Atheism starts its megachurch: Is it a religion now?
The non-religious Assembly is perhaps the fastest growing church in the world — and it’s coming to a mall near you
BY KATIE ENGELHART
Organized Atheism is now a franchise.
Yesterday, The Sunday Assembly—the 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. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.
The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.
There’s more to come: In October, the Sunday Assembly (SA) will launch a crowd funded indiegogo campaign, with the ambitious goal of raising £500,000 (or, about $793,000). This will be followed by a second wave of openings. “ The effort reads as part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.
Like any attempt at organized non-belief, the Sunday Assemblies will attract their fair share of derision from critics. But the franchise model might dismay some followers too. For a corporate empire needs an executive board; a brand needs brand managers; a federation needs a strict set of guiding tenets—and consequences for those who stray from the fold. And isn’t that all wholly opposed to Freethought?
That’s not to say that Assembly founders are moving forward blindly. What should not be overlooked is that as the “atheist church” becomes more “Church” than ever, it is working to downplay its Atheism—opening itself up to a broader kind of irreligiosity.
As of now, Jones is still tweaking the message. But he’s confident in the model: “It’s a way to scale goodness.”