Atheists Start Their Own Megachurch: Is It a Religion Now?
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Organized Atheism is now a franchise.
The other day, The Sunday Assembly—the London-based “Atheist Church” that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over—announced a new “global missionary tour.” In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.
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.
Like any attempt at organized non-belief, the Sunday Assemblies will attract their fair share of derision from critics. But the franchise model might dismay some followers too. For a corporate empire needs an executive board; a brand needs brand managers; a federation needs a strict set of guiding tenets—and consequences for those who stray from the fold. And isn’t that all wholly opposed to Freethought?
That’s not to say that Assembly founders are moving forward blindly. What should not be overlooked is that as the “atheist church” becomes more “Church” than ever, it is working to downplay its Atheism—opening itself up to a broader kind of irreligiosity.
As of now, Jones is still tweaking the message. But he’s confident in the model: “It’s a way to scale goodness.”
I went to my first Sunday Assembly last April. Then, we were a crowd of several hundred heathens, gathered at a crusty deconsecrated church in East London. The Assembly had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our “priest” wore pink skinny jeans. Many attendees were modish 20-somethings, and pretty obviously hungover.
I did not need to be sold on the idea (explained nicely here by philosopher Alain de Botton). Like the Sunday Assembly’s founders, stand-up comics Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, I don’t think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church—a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food—without the stinging imposition of God Almighty.
Evidently, I was not alone. A few months later, SA was boasting 400-600 regular attendees. As the hype mounted, Evans and Jones began receiving emails from all over the world from would-be Sunday Assembly founders.
Jones admits that he had aspirations to expand from the get-go. Eventually, the founders opted for a controlled unfolding, choosing to personally license and launch 22 Sunday Assembly branches within a 2-month period.
One new Sunday Assembly will launch in Los Angeles, in December. “We’ll have a godless congregation in the city of angels,” laughs Ian Dodd, a 53-year-old camera operator, and one of the chapter’s founders.