Two atheists comedians are leading fellow non-believers in celebrating their lack of faith in God while promoting charity and community engagement.
They are like traditional contemporary Christian church services — except without the God component.
A growing movement of atheist churches are sweeping the Western world, with non-believers throughout England, Australia and the U.S. flocking together to form churches that focus on community involvement, rather than spiritual adoration.
The non-believers’ church is emerging at a time when atheism is growing, yet positive public perception is not. A 2006 study out of the University of Minnesota found atheists to be the most distrusted of minority groups — yet polls show the godless as a growing sector of the American populace.
At the forefront of the movement to take atheism out of the shadows is the non-religious Sunday Assembly, a self described “godless congregation” that adheres to the motto: “Live better, help often, wonder more.”
Amid its global church-building tour, “40 Dates, 40 Nights,” members of the British movement are touring throughout the U.S. and Canada, spreading their message and taking on the Christian tradition of “church-planting,” by encouraging non-believers to come together to form secular movements centered on charity and community connections.
The focus of the church is to draw together non-believers who crave the community aspect of typical church settings, yet lack the belief that unites such bodies of believers — yet it also helps drive awareness atheists say is critical in today’s society.
British comedian Sanderson Jones, who co-founded the church along with fellow comedian Pippa Evans, said he was inspired to create the atheist church after attending a Christmas concert six years ago.
“There was so much about it that I loved, but it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in,” Jones told the Associated Press. “If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”
Standing for nothing — and everything
“Just by being with us you should be energised, vitalised, restored, repaired, refreshed and recharged. No matter what the subject of the Assembly, it will solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday,” it states on the Sunday Assembly website.
Sunday Assembly churches have certainly taken a chapter out of the contemporary Christian movement — services include time for music, which tend to reflect messages of goodwill and camaraderie. And just like any other church service, messages aimed at equipping attendees with ways to improve and enrich their lives are delivered.
“Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn’t fair,” the site states. “We want The Sunday Assembly to be a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved.”
But not everyone is buying that argument. Some atheists have emerged as vocal opponents to the Sunday Assembly, claiming it is espousing the structure of “organized religion” that atheists stand against.
Rory Fenton, an atheist writer, came out swinging against Sunday Assembly, claiming it was attempting to adopt new-aged spirituality that promotes the philosophy that positive behavior will lead to positive outcomes.
Having attended a Sunday Assembly service in London, where the church originated, Fenton said parts of the service resembled that philosophy, as moments of silence were dedicated to envisioning life goals, with those in attendance being told that seeing your dreams come true is the first step to making them happen.
“Now I am all for encouraging people to achieve their goals but I feel the organisers were stepping out of their remit and the spirit of rationalism here,” Fenton wrote in an article. “The idea that success can be aided by imagining how great it would be to lose those pounds, get that job or kiss that girl is only one philosophy, and not only is it not supported by evidence, the evidence actively opposes it. This unscientific approach was further highlighted by choosing a Steiner school as the host venue for the meeting.”
Jones couldn’t disagree more.
“Being against the Sunday Assembly because religious people will then accuse atheism of being a religion seems as though you’re letting your enemies define your behavior,” Jones told The Rationalist, an atheist publication. “I know atheism isn’t a religion. You know atheism isn’t a religion. That’s the end of that argument.”
Yet at the same time, there is an element of “wonder” that is part of the church. Part of that is looking at aspects of “religion” that work, and asking the question, why?
“We want to learn loads of things from religion but learn it in an evidence-based manner,” Jones said. “People pray and feel good. Why is it that believing in God helps athletes perform better? But what is happening then? What is the power of internal enquiry? What’s the way to do it best? Our goal is to collect the best evidence-based tips, tools and techniques from all sources that will help turbo-charge your life.”
Creating a new image
While other minority groups in the U.S. have steadily increased positive public perception, atheists have been slow to the table.
“I think the image that we have put forward in a lot of ways has been a scary, mean, we want to tear down the walls, we want to do destructive things kind of image is what a lot of people have of us,” Elijah Senn told the Associated Press after attending a California service. “I’m really excited to be able to come together and show that it’s not about destruction. It’s about making things and making things better.”
The University of Minnesota study indicated that in 2006, more than 47 percent of people surveyed indicated they would not be accepting of a child choosing an atheist as a spouse. When asked about certain groups who they felt did not share their view of how society should function, more than 37 percent indicated atheists belonged in that category.
Lead Researcher Penny Edgell told ABC News at the time that atheists represented “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.”
“Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good,” she said.
That could have something to do with the intertwined relationship between Christianity and U.S. patriotism — at least that’s what Phil Zuckerman, a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College told the Associated Press.
“In the U.S., there’s a little bit of a feeling that if you’re not religious, you’re not patriotic. I think a lot of secular people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We are charitable, we are good people, we’re good parents and we are just as good citizens as you and we’re going to start a church to prove it. “It’s still a minority, but there’s enough of them now,” he said.
Sunday Assembly, with its emphasis on community involvement and charitable work, is targeting that notion directly with its church’s mission. The relationships among nonbelievers — out in the open — is also expected to change that perception.
Like any other minority group, the focus for Jones and his fellow Sunday Assembly members is to not hide behind what they see as false accusations, but to show themselves as the average people they believe they are.