In a Word, No.

While people may disagree on the philosophy of religion, it’s clear they have the process of community building down to a science.  You’d hope so after thousands of years of perfecting the art.  Unfortunately, since it also has the lion’s share of the market, there are few other widely-available opportunities for those who don’t buy into any of the core beliefs that hold any of those communities together.

Well, people are working on that.

Maybe not.

Earlier this year, a UK-based secular humanist / freethinker group called The Sunday Assembly went on line. Their goal, based on the information on their website, is to provide a regular opportunity for atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and other assorted non-religious and non-believing folks to get together, listen to some talks, hear some cool music, and connect with one another. Their motto – “Live better, help often, wonder more” – is the foundation upon which their entire organization is based, and helps people achieve this through sharing ideas, hosting charity events, and inviting speakers to give talks about the universe we live in.


So obviously, the parallels spark the expected line of questions (OMG is atheism a religion now?) … to which “no” is and always has been the answer, but I think people enjoy asking either because they enjoy stirring the pot a little or because they don’t understand what either atheism or religion really is.  Nor do they understand that since there’s no central atheist “authority”, we’re all just doing whatever makes sense and works for us.

Atheism, for one, is a single position on a single issue:  belief in a god or gods.  Atheism lacks this belief, and that’s it.  You can take on any kind of personal philosophy or world view that you like, and as long as you don’t believe in a god in the process, you’re still an atheist.  Further, this simple act of rejecting the claims made by religion that God exists on the basis that they have never met their burden of proof in no way creates a new religion in the process, nor does it convert someone to another.  It simply removes that person from that entire belief system altogether.

A better question would be whether secular humanism – a common but not inevitable destination subsequent to shedding one’s belief in the supernatural – should be considered a religion.  Again, the obvious answer is no, since there’s no deity, rituals, or holy scripture involved thus making it fall squarely into the category of a philosophy, but it’s still a better question than the original one.

As for the “atheist church”?  Well, that’s where it gets a little muddy.  It doesn’t matter what you call it; atheism still isn’t a religion.  As the Salon article points out, the founders of the movement are trying to “scale down” its automatic association with atheism specifically and just focus on the humanist components for a more inclusive experience.  Good idea, since that’s really what it is to start with.  I didn’t go to a “theist” church when I was growing up; I was Catholic.  Even though my philosophical position was that of theism, I went to the church I did because of my Catholicism.  In other words, it’s true that an overwhelming majority of attendees to this church will be atheists, they will attend because of their humanist worldview.


Right now, they’re in the very early stages of the process, meaning there’s going to be problems, issues, arguments, and constant revisions until the whole thing either gets scrapped or finds a way to adjust to suit the needs of each local community in which there is a branch location.  (Sorry, I’m not going to call them churches.)  However, their goal is pretty straightforward.

What should you expect from a Sunday Assembly event?

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.

But life can be tough… It is. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn’t fair. 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.

Most of all, have fun, be nice and join in.

They also emphasize there is no doctrine, no deity, and no dogma.  Despite this, the entire idea still smacks of the church many of us knew, loved, and later left when we were growing up … only with the “god” bits taken out.  There’s organizational spaces for songs, speakers (either from outside the congregation or internal personal ‘testimonies’), and a moment of “silent reflection”.  All in all, it sounds interesting enough for me to want to pay them a visit if they happen to start one up around here, though I admit that unless the talks were very interesting (on the order of some of the TED stuff I’ve seen) I still wouldn’t find myself there every week.

On the other hand, it would get me out of the house, put me in the same room with people of similar but not identical beliefs, and force me to think about my own views of atheism, secularism, and how the movement as a whole can successfully move forward in the 21st century.

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11 Responses to In a Word, No.

  1. Adam Benton says:

    The problem I have with these secular humanist “churches” is that they seem to be a bit of a cargo cult religion.

    You’ve probably heard the term cargo cult, right? Based on tribes who tried to emulate airports in an effort to summon aeroplanes, with no idea about what airports actually are or why aeroplanes went there. The term has often been applied to psuedoscience, pointing out how many psuedoscientists will dress up in lab coats, swirl things around test tubes, undertake all the trappings of science without understanding what science really is.

    In this context, I see many humanist groups adopting the trappings of religion but with little justification beyond “religion does it too.” For example, I think they’re planning it on a Sunday morning. Why then? Would not Sunday afternoon be better so people don’t have to wake up so early? Why not another day (my local skeptics in the pub is on a Thursday). As far as I can tell, it’s just because “that’s what religions do.”

    • I don’t think this is necessarily the case, rather (as Erin commented after you) the motivating factor in doing this is to provide the psychological equivalent of methadone to newly minted atheists who still feel the need for ritual and order, even if it’s without God at the forefront. I think there is definitely a strong “religion does it too” basis for a lot of what they’re doing … but I agree with their justification: it’s worked for the church for centuries, so why not set our starting point there ourselves? Over time they’ll make adjustments, evolve, and either succeed or fail based on public response.

      It’s my opinion that within a couple of generations this entire idea will be moot anyway. Even if nonbelief itself isn’t on the rise, irreligiosity is. Either one really puts churches out of business. As attendance drops, so will the number of “converted” atheists who still want Church Lite.

      All of the flavor, none of the Jesus-y aftertaste!

  2. Erin W says:

    We have a group here in Philly called the Ethical Society. The original ES in New York was founded by folks who wanted to do Judaism without a deity, but the Philly group has a decidedly more Protestant feel. It actually sounds exactly like these Sunday Assemblies. The Society here has its own building on Rittenhouse Square that isn’t especially churchlike by itself, it could just be any old house with a ballroom, but they definitely took all the parts of the church services I grew up with, including the offertory, and just took out the god stuff. I didn’t find it suited me, but I could see where it might be the sort of methadone of the atheism world.

    • Ah, churches based on the Jefferson bible. I like it. I think you’re really on to something with the comparison of these places to methadone, by the way. It’s just enough to make new non-believers feel at home and fill the same psychological need as church without any of the superstitious stuff they couldn’t swallow anymore.

      I don’t miss church … though if the presentations and talks were interesting and entertaining enough, I’d probably go. And, as I keep hearing from my shorter half, I do need to get out more often …

  3. CHope says:

    (Yes, I’m back to CHope again.)

    Hey Jason,

    I have mixed feelings about traditional settings for atheists. The pros: a place for socializing, connecting and a place for people to have weddings, funerals and birth announcements. The cons: sounds too much like church, seems like religion. offerings have to be taken up and I’m sure at some point someone in leadership gets power hungry like every other spiritual leader.

    I’m not a fan of the meet up groups because the hours are odd and the activities aren’t exactly family friendly, that’s another reason why, as a wife and mom of small children, I can understand how a church type atmosphere appeals to some people.

    I looked into our local Unitarian churches, there is one that’s 20 miles from us and another that is 30 miles from us. From what I saw on both of their blogs, there’s still emphasis on God and hymns at both locations. I want something where the whole idea of God is completely gutted and I don’t care for the rituals and traditions of religion either.

    Our family hasn’t been to anything remotely like a church service since Independence weekend of 2012. I don’t miss it. Do I feel alone as a non believer in west Tennessee just east of Arkansas and north of Mississippi? Absolutely! However, I refuse to settle for just anything regarding the mental and emotional well being of my little family. We just try to keep ourselves busy with our family, work, school, soccer, music and school programs. When we get a chance, we make it to Memphis or Nashville to visit a museum, zoo, state park or something totally goofy where we can just relax.


      Unfortunately, since you were the last of three comments and you all said similar things, I’ll point you to the other replies for a little more detail. Suffice to say they’re all excellent points. I see it as a convenient way to meet up with like minded people in a time and place in our society where such opportunities aren’t as common or as easy as they should be. To your point, if there’s a hierarchy and command structure, there will be power trips and corruption, giving people who already hate atheists just another reason to think we’re as bad as they think we are.

      • CHope says:

        To your point, if there’s a hierarchy and command structure, there will be power trips and corruption, giving people who already hate atheists just another reason to think we’re as bad as they think we are.

        EXACTLY! And you know what that will cause, a renewed interest in Christianity, a “revival”.

        (Thanks for the points above, Jason. Hope you have a fantastic week!)

  4. I think the people who want a “substitute church” right now are those folks who grew up with religions and the fond memories of traditions and who are raising children and want this for them. (Was that a convoluted sentence?) That’s what I’m seeing. There are some folks looking for support, but they are finding it on-line, in Meet-Up and through humanist groups.

    A lot of the religious have left the brick and mortar churches (the Nones) and consider themselves believers, but “independents.”

    I don’t think that any of these atheist churches that are popping up will stick, IMHO, as we discover that we no longer need religion.

    • Exactly. Erin put it well when she called them the methadone of former believers. They’ll be around for a while to provide the needed comfort during our (hopefully inevitable) transition to non-belief. Still, I’d poke my head in for a visit … especially if they have some cool speakers.

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