Culture War Correspondence: Atheist Churches

GORDON: Brothers and sisters, we are gathered together today in the eyes of…

well, nothing. Today’s discussion will cover the growing number of atheist churches in the West.

EVAN: That may seem like a ludicrous concept to any and all of you, so I think before the two of us really begin discussing this movement that originated in the UK [of course] I think it would be good for us to share what our first impressions were of that term.

So, Gordon, what did you imagine an atheist church was, or would be like?

GORDON: Well, my immediate reaction to the concept was that it’d all be some kind of satire, like Pastafarianism, though the more I thought about how one would actually function, the more I kept returning to some kind of a cross between a support group and a study group.

EVAN: One of my first thoughts was that they would need something to take the place of sermons, while still keeping that added value of community, which led me to believe that these would be more like warmer, more open TED Talks.

You’re getting together, sure, but you’re learning stuff too. That sounded alright to me.

GORDON: And while atheists have always been meeting together, what we’re seeing today is, well, something else entirely…

EVAN: This whole thing was started by two British comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, who felt like the godless church was something that non-believers needed. Their meetings are called Sunday Assemblies, and as far as I can tell they’ve been quite popular, growing in number and spreading over to the States.

Here’s a little promo video that they put out to advertise their “40 dates, 50 nights” tour of countries outside the UK:

GORDON: My immediate reaction to this is “Hey, that’s awesome. They’re having a good time, getting people together, helping building a community-

Why the **** would they try to ruin all that by turning it into a church?”

Readers, it’s no secret that yours truly, while not an atheist, has no small laundry list of indictments against churches. All the criticisms I’d typically lob at them would all seem to apply just as much here (as iron sharpens iron, so does smug complacency sharpen smug complacency, for example).

EVAN: So before I get to my response to the video let me just confirm- You think that having atheist churches will actually create an extremely ironic “holier than thou” mentality among attendees?

GORDON: I think that mentality exists already- these churches, I feel, are only going to intensify that attitude while simultaneously stifling actual “free-thought” and a sense of social justice.

EVAN: My hope, because I do wish for the best, is that a focus on social justice will be stronger, and it’s backed up by Jones’ quote from the video:

“Let’s show once and for all that you don’t have to have a religion in order together as a community and to try to live better, help often, and [something I couldn’t make out].”

What I find particularly interesting about that statement, though, is how . . . mildly immature it is? Well, no, that’s not quite it. It does seem like he feels he has something to prove though, eh?

GORDON: “Laodicean”, I think is the word you’re looking for.

As I was watching it, I couldn’t get Steve Taylor’s satirical song “This Disco (Used To Be A Cute Cathedral)” out of my head. But yeah, I was thinking about that too. For a movement claiming to be some affirming spiritual alternative, it really didn’t seem to offer anything for the soul (or mind- whatever or however you want to draw your lines).

Something also interesting to point out is that the “Sunday Assemblies” have already had their first schism, with hardline atheists breaking from the generally secular mainstream. Kinda drives my whole complaint home.

EVAN: The first time I actually heard about this was via an article on The Guardian, one that was written by an atheist. While she thought what they were doing was all well and good she also believed that “they don’t have the right to co-opt atheism for their cause.”

Walshe, the writer, ended with a jab at how all of this simply results in a sort of “quasi-religion”.

GORDON: Which probably a fair distinction to make, especially at this point; the existence of a difference between secularism and atheism (heck, even the different strands of atheism).

EVAN: I watched a few clips from a news segment on Sunday Assemblies, and what struck me as particularly interesting was that your average outsider looking in would think it was, well, just church.

The seats were set up the same way, there was a stage, and, get this, there was a band. Yes, Gordon, apparently atheist churches engage in a sort of “godless worship”, if I can call it that.

GORDON: Gaaaaaaaah. Why do they insist on tormenting me so, Evan?

EVAN: That’s probably what’s most difficult for me to get my head around, because it’s what really, really hammers the point home that they’re “playing church.”

GORDON: Now you told me a couple nights ago that a lot of friends who grew up in the church and have become atheist state that what they miss most about their youth is the sense of community.


I guess the three questions to be asked at this point are (1) “do you think this is serving that end?”, (2) “is that enough/right?”, and (3) “what, ideally, would this look like?”

EVAN: I think that Sunday Assemblies in their current form could create that sense of togetherness that former churchgoers and people raised outside that experience alike could be a part of and possibly benefit from, sure. As far as whether it’s enough . . .

One of my good friends doesn’t claim to be a member of any faith, and through talking about my background we came to the conclusion that neither of us get megachurches. That being said, is creating togetherness really conducive with such large groups?

With that many people, and the video I more recently posted appeared to have roughly a hundred, are you really feeling that closeness. On another more important note, what are you all getting together for? Is the main drive that you’re all lonely and don’t believe in a higher power?

GORDON: I’m more or less of the same feeling. The purpose of church or religion isn’t to give you warm fuzzies deep down. I think it’s supposed to feel a lot more like this:

I guess what irks me even more is that with so many atheists avowing that they exist as the “rational” or “scientific” alternative, so many of these groups- be they “churches” or just “get-togethers”- are emotionally based, y’know?

But I guess that’s what you get when you start institutionalizing these sorts of things.

EVAN: If anything, I think I’m really disappointed that this isn’t more like the TED Talks-esque thing I suggested way up above. Not to say that I’ve heard one of these atheist sermons so far and can speak from experience, but that’s not the vibe I’m getting.

What I was hoping is that people would walk out of these buildings having learned something, or at the very least thinking.

GORDON: Absolutely.

EVAN: And that’s about our time. I considered putting a poll at the bottom, but really, this is the sort of thing that warrants much, much more discussion. Which is where YOU come in.


EVAN: No, the readers. I am sure they have thoughts about this whole thing, and I hope they don’t hold out on us.

GORDON: 9 out of 10 doctors recommend leaving comments, people. See you next time.

EVAN: Thanks for reading, everyone! We will be back next week. Also: all year.

7 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Atheist Churches

  1. This is an absolutely fascinating thing. My thoughts on the matter are pretty conflicted.

    I work at a church. I teach Sunday School and lead devotions and all that good stuff but I often find myself feeling disillusioned with the whole thing because church so often lacks the “fringe benefits” as the second video called them. These fringe benefits (community, friendships, a place to belong) often seem to get neglected and pushed to the side by a focus purely on the gospel message and Biblical teaching. I have Bible knowledge pouring out of my ears but I’m still lonely and desperate for community. But aren’t the Bible and the gospel the point of church? Well, I said I was conflicted.

    While I think that these Sunday Assemblies are very attractive in their focus on community and togetherness I do feel that at the end of the day I would feel just as disillusioned there as I sometimes do at church. Without something to unify us other than a lack of faith I really think it would all feel hollow in the end. Ultimately it’s just another party. What makes church so special is that for better or worse everyone there is unified by one central idea, the resurrection of Jesus. The thing about religious belief is that it is a belief in a power and an entity worlds bigger than ourselves so it transcends our differences in a way that I don’t think a lack of faith can.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I’ve recently begun seeking out Atheists to ask them what it is they’re all about. One thing that keeps popping up is the common Atheist assertion that they don’t have “beliefs.” They don’t have a code or doctrine, they say, they don’t have “faith” in God’s absence, etc. I’m not sure these assertions ring true, though, especially when the first “Atheist church” has already faced a schism or two.

  3. Well, first off, I think this would be an excellent time for Gordon to take a step back and look at all the positive things about churches. However, that news report was really weird. They are really modelling way too much on Christian churches, including a lot of the negative aspects they could’ve (should’ve) left behind.

    However, just look at the positive aspects of an atheist church and consider which, if any, apply to Christian churches (whether you’ve personally experienced them or not).

  4. As per the TED-talks gathering Evan was talking about, I would LOVE that! In fact, that’s one of the formats my dad is contemplating for his new church in Houston- no worship, no communion, offering etc in the Sunday session but complex and focused academic learning and open discussion afterwards. Community aspects (including communion and worship) would then occur in smaller home groups that are more interpersonal.
    This atheistic church element- from what I’ve read here- seems like a bizarre attempt at interaction that seems like it would be everything that frustrates and deadens me about church. Standing next to strangers while listening to loud, psuedo-symbolic music, and then checking it off my to-do list is the stuff I get through in order for those moments of clarity and affirmation of the statement of faith. I feel like it would just be completely draining.

  5. Super interesting Topic. The first thing it reminded me of was the post-Theistic movement in some United-Church circles. They don’t believe in God but love the symbolism and spiritual feeling of connectivity.

    From a few atheist friends of mine I’ve found there to be a huge divide on what they value in their atheistic beliefs. Some find purpose and meaning in the rational science of it all. Some agree with the rational thought behind it but focus on other groups of thought such as environmentalism, capitalism, even just existentialism.

    Personally I love the Christian Church, at the same time though, I love people and find us all fascinating. I think eventually an atheist church movement will merely end up divided into denominations of practice preference. Just like most other religions. However, on a big picture view, I think is an interesting look at how human kind gravitates to mass association.

    This may be a little cheeky, but as this is an anti-church movement, I do wonder how long it will take for one inspired individual to gain enough popularity among the divided and united them as an anti-christ?

    Thanks for the good read guys!

  6. Pingback: Sure, You Get Into Heaven [But Wait, There's More!] | Culture War Reporters

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