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Don’t Stop Believin’: Do Atheists Really Need a Church?

There's song and fellowship in London's first atheist church. But are these non-believers just having it both ways?

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But another way to read this is that Dawkins and de Botton simply represent different Atheistic waves, with different ideas on how (and lately,  where) to not believe. Sanderson Jones, the pink-pants-wearing prophet of The Sunday Assembly, takes the whole debate in stride: “Why can’t you just keep the bits you want and get rid of the stuff you’re uncomfortable with? … If your shoe had a pebble in it, you wouldn’t throw away the entire shoe. You would just take out the pebble.”

And so was written the first parable of the New, New Atheism.

*

Back at London’s deconsecrated church, Sunday Assembly congregants had to crane their necks to the see the stage — around a cameraman who was moving up and down the aisle, equipment in hand. Entering the church that morning, signs printed on flimsy white paper had warned us that a production crew would be present, to capture footage for promotional purposes.

Indeed, the word of the hour was “franchise.” There was constant talk of expansion. A young man from Essex, England was brought on stage to discuss his new Sunday Assembly branch; the man’s voice was full of earnest urgency — as if he were trying to approximate the style of a preacher. Congregants were also shown a PowerPoint slide of email messages sent from around the world, begging The Assembly’s founders to set up shop in Canada and Australia and Peru.

Near the end the service, Sanderson Jones passed around a collection plate. Somewhat nervously, he interrupted the jingling of coins with a quip: “Have you ever tried to get something trademarked in the States? Expensive, huh!?” At such moments, the marketing outweighed the message.

There were other disappointing aspects of the service. In the first minutes of his introductory address, Jones joked about his physical resemblance to Jesus — stretching his arms out and hanging his head to one side, as if being crucified. (“I get a quite a lot of lookalike work.”) The parody was low-brow and felt gratuitous.

Other bits felt intellectually confused. In the last portion of the service, Jones took the stage again — to tell the winding tale of his adulthood: his five years selling advertisements for The Economist (“[I] felt life dripping away”), his foray into stand-up comedy, and his eventual founding of the Assembly. The crux of the long, babbling address seemed to be that Jones’s advertising gig, which he loathed, actually prepared him for a successful career in stand-up comedy — by teaching him how to sell himself. The take-away, broadly applied, was that everything happens for a reason. (And perhaps that we should be better salespeople?) The former is, of course, a deeply religious message — and seemed ill suited to a gathering of atheists. The address also drew attention to the Assembly’s heavy reliance on the charisma of its top dog.

Oh, but the crowd loved it. Congregants laughed and cheered and sang and enthusiastically pondered their way through the morning. They had evidently bought in — to this more light-hearted pursuit of a secular  something more.

De Botton might appeal to a more scholarly crowd — but both he and Jones are after the same target audience: soulful atheists. Similarly, both will repel other kinds of atheists: those who have little patience for moral self-improvement; or little need to pump up the “awe” of their everyday; or discomfort with the cultivation of a secular mystique.

As the Sunday Assembly service went on, my feelings of unease never quite dissipated. But I did my best to overlook them, because there was something contagiously joyful about “Easter for Atheists” — indeed a kind of “whizziness” about the room. There was also something buoying in the idea that, perhaps, other congregants were riddled with the same atheistic anxieties that I am. If this is what the devout get every Sunday, then I want in — just, without the God.

 
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