When hundreds of people congregate on a Sunday to sing uplifting songs together, listen to a rousing talk, and to give a little of their time to charity, many would immediately conjure up images of a Christian church congregation. However, these past few weeks in the United States and Australia such gatherings have taken place without any reference to God. These “Sunday Assemblies” are groups for non-believers of all kinds to gather and share in communal experience, fun songs (such as Here Comes the Sun), and charity. Founded by British comedy duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the Sunday Assembly’s aim is to provide former Christians with the community aspect they miss about going to church, as well as to spread the word that atheists are a growing group of friendly, charitable people.
Mr. Jones has said that he got the idea for the Sunday Assembly at a Christmas carol sing-a-long six years ago. He and Ms. Evans have emphasized the positive parts of church going, such as “singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, and thinking about improving yourself”. The purpose of the Sunday Assembly has been to bring all of these communal aspects of church to those who might not subscribe to belief in a God. Starting in East London, these Sunday meetings have grown to attract followers across the western world, from the British isles across North America to Australia.
Due to its many similarities to a usual Christian mass, the Sunday Assembly has been dubbed an “atheist mega-church” by dozens of reporters. However, it is worth nothing that this comparison is unfair simply in terms of turnout and profit; as the Sunday Assembly’s inaugural event in Los Angeles attracted only a little over 400 people. On the other hand the largest Christian mega-churches in the nation can easily pack in over 40,000 people every Sunday, and on good weeks can generate six figures worth of revenue.
The term “atheist mega-church” and the church-like meetings held by the Sunday Assembly have drawn strong criticism from many non-believers, who see atheism as the absence of religion. Thus any sort of Sunday meeting with speeches and songs can be viewed as trying to turn atheism into its own religion, something atheists and agnostics alike are wary of doing. Some have also condemned this as an attempt to “prove the worthiness” of atheists in the eyes of the religious, stating that non-believers have nothing to prove to theists. Though one might see their point in principle, and even agree with the atheists who state that their common belief is not a religion, the potential damage to society of God-less congregations seems virtually non-existent, so perhaps the criticism from fellow non-believers is not fully warranted.
Interestingly, reactions from Christians have been quite mixed, with some not sure whether to feel honored by this supposed “church” or to be critical of their God-less assembly. Fox News religious contributor Father Jonathan Morris said that he thinks it is great that atheists still congregate to socialize and listen to great music and discuss good literature, but he also says that pushing the identity of being not a believer is “not a positive thing for society”. While this approach may seem oxymoronic, it shows the arrogance of the Christian-right in America, who while speaking of reaching out a hand to non-believers they condescendingly refer to the Sunday Assembly as, to again quote Fox News, a “sad parody”.
Perhaps, for this reason, the Sunday Assembly is beneficial for non-believers in the United States. It could serve the purpose of getting the word out that non-believers are not unpatriotic, and are in fact charitable, happy, and community-oriented people. In a country so heavily influenced by Christianity this may in fact be a positive step towards increased secularism, assuming that secularism is preferable. The Sunday Assembly will most likely spur debate amongst non-believers with regards to their mobilization and organization. With recent Pew Research polls reporting that 19.6% of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation, it is an important time for America to realize that it is not solely a Christian nation.