Coming Soon to a Mall Near You: Atheist Church?

Eat… pray… shop. We apparently need a place of peace at the mall. Can we get a Sunday Assembly in Philadelphia?

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Look out: The atheists are assembling.

But don’t worry, they mean you no harm. They merely hope to “live better, help often, wonder more.”

The Brits have brought us fashion and music and now, via the “atheist church” Sunday Assembly, a new way to live. It seems atheists are people, too, and they have a need for all  of the benefits of belonging to a congregation: community, consistency, learning and giving back. Sunday Assembly’s 3,000-percent growth rate must mean something, right?




From October 20th through December 15th, Sunday Assembly is launching, with volunteer chapter founders, more than 30 groups in Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States. These pop-up Sunday meetings will be held in restaurants, community centers, and, of course, shopping centers.

"We wanted to do something like a church for people who don't believe in God," said Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the organization. "Life is such a wonderful thing to have been given–and frankly, it's as transcendent as any one god. We come from nothing and go to nothing and in between we have these short glazing moments of awareness and consciousness to love and sing and mess up and try again. We should celebrate it."

Two hundred and forty people showed up at first meeting in Brighton; Jones and co-founder Pippa Evans expected about 30. Twenty chapters have already formed around the world. More than 400 are signed up for a meeting in November in LA. New York’s first meeting was held in a sketchy bar. Organizers expected 30 people and got 140. The meetings/sessions/services(?) are filled with music, TED-like talks, interactive conversation and community building, and, interestingly, two minutes of silence. A box is passed for cash donations to pay for the after-meeting tea, and they hope the “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour of U.K., Ireland, U.S., Canada and Australia will be funded by an Indiegogo campaign.

Proponents of the organization say it's necessary for a clearly atheist/agnostic church to not be open to other religions. “You can dilute it until it’s like a Coke ad of affirmative sayings with the emotional depth of an Instagram photo with a quote stuck on the front,” founder Sanderson told The Daily Beast. “But we love religion, we think churches are great and we love what they do.”

I could mock them for thinking Humanitarians and Unitarians are not Godless enough, but the truth is, I sorta get it.

I was raised Catholic, and yes, while I have memories of people cursing each other out in their rush to get out of the parking lot and even stronger memories of holding on to the back of the pew in front of me so that the devil wouldn’t suck me straight down to hell for slapping my sister. I also have fond memories of going to the church for Friday night bingo games and white elephant sales. I remember looking forward to seeing certain people on Sundays, and simply loved that the priest knew our family and all of our names. When I was very young, I remember meeting up with my cousins at our grandmother's after Sunday mass for brunch she’d go all out for: quiches, cheese soufflé, Italian strip steak, and always celery sticks we’d lick the peanut butter out of.

Like many Catholics, even my Mary-loving mother started to see too many hypocrisies, became too uncomfortable with “The Church’s” choices, and we “fell away.” Not to be overly dramatic, but that’s when we also fell apart from the community of which we had been a part.

In my 30s, my family and I were hit by a series of catastrophes. By the third one I was so numbed I had given up. I stopped believing, and only realized later that my loss of faith stemmed from the idea that I would rather think there is no God than think He had forsaken me.

People are looking to deepen their spiritual lives in a secular way. Penn psychologist Martin Selgiman posited that the world is at a “happiness tipping point,” referring to clubs and organizations that all acknowledge and celebrate that happiness is a choice, a conscious decision, and that more and more of us are making that decision. Happiness Clubs are increasing on college campuses. Meditation has never been so popular and is crossing over into Western medical practices.

I am already wondering more: I wonder why the fastest growing spiritual organization is the Sunday Assembly; I wonder even more why its founders are two stand-up comedians. I am also curious as to why the image on the Sunday Assembly website banner is of a primate family, especially since the biggest one looks oddly like a frog.

But if anyone starts one in Philadelphia (right now the closest are in New York and D.C.), please put me on your email list.

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  • Katherine S

    Atheists (and plenty of ex/questioning-everythings) are welcome and alive and well at First UU on Chestnut and 21st. http://www.philauu.org!!! Come visit someday.

  • SophiaWeisheit

    If they truly believe in nothing, then why are they demanding that believers give them something? How can they claim to be atheists when the mere mention of a God, or hearing someone pray makes them pee their pants?

    • bentbev

      You’ve never laughed so hard you peed yourself?!