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After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last? via CNN

Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have begun to franchise their “godless congregations.”
January 4th, 2014

By Katie Engelhart, special to CNN


The world’s most voguish – though not its only – atheist church opened last year in London, to global attention and abundant acclaim.

So popular was the premise, so bright the promise, that soon the Sunday Assembly was ready to franchise, branching out into cities such as New York, Dublin and Melbourne.

“It’s a way to scale goodness,” declared Sanderson Jones, a standup comic and co-founder of The Sunday Assembly, which calls itself a “godless congregation.”

But nearly as quickly as the Assembly spread, it split, with New York City emerging as organized atheism’s Avignon.

In October, three former members of Sunday Assembly NYC announced the formation of a breakaway group called Godless Revival.

“The Sunday Assembly,” wrote Godless Revival founder Lee Moore in a scathing blog post, “has a problem with atheism.”

Moore alleges that, among other things, Jones advised the NYC group to “boycott the word atheism” and “not to have speakers from the atheist community.” It also wanted the New York branch to host Assembly services in a churchlike setting, instead of the Manhattan dive bar where it was launched.

Jones denies ordering the NYC chapter to do away with the word “atheism,” but acknowledges telling the group “not to cater solely to atheists.” He also said he advised them to leave the dive bar “where women wore bikinis,” in favor of a more family-friendly venue.

The squabbles led to a tiff and finally a schism between two factions within Sunday Assembly NYC. Jones reportedly told Moore that his faction was no longer welcome in the Sunday Assembly movement.

Moore promises that his group, Godless Revival, will be more firmly atheistic than the Sunday Assembly, which he now dismisses as “a humanistic cult.”

In a recent interview, Jones described the split as “very sad.” But, he added, “ultimately, it is for the benefit of the community. One day, I hope there will soon be communities for every different type of atheist, agnostic and humanist. We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there’ll be congregations for every godless palate.”

Nevertheless, the New York schism raises critical questions about the Sunday Assembly. Namely: Can the atheist church model survive? Is disbelief enough to keep a Sunday gathering together?

Big-tent atheism

I attended my first service last April, when Sunday Assembly was still a rag-tag venture in East London.

The service was held in a crumbly, deconsecrated church and largely populated by white 20-somethings with long hair and baggy spring jackets (a group from which I hail.)

I wrote that the Assembly “had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our ‘priest’ wore pink skinny jeans.”

I judged the effort to be “part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.”

The central idea was attractive enough. The Assembly described itself as a secular urban oasis, where atheists could enjoy the benefits of traditional church – the sense of community, the weekly sermon, the scheduled time for reflection, the community service opportunities, the ethos of self-improvement, the singing and the free food – without God. I liked the vibe and the slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

Shortly thereafter, Assembly services began bringing in hundreds of similarly warm-and-fuzzy nonbelievers. The wee East London church grew too small, and the Assembly moved to central London’s more elegant Conway Hall.

The Assembly drew criticism, to be sure—from atheists who fundamentally object to organized disbelief, from theists who resent the pillaging of their texts and traditions. But coverage was largely positive – and it was everywhere.

In September, a second wave of coverage peaked, with news that the Assembly was franchising: across England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States and Australia. That month, the founders launched a crowd-funding campaign that aims to raise $802,500. (As of mid-December, less than $56,000 had been raised.)

Still, prospective Sunday Assembly franchisers seemed exhilarated. Los Angeles chapter founder Ian Dodd enthused that he would “have a godless congregation in the city of angels.” In November, his inaugural Assembly drew more than 400 attendees.

But as the atheist church grew, it began to change—and to move away from its atheism.

“How atheist should our Assembly be?” wrote Jones in August. “The short answer to that is: not very.”

Pippa Evans, Assembly’s other co-founder, elaborated: “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity. But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations.”

Warm-and-fuzzy atheism gave way to not-quite atheism: or at least a very subdued, milquetoast nonbelief. Sunday services made much mention of “whizziness” and “wonder”—but rarely spoke of God’s nonexistence.

The newer, bigger Sunday Assembly now markets itself as a kind of atheist version of Unitarian Univeralism: irreligious, but still eager to include everyone.

In a way, this is a smart move. According to the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, but just a fraction of those identify as atheists.

A godless congregation is likely to draw crowds if it appeals to what Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, calls “big-tent” atheism, which includes “agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, nontheists, anti-theists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, materialists, ignostics, apatheists, and more.”

But atheists who wanted a firmly atheist church—a Sunday Assembly where categorical disbelief is discussed and celebrated—will not be satisfied.

As the Sunday Assembly downplays its atheism, it also appears increasingly churchlike.

Starting a Sunday Assembly chapter now involves a “Sunday Assembly Everywhere accreditation process,” which grants “the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.”

Aspiring Sunday Assembly founders must form legal entities and attend “training days in the UK,” sign the Sunday Assembly Charter and pass a three- to six-month peer review. Only then may formal accreditation be granted.

This is not an East London hipster hyper-localism anymore.

Selling swag and charisma

Organized atheism is not necessarily new. French Revolutionaries, for instance, were early atheist entrepreneurs.

In 1793, secularists famously seized the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, to build a “Temple of Reason.” They decorated the church with busts of philosophers, built an altar to Reason, lit a torch of Truth – and brought in an actress to play Liberty.

A half-century later, French philosopher Auguste Comte drew acclaim for his “religion of humanity,” which imagined an army of secular sages ministering to secular souls. London has hosted formal atheist gatherings for almost as long.

History suggests, then, that there is nothing inherently anti-organization about atheism. As Assembly’s Sanderson Jones puts it, “things which are organized are not necessarily bad.”

To be sure, Sunday Assembly members in the United States say they’ve long wanted to join atheist congregations.

Ian Dodd, a 50-something camera operator in Los Angeles, had long been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church; he enjoyed it, but wanted something more explicitly irreligious.

Nicole Stevens of the Chicago chapter found herself yearning for a secular community—a “place to check in and think about things bigger than the day-to-day”—after having her first child.

But it is one thing to support an atheist “church” – where the ‘c’ is small and the effort is local – and another to back an atheist ‘Church’ that is global and centralized.

The former responds directly to the needs and fancies of its community. The latter assumes that its particular brand of disbelief is universally relevant—and worthy of trademark.

Centralized atheism also feeds hungrily on charisma, and Sanderson Jones, who resembles a tall, bearded messiah – and who, despite the SA recommendation that Assembly hosts should be regularly rotated, dominates each London service – provides ample fuel.

But it remains to be seen whether the Sunday Assembly’s diluted godlessness is meaty enough to sustain a flock.

“Because it is a godless congregation, we don’t have a doctrine to rely on,” explains Sunday Assembly Melbourne’s founder, “so we take reference from everything in the world.”

So far, Assembly sermonizers had included community workers, physicists, astronomers, wine writers, topless philanthropers, futurologists, happiness experts, video game enthusiasts, historians and even a vicar. The pulpit is open indeed.

My own misgivings are far less academic. I’m simply not getting what the Sunday Assembly promised. I’m not put off by the secular church model, but rather the prototype.

Take an October service in London, for example:

Instead of a thoughtful sermon, I got a five-minute Wikipedia-esque lecture on the history of particle physics.

Instead of receiving self-improvement nudges or engaging in conversation with strangers, I watched the founders fret (a lot) over technical glitches with the web streaming, talk about how hard they had worked to pull the service off, and try to sell me Sunday Assembly swag.

What’s more, instead of just hop, skipping and jumping over to a local venue, as I once did, I now had to brave the tube and traverse the city.

Back in New York, Lee Moore is gearing up for the launch of Godless Revival – but still speaks bitterly of his time with the Sunday Assembly network.

Over the telephone, I mused that the experience must have quashed any ambition he ever had to build a multinational atheist enterprise.

“Actually,” he admitted, “we do have expansion aims.”

Katie Engelhart is a London-based writer. Follow her at @katieengelhart or http://www.katieengelhart.com.

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Baby Jesus – no crib for his bed


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Baby Jesus: Not Welcome Here
Cheryl MochDec 17, 2013
If you have any doubt that we live in a Christian country, you only have to look at a list of Federal holidays. There are only 10, and one of them is Christmas.

But as Americans (especially here in New York where I live) we enjoy the illusion that we are a humanistic, pluralistic society: a rainbow-hued 21st century melting pot. Sometimes we bump up hard against that illusion.

This happened to me the other morning when I arrived at work in my New York City government office.

I had been enjoying the festive decorations adorning our drab offices for the last couple of weeks — every day people added to the glitter and cheer with tinsel, candy canes, Santas and so on. As I do every year, I put out decorations of my own: Rudolph, a small plaster gingerbread house, an old cardboard pop-up of Santa’s sled near a snow-covered farmhouse.

But when I arrived at work the other day I saw something new on the front desk of our reception area, something that had never been displayed before: a crèche — a small crèche, but still, a crèche.

As politely as I could, I told the receptionists who had placed it there that crèches are not allowed as public displays on New York City government property. These two, kindly women were incredulous, and quickly pointed to the menorah as though it was a magical antidote to the crèche. Yes, good — I see that you have a menorah. But still, crèches are not allowed. They asked why, and as I tried to explain I found I could not. Instead of offering any reasonable explanation as to why the crèche was different than the menorah, I found that I was voiceless, speechless. I certainly didn’t mean to insult their tradition but I was very uncomfortable at the sight of the crèche, however small and unassuming. I stuttered and sputtered: “Because it is not allowed, that’s why. It’s the law.”

I went to my desk and Googled “nativity scene New York City.” Was I right? I quickly found a 2006 court decision called Skorus vs. the City of New York that banned nativity scenes — but did it apply only to New York City public schools? There was also a 1989 SCOTUS case, County of Allegheny vs. the ACLU, which banned crèches on government property — but not menorahs. I complained to my boss who then spoke to her boss who spoke to the EEO officer who spoke to the legal department. By the end of the day, word had gotten around. I had been yelled at and spurned by colleagues. I had received an outraged email to the effect of “How can you of all people, who is so liberal and open-minded, be so intolerant and wrong on this issue?” Meaning, “How could you — who is so Jewish yet we manage to tolerate you — object to our customs?” A Jewish colleague took me aside to say that she didn’t mind the little crèche at all. And (she added gratuitously) I like Christmas music!” Her clear message: She would not be a foot soldier in my misguided war on Christmas.

The crèche was still there later when I requested a meeting with the EEO officer who asked me, pen in hand: “What is your objection?” Again, I sputtered: “It’s the law, isn’t it?” “So you are objecting because you think it is against the law?” Again, I failed. I was wordless, voiceless. Instead I asked her, “Why does it fall to the minority to have to explain?”

The next day, I spoke to my wise and perceptive daughter, who said it’s because the symbol is too close to us as Jews. If it was Ganesha or some other distant symbol we wouldn’t care, however deeply religious and holy the symbol. But for Jews, the crèche cuts close and deep: The nativity scene is not the beginning, it’s the beginning of the end. Those are Jews in that manger, and they are giving birth to a hatred of Jews that has burned and swelled and murdered us for over two thousand years.

Maybe she didn’t say all that, but that is what she meant. And that is what I meant but could not possibly say at work to my Christian colleagues who snarled at me for quoting law as the reason I wanted the crèche removed. While you are rejoicing at the birth of baby Jesus I am searching for a safe place to hide with my family. Was my discomfort atavistic, genetically programmed into me by centuries of persecution?

If only I could tell them: A crèche is different because the United States is different because, here, there is separation of Church and state. And I cherish that, don’t you? It is my safety; it is what makes America different than Europe. And we work for the government: hence, no baby Jesus. I can admire your trees and your lights in this dark season and your Santa with his merry laugh. I can smile at your elves and shake my head at the seasonal madness at the malls.

But it all gets too serious when I see that manger with its empty cradle waiting for the birth of a baby who will be proclaimed the Son of God and whose horrible death will be blamed on me. And my tax dollars pay for that reception area and it’s a public space where Christians and Jews and Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Buddhists and atheists and every one else are welcome. And baby Jesus is not.

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Samuel Colgate

Sam Colgate, a young American lad, was only sixteen years old when he left home to seek his fortune.

He had not got very far when he met an old canal boat captain who asked him where he was going.

Sam replied that he was off to New York to find work, although the only work he had ever done in his hometown was making candles and soap.

Well, the old captain and Sam chatted away for quite a while, and before Sam left on his journey, the old man suggested that they pray together.  The older man asked God to take care of the boy on his travels and particularly when he reached the big city.

Then the captain said, “Somebody will soon be the leading soap-maker in New York.  It could be you, Samuel, as well as anyone.”

Then he said a strange thing – “Remember to give to the Lord all that belongs to him of every dollar you earn.”

The Captain’s closing words to Sam were these “Make an honest soap and give a full pound and I am certain that you will be a rich man one day”

Sam arrived safely in New York City and found that work wasn’t easy to get, but he joined the Church, and remembering the old captain’s words he gave 10 cents of the first dollar he earned to God’s work.

Eventually he got regular employment and later became a partner in a firm.  Some years after that he became the owner of the business which grew and prospered.

At first he gave a tenth of his wages to God’s work, then later a fifth, followed by three tenths and then two fifths.  Eventually, he was giving half his income away – and still his business prospered.

When he had educated his family and settled his life’s plans, he gave all his income away.

After his death, it was estimated that Samuel Colgate had given a million dollars to the poor and needy during his lifetime.

Samuel Colgate made a fortune.  He gave away a fortune.  In many respects, he made another kind of fortune of a different kind.

Unselfish giving begins with God himself and in a peculiar way, the more we give away because of our love of him, the more we gain.

Perhaps the next time you use a tube of Sam Colgate’s toothpaste or a bar of his soap, you may just remember the boy who used God’s gifts as a trust and gave them back in loving and selfless service to others less fortunate than himself.  And in doing so, assuredly, gained ‘riches in heaven’



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