Over the weekend, Gillian Flaccus wrote an article for the Associated Press about the rise of atheist megachurches — a phrase that’s been used before — that it’s worth taking a second to step back and discuss what that actually means.
Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
According to Christianity Today, a megachurch is defined as “a church with an average weekly attendance of 2,000 or greater.”
I know of only one atheist gathering in the past decade that’s been attended by that many people: The Reason Rally. Everything else pales in comparison.
What you have now are local atheist gatherings that bring together anywhere from a few dozen people to a few hundred people — many of them, I suspect, will be one-time events — and that’s enough for the media to dub them “megachurches”? It makes absolutely no sense.
There’s a simple reason they’re getting that label: It’s sexy. No one’s Googling the “Sunday Assembly,” which is the official name for these events. But “atheist church,” which I’ve used on this site, is just more clickable. People want to read articles about “atheist churches,” not “Sunday assemblies.” And when the media is saturated with articles about atheist churches, might as well move on to atheist megachurches!
But really, it’s not a fair comparison.
Most Christian megachurches have thousands of members each, large (paid) staffs, a budget that rakes in upwards of six-figures or more every week, and the ability to fly in guest speakers/pastors (and compensate them well). Many have bookstores, cafes, and nurseries.
Atheist assemblies (like the kind we’re talking about here) have dozens of members, no paid staff (except for the two overall organizers, who are currently trying to fundraise their own salaries), no pastors, no dogma you must adhere to, certainly no pastoral mansions and scandals, etc. They meet monthly (if that), not weekly. There aren’t multiple services to accommodate the masses. You just sing a few songs, listen to people talk about how amazing it is to be alive, and hopefully get inspired by that to live a better life and help your community.
The parallel to Christian megachurches just isn’t there.
Here’s the most important thing: The Sunday Assembly doesn’t even “preach atheism.” In fact, when I was asked to speak at last Friday’s inaugural event in Chicago, I was specifically told not to talk about atheism. That’s because these events aren’t about getting rid of your faith habit. They’re about celebrating life. That’s it. (Organizers in New York, who wanted to “preach atheism,” were unhappy that the Sunday Assembly shied away from that and ended up starting their own pro-atheism “Godless Revival.”) Hell, most of us who attend already know what we (don’t) believe. We don’t need constant reminders.
What’s worse is that even atheists are being taken in by the language, disparaging the assemblies for being too much like a “religion” — when they’re only using some of the ingredients we normally associate with faith and weeding out all the bad parts. Singing, gathering, and speaking, all in one place, isn’t some Christian-owned monopoly.
Look: I understand atheists not wanting to join one of these assemblies. What I don’t understand is the vitriol against those atheists who do, except that the critics see the word “church” used in conjunction with it and immediately cringe. Remember that the phrasing is nothing but a media construction. It has nothing to do with the events themselves. If you don’t believe me, go to one and see for yourself.
On a side note, in reaction to the Freedom From Religion Foundation asking people on Twitter what they thought of these atheist megachurches earlier today, the Sunday Assembly politely responded:
Hey @FFRF we call ourselves The Sunday Assembly, the press say atheist church. In past 24 hours 200 have applied to start one.
— The Sunday Assembly (@SundayAssembly) November 11, 2013
And that’s really the crux of it. It’s not a church. But damn, is it resonating with people.
The media has no good way of describing these gatherings of people who don’t believe in God but want to celebrate life, so “church” and “megachurch” it is.
Don’t be fooled by it. That doesn’t make any of this a “religion” or a “church.” And if you want nothing to do with it, that’s perfectly fine. You won’t be condemned nor will you be any less of an atheist.