Why “Atheist Churches” Are a Disaster For Atheism

As a self-respecting godless heathen, I had been doing my best to ignore the fledgling Sunday Assembly (SA) – an “atheist church” started by British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. For a time I was convinced the whole thing was a slightly less facetious iteration of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But reality has rendered my continued disinterest in this ridiculous enterprise untenable, as it actually seems to be gaining traction among some nonbelievers.

According to Salon, “[T]he London-based ‘Atheist Church’ that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over – announced a new ‘global missionary tour.’ In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia.” Additionally, the SA will commence a crowdfunding campaign in October to raise about $800,000 that will be followed by another round of “church” openings.

While this plan may come to fruition, it is based on nonsense. Despite the best efforts of obfuscators to assert the contrary, atheism is not a religion – not in any meaningful sense, anyway.

And at a time when atheists are trying to fight this mischaracterization – including in the courts – it is incredibly counterproductive for Jones and Evans to feed the misconceptions with their charade because the fact is, an “atheist church” makes as much sense as a Baptist synagogue.

Earlier this year, the duo explained their motivations in the New York Times:

“[C]hurch has got so many awesome things going for it. Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”

Based on my own personal experience attending church, as well as other believers-turned-heretics I have spoken with, church had so few “awesome things going for it,” that we left. For atheists every religious service is predicated on a falsehood, regardless of whatever feel-good niceties may accompany its production.

The SA founders come off as a less eloquent version of pseudo-philosopher Alain de Botton, who last year proposed his grand idea for a “temple for atheists” in London. De Botton is the author of Religion for Atheists, which asserts that the superficial rituals of religion and churchgoing ought to be appropriated by nonbelievers who wish to find meaning.

The comedians who founded the SA seem to have beaten de Botton to the punch line of this rather unfunny joke.

Of course, the blame for this silliness cannot be placed entirely with Jones and Evans. Clearly they have tapped into a market of nonbelievers who for some reason still find it necessary to attend “church” to infuse their lives with meaning. It really is a sad state of affairs, as what they are aiming for can just as well be accomplished by an informal gathering at a coffee shop, bar, book club, concert, lecture, or in their own homes. For the freethought movement’s sake, I sincerely hope that the Sunday Assembly is a fleeting cultural idiosyncrasy and not emblematic of a broader trend.