This May Be the First Atheist Megachurch

Last we heard from the London-based Sunday Assembly (a.k.a. Atheist Church), they were being evicted from their home:

Unfortunately, they may have to find permanent space sooner than they expected. Trustees from the Steiner School (housed in the same church) have kicked them out of the building. While the trustees cited safety reasons (too many people in the building), Jones contends there’s a less benevolent reason for the eviction. He said that some of the trustees found The Sunday Assembly to be “antithetical to their own ethos.” You can decide for yourself whether it was the living better, helping often, or wondering more that upset them the most.

In fact, The Sunday Assembly has complied with all safety regulations, including turning people away at the door if the crowds were getting too large.

There’s some good news on this front, though: This June, the Sunday Assembly will begin holding services at the 1,200 seat York Hall in Bethnal Green:

York Hall… preparing for a boxing match.

Not only that, five permanent monthly assemblies will also be starting up in other cities:

… the first [is] opening in Exeter on Sunday June 16th, followed by one in Melbourne on June 30th and Bristol on July 14th. Assemblies in Southend-on-Sea, and Brighton [will] follow.

Sanderson Jones, one of the Assembly’s co-founders, will also be visiting the U.S. this fall to scope out possible venues and organizers for assemblies over here.

Sunday Assembly co-founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans

Not bad for a group that’s only six months old!

I asked Sanderson what this growth meant for him and what the future of the Sunday Assembly looked like:

We are totally over-the-moon about moving to York Hall but the aim of the Sunday Assembly remains the same no matter where what building it is in. We’re here for people who want to live better, help often and wonder more. We meet because we’re stronger together than on our own. Our aim: to help everyone find and fulfill their potential.

This new venue is pretty big, but with 400 or so attendees coming regularly to our previous Assemblies, we felt it’d certainly do for now, and give us some space to grow. Heck, it is just super that lots of people out there want to celebrate the privilege of being alive this one time. Lots of people out there want to be part of a community, want to sing together, want to hear inspiring talks together, want to help other people, and, sometimes, need a little help.

I’m constantly humbled by this outrageous support, and feel honoured to be part of it. I mean, after less than six months there are already over 100 volunteers at The Sunday Assembly in London! Imagine what can be achieved if we’re able to unleash that sort of reaction across the UK? Or across the US?

The one problem with all this support is that it is creating a lot of work (I still work as a stand up and actor to pay the bills), but it is the best, most gratifying sort of work. The next big project is to put together the crowdfunding roadshow that we have planned for the Fall (as you say on your side of the puddle). That will help get us on a solid financial footing, and then we can help as many people as possible start their own joyous life-affirming, soul-enhancing gatherings.

Now, I read your last post and where you said some folk think us a bit “religion-y,” and I’ve decided to take that as a compliment. We like to think we’ve got the best parts of religion, coupled them with evidence based reasoning, and repurposed the lot for the 21st century. In the secular, agnostic and atheist movement we can spend a lot of time seeing the things we disagree with religion about, without seeing the amazing amount of good it can do in people’s lives (“Perceived good,” I hear people tutting).

Look, religious people aren’t stupid. They clearly get a lot out of church. They go there for a reason. In return, churches do a fantastic job of unlocking social capital that would otherwise go unspent, of making connections that help people get the most out of life, as well as helping them cope with the problems that afflict us all. After all, it’s a privilege to be alive but sometimes it’s tough.

Brilliantly, there’s a growing army of Assemblers who can also see the positive side to congregating together to celebrate this one life we have, and the values we hold dear. I’ll be going to meet some of these folk in Los Angeles (June 21st-23rd), San Francisco (23rd-25th), Seattle (26th-27th), Chicago (27th-29th) and New York (29th-30th). Tell your readers to drop me a line here if they’d like to meet up.

The trip will topped off with a Sunday Assembly in New York on June 30th — the first Assembly in the US. Wow, it seems crazy to see that written down. Argh! It gets better, I just checked the Sunday Assembly New York Google Group and Michael Trollan, one of the local organisers who I have never met before, has put up $250 to get cover the hire costs of the first Assembly. How cool is that? And how kind? Many small steps like that will lead to really wonderful places.

For what it’s worth, when I called the Assembly “religion-y,” it was in reference to how other atheists were viewing it. I’m a fan and I’d like to see this idea spread.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • SirReal

    Not a fan of the formal atheist service they are putting forward here. That gives the “atheism is a religion” people fuel for their fire. I don’t want to sit in a building and listen to bronze-age tales for a sky fairy nor do I want to sit in a building and listen to secular speeches. I’d much rather it be a weekly potluck or mixer or something that doesn’t involve formality. This is just religionists without a god.

    • CMo

      By that logic, any group of like-minded individuals who regularly meet could be accused of being a religion — be it car enthusiasts, sci-fi fans, republicans or recovering alcoholics. Highly inaccurate, seeing as religion is defined as the belief in a superhuman power or god, and the details of that belief system. Nothing religious about a bunch of people who share beliefs or a lack of belief in something coming together to hear some speeches. Seems like a misinterpretation that would be fairly easy to dispute. Those who couldn’t be convinced otherwise are beyond helping, because reason isn’t something that would sway them.

    • Ben

      Then start your own potluck or mixer. Go on, no-one’s stopping you. But just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean no-one will.

      • SirReal

        Calm down, Jethro… read my other replies. I have done my own potlucks, mixers, picnics, etc. Just because I said I’m not a fan of this idea doesn’t mean I’ve never done the other. Everyone is free to choose their own activities in life and my not liking it, personally, is not akin to wanting it banned.

    • Synch1216

      If your only concern is what your opposition will consider “fuel” instead of the many valid points that he raised then I’m sorry to tell you: Your Life is Run By Christianity. Think about it- they control your life. You don’t even like organized events any more out of deference to what they might say. Pretty sad.

      • SirReal

        I had no idea that one sentence would generate so much concern by the fellow commenters here. That is not my only concern… hell, it’s not really a “concern” at all. While I do try not to provide fodder to the religious masses (mostly because I don’t care for reading their nonsense in response), I’m also not a fan of sitting in a chair and being “preached” to. I’m no longer in school and have never been a fan of sitting and listening to someone lecture, even if I like the subject.
        I don’t know where you got that I don’t like “organized events.” My life is FILLED with organized events that I’m perfectly fine attending. My son has his 8th grade graduation in a few weeks and I’m tickled about that. I’m going to take a job placement test tomorrow, which is organized and planned, and I’m looking forward to it. It is sitting, idle and still, while someone talks at me that I’m not a fan of.
        And here in the US, our lives ARE run, to a certain extent, by Christianity, whether we like it or not. That’s not a secret… they have made laws based on their beliefs that we try to change, they try to teach our children their mythology in school, and our government is rife with believers. That is why we speak out now and don’t hide our beliefs like generations past.
        Again, if others find this to be their cup of tea, I applaud the idea for them. More power to them. It’s just not something I find appealing for myself.

    • JKPS

      I guess I should alert my old college that those secular speeches they had every week actually meant we were all practicing a religion.

      • SirReal

        Per a previous reply of mine: “I’m no longer in school and have never been a fan of sitting and listening to someone lecture, even if I like the subject.”
        It is my own PERSONAL opinion that I don’t like this atheist church idea. MY OWN. I haven’t said “don’t do this” or “ban these types of things.” I merely presented MY OPINION that it’s not my thing.
        Get over it.

    • DragonMama

      not sure if my reply posted as it asked me to create an account… to me, this looks more like a more informal version of a TED Talk convention. I’m not an Atheist (nor am I really an Agnostic or Theist… it’s complicated and too much for an internet comment thread), but I would give this kind of event a try if it was family friendly. I want my kids exposed to this kind of community engagement, having to hire a sitter or having them off somewhere else at the venue defeats that. For the record, I saw this article because it was linked from a UU (Unitarian Universalist) discussion group that I belong to.

  • Kendra Leonard

    I attended a Sunday Assembly meeting my last time in the UK and had great fun and met some very cool people. The “speeches” were highly interactive and interesting, and there was a picnic afterwards. It was great just to know that I was surrounded by other atheists and people who thought like me.

    • SirReal

      Okay… if it is interactive and not just sitting there listening to someone drone on and on (even if the subject is one I WANT to hear) and is followed by a picnic… I’d probably check it out.

  • Bob Becker

    With SirReal on this one. The idea of an atheist “church” holding “services” doesn’t sound, or feel, right to me.

    • CMo

      Maybe if you just use other language it will make you more comfortable. Think of it as an atheist people cluster engaging in brain-building listening activities and repartee.

      • Bob Becker

        I was commenting on the way H described things: megachurch, services etc.

  • Thomas J. Lawson

    As far as I am concerned, when I went to see George Carlin perform I considered it a religious experience. Add a scientific talk to that and some type of humanitarian initiative…well, I’ll try to make it every goddamned Sunday.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

    I am pretty mixed over this idea, on one hand I don’t think Atheism should be presented like religion, on the other hand I feel like there is a lack of institutions available to congregate with like minded individuals. It might be paranoid of me but I consider collegiate institutions too religiously diversified to house a “safe haven” for non-theists. There might be too much access for interlopers to disrupt the proceedings. There are many “Meet Up” groups in my area; the Seattle area and cities around Puget Sound seem to have an abundance of non-theists. Meet Ups do provide a modicum of congregational opportunities but in my opinion they fail in providing a strategic strategy for promoting science and reason to the masses. It seems like interest in science is in decline (US) and at the same time non-theism is on the rise, if one of the objectives of Sunday Assembly is to rekindle the interest in science and subsequently promote reason then I could get behind that idea. But if it’s only goal is to replace theistic religion rituals with non-theistic rituals well then it’s not for me. If that is the case I could easy attend the The Unitarian Church, which here in Washington St. is exceptionally non-theistic.

    • Ms. Marsha

      Tanner, I totally agree with you on this! I left religion for a million reasons but the Sunday morning lack of commitment has become one of my favorite results. I believe the focus of meeting like-minded people is huge, especially for those of us who reside well inside the bible belt, but I just can’t see this as being the way to do it. And by the way, I would love to have a UU church that was non-theist but around here they do NOT know how to do that. It’s just another church with less rules.

      • SirReal

        Same here… I looked into the UU churches in my area having seen here that there are plenty of nonreligious ones out there but of the 6 within driving distance of me, there are none that with secular leaders or non-religious services. I called them all after looking on their websites just to see if I was missing something. All have ordained ministers as their leaders. I just don’t care for that. Others do and that’s great… it’s just me.

        • DragonMama

          as a UU, just to make sure you’re aware – ordination does not necessarily mean that the minister isn’t an Atheist. In many cases they are like psychologists with marriage-ceremony performing privileges. Some are theists, some aren’t. Some UU groups are predominantly Christian, some are predominant Humanist/Atheist, and there are even some that are predominantly Pagan (and there are ordained UU clergy who are openly Pagan, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, etc). The services DO tend to resemble main-line Protestant structure, which can be a turn-off, but you might enjoy some of the non-Sunday-service activities in those places, and MOST of them would probably support something like this article via sharing space or whatever.

  • Anna

    I’ve been vocal on other threads about how much I dislike this trend, but I’d probably attend one of these assemblies to see what they’re like. I have to say, though, that San Francisco seems an odd place to put one. In the first place, this is just not a churchgoing area. Even the theists don’t attend church.

    In the second place, we’ve already got atheist churches. Plenty of UU, plus at least one humanist community, one Ethical Culture, not to mention Buddhism and Humanistic Judaism. There are plenty of options for atheists who want godless religion or godless social groups.

  • Andrew L

    This is a growth rate that should make Mark Driscoll green with envy.

  • jeffj900

    I can see how some people may feel the psychological and emotional need for this kind of activity, just as people really do benefit from fellowship at church. It’s kind of obvious that every church that ever existed was in fact implicitly an atheist church, because the only real phenomena occurring in such venues was people interacting and sharing stories. God was never there, so any perceived benefit people felt from the experience can of course be replicated by atheists who need or want that kind of thing. Or you can join a cycling club, a chess club, or whatever pleases you.

    But can we please stop using the awful name “Atheist Church” and call it what it really is? These are Atheist Social Support Businesses. Just because one is an atheist, it evidently doesn’t stop them from being willing to part with money to receive a sense of belonging, to be inspired by well crafted language, to share the joy of communal music, and to indulge in the rapturous fawning adulation of a charismatic leader.

    We all know that the trappings of religion are designed to appeal to various aspects of human nature. So it’s no surprise some people want to hang on to that particular kind of recreational entertainment. Or perhaps some of this is just a lingering addiction to old habits. I’m mighty suspicious of the desire to use the word “church” in describing this phenomenon.

    • SirReal

      I completely agree. Very well put.

  • A3Kr0n

    So we can go to a seance, but it’s not really a seance? Do they pretend to pray too? Do they sing songs to Carl Sagan? Do they have a big telescope where a cross would normally be? Do Sunday school children learn how to prep microscope slides? Do they go to military funerals with signs like “Richard Dawkins Hates Religion? Please, tell me what an atheist megachurch is!?!?!
    Why is the word “church” being used here?

    Bet they want money, too…

    • JKPS

      Well, like the top comment has already said, they have speeches that are interactive, so that’s already pretty different from any sermon I’ve ever intended. AND they had a picnic. Isn’t it a good idea to gather information from someone who’s actually been, rather than making premature judgment calls?

  • Aaron

    If this got popular in the U.S. the wackadoo Right-Wing “Christian” Dominionist Megachurches would HATE it because the “Sunday Assembly” could ‘steal’ all the tricks they use to lure young people in to their cult and just leave out the insane doctrine, politics, and science-denial… and the judging, and condemning and the talking in jibberish… and lots of other junk. Keep the rock shows, petting zoos, youth groups, hay-rides, game nights and tax breaks, and then enrich their rational minds in the process…. Now I know atheists bristle at the word “church” and find it antithetical to THEIR credo, but churches get preferential treatment in the U.S. and tapping in to that social and political structure could be a really powerful move not only FOR atheism but AGAINST Christian-Dominionists who are slowly but steadily squeezing out the competition and maximizing their involvement with politics and government. This group could really deal them a big blow without having to fight them politically or even get involved overtly with the whole liberal/conservative divide in this country.

    • Free

      Aaron, you have a point and possibly a valid strategy. However, the nature of atheism does not come with the same tenants. So the same functions will not deliver the same results. Atheism is a very self-focused or rather self-motivated belief or (anti-belief) system. It does not prioritize the same values that makes most churches work in community. What would work is the consumer approach to church that is often adhered to by Christian churches or rather country clubs. Your best bet is to call them Atheist country clubs but the money thing would be involved and God knows its wrong to associate money with offering community groups and activities. For effective Christian churches there is a real or perceived spiritual element that does impact the environment and experience. An Atheist congregation would be devoid of this experience real or perceived and thus make it a far different event. To adhere that it is the same would mean to consider the spiritual component.

      • Carmelita Spats

        You are so naive. Christianity is a HIGHLY narcissistic system. It is all about saving YOURSELF from your own god’s eternal sadism at the expense of everyone else. You operate under a THREAT of violence from your own god which means that ALL ethical decisions are compromised! Churches use fear, intimidation, manipulation, guilt, and psychological warfare to engender that “spiritual” (whatever that may mean) psycho-cult environment. Megachurches are the most vile entities on the planet yet they are the hottest trend in the Christian godfearin’ biz: arena-scaled piety polished up and bloated out and aimed like a giant homophobic cannon straight at the gloomy face of a new and improved gawd who truly loves tacky sanitized enormo-domes. Your effective “spiritual component” rakes in millions a year, depending on size and girth and magnetism of the glossy pre-programmed pastors and depending on how many CDs and syrupy self-help books and movie production companies and proselytizing Web sites and recording studios and hateful brainwashin’ radio programs and malicious teenage abstinence seminars they have to go along with the nearly naked virgin car-wash fund-raisers they offer up to Jesus on warm summer Sundays.Glory!

        • Free

          Sounds like you need to go to church. A real church. I could never and can never save myself. This is the core tenant of Christianity. I can’t take your rant seriously. Sounds like you have been very hurt. I am sorry.

  • Nick Sabot

    He sounds like Joel Osteen. This is not the “good” part of religion, it’s scary groupthink.

  • DragonMama

    to me, this sounds almost like a more frequent and less formal version of a TED conference. I’m mildly addicted to TED Talks and would love the option of being able to attend such a thing on a regular basis locally, with my children, and build relationships and community with other people interested in DOING SOMETHING to improve the world instea dof just spending another night home watching reality television like the masses and appeasing the sense of guilt from that by showing up in some special building once a week for an hour or so. I am a UU and very devoted to my community (generally I could take or leave the actual worship services – they’re podcasted if there’s something particularly interesting said during one and I feel little need to be in the sanctuary to “experience” them live since it is generally all a sit-and-listen exercise, so I wander around the building doing other meaningful things in that hour while waiting for the majority to come out for why I’m really there – coffee hour ;) ). I think UU congregations (some are called churches, some fellowships, etc) could do well to give logistical support to this movement here in the US, and maybe seeking some partnership with the TED folks would be mutually beneficial also. I am a sociologist, and I see the real human need for this kind of gathering space in our culture – we have eliminated most of the “third places” (not home, not work/school) that we got to know others and built our social networks in, other than churches. These are the spaces that gave our lives meaning and helped keep us lifelong learners. Much of our struggles with depression in this country could be traced to how isolated we’ve made ourselves, by choosing (or having few options other than) television and internet interaction after work hours. With the way workplaces can be about workplace romances developing, if someone gets through formal education without meeting a mate, the lack of these “third places” can result in a LOT of loneliness… this is part of why online dating services are flourishing, but they’re not necessarily filling those human needs (and might be contributing to our societal people-as-disposable-commodities mindset).

  • Amy Lee

    What’s the point of creating a church if you’re atheist?? You don’t need a church or to organize to believe in one thing or another. Creating a church, recruiting, shoving your views down other people’s throats, and preaching your rhetoric sounds exactly like Christianity, Muslim and other monodeity-based religions. This is basically the circle starting over again. They’re becoming exactly the people they are against. For me, I don’t really think it’s religion that’s poisonous. It’s people in groups. People are fine all by themselves. It’s when they group up for any cause and become this singular hierarchy-based organization that it becomes a problem. It’s 2013 and we’ve come so far with free-thinking. Why must we regress?? Christ (pun intended).

  • Ron Handy Jr.