The Inevitable Atheist Church

Katie Engelhart at Salon has a run-down of of an atheist organization that making some waves: the Sunday Assembly. Essentially billing itself as an atheist megachurch, the assembly focuses on self-improvement, community and ritual. Apparently it has found an audience:

The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.

There’s more to come: In October, the Sunday Assembly (SA) will launch a crowdfunded indiegogo campaign, with the ambitious goal of raising £500,000 (or, about $793,000). This will be followed by a second wave of openings. “ The effort reads as part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.

I’ve suggested that atheists try to form communities, but I’ve always steered clear of emulating churches. I like the idea of lyceums, reading groups, and booster societies better than church plantings. I’m not sure I’m on board with trying to copy a church structure and church functions for secular ends.

It’s a bit like all the faux-meat products I ate when I was a vegetarian. Things that tried to be meat without actually being meat always fell short. I didn’t mind things that filled the same role without trying to look and taste like meat. Give me a decent black bean burger over a synthetic hamburger any day.

Just the same, I like the idea of communities that provide services, charity and enrichment without trying to look like churches. I suspect that in America, where atheism is usually defined in opposition to our protestant Christian culture, the idea of aping a church will prove unpopular in the long run.

  • mikespeir

    I know we’re going to have to have some kind of fellowships to replace churches. (Humans are communal creatures, after all.) I just don’t think atheism is the nucleus around which such agglomerations can form.

    • C Tran

      And yet they do, strangely enough. We have lots of conferences now.

      • mikespeir

        Those are like church? Not from what i’ve heard and read!

        • C Tran

          Well Christians gather around churches and atheists apparently gather around conferences. Broadly speaking I think it’s our closest equivalent.

          • mikespeir

            Well, I don’t think not believing in something is going to provide a glue strong enough to overcome inner repulsions inevitable in any ongoing social setup. A conference is a sometime thing, not a community.

            • mikespeir

              What’s going to happen in these “churches,” I suspect is that they’ll start out great guns, so to speak. But profound differences of perspective and opinion will flare up to fracture them in time. The emphasis will necessarily shift from what they DON’T believe to what they DO believe. Those who won’t toe the party line will drift or be driven away. This may fall out in one of two ways. First, a core of dogmatic adherents will remain–very religion-like. Two, and I think likelier, because atheists (unlike religionists) tend to put such stress on independent thought, most people will revolt at the notion of being forced into yet another fideistic box and the whole thing will just disintegrate.

    • S Cruise

      I partly agree, but while people stand in opposition to something, like-minded people – in this case atheists – are going to gather and promoting atheism will become the nucleus from which those organisations operate.

      Thing is though, I think the above will only work short term. Because once everyone has fought the good fight and religion retreats, a lot of atheists will lose interest. So IMO, atheist churches or organisations need to do what religious churches or organisations do: fashion themselves around a family structure that provides all the secular activities that people enjoy; they also need to provide education and care: charity, childcare, financial help, etc(the things the church uses to keep people dependent). Once that structure is in place, people will come to depend on it and atheist organisations will gain in strength.

  • Ronald Davis

    I agree with Mark for the most part. We are born with the “herd mentality” and churches are a good way to fulfill that instinctual urge. Does it have to be an “Atheist Church”? No, but it’s a good place to start. I think this is a good alternative for those who are currently in the de-conversion process or have just recently given up religion. It gives them an environment that’s familiar to them and provides a sense of community that might have been one of the benefits of being religious int he first place. I like the idea. Instead of preachers you have lecturers, instead of singing gospel music you just sing or have some other form of entertainment. Making these changes kind of makes the whole thing less of a church and more of just a “get together” but even so, I see no problems with calling it “church”.

  • brgulker

    For me the single biggest frustration with mega churches is the massive overhead costs of staff, property and buildings. I know a lot of atheists who feel the same way.

    It will be interesting to see if this church can avoid those pitfalls and if so how.

    • Michael

      It does seem like a big waste of money to me. Still, if the money comes from people who understand what it will be used for (and not scammed or scared out of people), and it is mostly put toward the infrastructure that is necessary for this church that the attendees evidently want (and not to millionaire preachers), then I can’t really see a problem with it.

      I still wouldn’t donate anything myself.

  • mbowdoin

    one of my favorite things about being an atheist is not having to be anywhere on sunday morning. i live in a very religious city (jackson, ms) and sunday mornings are very quiet and peaceful since everybody else is in church. it’s my favorite time of the week and i would not dream of spoiling it with a so-called “atheist church.” each to his own, i guess, but it sounds like a really bad idea to me.

    • kessy_athena

      I’ve always thought that one of the strangest things about Christianity is the notion that religious services are supposed to be dull, unpleasant, even downright painful. That’s just crazy talk. Religion is supposed to be fun! Music, food, good company, mind altering substances for those so inclined,..

      • xy

        i go to my parent’s church a few times a year because they have a real pipe organ and the organist is absolutely amazing.

  • kraut2

    “It’s a bit like all the faux-meat products”

    and I like the real stuff or none. I never was one to join (except a member of a Union once, just paying my dues) and I definitely do not join any atheist organization with all the backstabbing, infighting, dogmatism that will come with any organizing of anything.

  • DMG

    I’ll confess my main concern about approaches like this is a bit selfish – it’s that they tend to add more fuel to the “atheism is a religion” nonsense, and so undermine the credibility of unaffiliated atheists. Granted, maybe the people who can’t discern atheism from religion weren’t ones we were going to win over anyway… :(

  • Ryan Arko

    The downside of an Atheist church is the burden of taxes. It would be difficult to attend a church for free if it were taxed as a property. But to get around that, atheist would need to be identified as religion. If it’s identified as a religion, then all the nutsack Christians will come out of the woodwork to say evolution and big bang are tenets of atheism and should not be taught in school.
    An atheist church would be the first church to foot the bill for their beliefs in a long time.

    • Michael

      Churches are not the only 501(c)3 nonprofits. They’re just the only ones that don’t have to file a 990 form laying out their finances.


    I don’t think giving like minded people the opportunity to gather and exchange ideas is a bad thing, but nothing good can come from aping the behavior of organized religion. Call it anything but a ‘church’.

  • guest

    I’m not sure it really is comparable to a church. From what I’ve read, it seems more like a comedy gig/concert. I’d like to go to one myself, just to see what it’s like.

    What’s a booster society? I’m not familiar with that term.

    I’ve often thought a atheist/skeptics book club would be nice. Popular science, biographies, hard science fiction- that’s the kind of books I’d like to see read.

    Not sure what a lyceum is either. The humanists do have a lot of lectures and things in Britain. If you want intellectual events, they’re the place to start. I kind of like that the Sunday assembly is more light-hearted than your typical humanist fare.

  • Glinda

    Well, there are already many secular charities for all sorts of things: diseases, disability, anti-rape, against child cruelty, veterans charities, mental health charities, etc. Do we need specifically atheist versions of these? I don’t think so. As long as atheists are not excluded or censored, as they are in charities like World Vision or Compassion. I volunteer for a charity and half the people I’ve met there have been atheists.
    There are many free services available from charities as well, like the citizen’s advice bureau or sexual health charities.

    As for ‘enrichment’, that’s a tough one, because different atheists will have different ideas about what makes life richer. Some people like loud rock concerts, some people like birdwatching. Some people like to listen to lectures, other people just want to relax during their time off.

  • wilson201

    Call it a community center and leave the labels of religion or absence of out of it.

  • Peter

    Given all the rancour and animosity lately in the so-called “atheist community” I can’t see this working. The movement is already split into factions but if this does get off the ground I can see someone emerging as the “leader” who dictates policy, etc, and someone you can’t disagree with or you’ll get excommunicated. It’s the you’re either for them or against them mentality. Soon, you’ll have the Original Atheist Church, the Reformed Atheist Church then the Fundamentalist Atheist Church of America and so on. Atheists pride themselves as being rational people but basic human nature trumps it every time.