The founders of the “Sunday Assembly” in London say they’re not forming a new church, though they do meet on a Sunday. And they say they’re not trying to create a new religion, but their movement has a growing number of followers around the world.
There's no God, no deities, no doctrine ... so what is it?
Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the Sunday Assembly, describes the group as a godless congregation that celebrates life. He started it along with Pippa Evans.
“We've got an awesome motto: live better, help often and wonder more. And our mission is to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible,” say Evans and Jones, speaking together, at times in unison.
The pair say they felt there weren’t any Sunday morning communal events that brought people together to celebrate life — at least events that didn't include God or religion.
Still, you can't help but notice the similarities to a traditional church service. Again, it meets on a Sunday. Someone delivers a sermon of sorts. There's chanting and, of course, choral singing. It’s Freddie Mercury, though, not your standard church fare. When all that's done, there's a moment given over to silent contemplation and giving thanks — a prayer if you will.
It even held its first meetings in a deconsecrated church in North London before increased attendance forced them into bigger premises.
“We put out about 50 chairs, and over 200 people turned up, so it was pretty big from the get go,” Evans says.
And it's getting bigger: They recently ran an international outreach tour called “40 days and 40 nights” — another religious association, this time to the tale of Noah’s Ark. Their efforts have led to satellite assemblies in other cities in the UK, as well as in the US and Australia.
“Due to the wonders of the Internet and social media, people heard about what we were doing and said, ‘Oh, that sounds great.' They got in touch with us and we thought, look we're clearly doing something people like, we'll help other people do it too,” said Jones.
Jones and Evans don't shun the term atheists, but prefer to call themselves “non-believers.” Evans adds, though, that believers are also welcome.
Last month, four assemblies in Britain met in different cities on the same day. Each group subscribes to the same idea.
“This is about trying to get people back together, connecting with each other and trying to help people live their life to the full,” Evans says.
Of course, Jones and Evans aren’t the first to found a non-religious church with religious undertones.
“The idea of atheist religions, or at the very least non-Christian religions, is quite an old one really,” says Nik Spencer, the research director at Theos, a religion-focused think tank based in London. He's also the author of a new book about the history of atheism.
Spencer said organized alternatives to the Catholic Church sprang up in the wake of the French Revolution, keeping the model of a traditional service.
“Particularly in the 1830s when certain thinkers developed what you could call Catholicism without God, in which people celebrated humanity, in which humanity replaced God as the object of worship,” he adds.
These movements started enthusiastically, but without God as the headline act, support eventually waned. The Sunday Assembly may be hot right now, but Spencer says these movements need a center of gravity.
“If, as is the case in a lot of these movements, their center of gravity has effectively been an absence — that is often not quite strong enough to hold them together,” he says.
For now, though, people attending the Sunday Assembly in London are enthusiastically embracing it. Those I met describe it as a more positive experience than a traditional church service.
“I like the sense of community, I like that it's not a lecture, that it's freer,” says one participant.
“I think it's inspiring, actually, to help people be their best selves,” adds another.
And the founders of The Sunday Assembly stress their first, and really only, commandment to keep their movement growing: Thou shalt have fun.