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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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One Sunday early this month, several hundred heathens gathered outside a deconsecrated church in East London. Most were twenty-something. The girls wore long, crinkled hair and silver rings: the boys, beards and last night’s suit jackets. It was uncommonly sunny, for England.

Distracted by the weather, perhaps, or by the sight of so many young things lining up for Sunday worship, a passing car rear-ended the vehicle ahead. The crowd groaned and jeered. “Don’t worry,” a young woman called out, between tender sips of Red Bull. “You’ve got, like, a hundred witnesses!” The crowd laughed and turned inwards, leaving two piqued drivers to the earthly task of exchanging insurance information.

Soon enough, the doors opened and we shuffled inside. Near the entrance to the foyer, several church ladies had set a table with biscuits and a few iced cakes.

At our final destination, the sanctuary, we were greeted by bare walls and dull paint; presumably, everything of grandeur had been stripped away when the church was rendered unsacred. ( The Nave, on St. Paul’s Road, is now an “arts and performance space.”) Almost instantly, the rows of plastic chairs arranged before the altar were filled, and congregants began competing for floor space. A screen above their heads displayed the words “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” And then, our high priest arrived.

Sanderson Jones is tall and thin, with sweeping hair and a long, blond beard. He looks not unlike popular renderings of Jesus Christ — except that, on this particular Sunday, Jones wore a patterned tie and pink skinny jeans. As he stood before his beaming congregation, the band struck up a tune: “Wild World,” by Cat Stevens. Jones danced along for a while, gangly beneath the yellow lights. When the song ended, he welcomed us to the Sunday Assembly’s ‘Easter for Atheists’ service. 

The Sunday Assembly is London’s hottest (though not its first) Atheist church. Founded early this year, the Assembly markets itself as a “godless congregation,” which meets monthly “to solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a bit more whizziness into the everyday.” It is, at its most basic, a secular temple, where nonbelievers can enjoy some of the institutional benefits of a traditional church (or mosque, or synagogue) — a sense of community, a thoughtful lecture, a regular and scheduled period of respite — without the thorny incursion of God Almighty. Beyond that, the Assembly peddles wonder: a secular brand of awe with which to view our godless universe.

Already, the Sunday Assembly has earned the ire of critics. The Church’s detractors may mock congregants: accusing them of being as devout and dogmatic as their God-fearing counterparts. They may be turned off by the Assembly’s charismatic founders — and the simplified brand of theology that they dole out.

But The Sunday Assembly has  Zeitgeist on its side. Emerging amidst a rash of new atheist literature — which considers the possibility of a more  religious Atheism, and a more structured lack of faith — its time is intellectually ripe.

And it’s fun. The Assembly’s bonny founders, Sanderson Jones and  Pippa Evans, are stand-up comics who know how to tickle a crowd. Each gathering, they offer a meaningful sermon. (Sunday’s preacher was the novelist and literary critic  Sarah Dunant, who spoke about the function of myth in earlier European societies — with a focus on perceptions of old age.) But they also pepper their services with jokes and song. (On Sunday, we sang Journey — and felt deliciously unselfconscious about it.)

It being Britain, each service ends with tea.

 
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