Tag Archives: Sanderson Jones

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

LONDON (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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Sunday Disassembly

The Sunday Assembly has a Problem with Atheism
Posted by Lee Moore On October 31, 2013 4 Comments
In the past, I have spoken highly about the Sunday Assembly; let me explain how my view has changed.

When Sanderson Jones brought his show here to New York, I jumped at the chance to volunteer as an organizer at the first Sunday Assembly here in America. I signed on because it looked like a great opportunity to inject a bit of positivism into our irreligious community. After all, this movement has been known to be a bit negative from time to time. Once Jones had left, the organizers went to work on recreating his show for an American audience. It didn’t take long for us to start finding issues to disagree on. A minority of organizers wished to make the event not a show but an actual church service and agreed with Jones about cutting out the word Atheist, not having speakers from the Atheist community, avoiding having an Atheist audience, and moving the show out of a bar setting to a more formal church-like setting. We even had one organizer who wanted to avoid having anyone from what he called “The black t-shirt crowd.” In order to deal with some of these issues and keep the show running smoothly, we decided to have a board of directors, to which myself and 6 others were elected. The majority of the board shot down all of these anti-atheism ideas and pushed for a show that was both a celebration of life and our godlessness.

As a group, we put on some excellent and well-attended events and enthusiasm was high. Everything seemed to be going really well, so it came as quite a surprise when we discovered a few from the anti-atheist minority had been conspiring to steal the show. The majority was notified via skype shortly after our last show that the minority was resigning from the board en mass, with the intent to turn the Sunday Assembly into something more like a Unitarian church service. Jones informed us shortly thereafter that he was with the minority, and we were no longer a part of the official Sunday Assembly.

What started out as a comedic Atheist church wants to turn itself into some sort of centralized humanist religion, with Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans at the helm. As Jones and Evans are preparing to launch their 40 days and nights tour, designed to open up new Sunday Assemblies across America (and relaunch the new milquetoast show here in New York), you might be asking to what end. From an insider’s perspective, it would seem Jones and Evans are trying to get rich from their new-age religion. The fundraiser for this tour was, in part, to pay themselves some pretty hefty wages according to sources inside their organization. It only takes some grade-school addition skills to see why they feel a pressing need to spread across America. After all, we saw how well that worked for L Ron Hubbard.

 

image

Sanderson Jones. A 21st century, great-white, charismatic, ginger Jesus… and like all the saviors before him, he wants your money.
Jones has been quoted as saying,”I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious.” This may be true on his side of the pond where the majority do not identify as religious, however here in America, Atheism is a struggle for equality and recognition from our long-standing religious majority and their institutions. It can be a painful and arduous struggle at times, but I would never describe it as boring.

The idea behind having a comedic, godless, community-building celebration isn’t a bad one. Its a shame Jones and Evans left that idea behind in favor of a more profitable one. There is, however, an alternative rising from the ashes of the cast-off majority. Michael Dorian, a former NYC SA board member and NY State Director for American Atheists, has teamed-up with Don Albert, another former board member and musical director for NYC SA, and myself to bring you something new. We have named this new endeavor The Godless Revival, and it will be the celebration of Atheism that you deserve. We have no centralized leadership or rules to follow, and we are not trying to get a paycheck out of it. The sole goal is to promote a godless celebration of life, and with that intent in mind, the first one will take place November 24th right here in NYC. Sean Faircloth will be the first speaker, and you can also look forward to great music, tasty beverages, and a fun atmosphere. If you want to know more about this project, check it out on facebook. If you are interested in starting up a Godless Revival in your own city we would be happy to help you along the way. I hope to see many of you this November in NYC.

The Sunday Assembly has a Problem with Atheism
Posted by Lee Moore On October 31, 2013 4 Comments
In the past, I have spoken highly about the Sunday Assembly; let me explain how my view has changed.

When Sanderson Jones brought his show here to New York, I jumped at the chance to volunteer as an organizer at the first Sunday Assembly here in America. I signed on because it looked like a great opportunity to inject a bit of positivism into our irreligious community. After all, this movement has been known to be a bit negative from time to time. Once Jones had left, the organizers went to work on recreating his show for an American audience. It didn’t take long for us to start finding issues to disagree on. A minority of organizers wished to make the event not a show but an actual church service and agreed with Jones about cutting out the word Atheist, not having speakers from the Atheist community, avoiding having an Atheist audience, and moving the show out of a bar setting to a more formal church-like setting. We even had one organizer who wanted to avoid having anyone from what he called “The black t-shirt crowd.” In order to deal with some of these issues and keep the show running smoothly, we decided to have a board of directors, to which myself and 6 others were elected. The majority of the board shot down all of these anti-atheism ideas and pushed for a show that was both a celebration of life and our godlessness.

As a group, we put on some excellent and well-attended events and enthusiasm was high. Everything seemed to be going really well, so it came as quite a surprise when we discovered a few from the anti-atheist minority had been conspiring to steal the show. The majority was notified via skype shortly after our last show that the minority was resigning from the board en mass, with the intent to turn the Sunday Assembly into something more like a Unitarian church service. Jones informed us shortly thereafter that he was with the minority, and we were no longer a part of the official Sunday Assembly.

What started out as a comedic Atheist church wants to turn itself into some sort of centralized humanist religion, with Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans at the helm. As Jones and Evans are preparing to launch their 40 days and nights tour, designed to open up new Sunday Assemblies across America (and relaunch the new milquetoast show here in New York), you might be asking to what end. From an insider’s perspective, it would seem Jones and Evans are trying to get rich from their new-age religion. The fundraiser for this tour was, in part, to pay themselves some pretty hefty wages according to sources inside their organization. It only takes some grade-school addition skills to see why they feel a pressing need to spread across America. After all, we saw how well that worked for L Ron Hubbard.

Sanderson Jones. A 21st century, great-white, charismatic, ginger Jesus… and like all the saviors before him, he wants your money.
Jones has been quoted as saying,”I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious.” This may be true on his side of the pond where the majority do not identify as religious, however here in America, Atheism is a struggle for equality and recognition from our long-standing religious majority and their institutions. It can be a painful and arduous struggle at times, but I would never describe it as boring.

The idea behind having a comedic, godless, community-building celebration isn’t a bad one. Its a shame Jones and Evans left that idea behind in favor of a more profitable one. There is, however, an alternative rising from the ashes of the cast-off majority. Michael Dorian, a former NYC SA board member and NY State Director for American Atheists, has teamed-up with Don Albert, another former board member and musical director for NYC SA, and myself to bring you something new. We have named this new endeavor The Godless Revival, and it will be the celebration of Atheism that you deserve. We have no centralized leadership or rules to follow, and we are not trying to get a paycheck out of it. The sole goal is to promote a godless celebration of life, and with that intent in mind, the first one will take place November 24th right here in NYC. Sean Faircloth will be the first speaker, and you can also look forward to great music, tasty beverages, and a fun atmosphere. If you want to know more about this project, check it out on facebook. If you are interested in starting up a Godless Revival in your own city we would be happy to help you along the way. I hope to see many of you this November in NYC.

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Eyes Down!

And now for something completely different: an Atheist church for Scotland

 
Sunday 6 October 2013 The Herald
 

IT sounds like the ultimate paradox, but an “atheist church” is to start holding regular services in Scotland from next month in a bid to spread the word about the “free-thinking faith”.

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society branded it a ??barmy idea??

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society branded it a ??barmy idea??
 

The gatherings will be run along the lines of a traditional church service, but the strains of All Things Bright And Beautiful might be swapped for a sing-a-long to Eye Of The Tiger and preaching replaced with a talk on positive thinking.

The first “Sunday Assembly” – as these atheist church services are known – was held in London at the beginning of this year, stemming from an idea by stand-up comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.

This month and next, they plan to launch another 30 satellite ‘congregations’ in cities from Leeds to Chicago and Vancouver to Adelaide.

As part of it, the Sunday Assembly will begin to be held on a regular basis for the first time in Scotland, with monthly events in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, where one-off services have previously taken place.

But the idea is divisive within the world of atheism with some calling it barmy and an “aping” of religion.

Robert Concannon, who is helping to organise the Sunday Assembly in Edinburgh, said: “There are lots of communities which are available for people to do the whole angry atheist thing. This is specifically not about that, this is an opportunity to get all the good bits of going to church but without the need for invoking anything supernatural.”

He added: “A lot of us are ex-religious who feel the lack of community when you drop the religion.”

While details of the service are still being worked out, Concannon said it would involve a speaker, a poetry reading and a moment of silence. In Edinburgh, the service will take place in a city-centre bingo hall.

“It will follow a fairly traditional church service-type format, only with better songs,” he said.

“I adore hymns and I still have a hymn book on my piano – but the words are dodgy and I don’t like them.” On the songs that will be sang at the Sunday Assembly, he added: “It is popular songs that everyone can sing along to – it is really nice to get that singing in a group feeling.”

The Sunday Assembly founders claim it is catering to the fastest-growing belief group – those who do not count themselves as religious.

Figures from the 2011 census, published earlier this month, revealed the number of people in Scotland who regard themselves as non-religious stood at 37% – with numbers rising from 1.4 million to 1.9 million over the past decade.

It meant those in the “non-religious” category overtook the biggest denomination, the Church of Scotland, for the first time.

According to the census figures, just over half of the country – 54% – still think of themselves as Christian.

Gary McLelland, one of the organisers of the Sunday Assembly in Glasgow, who is also chair of the Edinburgh Secular Society, is keen to hold more regular services if the idea takes off.

“The hope is the more people get involved and spend their time with it, then we might move to perhaps fortnightly or weekly services”, he said.

McLelland said the Glasgow launch will include a talk by psychologist Patricia Elliot and “positive secular uplifting songs”, citing the example of Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor, which was played at a Sunday Assembly he attended in Edinburgh. But he is keen to develop the idea beyond just a get-together. He hopes the congregation would develop into taking part in community outreach work, for example running soup kitchens.

He said: “It is generally one of the most positive aspects of organised religion. So I think there is a growing consensus among people who aren’t particularly religious that they want to get involved in doing something like that themselves.”

The Sunday Assembly doesn’t entirely steer clear of allusions to religion, sometimes using tongue-in-cheek biblical references. The launch of the satellite congregations is being dubbed “40 days and 40 nights: The Roadshow”.

Both the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church in Scotland declined to comment.

But Nick Spencer, research director of Christian think tank Theos, says the idea is not new. “They sprang up a hundred years ago, with people who had lost their Christian faith,” he said.

However, Spencer, who will publish a book on the history of atheism next year, said the so-called ethical churches formed in the late 19th century had fizzled out by the 1930s, from a failure to find a common cause.

“I suspect it is quite an urban phenomenon and it is people who lack a sense of community and meaningful relationships in an otherwise anonymous and individualised culture.”

Not all of those who challenge the role of religion in society back the concept of an atheist church.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, branded it a “barmy” idea.

“If you want to have religion, go and get the real thing instead of this pretend one,” he said.

Sanderson acknowledged that it did seem to have “caught people’s imagination”.

He said: “The bigger it gets, the more likely it is that people will disagree, fall out and split off. “

The Sunday Assembly will be launched in Edinburgh on Tuesday, October 22 and Glasgow on Wednesday, October 23. Visit www.sundayassembly.com

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