) feel. In fact, the new president of the American Humanist Assoc., Rebecca Hale, said in a recent interview that she didn’t move away from the UU church, it moved away from her. Within the current UU there are a number of local freethought groups popping up in reaction, including one that I organize which represents the nearly half of my congregation that identify as some form of non-believer.

      As to the idea of an “atheist church” like Sunday Assembly, there are many in my group who would be interested. We enjoy the fellowship, but would also look forward to lively presentations, debates, opportunities for community service in the name of non-belief, etc. Those who would rather sleep in or find their “community” online are free to not participate. For some, it could offer the benefits of traditional church community while more clearly rejecting any trappings of faith.

    • SirReal

      All of the UUs around me are decidedly Christian and God-worshipping. NOT ONE is secular in any way but a whisper.
      I don’t WANT to have a regularly scheduled Sunday gathering. I did that for too many years and I detest the thought. The only reason I looked into UU was to have something social to be a part of without the required god stuff. But no luck.

      • bluechimera

        Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian religion. It has roots in it, and the historical/mythical Jesus is considered a source of wisdom, but so is Buddha and so are other figures. Talking about what we can learn from Jesus doesn’t make us Christian. Only worshiping him does that.

        “God” in the UU tradition is often used more like a catch-all term to indicate the forces of the universe (whether you think they’re natural or not) and the positive forces that tie humankind together (namely, love and respect). As an atheist myself, I understand how the “god” language might turn you away. But I still wonder if you gave them enough benefit of the doubt. I know that UU churches vary a lot, but I suspect there were more humanists there than you gave them credit for.

  • Jpor

    I think that atheists “Churches” is the dumbest idea I have ever heard of!

    • randall.morrison90

      I like it. It demonstrates as clearly as can be the Parasitical nature of atheism, which can’t, on its own, provide a moral basis for anything.

      • The Other Weirdo

        Thanks, Captain Obvious. I’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that atheism on its own provides a moral basis for anything, but you have now opened my eyes and I see the light. Amen, brother. Amen.

      • Michael W Busch

        No. It demonstrates how religions have adapted to fulfill a number of community functions, and one strategy for co-opting that in favor of irreligion. I happen to think it is not a particularly good strategy, but that is an arguable point.

        It has nothing to do with the ethics people derive from religion or from atheism or anything else.

      • Shanasmiles

        Wrong. As an atheist I do the right thing because its the right thing to do. Do no harm, help where you can, let others live in peace, avoid being a judge mental douche… I don’t need to fear an imaginary friend’s wrath to not be a jerk.

      • Pepe

        We missed you randall

    • CanadianNihilist

      I agree. If someone wants to start a humanist church that would make a lot more sense. Humanism has values and morals associated with it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about atheism that one could build a church on.
      The sermon would be pretty stupid as well.

      “Greeting everybody, there is no god, have a great day.”
      Anything else and you’re encroaching into a different set of beliefs or philosophies.
      As it’s been pointed out many times atheists are all different sorts of people with varying social and political beliefs. Lack of a belief in a god is the only thing we have in common.

      Humanist church and atheist gatherings are the way to go.

    • SirReal

      I agree… I do not care to use the word “church” for anything but a meeting for those who have god/gods in their life. I do not. I do not want to be a part of that and I think labeling it “Atheist Church” is extremely silly.

  • Shanasmiles

    That is the absolute last thing I’d want to attend other than actual church. A bunch of folks sitting around saying you ‘don’t believe’ in the right way… Because anytime humans are involved, there are officious prigs imposing their designs on everyone. No thanks. You guys have fun, ill sleep in.

    • randall.morrison90

      Try a local Atheist Meetup Group. …snicker…

      • Shanasmiles

        I went to a couple ‘freethinkers’ groups in Maryland and was underwhelmed. I figured it was a peculiarity of the group which had a charismatic bully for a leader. It wasn’t enough to just not believe he demanded we explain why not before he dissected why our non-belief didnt go far enough. It was weird.
        I then tried to get involved with Atheists, Agnostics, & Humanists club at LSU and boy, that was a bunch of immature little whelps. It was like a supercharged episode of Dawson’s Creek with some displaced Wiccans for good measure. Furthermore, they were against allowing kids (age 13) to join in discussions on non-biblical ethical motivations saying that “Atheism isn’t for kids.” I took this to mean that they were too hardcore for me…lmao…they really took themselves too seriously.
        It’s all just my opinions of course and if folks feel better in these groups, great!

    • JKPS

      Wait, who said it would be early? Can’t it be, like, mid-afternoon?

      • Shanasmiles

        Ill sleep all freaking day rather than drag my butt to church of any persuasion.

  • Emmet

    “Non-theistic identity” – is that like a “non-stamp collecting identity”?

    • randall.morrison90

      No. Its more vicious.

      • Emmet

        And do people who have such an identity also describe their identity as everything else they’re “non”? Non-communist identity. Non-black identity. Non-white identity. Non-female identity. Non-male identity. Non-republican identity. Non-British identity. Non-film buff identity. Non-curry liking identity.

        In other words: what the…?

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

    This is how I feel about it.

  • Beth

    I think it would be wonderful for someone leaving religion to use as a halfway house of sorts. I know it would have helped me. I have been considering a UU church but I’m worried it will be filled “spiritual” nonsense.

    • Amor DeCosmos

      UU Churches vary wildly. Check out your local one. Ours is 2/3 atheist so gods are never mentioned. Sometimes it gets a little woo woo for me, but I usually enjoy the people and practices at our UU church.

      • Beth

        Thanks, there are two within reasonable driving distance. I have kids and I worry about the woo-woo.

  • Damon Icke

    I wouldn’t roll out of bed to go to an atheist meeting/sermon if they were congregating right next door. I have hobbies. I also have the internet which is the only “church” the atheists need.

  • benjamingrant

    I am 100% behind this idea. I need a local community of people to belong to that shares my values and supports each other and inspires each other to be better people. The reason that religions has things like confession/absolution, sermons, prayer/meditation, and other suchlike is because these activities answer some basic human needs many of us have. I am a devout rationalist, eschewing all faith and supernatualisms – but I could use a church of rational spirituality in my life, a place to go to for support, advice, inspiration, teaching, and fellowship.

    Who wouldn’t benefit from such a thing. Yes please, here, immediately.

  • benjamingrant

    Oh, and by the way, it wouldn’t be a spirituality or church based on atheism – *that* idea is ridiculous – atheism is not, as some people need to understand, a positive belief, it is the absence of a belief. However, almost always a commitment to atheism stems from an embrace at a deep (what I would still call spiritual) level to rationality and reason, and against irrationality. *This* could *easily* be a foundation for an assembly, community, and/or spiritually rational church.

    Not to pimp my blog (hope this doesn’t cross the line), but rather than retype volumes that I already have elsewhere, my base thoughts on a rational spirituality are at my blog Stumbling Forward at http://benngrant.com – hope it’s ok to mention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brindusakatalin.poenaru Brindusa-Katalin Poenaru

    I know nothing about this…but Atheist Church sounds…funny if not stupid. And I like debates, I like the free flow of ideas but I dislike organized thinking…I’m from a former socialist country, I’m basically what you call a “humanist” and i had enough of people telling me what is right to think. I dislike the way religion and Church took over out very thin democracy, I resent it deeply but I wouldn’t like to enlist in any other form of Church…not even in one that worships…reason. Take care thinkers what you are giving up…

  • JET

    I have no problem with this. Personally I prefer my book club or art group for social interaction, but people’s needs are different. Atheists in particular can feel very isolated socially. When religious people move to new communities, a church is often where they go to make friends. Why shouldn’t atheists be allowed to do the same thing? And why shouldn’t there be a non-religious option for people who just want some friends to talk to and plan pot luck dinners with? We atheists have one thing in common – we do not believe in gods. Other than that, we are all very different and have different needs.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Sunday morning is a good time to schedule an atheist meeting because it’s the time of week likely to have the fewest scheduling conflicts, but please don’t call it church. It just makes me wonder what atheists would sing for hymns.

  • JA

    Do we really have to call it a church? Couldn’t it be called a Forum?

  • Anna

    It’s drawing in young people who might not otherwise care about their non-theistic identity.

    Why should young people care about their non-theistic identity? I’m an atheist. I’ve been a default atheist since I was born and a conscious atheist since I realized that other people believed in gods and took them seriously. That said, I don’t consider being an atheist significant. It just is. It’s like having brown hair. It’s not something I’m proud of, that I need to celebrate, or that’s an important part of my identity.

    I actually wish for a world in which non-theistic identity isn’t important at all because it’s taken for granted. A world in which people don’t have to think very much about being atheists because they’re not surrounded by a religious culture.

    It’s a media magnet, too, drawing attention to the attendees and the fact that you can have the benefits of church without the trappings of faith/nonsense.

    I’ve complained about this on other threads, but I don’t see church as a good thing. The Bible Belt and its resulting “church culture” is not a good thing, IMO, not even a little bit. It contributes to the religious privilege we have in our society, one that says going to church is normal, expected, and morally superior. Why are we looking to the Bible Belt for inspiration? I think it would be a lot better to look to secular places like Scandinavia and take note of what atheists are doing there.

    I don’t know if it’s this American desire for “one stop shopping” but why should people have all their community needs met in one particular building, anyway? Church is like the Walmart of socialization. I actually think it’s better to be more diverse. Don’t just shop for friends in one place. Make friends in a lot of different places. That way, if you lose your affiliation with that one group, you don’t lose all your friends and entire support system in the process.


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