Merry Atheist Christmas! How the 'Atheist Church' Will Celebrate the Holidays
Last January, a small Sunday morning gathering in London dubbed “atheist church” by the local press went viral globally. Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two British comedians, had organized the event in a decommissioned Anglican church. They called it “Sunday Assembly,” and described it “like TED for the soul.”
As Sanderson puts it, "We wanted to do something like a church for people who don't believe in God," said Sanderson. "Life is such a wonderful thing to have been given — and frankly, it's as transcendent as any one god. We come from nothing and go to nothing and in between we have these short glazing moments of awareness and consciousness to love and sing and mess up and try again. We should celebrate it."
Evans moved away from religion as an adult but missed the ritual and community she had experienced in her youth, while Sanderson noticed that Christmas carol concerts really brought people together and allowed them to experience a sense of togetherness with strangers. Each individually toyed over the years with the idea of a sort-of-church, but without the focus on a supernatural world they didn’t believe in. Then a conversation between the two of them catalyzed it into existence.
Word got out, and come Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, the Nave, Islington was bursting at the seams. And then, afterwards, messages started pouring in from around the world: This is what I have wanted, what I’ve been looking for, what we need here. By fall, the two unexpectedly famous comedians had launched an international tour called 40 Dates and 40 Nights to help kick off similar assemblies in places ranging from Nashville to Brisbane. With the tour wrapping up, both will be back in London this week, and looking forward to their first ever Sunday Assembly holiday celebration. They’re expecting a small crowd of 400. In this interview Evans talks about their upcoming celebration — and about the wild ride she and Sanderson have been on for the last 12 months.
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Valerie Tarico: As I understand it, you and Sanderson have spent the last month helping to launch Sunday Assemblies around the world. If I were a Christian I might be deeply suspicious. Here we are with “Holly Jolly Snowman” and “Little Drummer Boy” playing in every store, and you’re rallying atheists!
Pippa Evans: The idea of Sunday Assembly is very much in keeping with the holiday spirit. Our motto is: live better, help often, wonder more. When people ask about starting an assembly in their own community, we tell them that a defining feature of Sunday Assembly is that everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t believe in God, but that is just a starting point, a diving board. What comes next? Sunday assemblies are about expressing and experiencing joy and wonder together. They are a place you can go for an hour and just focus on being alive. We celebrate the gifts of life and take time for gratitude — and, of course! — music and cake.
VT: So you aren’t declaring “War on Christmas”?
PE: I love Christmas. It’s an excuse to watch “Home Alone.” I’ve got the boxed set, all four.
PE: Hey! The first two are pretty good. Number 4 is most painful thing I’ve watched. But it’s a tradition! More seriously, I see holidays — any holiday, but especially this time of year — as a great excuse to stop and process and take time with loved ones, to reflect and really see what we have. We can do that with or without a religious context. I myself will go to church on Christmas Eve, to the church I grew up in. It’s the same vicar since I was a kid, and I cherish the familiarity and comfort there. For some people the Christmas story is literally true. For others like me is an ancient and beautiful myth. It’s a lovely story, and timeless. Like Noah and his ark. It’s a great story whether or not you believe literally, and even Christians are in disagreement about that. Sometimes, I wonder, in 200 years will it be like Jason and the Argonauts?