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11 Nov, 2013 07:36

(Non)Mass movement: Atheist mega-churches take Western world by storm

(Non)Mass movement: Atheist mega-churches take Western world by storm

Singing songs, clapping hands, praising acts of giving and community work – all the things present in a Church have now found an official home in so-called ‘atheist mega-churches’, a quirky idea spreading like wildfire across the Western world.

One of the latest countries to come into contact with the trend is the United States, with dozens of gatherings by those sharing in their non-belief in God planned ahead. A similar situation can be seen happening in Australia and Canada. But it all started in the United Kingdom in January 2013, when two popular comedians started seeking an outlet for their feelings on the subject.

Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans then embarked on a quest to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars to help atheists the world over connect with each other, do good deeds and laugh in the kind of community atmosphere a Church would offer – except without God.

The Associated Press reported from Los Angeles on Sunday, where several hundred people gathered to do just that – as they had been doing more and more in places like New York, San Diego, Nashville and others.

Jones and Evans have dedicated an entire comedy tour around the US and Australia – called ‘40 days, 40 nights’ – to raise $800,000 to establish such congregations around the globe. They have just passed the $50,000 mark.

What is perhaps unexpected of Jones’ and Evans’ atheism is their refusal to crucify believers in God. In fact it is just the opposite. Jones remembers being very moved six years ago by the feeling of a Christmas carol concert, which, sadly for him, was just short of what he was looking for.

"There was so much about it that I loved, but it's a shame because at the heart of it, it's something I don't believe in," Jones explains to his 'disciples'. "If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people. And doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of this is not to like?” 

He told RT at one of the group's London congregations that "I think that, just because you don't believe in God, doesn't mean you don't want to hear really interesting talks, to think about improving yourself, to sing with others and have a cup of tea with them at the end. This is really all the best things about Church, but without the one thing I'm uncomfortable with - which is the religion part."

Although the Sunday Assembly – as its founders christened it – is a godless place and not an official religious institution, it is marked by a uniquely religious atmosphere. Evans would enter, followed by a band playing classic rock hits. Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ is the anthem. There is a ‘service’, with reading, discussion, moments for reflection, and activities directed at engaging the members in getting to know each other. But a lot of this has a very serious mission – to engage in community work and the setting up of projects.

Just like a real Church, there is a sermon. But it is dedicated to questions about the universe and things like quantum theory and anti-matter, all very tongue-in-cheek.

All this is then tied up with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’, with everyone standing up to sing.

British comedians Sanderson Jones (R) and Pippa Evans.(AFP Photo / Leon Neal)

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

So says the homepage of the organization set up to promote Jones’ and Evans’ atheist congregations. Founded in January this year, it went from its cradle in an East London community center to sending out press releases containing expansion plans, coupled with a 3,000 percent growth in the several months the movement was in operation.

Jones and Evans are confident that the world is looking at “the fastest growing church in the world,” as Alternet cites them as saying. And this was before the giant fund-raising campaign-slash-comedy-tour was launched.

And the duo’s initiative is far from a joke, as the rise of their movement coincides with the increasing view that there are more atheists in America than previously thought. So claims the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, after discovering that the percentage of atheist responders to their survey has risen by 5 percent in the course of five years, to 20 percent. That group was further broken down into categories that view themselves as either ‘spiritual’, or believers – but not in an organized religion.

In Britain, a quarter describe themselves as having no religion at all, and that figure is going up by about 750,000 people each year. Meanwhile, Christianity is losing believers at an incredible pace - more than half a million followers annually. At those speeds, the number of atheists is projected to overtake the number of believers by 2030, RT's Polly Boiko reported from London. 

"The congregations are getting older and older. And I think we're getting now to the stage where there are second and third generations of people who've just never been to a Church. More and more people are finding that the Church is not relevant, particularly when the leaders of Churches taking positions on women's rights and gay rights, which are totally [different] from what people in the congregation think," said Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director at the National Secular Society.

Each place where the movement takes root also has its own reasons for allowing it to flourish, explained Phil Zuckerman, professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, US.

"In the US, there's a little bit of a feeling that if you're not religious, you're not patriotic. I think a lot of secular people say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We are charitable, we are good people, we're good parents and we are just as good citizens as you and we're going to start a church to prove it… it’s still a minority, but there’s enough of them now.”

Naysayers of course exist, even among the atheist camp. Some of them flat-out do not believe a movement so closely resembling religion should be set up for anything indicating a lack of belief. Others are pessimistic about the movement’s growth because they think atheism for many is the exact opposite of community.

Roy Spekchardt, executive director of the America Humanist Association, told Alternet that the one strong challenge he sees to the movement is that "it tends to overlook the fact that the majority of involved atheists and humanists aren’t actually interested in personally being involved in a congregation atmosphere.”

But as criticism continues to pour in – and is expected – the Sunday Assembly continues to grow at a rapid rate.