Disclaimer: I’m one of the organizers for The Sunday Assembly Leeds and have met both Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.
One of the key ingredients to the early success of The Sunday Assembly, in my mind, is the use of the paradoxical phrase “Atheist Church.”
It simultaneously describes exactly what the event is trying to do – host a church-like service for those who don’t believe in god – while also drawing attention by way of the oxymoron.
However, given the number of pedants and the psychological baggage of various terms, people have complained about the usage of the phrase. Atheism is not a religion, so there isn’t really such thing as an atheist church. Furthermore, although non-belief in god is upfront, The Sunday Assembly is open to everyone and many agnostics or spiritual people find enjoyment in the services.
But that leaves the question about the other word: How much church is there in the atheist church?
Atheists are rightly critical of churches tendency to rely the top-down authority, blind adherence to dogmatism and faith, and doctrine that is frequently opposed to science and evidence. However, church can also be a place where a community comes together, where neighbours know one another’s names and care about how you are doing, and where food and song is used to unify and inspire.
While some atheists are prone to absolute knee-jerk rejection of anything that smells faintly religious, there are clearly strengths and weaknesses– and a lot of variation – in what we understand as churches. For many ex-religious, church culture leaves deep scars, while others miss the ritual. For those never raised in religion like myself, there is potentially some value in creating close secular communities.
Looking at The Sunday Assembly, it has already taken some steps to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of authoritarian religions (while potentially missing others, due to the incredible speed at which this has all erupted).
From the Public Charter of The Sunday Assembly:
The Sunday Assembly…
2. Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.
7. Is independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside businesses, organisations or services
9. We won’t won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can
New groups, as part of the Sunday Assemblies Everywhere accreditation process, are prohibited from allowing any one person to host (or lead) more than 50% of their services. Each event also features multiple voices, with invited speakers and readers, to diversify the voices. These efforts reduce the tendency for any Sunday Assembly to become a cult of personality.
On the other hand, The Sunday Assembly format has borrowed a lot from successful Evangelical Christian mega-churches. Books like The Purpose Driven Church are used as inspiration on how to improve the movement. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans are also quite recognizable as the faces of the organization and their comedy background has been attributed as the success of the Sunday Assembly in London.
Overall, church may not be the best description for The Sunday Assembly (notice that they self-describe mostly as a “godless congregation,” similar to Greg Epstein and James Croft’s upcoming book). Perhaps the best solution is to just give it a try and see if it’s something that can add to your life.