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Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches

All the best parts of church, but without the religion.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Tony Marinella Photography

 
 
 
 

In the last 30 years, atheism and secularism have been booming in America. As many as one in four members of the Millennial generation now say they have no religion. Given the vast size of the Millennials— 78 million people, slightly more than the Baby Boomers—that adds up to almost 20 million freethinking Americans. And from all indications, the up-and-coming generations are even more secular.

As the broader atheist community becomes larger and better organized, secularists and freethinkers have shown increasing interest in gathering together with likeminded people. Atheist community isn't a brand-new phenomenon; there have long been local meetups as well as regional and national conventions, like Skepticon, the giant free conference that takes place every year in Springfield, Missouri, or the Reason Rally, the nationwide gathering of atheists and humanists on the National Mall in March 2012. But many of these conferences are focused on activism and political mobilization, and as necessary as those are, they don't appeal to everyone.

That's why, in just the last few months and years, we're witnessing a new wave of secular communities—atheist churches, if you insist—whose focus is on doing good, living well and appreciating the wonder and beauty of the world without recourse to archaic mythology.

The most prominent of these is the Sunday Assembly. Founded in north London in January 2013 by two standup comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, the Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation—all the best parts of church but without the religion, in the words of its founders, whose motto is "Live better. Help often. Wonder more." It was almost immediately a rousing success, attracting hundreds of people, and has spread to other British cities, including Brighton, Bristol and Oxford.

But the Sunday Assembly has much larger ambitions. Its founders helped organize services in New York City over the summer, and recently launched an American "40 Dates and 40 Nights" tour, barnstorming across the country to hold well-attended services in Boston, Washington, D.C., San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and more (even Nashville!), aiming to drum up support for U.S. satellite congregations. Sunday Assembly meetings have also been held in Australia, including in Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne.

Though it's attracted the most media attention, the Sunday Assembly isn't the only atheist gathering emerging from this crystallizing secular community. In Houston, Texas, ex-pastor-turned-atheist Mike Aus founded the Houston Oasis, "a community grounded in reason, celebrating the human experience." Its Sunday gatherings host live music from local bands, secular humanist-themed sermons, and community service projects, like blood donation drives. Mesa, Arizona now has a Humanist Community Center, thanks to the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, and the Humanist Community of Harvard offers a nontheistic support network for students.

In Canada, there's the Calgary Secular Church, founded by Korey Peters and another local activist. It meets twice a month: once for casual conversation, once for a more structured service that incorporates a humanist liturgy and a presentation from a rotating slate of speakers, on topics like children's rights versus parents' rights, abortion, free will, or even the existence of intelligent alien life. The Sunday meetings include free childcare and a potluck brunch. As Peters says, "For some, our meetings are the only place they are allowed to say they have no faith, and that has proved quite valuable. We provide community as well, so these people now are building fellow non-religious friendships... our main value for atheists is that we are making a world that is safe for them to live in."

 
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