Tag Archives: Sunday Assembly

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 Assembly in the USA

Sunday Assembly ‘Atheist Church’ Provokes Criticism
Kimberly WinstonReligion News ServiceNov 29, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO (RNS) Perhaps the Elephant & Castle pub here was a fitting locale for a visiting Brit to meet some mates.

But other stereotypes were left at the bar as about 100 people trod down a flight of stairs — pints of beer and wine glasses in hand — and into the pub’s basement to attend Sunday Assembly, a gathering of nonbelievers that both supporters and detractors have dubbed “atheist church.”

“Hellllllooooooooo San Francisco,” trilled Sanderson Jones, the blond, bearded British comedian everyone had come to meet on a recent Tuesday night. “If there is any city in the whole of the U.S. that should have a Sunday Assembly, it is San Francisco!”

Jones and his fellow British comedian Pippa Evans founded Sunday Assembly in London in January. Initial gatherings were standing room only, and branches were soon established in other British cities. Its use of group singing, lectures, and a goal to establish a sense of community have drawn many comparisons to traditional church.

But in San Francisco, a city long known for embracing nontraditional beliefs and lifestyles, Jones told the crowd the comparisons stop there.

“We get called the ‘atheist church,’ but we are really all the best bits of church but with no religion,” he said, darting his lanky form up and down the aisle, arms flapping like some excitable exotic bird. “Our vision is to help people live the best life possible.”

After some raucous applause, Jones hit the button on a borrowed sound system and kicked off the opening song — Jon Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” As the lyrics were projected on a screen, the crowd — largely, but not entirely, white and male — sang along, jumping and dancing and waving their hands in the air.

Part karaoke, part aerobics class, part comedy show, Sunday Assembly recently wrapped up a nine-city American leg of a fundraising tour but also left a long tail of backlash, as thousands of nonbelievers took to social media and the Internet to express their disdain:

* “Go to the @SundayAssembly website and what’s the first thing you notice?” tweeted someone calling himself AtheistChris17. “‘DONATE.’ Like any good church getting money is their goal.” * “‘Atheist churches’ like Sunday Assembly do atheism no favors,” tweeted Michael Luciano, who writes a blog called PolicyMic, where he further skewered Sunday Assembly as “fatuous.” * “Being an atheist and celebrating life without superstition everyday of the week is far more empowering than the wishy washy Sunday Assembly,” wrote blogger and secular humanist Doug Berger.

And, like the many churches that detractors say Sunday Assembly tries to mimic, there’s already been a schism of sorts. New York’s Sunday Assembly split off on its own after becoming frustrated with Jones’ and Evans’ insistence that they not use the word “atheist” to describe themselves, an organizer there said.

Jones is not surprised that the proverbial twit hit the fan. He even addressed it before the San Francisco crowd.

“If you start something that says ‘atheist church’ you should not be surprised to get a whole lot of abuse,” he said, “Twitter exists for all people who know you to tell you everything you are doing wrong.”

Polling data indicate Sunday Assembly may be on to something, however. While only 6 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, one in five Americans are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life project. The same poll found that more than one-third of the religiously unaffiliated describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

Still, there is a strong strain of dislike in the atheist community for anything that smacks of religion or its trappings. Daniel McCoy, a local nonbeliever who spoke here and at a San Jose gathering about the power of story, said many nonbelievers are hostile to religion because of rejection by religious family and friends or abuse by a person with religious authority.

But nonbelievers who have no beef with church — and maybe even fond memories of it — can still do something churchy without betraying their nonbelief, he said.

“Church has been around for a long time and started with religion, but religion is not necessary to doing it,” he said.

Jones has been adamant that Sunday Assembly is not about bashing religion — something many high-octane atheists believe is necessary to their goals. “We can go through an entire Sunday Assembly meeting without mentioning atheism, without mentioning religion,” he said after the meeting, his voice raw from all the shouting. “We have enough values that define us without having to do that.”

Those values are in the group’s motto, he said: “Live better. Help often. Wonder more.”

Jenea Hayes, who traveled 26 miles through rush-hour traffic to attend with her 14-year-old daughter, Claire, said she was “disappointed” in the negative reaction to Sunday Assembly.

“I think a big part of it is in the United States there is a pushback against any person being open about their atheism,” she said. And those who are open about it, often try to distinguish themselves from the mainstream, which is religious.

“It is misguided,” she said of the criticism. “This is human stuff, not God stuff”

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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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Church without God

The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that meets on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.

Come on down to hear inspirational speakers and to enjoy a morning that is part-foot stomping show, part-atheist church.

It turns out lots of people like the sound of that so, due to popular demand, we have created Sunday Assembly Everywhere – a way for anyone to start their own Sunday Assembly.

 

Each service has a theme  – with stories, readings and a final address on that topic.

No matter what the subject the goal of The Sunday Assembly is to solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a bit more whizziness into the everyday.

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June 28, 2013 · 19:19