Nine months ago a couple of standup comedians in England wondered why atheists didn’t have a church of their own. “I would go to a carol service or a friend's wedding, and there would be so much about it that I really liked – the togetherness, the rituals – but I just couldn't get past the God bit,” Sanderson Jones told the Guardian last winter. So he and Pippa Evans held what they called a “Sunday Assembly” in a former church in north London – “part atheist church, part foot-stomping show” is how they described it. A congregation that sang along to classic rock tunes in place of hymns, and that talked about how great it was to be alive instead of preaching about God. A couple hundred people showed up to that first assembly, even more came to the second, then Pippa and Sanderson decided to spread their message all over the world, almost like they were starting a religion or something. Official satellite assemblies have formed in Bristol and Brighton in England, Melbourne, New York City and elsewhere, all devoted to a relentless godless positivism – there’s no God, but isn’t it nice to come together and sing songs and help each other?
There are other “atheist churches” out there that also hope to create communities of nonbelievers. But Sanderson and Pippa are expanding far more aggressively than their fellow godless preachers. This weekend, they launched an ambitious crowdfunding campaign with the goal of creating the “Start Your Own Sunday Assembly Toolkit,” which a press release described as “a powerful, scalable, custom-built, digital platform.” They want to raise £500,000 (over $800,000), which will help them found dozens of communities around the world by the end of the year – and potentially many, many more in coming days. “The platform will automate as much of this as possible and allow the millions of people who believe in good to connect with other like-minded people, and build wonderful life-giving congregations,” Sanderson wrote on the Sunday Assembly website. “If we were to have a site like this we can help start thousands.”
To learn more about this would-be atheist megachurch, I spoke with Sanderson over email.
VICE: Half a million pounds is a lot of money to raise through a crowdfunding campaign! What is the money going toward?
Sanderson Jones: Yep, it is a lot of money but, then again, we've got a massive and totally inspiring mission: to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible. Just think about that. Our entire organisation is dedicated to ensuring that people die knowing that they have made the most of this tiny short torrent of consciousness, thoughts and feelings. How cool. It is ambitious but that's our style.
Could you tell me about this platform you’re trying to build?
The Sunday Assembly Global Platform contains all you need to start your own Sunday Assembly: it's a website that allows folks to connect and create community in real life. In the same way that Airbnb makes it easy to rent out your room, we're going to make it easy to start your congregation. The main cost, £240,000 [around $388,000] is to hire three tech whizzes for two years who can build a site that will allow us connect freethinkers everywhere.
We've gone from zero to 35 congregations in a year – with this website we are going to help thousands of towns, cities, and villages and millions of people to have community without the need for religion. Of the rest, £60,000 [$97,000] will go to Pippa and me so she can go part-time and I can go full-time. I quit my career as a stand-up to work for free on this for almost a year. (Where did I get the money to do that? Embarrassing commercials: this and this). Then £10,000 will go to hosting costs, and the rest on making the rewards (which are ace), taxes, and Indiegogo fees.
Is there going to be any oversight of the Sunday Assemblies you're starting all over the world? Like, if someone starts a gathering without your permission and calls it a Sunday Assembly, but they start saying all kinds of nasty stuff about Christianity and Islam, would you ask them to stop calling themselves a SA? That's a somewhat wild hypothetical, I guess my real question is, how centralised will the network of Atheist churches be?
That's two questions there, so have a public charter that everyone who joins has to sign up for. It is here and is SUPER controversial (it isn't). It's got cool stuff like what we are:
“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation and celebration of life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”
I get goose bumps reading that. There's stuff on not bashing religion and making sure that each assembly is a “place of love.” Ooof, there go the bumps again.
It allows for a lot of freedom, however – in the future we also want to help folk who might be keen to start a godless congregation that is totally different.
By the way, are you happy that people have taken to calling the SA an “Atheist Church”? Or is there a better phrase for it?
Ha. That is slightly my fault, as I coined the term and shoved it on a load of press releases, because it would make people interested, and it has. However, we hardly ever talk about atheism, because instead we talk about life. Which way more people are interested in. Hopefully soon when you say “Sunday Assembly” folk will know that it is a congregation that celebrates life. Just call it “Sunday Assembly.”
Are donations to the Sunday Assembly tax deductible? For that matter, are you guys going to seek tax-exempt status like “regular” churches have?
Yes, folk in the US can donate in a tax-deductible way, however, the rewards on Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aren't, as they are sales (of our super sweet T-shirts). We're just waiting to get charitable status in the UK, and starting to look into it in [Australia]. All this filling in of documents gives me the shits. I hate it.
Do you go to (non-atheist) church services yourself, if only to get ideas for what the Sunday Assembly could do?
Yes. I do. I nicked our opening from the Hillsong church. We now start with two songs [with] no intro from the host. I saw their service in London and was blown away. They have production values. There was a smoke machine! Also, at this point I should give a shout out to Dave Tomlinson – he's a vicar who's teaching me some tricks of the trade. Thanks, DT!
Are there any cities in particular you're looking forward to visiting?
Oh, my. So many of them are super exciting. In the US, New York will be super. But then again I've never been to Washington DC, Vancouver, San Diego, Dallas, Atlanta, or Portland. And how good will the band be in Nashville? Amazing. Los Angeles already has almost 1,000 people signed up, so by November 10, we'll probably be doing it in the Hollywood Bowl. There's also a chance Austin and Phoenix might get in on the action too. And that's just the US. I've got mates to see in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, and new adventures to be had in Perth, Brisbane and Canberra. Shit. There's too much good stuff going on.
Admittedly those stops are all in November. The British leg starts next week and I can assure you I will have haggis for breakfast in Edinburgh and Glasgow, drink strong cider at the Coronation Tap in Bristol and feel that my life would have been better if I'd studied harder when I'm in Oxford. While I've got no idea what Milton Keynes, Leeds, Dublin, Nottingham or Newcastle will hold. I must admit, that I am really looking forward to our trip to Belfast. The local organisers have promised to paint a mural.
To donate to the Sunday Assembly’s Indiegogo campaign, go here.
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