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Church for Atheists Goes Global

  • Mike Osborne

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians - Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans - decided to create one.

Their “Sunday Assembly” movement - something like church, they say, but without God - has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of congregations around the world.

The Assembly in Nashville, Tennessee, meets once a month. A recent gathering, on a warm Sunday morning in a downtown park, had the look and feel of church. There were songs - all Beatles tunes on this day - special readings, a message, even an offering at the end of the service. Original Nashville Assembly member Landry Butler says that is intentional: church provides a great model for building a sense of community.

“That has a powerful way of bringing people together for the common good and focusing that energy. So we wanted to use that as a model. Because it’s something that people are familiar with.”

And church is especially familiar in this region. Religious participation rates in Tennessee are some of the highest in the nation. So Butler says he’s always surprised at how many believers show up for the atheist service. “They go back to their regular church the other Sunday’s of the month, and then they come and hang with us when they can. And that’s been a good way of sort of bridging those two communities.”

Motto: Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More

That gap between believers and atheists has always been tense and sometimes hostile, but Butler says the Assembly isn’t interested in conflict.

“There are a lot of atheists out there who like to beat up on religious people, and we’re not about that. We want to be all inclusive.”

A good example of that inclusiveness plays out regularly at a local homeless shelter. Volunteers from the Sunday Assembly routinely help serve meals at Room-in-the-Inn, a Christian ministry that serves Nashville’s homeless. The group prepares the food, serves it, and interacts with the men and women who show up for a hot meal. Elvis Wilson says one of the Sunday Assembly’s core values is “help often.”

“As an atheist, I want people to know that I care and that we have moral values," he explained. "We live in the now. We want to make sure that people are treated with respect and well taken care of.”

The Sunday Assembly movement has experienced phenomenal growth. At the end of September, more than 30 new assemblies met on a single Sunday. Founders Jones and Evans are now in the process of crowd-funding a website that they hope will tie the global movement together.