No God? No Problem
On the Road with the Atheist Revival
On the 7th of November, Nashville, Tennessee got its first-ever atheist church. The rhinestone-studded “buckle of the Bible Belt” is home to hundreds of Christian congregations, but a Sunday Assembly, as the gathering of nonbelievers calls itself, was novel enough to attract news teams from a couple of local TV stations. Getting atheists on camera was rare, one of the reporters told me – it was common for Nashvillians to hide their lack of belief to avoid getting harangued and persecuted by the region’s ruthless and plentiful evangelicals.
The service began like an ordinary church service, with a hymn, a rousing and easily sung selection. But instead of “Abide with Me” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”, it kicked off with the Youngbloods’ “Get Together”, played by a band specially assembled for the occasion. They followed it up with “Folsom Prison Blues”.
The congregation clapped along, a little hesitantly, a bit off beat. (Atheists aren’t particularly known for their sense of rhythm.) Then the preacher bounded onto the stage – tall, bearded and long-haired, he’s Jesus Christ’s second coming, reimagined as a camp counsellor.
His name is Sanderson Jones, and he was extremely excited to be there.
“I hope you’re ready for an hour and a bit of just celebrating that we’re alive!” He grinned at the 100 or so cheering souls assembled before him. “We should probably explain what the Sunday Assembly is, how we got here and what’s going to happen afterwards.”
Sanderson told them they were all a part of a “godless congregation”, the goal of which was an attempt to “help everyone live this one life as fully as possible”. Then he gave the floor to a local organiser, who read a poem, which was followed by some words from a sexologist that seemed to make some people slightly uncomfortable, then a spirited sing-along rendition of “Hey Jude”, then the passing around of a collection plate, and finally a brief, contemplative silence that resembled prayer. At the end, many congregants marched in near unison to a bar down the road, where they talked about their lives to strangers who had the potential to become friends. In this hostile environment, the amassed atheists and agnostics shared their stories of being nonbelievers and made plans for the following month’s Assembly. For a new church to prosper, it must function as a community, as a family – as a microcosm of the entirety of world.
Scenes like this are what Sanderson and his partner, Pippa Evans, are trying to create all over the world. They birthed the Sunday Assembly only a year ago, but already they’re planning to turn it into a planet-spanning secular religion.
Sanderson and Pippa have told their story in so many interviews, crowd-funding videos, sermons and conversations that it’s become worn smooth with use. In 2011, the two English stand-up comedians were driving to Bath when they got to talking about an idea that had been independently bouncing around inside both their heads: What if there were a church for people who didn’t believe in God? Over the course of the car ride, they became convinced that the world needed such an institution and that they should be the ones to found it.
They kept thinking and discussing, and last January they held their first Assembly in a former church in London. The idea, they told reporters later, was “part atheist church, part foot-stomping show and 100 percent celebration of life”, and, “all the best bits of church but with no religion". To their surprise, 200 people showed up to hear the word of nothing in particular. At their second service one month later, 300 people were in attendance, and they knew they had a foothold. Before long, Sunday Assemblies were established in the UK, New York and Melbourne, Australia, guided by an all-inclusive mission statement: “Live better, help often, wonder more.”
In October, nine months after the church’s inaugural service, the Sunday Assembly launched an ambitious expansion project: a crowd-funding page with a goal of raising £500,000 to build a website to establish new Assemblies. “In the same way that Airbnb makes it easy to rent out your room, we’re going to make it easy to start your own congregation,” Sanderson told me at the time. He and Pippa made plans to travel across Europe, Australia and the United States, hosting Assemblies across 35 cities in 40 days.
Around this time, journalists began wondering if the Sunday Assembly could be the fastest-growing church in the world. Dozens of media outlets, from the Guardian to the Economist to the Sydney Morning Herald, ran stories about an odd but seemingly successful godless faith founded by a pair of standup comedians – a quirky enterprise that practically begged to be blogged about. It didn’t hurt that Sanderson is a superb evangelist who gives away ready-made two-line quotes like candy. He’s tall and lanky and full of a boundless, golden retriever–esque energy, one of those rare souls who can deliver statements about the overwhelming awesomeness of life with a straight face and make you believe them. Being pleasantly surprised seems to be his default state of being.
A headline writer for the New Republic referred to him as “Hipster Jesus”, but that implies an edginess that isn’t part of his character. He’s relentlessly positive and never directs snark or scorn toward religious fundamentalists, natural targets for a comedian in a roomful of atheists. He doesn’t even swear onstage – Sanderson once told a congregation in Washington, DC, “The only F-word we like to use is fun!”
I met Sanderson for the first time last summer, when he visited New York to establish the first American Assembly. The initial service was held on a sweltering June afternoon in a cramped midtown bar. It was a boozy, standing-room-only affair, with maybe 100 curious congregants rubbing shoulders in a small back room. The bartenders wore bikini tops. We sang together and listened to Sanderson preach, not against religion or God, but toward an appreciation of the wonders of existence. “Atheism is the diving board,” he shouted at one point. “Life is the swimming pool!”
The whole thing struck me as an entertaining lark, a piece of comedic performance art that pointed the way toward a tolerant, positive form of nonbelief. But this fall, when Sanderson emailed me to announce he and Pippa were hitting the road to launch dozens of new Assemblies and raise a half a million pounds, I decided to drop what I was doing and hop onboard the tour.
“We’re going to help thousands of towns, cities and villages, and millions of people to have community without the need for religion,” he told me. Yes, millions. Sanderson and Pippa believe the time has come for atheists to stand and be counted, and that their mission is to help nonbelievers organise into congregations and support each other as religious groups do. And they think the best way to do that is by being really, really nice.
On the Sunday Assembly’s trek across America, one of Sanderson’s recurring set pieces was to ask the assembled atheists how many of them had ever considered something like a church without God. Inevitably, a forest of hands shot up.
The idea behind godless congregations, as groups like the Sunday Assembly are known, is pretty simple: churches are about building communities based on shared values as much as they’re about worship. Studies conducted in the past few years have shown that churchgoers are happier, more optimistic and healthier than the general heathen population. Being a part of a congregation means having more opportunities to talk to people, meet new friends and romantic partners, and make professional connections.
Perhaps the first thinker to seriously consider congregational atheism was the eccentric French sociologist Auguste Comte. In the mid-19th century, he created a church sans deity called the Religion of Humanity. He imagined it would mimic the Catholic Church, and fantasised about the establishment of a massive priesthood, services aimed at making people more altruistic and the canonisation of saint-like figures such as Aristotle, Shakespeare and Saint Paul. Comte died before any of his ideas were taken seriously, let alone came to fruition, but today there are chapels devoted to his religion in France and Brazil. Far from being wrong or crazy, it seems he was just ahead of our time as well as his own.
In the 20th century, progressive branches of Christianity and Judaism grew to embrace nonbelievers. For example, Unitarian Universalists, the most liberal denomination of Protestantism, often hold nontheistic services and welcome atheists and agnostics; Humanistic Judaism, founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in the 1960s, is a similar fusion of religious traditions with an embrace of godlessness.
The Ethical Culture movement has also had success building secular congregations. Established in New York 1876 by Felix Adler, who had been a rabbi in training before renouncing his faith, it held services, provided education for the children of its congregants and did a great deal of charity work while spreading the humanist gospel of reason, social justice and a morality not tied to any divine authority. This autumn, the New York Sunday Assembly moved its monthly gatherings from the bar in Midtown to a fourth-floor room of the Society’s stately Manhattan headquarters. (A Christian church rents the building’s larger main concert hall downstairs.)
Though some long-running godless congregations have hundreds of members, no institution has succeeded on the type of scale congregational-minded atheists have dreamed of for decades, and the popularity of evangelical Christianity compared to godless gatherings can, to say the least, cause frustration for nonbelievers.
James Croft, a humanist speaker training to become an Ethical Culture Leader (that organisation’s equivalent to a priest), gets especially annoyed when he visits secular meetings held near Christian congregations. “[Those churches are] offering a message that is so much less compelling, so much less truthful, so much less ethically grounded, than the humanist message,” he said. “Yet they have hundreds of people, and I’m speaking to a group of 15.”
A widely cited survey conducted in 2012 by the University of California, Berkeley, found that 20 percent of American adults say they don’t identify with any religion, up from only 8 percent in 1990. In recent years, a number of godless congregations have sprouted up to turn these statistics into communities. There’s the Houston Oasis, established in 2012, and Louisiana’s Community Mission Chapel, founded last year, both the work of former Christian clergymen who lost their faith in God but still wished to foster human connections. Harvard, the first university in the world to host a humanist chaplain, is a fertile breeding ground for godless congregations – last month, the Humanist Community at Harvard opened a brand-new community centre called the Humanist Hub that welcomes atheists, agnostics and anyone else who walks in the door.
“Finding a Humanist congregation is not some oddball curiosity of an idea,” writes the organisation’s founder, Greg Epstein, in his 2010 book Good Without God. “It’s not even a luxury, to be addressed after we succeed in getting ‘In God We Trust’ off the dollar bill. If [atheists and humanists] ever want to be anything more than a downtrodden minority, it is a necessary response to one of our most aching and eternal human needs.”
The problem faced by people like Greg and James is basically one of marketing. “Humanism has just the best ethical message out there,” said James. “I’m always amazed, then, to find that we have no idea how to sell it.”
Sanderson has a résumé that makes him uniquely qualified to be an atheist evangelist. Before his comedy career allowed him to quit his day job, he sold advertising at the Economist, and before the Sunday Assembly his most well-known venture was a live performance called the “Comedy Sale”. For the production, Sanderson would hawk tickets to the show on the street, quickly memorise the names of ticket buyers, research them online and poke fun at them onstage. Most comedians go through a phase of their careers where they have to hand out flyers to get people in the doors before they can perform their acts – but, according to Pippa, Sanderson may be the only comic who ever liked the flyering part.
Maybe the most important marketing tactic the Sunday Assembly has adopted is that they are careful not to say anything that could offend potential converts. Pippa was a practicing Christian until she was 17, and she steers the group away from adopting language that’s overly churchy. They also tend to eschew words like atheism, ethical, rational, humanist or secular, in order to avoid associations with organisations that have used those labels. “We need more normal people,” Sanderson said. “People think people who are already involved in secular organisations are weird.”
Unlike some hardcore atheists, who are ready to argue whenever anyone says, “God bless you,” Sanderson and Pippa are disarmingly kind-hearted and accepting. Strolling through Midtown Manhattan, I saw them stop at a candy store on the way to an Assembly to buy sweets they later gave out to anyone and everyone who crossed their path. They’re so bubbly that, after my photographer met them, he asked me whether they were straight edge. No, I told him, they’re just very wholesome.
After spending several days with Pippa and Sanderson, I believe that their earnestness is genuine, but it’s also a useful proselytising technique. If members of a church come off as contented, well adjusted and stress free, it makes it all the easier to draw new converts in.
“At the moment,” Sanderson put it, “I’m the ultimate advertisement for the product.” Fittingly, he’s also the product’s spokesman. Pippa’s duties include arranging and leading the services’ musical segments and laying the foundation for the burgeoning international organisation, but Sanderson is the face of the Sunday Assembly and the one who gives most of its interviews to the media. Pippa’s perfectly happy with this division of labour, and I could see why – as I trailed them through the media-saturated towns of New York, Boston and DC, a great deal of Sanderson’s days were devoted to retelling curious reporters the same canned anecdotes over and over again.
He’d repeat, for instance, a line about the Sunday Assembly being all the best, nougat-y parts of church without the icky God thing at the centre. He had one ready-made bit about how he and Pippa are the grit, the local organisers are the oysters and the resulting Assemblies are the pearls. He also talked a lot about the time he was on a British radio show with a Christian clergyman. Sanderson mentioned that, for atheists, going to churches that emphasise God is like putting on a shoe with a stone in it: “You don’t chuck the shoe out,” he told the minister. “You just get rid of the stone!”
“Well done, Sanderson!” the minister replied. “You’ve just told your first parable!”
Not so long ago, publicly expressing disbelief in God was dangerous. Even in 20th-century America, atheists faced discrimination and hatred, especially from the right. In the 50s, anti-Communist crusaders like Joseph McCarthy essentially accused atheists of being traitors to America.
It’s only natural to respond to vitriol with vitriol, and for decades most prominent American atheists were antitheists – militant nonbelievers who spent their lives denouncing the faithful, brainwashed masses. In the 1920s, Charles Lee Smith, the founder of the now defunct American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, made headlines after he was arrested for blasphemy in Arkansas for distributing pro-evolution, anti-Christian literature. More recently, “New Atheist” authors like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have publicly debated the existence of God and published best-selling books raging against the perceived evils of religion.
On occasion, antitheism has led to hateful positions and stigmas that have damaged the reputation of atheism on the whole. Last year, Dawkins compared Islam to Nazism and the Qur’an to Mein Kampf on Twitter, prompting a heated debate among bloggers about whether these so-called rational New Atheists had crossed the line into bigoted Islamophobia. Prejudice against atheists won’t be going away any time soon – a 2012 poll found that only 54 percent of Americans would support a well-qualified atheist running for public office – but many young nonbelievers today don’t think religion needs to be wiped out, its humanitarian and moral aspects simply need to be separated from God.
“We could learn a huge amount from [evangelical churches] and replicate it and replace our values with theirs,” James Croft told me. “Instead of promoting anti-gay hatred and bullshit about women’s place in the world and nonsense about reproductive rights, we’d be promoting dignity for all human beings, a living wage, health care for everybody and all these amazing things.”
Congregational atheists despise mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s homophobic, anti-atheist sentiments, but many profess an admiration for what he has built – his Saddleback Church, founded in 1980 in Lake Forest, California, is a congregation of tens of thousands that ranks as the seventh-largest church in the country. Its popularity is largely due to its modern services that include music and multimedia presentations, and today it has a dozen satellite congregations, streams Warren’s sermons online, manages all sorts of charity programmes and trains and nurtures its future leaders from within.
Humanism has the potential to speak to just as many young people as Christianity, Islam or Judaism, Harvard’s Humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, told me. He said the advantage those religions have is that “they don’t have to take the time to build their buildings, to train their leaders, to come up with what they’re going to say every week, to come up with a recognisable brand… Right now, what we need to do is to have people invest in the institutions that are coming up”.
The realisation of Greg’s goal will take a type of expertise that’s mostly foreign to the philosophers and writers who have so far been the public face of atheism, but those working to create godless congregations believe that they’re at the forefront of a big, big boom – all they need to do is build it, and the godless will come.
The challenge for groups like the Sunday Assembly isn’t dealing with criticism from religious fundamentalists, it’s convincing atheists that being part of a congregation is worthwhile. Some bloggers, like PolicyMic’s Michael Luciano, have denounced the idea that something like a religious service could offer anyone anything of value. He wrote, “For atheists, every religious service is predicated on a falsehood, regardless of whatever feel-good niceties may accompany its production.”
Following suit, many prominent atheist groups are leery of building church-like institutions. One of the organisers who helped the Centre for Inquiry host the first DC Assembly told me that CFI is mostly “secular humanists”, who are distinct from the “religious humanists” who form congregations, while in the process enlightening me on why Sanderson and Pippa try to avoid labels.
Others feel that the Sunday Assembly isn’t sufficiently antitheist. Around the time of the November service in New York, some members of that Assembly broke away from the group and created The Godless Revival, a competing “no-holds-barred atheist variety show” held at a Manhattan bar.
“What started out as a comedic atheist church wants to turn itself into some sort of centralised humanist religion, with Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans at the helm,” Lee Moore, one of the Assembly’s apostates, wrote in a blog post that also accused the pair of “trying to get rich from their new-age religion”. He went on to compare the duo to L Ron Hubbard and called their family-friendly services “milquetoast”.
Sanderson is fond of casually dismissing most of that kind of criticism with a practiced joke about the people who say “the way I don’t believe in God is not the right way to not believe in God”. But maybe his detractors have a point: Once you take the religion out of church and the antitheism out of atheism, what do you have left?
The theology preached at Sunday Assemblies is a kind of mish-mash of the feel-good parts of humanism coupled with an enthusiastic emphasis on how wonderful life is. Sanderson’s speeches often touch on themes of thankfulness, the amazing fact of existence itself and his mother, who died when he was ten years old – he was sad at first, he told the DC congregation, but gradually, as time went on he began to realise that he had been lucky to have her for as long as he did. “I started becoming happy that she had loved me for ten whole years,” he said.
These sermons appeal to as broad an audience as possible, but they’re a little too unserious for some people, including a few of the Sunday Assembly’s allies. When I asked James Croft about the Sunday Assembly he praised the organisation for being more open to displays of emotion and fun than most humanist gatherings, but added there needed to be something beyond the good times. “One of the things congregational communities should do is challenge people to be better, to challenge people to reconsider the way they live their lives,” he said. “It requires you to make them uncomfortable, to make them leave with sort of a splinter in their eye, thinking, I have to work that out.” Superlative religious services and Ethical Culture meetings balance fun and deep existential questioning; Sanderson and Pippa have yet to achieve this.
The philosopher Alain de Botton, author of a book titled Religion for Atheists, is a harsher critic. He claims that the Sunday Assembly is a blatant rip-off of his School of Life organisation, which combines therapy and adult education with secular sermons. “They are, in our eyes, quite clearly just unacknowledged exploiters of the creativity of others,” he wrote to me in an email. “We believe our sermons are simply richer experiences than theirs: they combine a dignity, an intellectual depth and a genuine community spirit in a way that theirs can only dimly ape. We are worried that their manner of execution is in grave danger of ruining a very good idea for everyone. After all, people are unlikely to try a secular sermon twice.”
This sort of battered pessimism, which assumes atheist churches must be perfect or risk alienating potential converts, is uncommon among advocates for congregational atheism. It would stand to reason that if one humanist, atheist or agnostic gathering is good, two are better, and 2,000 are better still. The only question is how you get those numbers.
Sanderson and Pippa may dream of thousands of affiliated congregations, but so far their main achievement has been in attracting publicity, not in building infrastructure or putting asses in seats. The first Assembly in LA drew over 400 people, and the original London congregation is still going strong – it attracts hundreds to its bimonthly services, organises charity drives and even hosts Sunday school-like classes for kids and a philosophy discussion club. That’s in post-religion England, though. The burgeoning US Assemblies are smaller – at the December service in New York, without Sanderson and Pippa leading the festivities, attendance was down to 50 or 75, and that’s the most established of the American congregations. The tour brought media attention to the group and emails from hundreds of people who wanted an Assembly in their town, but the crowd-funding campaign raised less than $60,000 (£36,500).
In a blog post published on the 4th of December, Sanderson and Pippa admitted they hadn’t come close to hitting their fundraising target, but shrugged it off – they said that some programmers had offered to build their dreamed-of congregation-creating website, and the donations they’d received would help support the organisation’s founders. Sanderson has stopped doing stand-up so that he can work on the Sunday Assembly full-time, while Pippa will continue her comedy career while contributing to the project in her free time.
Sanderson and Pippa told me that their next steps will be to secure funding from big-ticket donors, provide more training for Assembly leaders, file the appropriate paperwork to make donations tax-deductible and essentially construct an international secular organisation from scratch. In May, there will be an international Sunday Assembly conference in London, and in August they plan to host an assembly at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford. “We’re just gonna do that as the biggest and best smoke machine, light-and-laser show the world’s ever fucking seen,” Sanderson said. “There’s gonna be these guys who are used to lectures going, ‘Huh?’” In September, the idea is to open the next wave of Assemblies – and not just a handful; they plan to push out 100 chapters more or less simultaneously.
While being interviewed in November by Greg Epstein and James Croft for a podcast in Boston, Sanderson and Pippa were asked what the Sunday Assembly might look like in five years. The comedians burst out laughing before Greg finished the question. They started a single secular service a year ago to see if they could pull it off. Now they’re seeding dozens of churches around the world. A nontheistic religion was once a philosophical thought experiment. Today there are competing godless faiths. In a life so full of wonderful surprises, how could they possibly look that far down the road?
Follow Harry on Twitter: @HCheadle
More stories about atheism: