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.

VT: Ouch.

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?

VT: What makes it lovely for you?

PE: It’s about a baby being born and bringing peace. It’s about hope.

VT: Some people would say it’s about a baby coming in to the world to be a human sacrifice.

PE: When I think of the nativity what I most remember is being cross that I didn’t get to be Mary. The story brings back happy memories of childhood. I don’t have a horrible religious background that makes me react badly. Doing Sun Assemblies has made me aware of how people react differently to these things. I had to go on this trip to really understand why Americans can be so prickly about religion. These issues are much more conflicted in the U.S. We spoke to people in America who can’t even say they are an atheist because they are afraid of losing their job or family. We can’t even imagine that here because the U.K. is so highly secular. American Atheists and the humanist associations are fighting the fight for rights and visibility for atheists and they do an amazing job. Sunday Assembly is, however, more of a celebration and if we're fighting for anything, it's for community.

VT: So let’s talk about the community you are building. What do the holidays mean for Sunday Assemblies?

PE: I can’t speak in specifics for the 40 communities we visited over our 40 day tour, but all of the Sunday Assemblies are doing something. In Melbourne, for example, they’re having a celebration they’re calling Festivus, complete with Mariah Carey songs.

VT: What is your home congregation in London doing for the holidays?

PE: We’re celebrating! We’re expecting about 400 people. It’s this Sunday, and we’re calling it Wonderland. We’ll be singing Christmas songs and wearing Christmas jumpers. We talked long and hard about whether we would sing Christian carols, but that would make some uncomfortable, and there are loads of places you can do that if you want, so we’ll stick with other music. “Fairy Tale of New York,” for example. Do you know it? We have to change some of the words because they’re quite rude — not very appropriate for small children. It's amazing how many songs have cheeky lyrics when you look a bit closer!

VT: Tell me more.

PE: Like always, we have a band and a choir. We’ll have a speaker talking about feasting together — the history of feasting. We’ll have a poet do some poems. We’ll have a magician to entertain the kiddies. Afterwards comes the actual feasting. We sent around a sign-up sheet last time and about 60 people signed up to have Christmas dinner together at a pub. And of course we made sure there was extra room so no one would show up in the morning and end up in the cold because they didn’t know!

VT: Who pulls this all together? You and Sanderson?

PE: Well, Emma runs the choir. There are 12 in the choir, and she picks the songs. Roger runs the seven-person band. Caroline pulls it all together. She’s Dutch and wonderfully direct; and she makes a spreadsheet of who does what. Beth does the tea on the day. Cat and Nick organised the Christmas dinner. Plus around seven million volunteers.

VT: Tea, not coffee? I’m from Seattle. Where’s the coffee??!

PE: We always have tea and cake after. As like Victoria sponge cake. Flapjacks — I think they’re like your granola bars. Cupcakes. We’re very like the Anglican Church in that regard. [Laughs] People come for the free tea and cake. The tea is really nice because people stay for tea and then start talking. We have volunteers who are conversation fairies. They make sure that people who come on their own aren’t left standing awkwardly alone. You know how British people are.

The holidays also are a time for giving. The Salvation Army looks after the entire homeless community. I mean, not the whole of it, obviously, but you know what I'm saying. We should be doing that as well! So we’re doing a collection for Crisis for Christmas, a hostel for homeless people. We’ll collect you-know — roll-on deodorant, toothbrushes, clothing, tins of food — things homeless people run out of. We’ll drop it all Monday at the depot.

VT: That’s the holiday spirit! So what comes after the holidays?

PE: The next London assembly is Jan. 5. Our speaker is Alom Shaha who [wrote] “The Young Atheists Handbook.

VT: That sounds like an ant-theist thing.

PE: Actually not. We make sure to tell speakers that they aren’t allowed to bash religion. He’s talking about diversity. For the new year, we have events scheduled through April. The first Sunday of each month is assembly. The second Sunday is community action day. We have a community action team of four people who plan the second Sunday actions. January 12 we’re going to work with Hackney Pirates, a group that helps young people who are having trouble in school. We’ll be decorating the learning room as a pirate ship.

VT: This whole godless congregation thing has taken off so fast, I want to understand the magic a little more. Remind me how it all got started. When was the first conversation between you and Sanderson?

PE: It was about two and half years ago. We were in a car going on a tour gig and we started talking about my wedding because I wanted a traditional feeling wedding but not in a church, so we got married in an old time music hall and played Beatles songs instead of hymns and it felt great. It had some of the pomposity of a wedding. [Laughs] Then we talked about how we didn’t like it when comedians made fun of Christians for believing in God, and then we talked about atheist church, and one thing led to another.

VT: Did you think it would turn into something real?

PE: You know how it is when you say let’s go jogging tomorrow morning? You actually have to haul your butt out of bed. Once you say it to another person, you can’t back out. We thought we get 50 people for that first meeting, and we got over 200, and it’s been growing ever since. We have been scrambling to pull together materials for people who want to start their own.

VT: Has the Sunday Assembly project taken over your life? How can you stay on top of all this and still earn a living?

PE: [Laughs] I’m right now in Brighton doing a comedy show tonight. But I’ve spent all day emailing, sorting things out. And now I’ve been on the phone with you for 45 minutes! It has been a thin year financially. Donations have been coming in. Hopefully they will let us cover expenses and perhaps a thin wage. This year Sanderson had some ad work, but that’s not ongoing. We just have to find a way to make it sustainable, that’s all.

VT: How has the fact you and Sanderson are comedians affected the shape of it all?

PE: I think a lot of the success is that we know how to put together a show on a shoestring. We can make it entertaining on the cheap because we’ve had many years of doing that. For example, the talk is 10-15 minutes. The timing is based on stand-up comedy where the perfect set, some say, is 15 minutes as after that people start to drift off. We suggest that groups forming Sunday Assemblies stick with our format for three months because we know it works. As they go along, they can decide, well in Portland we want one song and two seven-minute speakers and a singing giraffe. They can play around with it after they’ve got it nailed.

Sometimes people think that because we’re comedians, we’re not serious. Also, we’re both outsiders to organized atheism, so some people asked, who are these guys? Are they denying the work that the atheist community has done? Other just dismissed us: it’s two comedians being stupid. It’s nothing.

But we are both very playful and totally serious. We did a Remembrance Day assembly – for people who died in the war. It was really serious, even somber in tone but still, in another sense, joyful. The joy comes in really recognizing and experiencing the gift of life. It always comes back to that.

Here in London, we have a thing we do sometimes — Sanderson gets credit — where if you’re in a grump you just choose things and say thank you to no one. Thank you road for being a place that cars can move, thank you tree for working as a carbon dump, thank you hair for behaving today. The attitude of gratitude gets your head out of that funk. It sounds ridiculous unless you try it, but it works. In the Sunday gathering we’ve done it a few times where people just speak up and express gratefulness for whatever and to whatever.

VT: What is your big dream?
PE: When we started I was thinking just in terms of London. It hadn’t crossed my mind that global would be coming, let alone so soon. But seeing the response and what is possible, my dream has changed. I would love for there to be hundreds of Sunday assemblies (and other godless congregations). My dream is that everybody who wants one has a place where they can go and reflect and think, a place of positivity and encouragement where they can express wonder and joy, not just in the holiday season but all year long.

Explore interest in an assembly for your hometown here.

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