Wednesday night, the charismatic leader of the world’s newest religious movement was bouncing manically around a rehearsal room in the basement of the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C., herding his flock into chairs. Freddie Mercury’s dulcet tones thumped out of the speakers. The congregation—a motley crew of four dozen 20-somethings wearing tie clips and middle-aged hippies in patterned fleeces—shambled to the front of the room as Sanderson Jones, the man of the hour, warned us that he was going to make us sing. “When they killed Richard III, a group of people did it so they didn’t have to take responsibility for what happened,” said Jones, a tall man sporting enormous black-rimmed glasses with a wraparound band—the kind you give toddlers or athletes to keep their glasses from falling off. “It’s the same with singing.”
Jones is an apostle for the Sunday Assembly, a congregation of nonbelievers that was founded in England in January. (Tagline: “A global network of super people who want to make the most of this one life we know we have.”) He’s fond of telling journalists that the Sunday assembly is the fastest-growing religion in the world. (The Mormon Church might disagree, but who’s counting?) Over the past ten months, the Sunday Assembly has exploded from a monthly service held in a deconsecrated church in East London, populated mostly by hipsters, into an international phenomenon. Jones and his co-founder, Pippa Evans, who are both stand-up comedians, landed in the United States earlier this week to launch a global “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour, to franchise their brand abroad. Over the next month, new Sunday Assemblies will open in Ireland, the United States, and Australia.
The point of the Assemblies, according to Jones and Evans, is simple. Atheists want the community feel and spiritual reflection that organized religion has traditionally provided—just without all that God business. Their sales pitch, too, is straightforward. “We don’t have heaven or hell to get people in the door,” Jones explains. “So we make it a lot of fun.”
If there were ever a moment for an atheist church, it’s now. In the U.S., the religiously unaffiliated make up nearly 20 percent of the population. Surprisingly few of these defectors have rejected spirituality entirely. Instead, it’s religious structures, which they say are too allied with money, power, and politics, that are turning them off.
For the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, something like the Sunday Assembly could have a lot of appeal. I know, because I’m part of that amorphous demographic.
The Sunday Assembly proposes to keep the “good bits” of religion—the songs, friendships, and acts of kindness—and divorce them from their theological roots. Their church—yes, they call it a church—doesn’t have to be serious or somber or fixated on sin; it can be a communal celebration of the here and now. For Jones and Evans, that means a lot of singing, a little dancing, and some talk about life’s mysteries, followed by tea and cake.
When I arrived at the Woolly Mammoth on Wednesday, I settled down in the second row and quickly discovered that I was sitting next to Roy Speckhardt, a dapper man who looks a little like Fred Armisen and also happens to be the director of the American Humanist Association. It was Speckhardt’s first Sunday Assembly, and he was excited. This model could really appeal to 20-somethings, he explained. Even the loud music, he said—shouting to be heard—would make humanism seem more modern and exciting.
Once people were seated, Jones led the crowd in a rousing “karaoke” version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” glowering at the people (like me) who refrained from dancing in place. A young man in a backward purple baseball cap read two original poems. Then John Shook, a senior research fellow at D.C.’s Center for Inquiry, stood to deliver a rambling paean to secular life. “I’d rather believe in nothing than end up believing in fantasy,” he declared, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet and clutching the microphone, which emitted occasional screeches. “We are earthlings, first and foremost. Our world is woven and composed of nature’s vibrant chords.”
In an attempt to foster camaraderie among the group, Evans announced that we would play something called “Danish clapping,” a game in which two people stand in front of each other, wave their hands to the right and left, and high-five when their hands happen to go the same way. Danish clapping, as it happens, is not for people with less-than-perfect gross motor skills. My partner, a middle-aged man named Art with tufty gray hair, gave up in frustration after a few mistimed claps and wandered back to his seat as Jones bellowed, “Get to know your partner! Talk to someone you’ve never met before!”
Not everyone was buying it. During a rare moment of silence, I locked eyes with an uncomfortable-looking woman who was staring pointedly at the exit sign.
But overall, it seemed to be a success. By the end of the service, a handful of Assembly-goers had set the date for their next meeting and gathered in the lobby of the theater to talk to Jones about an unlikely subject—branding and accreditation. Jones explained that when the group registered with Sunday Assembly HQ in London, they would receive a packet outlining tips and tricks for getting the group off the ground. Later, as part of the accreditation process, the group would be subject to a peer review.
It was unexpectedly official, for a movement that had been billed as grassroots and decentralized. But given the fact that Jones spent much of his early career as a salesman for The Economist, perhaps the emphasis on good marketing shouldn’t be surprising. As recently as April, the Sunday Assembly was more un-PC—even poking fun at Christianity—but now, thanks to the alluring prospect of franchising, the message has changed. “If you like to talk about how religion is total crap, this probably isn’t the group for you,” he told the D.C. group. “We’re radically inclusive. Just because we don’t believe in God, we’re not going to tell other people they need to be atheists or skeptics or humanists too.”
What he didn’t seem to realize was that the U.S. does have something very like an atheist church: Unitarian-Universalism, a faith tradition that was born in the 1960s when two once-heretical Christian sects merged. Unitarian-Universalists have carved out a thriving niche as a religion that has no creed, dogma, or deity; the services resemble a Protestant liturgy, with all references to Jesus or God quietly excised. They celebrate Christmas with a Godless twist—singing doctored carols that reference “the Word” instead of “the Lord”—and flounder on Easter, struggling to explain to their children that the holiday is really about the changing of the seasons, rather than the crucifixion and resurrection of a man who large numbers of Americans also happen to believe is the son of God. It seems, on its surface at least, like the perfect home for soulful atheists, or people (like Jones) who want to sing Christmas carols without all that Jesus baggage.
I was curious to see whether the Sunday Assembly could offer something new because I am a Unitarian-Universalist apostate (if such a thing can be). I drifted away from the church in my teens, after concluding that the religion didn’t have enough depth to form a serious moral code. It’s all fine and dandy to remove God from religion, but you have to replace it with something, or all you have is a community of people united by a vague, unspoken mistrust of Christianity.
The Sunday Assembly felt, if anything, like Unitarianism lite. Part of the problem was the drab surroundings—it’s hard to feel uplifted in a fluorescent-lit rehearsal room—but the relentless emphasis on the joy of life was also exhausting and puzzling. Perhaps, for some, singing 1980s power ballads in a group full of strangers can be a spiritual experience, but I felt awkward and anxious, hoping that Jones wouldn’t yell at me to uncross my arms. Except for an odd moment when Jones suddenly began talking about his mother’s death, the talks were light-hearted and self-affirming, congratulating the congregation for choosing nonbelief without tackling the serious metaphysical questions that attend atheism. (Such as: If we are just random collections of atoms, then why do we need the Sunday Assembly at all?) It was also hard to imagine how future Assemblies would function without their leaders. Jones’s relentless enthusiasm was the only thing that kept me from sidling toward the door.
The thought of the original Sunday Assembly—the one held in a church in London, that attracts several hundred congregants each month—was more tempting. It’s possible that some of the Assembly’s charm got lost in transatlantic translation; that the summer camp silliness would have felt more natural in a bigger group. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the attitude behind the Sunday Assembly. It’s easy to imagine Jones as a kind of modern-day Apostle Paul, founding upstart communities of fun-loving nonbelievers.
But as Jones and Evans launched into “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the final number of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking—even if you can start a new religion that substitutes Bon Jovi songs for God, isn’t there a little more out there than this?