The “Atheist Church”

Thoughts on “The Sunday Assembly”

Pic From:

Pic From:

While I was away the famous/infamous “atheist church” or as it is properly called “The Sunday Assembly” held its second service.  This service, like the first, has garnered much attention.  Some of the chatter is positive, some negative.  Before delving into that, it is important to look at what the “service” entails.

The Sunday Assembly was founded by British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.  The services include some rock music sing-a-longs, a guest speaker (this past service included physicist Dr. Harry Cliff), and a moment of silence to reflect on the natural wonder of things.  The idea is to bring people who are not religious together and to form a community of sorts.

When I think about The Sunday Assembly I have mixed feelings.  I see both positive and negative aspects of this group.  When taken as a whole, I find that I cannot support this group in its current form.  Please allow me to explain.

The Positive

I completely understand the need for “community”.  I think that most humans have a need to belong to something and crave community.  (Of course there are many who do not).  It has been argued on various blogs and other social media that it is absurd to build a community around atheism, as it has no positive beliefs.  Other than a lack of belief in deities, you could end up with a room of people who agree on nothing.  While that may be true, I think it is a bit pessimistic, and unlikely.

There are local atheists groups all over the place.  Many of them are quite successful.  There is a community than can be built around atheism.  To doubt that is absurd, as I am fairly sure there is an atheist community in your local area.  Denying they exist is futile.  Denying that they provide a sense of community for people looking for that is also futile.

The Sunday Assembly does much of the positive stuff above pretty well.  Community building is good, it’s fun (music), appreciation of the natural world—a moment of silence is a bit corny to me, but overall I have no issue with it, they are talking about doing some community service, guest speakers on topics that many atheists seem to enjoy like science.  These are all good things.

In many ways it reminds me of my local atheist group’s meetings (which I rarely attend).  We have  coffee/brunch stand around and chat hour, followed be a speaker of some sort (the topics of these speakers varies but are confined to things that most atheists/skeptics think about—think about the books you have read on these topics and imagine a speaker), then we have a discussion/Q & A session about the presentation.

This is a community.  We get together chat about something, make friends, and even hang out outside of our meetings.  I assume that the same thing will happen with the Sunday Assembly.  I get that.  While I personally fill my need for community with largely non-atheist stuff, like my local cycling community, I can see how people would enjoy this sort of thing with an atheist background.

I can also see how such a community could be really helpful for those who are new to atheism or who live in an area where being atheist is equivalent to having leprosy.  In situations like that, there is comfort to be found in being around people who share, in this case, your lack of belief.  I remember when I first realized I was an atheist.  It was a bit daunting at first largely because I didn’t know any other atheists.  If atheist groups help people during this time, then I am all for that.  It would appear that the Sunday Assembly can and will do just that sort of thing.

Lastly, vjack at Atheist Revolution wrote a post today about reaching out to the non-religious who fail to identify as atheist for any number of reasons.  His post is worth your time to read.  His topic also fits in well here.  The Sunday Assembly could easily become a launching point for non-religious people to embrace atheism, secular humanism, etc.  I see that a potential positive.

The Negative

At this point, you are probably wondering why I can’t support this organization.  The answer is in the word “Church”.  I find the use of that word to be highly toxic when applied to an atheist gathering.  Atheism is not a religion and that word has religious connotations.  Heck, even Alain de Botton wrote, “It should never be called that [a church], because ‘atheism’ isn’t an ideology around which anyone could gather. Far better to call it something like cultural humanism.”  In this I agree.  I find the use of the word “Church” to be incredibly ignorant of the work that is being done by those of us who are activists of the many causes of which atheists tend to pick up—anti-theism, ant-Creationism, Separation of Church and State, anti-religious privilege, etc.

Let me be clear on this.  I spend way too much time explaining to people exactly how and why atheism is not a religion to have this “church” notion to be flung back in my face.  Atheism is not a religion, nor is it an ideology.  It is simply a lack of belief in deities.  Churches are for religions.  Atheism is NOT a religion, and has no need of a “church”.

I recall reading somewhere that Jones stated he never intended The Sunday Assembly to be known as an “atheist church”.  Rather, that was a term that the media ran with.  Fine.  However, he and Evans have not done nearly enough to dispel the false concept.  This fact disappoints me.

The damage of doing anything that implies that atheism is a religion is immense.  Religions have dogmas and doctrines.  Atheism has none.  Atheism is often attacked by apologists along the false lines implying it is like a religion.  Just pick up a book by Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias, Dinesh D’Souza and this will be clear as crystal to you.  This “church” idea does not help atheism, it hurts it—potentially in a big way. Further, many of us who are atheists left “churches” and bristle at the idea of atheism having one.  The scars and memories of churches run deep among many atheists.  I see no need to create a situation that will force people to travel down that road again—emotionally or physically.

The last thing that I want to point out is something that the BBC reported.  They report that the majority of the 300 attendees of Sunday’s service were NOT atheist, but were just “non-religious”.  I find this to be quite curious.  Why are we calling this an “atheist church” when the majority of participants are not even atheists?  Perhaps this explains why so many atheists are upset by the use of the word “church” and its continued use in spite of that.  Either way, I have some serious problems with what appears to largely be a group of “non-atheists” being called an “atheist church”.  Seriously, we have enough to deal with!

The Wrap up

I applaud the idea of helping to bring people together, to create a community, to share an appreciation of the natural world, to do community service.  It may also serve as a way to help other non-religious or secular folks embrace atheism.  That is great.  I also like something that Hemant Mehta stated on his blog, which you can read in full here.  He stated, “I really hope this takes off. Not because it’s necessarily something I would attend myself, but because it would be so wonderful and meaningful for a lot of atheists who want that sort of experience.”  That is tough to argue with.  It is good for those people.  I however, feel that the potential cost is too high.  Time will well.  I chafe at the use of the phrase “atheist church” because of what it implies.  I strongly dislike the use of the phrase “atheist church” being used to describe a gathering of largely “non-atheists”!  In the end, I cannot support The Sunday Assembly in its current form.  I would very much like to see a group like this succeed.  As I have pointed out, I can see many benefits to it, but it would need to do so under a different banner before I could support such an organization.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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9 thoughts on “The “Atheist Church”

  1. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    To be honest, I have nothing but negative things to say about it. Whatever good there may be in "community", the only valid community IMO are among people who have things they actually do in common. The basis of atheism is a lack of belief. You wouldn't find "non-stamp collectors" joining together to enjoy their lack of stamp collecting together, this idea is genuinely absurd and when you start attaching the word "church" to it, it becomes even worse.

    Here's hoping this group fails miserably and falls apart, it sends the entirely wrong message.
    My recent post Sanctimonious Shitbag Preacher Won’t Tip

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I am a bit confused about your comments on atheist communities. They clearly do exist. I could have attended my local atheist groups meeting this past Sunday, heard a speaker on Buddhism, had coffee, and socialized. There are groups of this nature all over the place. I bet I could find one within in an hour of your house. They clearly DO fill a need for some people. I get that it is not something that you need or want, nor is it something that I often go to. However, if some people get something out of that, where is the problem? What if they just sit around and have a conversation like the many you and I have had online or on that podcast we did? If it involves things like that in a face to face manner, I don't see any issue with it. I see a problem when we start bringing religious language into it.

      1. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

        There is nothing inherent in atheism that can lead to any kind of a community, it is a lack of belief, if you get together with others for a purpose, that purpose cannot be atheism. In what you describe above, it is a group of atheists who gather to do something else, in this case, listen to a lecture. Listening to lectures, regardless of the subject, is not part of the definition for atheism. Certainly, anyone can do it, it's not restricted to atheists and all atheists aren't interested in doing it, thus it is not a characteristic of atheism. Now I'm fine with people wanting to be part of a community, I think most people do, but that community is not part of atheism, it's an entirely different entity unto itself. What you're really talking about is a community that just so happens to be made up of atheists, not an atheist community. The two are not linked, any more than non-stamp collectors who go to the movies together links non-stamp collecting and enjoying movies. It, like atheist communities, are a group of people doing a particular activity that just so happen to have another characteristic in common.

        The problem comes in when people start linking these two things as though they belong together, such that people start assuming that atheists want to belong to churches, etc., such that the population at large, at least the ones aware of the story, starts associating churches as an integral part of being an atheist. That is a bad thing, especially considering how dishonest theists can and will use it against us. And of course, by using the word "church", they've already blurred the line between atheism and religion.

        I don't have a problem with people wanting to be part of a community, I just have a problem when they start to attach that concept to something upon which it clearly doesn't rely.
        My recent post TV Thursday – 2/7/13

        1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

          Thanks for clarifying that. I think we are splitting hairs a bit, but I now understand where you are coming from, and largely agree. The only exception I might bring up is hanging out with other atheists for no other reason than to be around people with that one similar thought. I know many people new to atheism like to know that there are others out there just like them. They attend events like this, solely because there are other atheists there. In that sense it does bring people together. But like I said, we are splitting hairs. We could also say that it isn't atheism bringing them together, but rather a need for acceptance, and once there, other things become more important than atheism. Either way, I like the facts that "atheist groups" exist–even if they exist largely because of the things they do and not solely because they are atheist. I dislike any road that makes them resemble religions.

  2. hausdorff from Oak Park, MI, United States

    I don't really have a huge problem with it. I find it annoying that the media calls them the atheist church, especially when they have a lot of non-atheists in attendance, although on their website they do call themselves a "godless congregation", so the leap to "atheist church" isn't so huge. But when it comes down to it, some people like to do this kind of thing, and I don't see a good reason to get in their way. It reminds me of the Unitarian church, I went to an atheist meetup group once and one guy there had come from their morning service. The whole thing seemed silly to me, but he liked it. What's the big deal?

    My recent post Revelation 22: The End

  3. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    Utterly agreed on the problem with associating any kind of atheist organization with the word, "church." Why not a "club" or an "association?" Ages ago my parents were members of a bridge club which met once a week or two to play bridge and hone their bidding skills. There are other social clubs and organizations that exist to serve people of common interests. Indeed, atheists have several such organizations which serve various needs of the non-believing community, among them the Center For Inquiry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. There are social gathering places for atheists such as Atheist Nexus and many others, but there's no reason why brick-and-mortar loci shouldn't be part of the mix as well. Indeed, I rather like the notion.

    But associating "atheist" and "church is utterly anathema to me. Whoever thought of it, I wish he would think again … please!

  4. AndrewHall from Brockton, MA, United States

    I've been thinking about producing a comedy show titled something like Atheist Church, but it would be nothing but comedy — sketches, satire, stand-up, improv, and it would happen on a Friday and Saturday night. The only way I would think about setting up anything like an atheist church would be satirical (it would probably involve riffing on the very idea of atheists going to church).
    My recent post What Would You Put in the Bible?

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