That faceless, mysterious flock of atheists in Guitar Town

One of the rules here at GetReligion is that we really, really try to understand the limitations that shape the work of many mainstream journalists in this era.

After all, we have been there and done that. We have had editors cut stories. We have been told to write 500-word daily stories on subjects that, to do them justice, would require 4,000 words and a month’s work of research. We feel your pain, fellow journalists.

Thus, we try to avoid criticizing a story by saying that it should be twice as long. If we spot a massive hole in a story — a religion-shaped hole — we try to propose ways that a time- and space-strapped reporter could fill it with a sentence or two or, or maybe a paragraph or two, of content. All journalists yearn for more reporting time and more inches of type in which to display the results.

However, I am about to break that rule.

Maybe it’s because I love the city of Nashville and know a thing or two about the people there, but that short news story in The Tennessean about the new atheist congregation in hip East Nashville — “Sunday Assembly’s atheist gathering looks a lot like church” — really needed more content. Yes, this is another localized story spinning off all of the coverage of the small Sunday Assembly on the other side of the big pond.

Launched in London just over a year ago by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the group has grown to 37 Sunday Assemblies across the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Of the 16 in this country, Nashville is arguably the most unlikely location. The group meets a few miles from the headquarters of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Organizers say they’re tapping into the “nones,” what religion demographers call the one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. That group is on the rise, Pew Research Center data show, and includes atheists and agnostics but, in larger numbers, people who simply don’t identify themselves with any particular philosophy.

Sunday Assembly began meeting in Nashville in November and has faced little criticism from locals, even the most religious.

The news hook for the story? Jones the co-founder was in town for a filming session for a CNN show. What a shock.

Otherwise, the whole story — this is valid, methinks — focuses on how this non-church looks like a church once you walk inside the doors. Has anyone seen a story about one of these groups in which this was not the case?

All together now:

In some ways, a morning at Sunday Assembly Nashville looks a lot like church. A band played as people walked in, but the jazzy tune was more New Orleans on Saturday night than Nashville on Sunday morning.

Parents dropped their kids off at the nursery, but instead of reading Bible stories and coloring pictures of Noah’s Ark, children watched “Happy Feet” and made Valentine’s Day cards for a senior center.

And in the service?

Adam Newton spoke for the segment called “Trying Our Best” — something a church would call giving a testimony. He discussed telling his Christian parents about his atheism after a lifetime spent in church.

“They just said, ‘We love you — you’re always welcome home,’” Newton told the standing-room-only crowd of about 100.

There was no mention of God. No doctrine. No criticism of anyone or anything.

So this story does deserves some praise for talking about the size of the flock and the room. We are not talking about a megachurch, especially in the context of Nashville.

Nevertheless, I wanted to know more about these people. What do they do in Nashville? Are there blue-collar workers, as well as faculty members from the city’s many colleges?

Has this congregation affected life for local Unitarian Universalists? The local Metropolitan Community Church?

If the point is that Nashville is becoming, as the story notes, more complex and diverse, it would help if readers were given some details to back that up, or to show how this small gathering fits into that postmodern Bible Belt picture.

In other words, all churches are made of people who have, for some reason or reasons, chosen to flock together. Other than the fact that they are atheists and live in Nashville, what are the ties that bind in this case?

This is a great subject for a serious story. More information, please.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • GeniusPhx

    we flock together because the arguments stop at the door. we can relax with each other, dont have to hide our atheism from our parents or friends (who most of the time will disown us if we tell them). we can see who else is in our camp. at the reason rally in DC in 2012 I had never seen such a diverse crowd, all races, all ages, all countries as opposed to churches that are normally black or white. i used to go to one. it feels the same to us as whenever anyone gets together with like minded people.


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