9 Reasons Why the Sunday Assembly is Not an ‘Atheist Megachurch’

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, discusses why the Sunday Assembly is not an “Atheist Megachurch”:

You can read more on the topic here.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

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.

  • Jim Chambers

    I forgot all about the holding cell! The church I went to as a kid had one of these.

    • lsomers

      It’s called a cry room, not a holding cell, FYI. :)

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    I think the important thing you mentioned in the video is that a lot of these “churches” are not even atheist. I feel that is something the media should know, as atheism does not need to be associated with something that is not clearly defined. Just look what happened with Diana Nyad and Oprah.

  • Bernadette

    I think you are really missing the boat on your comparison of the Atheist mega church and and religious mega church.This as the potential of being very dangerous.
    All those religious mega churches started small with a few volunteers and meet when they could a in time grew into what they are now. Are the atheist mega churches working on staying small or do they hope to grow large with coffee shops and some type of meeting almost everyday? The atheist mega churches in time could also be bringing in the millions of dollars just like the mega churches and have large staff including high paid staff. Are they doing anything to prevent this. Bringing in large sums of money and getting large salaries has the potential of corrupting the leaders and the group.

    Not all mega churches expect you to believe what they preach to attend. Not all mega churches keep tabs on you. You do not even have to be Christian to attend a many christian mega churches. But they do want you to think about what they are saying.

    You say it is not a church but in the end you say it is great for atheists who miss church, that it is every part of church but the god. Just because you removed one book and replaces it with another that doesn’t make it not a church. At the end of the day this is still just some charismatic men gathering people together asking for our money and preaching to us how we should live our lives. (I am sure they will let charismatic women talk too) I will it with using your shoe analogy This is not about removing a rock from a shoe. All they did is put a different color shoe lace on the shoe.

    Thanks for reading my comment

    • Redag

      Or in other words: “Can I speculate into a strange and unevidenced conclusion without data?” If I want to I can. Hooray for behaving like an actual church.

      • baal

        Bernadette’s warning is generic, not speculative. Large orgs tend to work to perpetuate themselves regardless of everything else. Were Sunday Assembly to get huge, it’d have the same problems of other huge institutions. That’s not a speculation. It is, however, extremely generic and probably a more relevant point once the Sunday Assemblies really take off (if they ever do). It looks to be in the early baby steps as an org.

        • SeekerLancer

          I personally don’t see it myself, possibly because I don’t really see the idea taking off to a degree where they’ll ever get that large or profitable. I feel that a less religious future wouldn’t lead to big atheist gatherings but rather lead to less people growing up in churches and less people feeling like they need a church-like experience in their lives. I think it’s even already true of the present population of atheists, many of whom finding the idea of any church-like experience to be repellent.

          The potential for financial and political abuse is there obviously, even in its current state, but any organization has that potential no matter how noble the cause. People misappropriate funds for charities and volunteer fire departments and anything where there are funds to misappropriate. It don’t think they should give up because someone might game the system.

          We can hope that if an “atheist mega church” ever came into existence that abuses like that would be dealt with instead of accepted like in Christian mega churches, and if it isn’t then I’d be first in line to criticize the institution.

          But that’s a very hypothetical future that only tangentially relates to the present, as the term, “atheist mega church” is a gross exaggeration of what the Sunday Assembly is. The support just isn’t there for it to become anything greater.

    • SeekerLancer

      What book did they replace the bible with and who at the Sunday Assembly tells you how to live your life?

      I’m not into the Sunday Assembly myself, but it’s for people missing the sense of community not missing dogma.

  • DougI

    It’s doubtful if Atheists would be able to gather in large enough numbers to establish a mega church with a doctrine. Can you imagine on more than 100 Atheists in a room actually agreeing on something other than gods not existing?

    • CanuckAmuck

      Yes. Specifically, “Let’s hit the pub!”

      • 3lemenope

        What about the teetotalers, you insensitive clod! :)

        • Nichelle Wrenn

          All hail the designated driver; the only thing I will worship!

    • SeekerLancer

      And I think that’s the reason a lot of the Sunday Assemblies are going to do poorly at retaining people. Like Hemant said in the video a lot of people might show up for the inaugural events, but after that very few will continue regularly attending the service. The only people who might continue to attend are the ones who really want the social experience.

    • R Bonwell parker

      It’s not theoretical. The Sunday Assembly in London is a weekly assembly of about 400 people.

  • Debbi

    I had an aunt who refused to use the crying room (Catholic church) saying that since the priests kept telling women to have children than they may listen to the results!
    If there was a Sunday Assembly in Cleveland I think that would rock but I already get what I want socially/emotionally/intellectually at atheist and Freethinkers events.
    I want to add that we do quite a few activities that don’t have a thing to do with atheism per-se, We do nature hikes and dinner later, casual parties and we are even having a crazy sweater Fesitvus pot-luck party so no more feeling isolated during the religious holidays! YAY!!!!!!!

    • meekinheritance

      Freethought Dayton is similar. In addition to various charitable, educational and social activities, we also have a regular gathering almost every Sunday. It’s usually a brunch-type thing where we discuss relevant news and events; attendance varies from 3-30.

  • Debbi

    I visited some sites and read an article or two from the religious side claiming that ‘worship’ happens at Sunday Assemblies. A handy dictionary shows the first three definitions involving a god so those cant apply, the last definition says worship can be any *excessive* admiration or veneration of anything. The only way that describes me is my relationship with my cat, all others are suspect!
    “Live better, help often, wonder more” sums it up for me. Thank you Hemant for this series!

  • Leah

    I could be wrong about this, and even if I’m right, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. But maybe people associate the Sunday Assembly with “mega-churches” because of the fact that it is a whole network of assemblies, rather than just local, small, isolated, grass-roots assemblies. Mega-churches often have a variety of “satellite campuses,” usually regional but sometimes national, all under the original church’s/pastor’s “brand.” The original “Sunday Assembly” was in England, but the “Sunday Assembly” brand is spreading all over the place. That has kind of a “mega-church” feel to it, possibly. Doesn’t mean it qualifies as a mega-church, but maybe a bit of rationale behind people’s association with the concept?

  • R Bonwell parker

    The other problem with the opposition to things like Sunday Assembly beyond the “try it before you knock it” issue is that there are a lot of atheists out there who are outraged and offended that Sunday Assembly goes against what atheism is and what it represents.

    What makes religion such a terrible problem is the arrogant belief that one person or group has the One True Way and anyone who disagrees with them is awful and terrible and a curse on society. This outrage and offense over Sunday Assembly is much closer to the evil of religion than anything the Sunday Assembly does.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    Apparently Sunday Assembly isn’t even atheist, but it’s founders are willing to exploit the term “atheist” for commercial purposes. Here are Jones and Sanderson from an interview: “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity,” Evans elaborated. “But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations. Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the UK anyway, are not defined by their non-belief.” At a recent assembly, Jones opined: “I think atheism is boring. Why are we defining ourselves by something we don’t believe in?”

    Even Sanderson Jones asks the question I’ve asked many times without receiving any satisfactory answer: why should people make non-belief the basis of a community? It makes no sense, not even to Jones himself.

    http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/09/25/a-church-for-atheists/

    • Zachary_Bos

      “Why should people make non-belief the basis of a community…”

      Well, I’m part of the Sunday Assembly Boston organizing committee, and none of us are trying to make our non-belief the basis of anything. “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More” pretty much sums it up.

      • Jeffrey G. Johnson

        “Live
        Better, Help Often, Wonder More” sounds pretty tame and inoffensive. Couldn’t hurt anything. But why is that a reason to go to church? That is just a slogan that one can integrate into ordinary daily life.

        Why do you go to Sunday Assembly? Why is it needed? What is its importance? Can’t atheists live without replicating the historic cultural forms of Christianity?

        • Zachary_Bos

          “Why is it needed?”
          I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is needed; it is wanted. That’s enough.

          “What is its importance?”
          Are you asking with a view toward respecting the answers of those who see value in it, or because you don’t believe there is any value to those answers?

          “Can’t atheists live without replicating the historic cultural forms of Christianity?”
          Uh-oh, two points off; Christianity didn’t invent congregational forms of community. That said, the answer is yes: atheists (that decidedly heterogeneous bunch) can live any way they please. Some of them (us!) are interested in spending time with our neighbors in a celebratory, congregational community. At the same time, we’re rejecting, at the very outset and explicitly, the existence of the divine, the authority of any doctrinal hierarchy, and anything that smacks of dogma. What’s the beef?

          • Zachary_Bos

            After a decade organizing what has become the largest secular membership group in New England, I can report that a majority of our members have expressed an interest in congregational activities of some kind. I think their expressed interest, for their various reasons, deserves more respect than to be dismissed as mere shackle-shining.

            • Jeffrey G. Johnson

              “I think their expressed interest, for their various reasons, deserves more respect than to be dismissed as mere shackle-shining.”

              I don’t have any idea what “shackle-shining” is. Not even Google could help with that one.

              • Zachary_Bos

                Some other commentators here on Friendly Atheist have referred to SA as “shining the shackles”, that is, as a celebration of a new form of submission to an authority.

          • Jeffrey G. Johnson

            What’s the beef? It seems like a waste of time, seems like pseudo-religion. It seems like a bunch of people getting together without any real practical common purpose. I simply don’t get why anyone would want this.

            • Zachary_Bos

              If you haven’t been, how can you say what it seems like? And why can’t you respect the reports of persons who have been, who are involved, who say it isn’t a waste of time, who report that this kind of congregational activity satisfies a need and a want of theirs?

              If you’re really curious about why anyone would want this (and aren’t just interested in having it known for the record that this is dumb and you are win) I suggest you read some of the Facebook and blog reports from the dozens of local Assemblies that have been held. There are plenty of first-person perspectives on offer there.

  • Ben

    Thanks for this excellent video! These are definitely not “mega churches.”

    I attended the Sunday Assembly in London for their “Easter Sunday” service (which was actually a week late). We sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Life of Brian (lol) and “Run Rabbit Run.” It was a fantastic time and was great to sing, act goofy and hang out with people outside of a work/bar/church atmosphere. A guest speaker talked about the origins of easter and the yearly renewing of life. It was a perfect sunny day for it.

    I used to be a college youth pastor, and though I’m ridiculously happy to be religion free now, I do miss the community and fun that church can provide. So, let’s throw that rock out of our shoe and boogie :)

  • ufo42

    Churches providing beer at their services, and now atheists meeting at places other than bars…. has the world gone mad? :)

    Seriously, though, these assemblies are a wonderful, extremely simple idea: Keep the stuff that works for religions, ditch the dogma. What’s not to like?

  • http://empiricalpierce.wordpress.com/ EmpiricalPierce

    I think you should have opened with arguments like lack of dogma and no stigma attached for not attending, which actually differentiate assemblies from churches, instead of with quibbles about numbers of attendees and staff. Sure, those latter points separate the assembly from megachurches, but not from churches in general.

  • Ophis

    I don’t have any particular problem with the Sunday Assembly, but I don’t really see the point of it. Haven’t the Unitarians already basically done this, but better?

  • Dave

    Ask Google to “define megachurch” and I get “a church with an unusually large congregation, typically one preaching a conservative or evangelical form of Christianity.” Nothing there about a requirement for 2000 members. Where does this authoritative definition come from? Might the threshold vary depending on the proportion of the specific group in the general population in the area? e.g. could you call something a Christian “megachurch” if it has fewer than 2000 attendees if it’s in a predominantly Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist region?

    Why a requirement for paid staff? Mormonism for example: “The leader of a congregation is a bishop or a branch president. He is not paid for his service, but he donates his time to serve the congregation.”

    Requiring those attending to abide by “the church’s law” doesn’t quite seem representative of the “seeker-sensitive” stream of Christianity, with particularly around megachurches a lot of this not being required. “You don’t even have to be an atheist to go to the atheist megachurch” – you generally don’t have to be Christian to go to a Christian megachurch.

  • ShoeUnited

    Ever since I started getting downvotes for this, I’ve continued to say it.

    What is gained in a church that couldn’t be accomplished with a nice afternoon picnic and a radio playing some jazz with fellow atheists in a park?

  • Justatron

    I don’t think that I could be a part of any kind of Sunday gathering, mainly because of the negative connotations that I still have from 30+ years of church…I could see it maybe working for those who don’t feel that way or who never had the indoctrination, but one of the best things about being an atheist for me is NOT having to exhaust myself on a Sunday headed out to a gathering of any kind.

    On the other hand, I would like to get involved in some kind of informal monthly meetup type deal…I’d have to start one myself though as I live in the veritable buckle of the Bible Belt/teavangelical part of NC…

  • Guest

    Why I’m enamored with Sunday Assembly:

    I think that belief in the supernatural is a basic human tendency that people will embrace and run with unless they’re confronted with critical analyses of that tendency. Sunday Assembly seems to give people the license they need–in the form of ambiguity–continue cultivating (or to re-cultivate) their beliefs in God and the Supernatural. Examples: The assembly says it has no deity and that it doesn’t “do” supernatural, but then makes the conflicting assertions that it is doctrine-less, “spiritual,” (a word ripe with ambiguity), and sees nothing “wrong” (meaning nothing incorrect or unlikely? [yet another ambiguity]) with the theistic beliefs its members may have. Finally, the video on this page suggests that the Assembly actively discourages members from discussing atheism/agnosticism as part of the services. So in some sense, the Assembly seems anti-atheist to me.

  • Reason 180

    Why I’m *not* enamored with Sunday Assembly:

    I think that belief in the supernatural is a basic human tendency that people will embrace and run with unless they’re confronted with critical analyses of that tendency. Sunday Assembly seems to give people the license they need–in the form of ambiguity–continue cultivating (or to re-cultivate) their beliefs in God and the Supernatural. Examples: The assembly says it has no deity and that it doesn’t “do” supernatural, but then makes the conflicting assertions that it is doctrine-less, “spiritual,” (a word ripe with ambiguity), and sees nothing “wrong” (meaning nothing incorrect or unlikely? [yet another ambiguity]) with the theistic beliefs its members may have. Finally, the video on this page suggests that the Assembly actively discourages members from discussing atheism/agnosticism as part of the services. So in some sense, the Assembly seems anti-atheist to me.

    • Jeffrey G. Johnson

      The lack of “not” had me baffled. I’m glad for the clarification.

      The only good I could see coming from this is if people who are not atheists migrate from more dogmatic religious belief to Sunday Assembly, and it makes them more open to the idea that atheists are not immoral or bad people.

      I just don’t see why atheists would want to participate, unless they are sacrificing some useful time and effort in order to help convert believers. But to go in order to gather with other atheists seems weird to me. We have fellowship with other humans in everything we do, and none of it needs to have the veneer of sacred worship.

  • mandikaye

    I see a lot of questions in the thread of “why is it needed”?

    For some, it isn’t.

    For others, like me, it may be. Since I walked away from my own faith several years ago, my life has changed drastically. I used to have a full, robust life that was surrounded by a community. That community was church.

    When I walked away, I lost everything. My friends, my entire social life, my identity. Do I regret the choice I made? No. I can’t regret rational thought and reason. But it’s a lonely life that I have now.

    Having something like Sunday Assembly in my town would serve to give me something that is somewhat familiar and full of community but doesn’t come with the trappings of religion. Meetup groups exist to sort of serve the same function, but… they don’t. I’m less likely to go meet a group of strangers for a pool party than I am for something like this.


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