Beliefs Chris Stedman: Faitheist Culture Ethics Institutions NBP Opinion

Why would a Christian pastor help an atheist start a ‘godless congregation’?

A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.
A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.
A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.

A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.

Last weekend the number of Sunday Assembly locations more than doubled, continuing the impressively rapid spread of these “godless congregations” since the first one launched in January 2013.

Why are these congregations expanding so quickly? I think there are a number of reasons:

  • They’re meeting a real need that some nonreligious people have for community, connection, and inspiration.
  • They’re overtly welcoming of all people, nonreligious and religious alike.
  • They offer people an opportunity to give back to their communities and act on their values through service work.
  • As the atheist movement struggles with its reputation as being largely made up of (and concerned about) white heterosexual men, Sunday Assemblies are notably more diverse.

But there’s another factor worth noting: The Sunday Assembly model explicitly looks to religious communities for ideas and inspiration.

This was strikingly clear when The Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt visited the launch of a new Sunday Assembly location near Cleveland last weekend, filming the service and interviewing participants and organizers. Midway into their video on the event, Gabbatt asked Layla Nelson, one of the organizers, if she gets pushback from religious people for being a “prominent atheist” and Sunday Assembly organizer.

“I do have several close friends who are religious—one of my best friends from high school, she is a pastor,” Nelson replied. “I actually turned to my pastor friend to ask her, ‘How do we start a church?” And she gave me reams of advice. Lots of great ideas.”

“So your pastor friend gave you advice on how to start a godless church?” Gabbatt said, laughing.

You can hear the surprise in Gabbatt’s voice as he takes in her response. But Nelson’s approach is a big part of why Sunday Assembly is growing, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to see more of.

In a pluralistic society, communities thrive when they work together and learn from one another. In “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” Harvard University’s Robert Putnam explains that diversity can help build strong communities. But, generally speaking, people tend to “hunker down” with those that they see as similar and view others suspiciously. So for diversity—including religious diversity—to be an asset instead of an obstacle, people from different communities need to reach across lines of difference and learn from one another.

Years ago, as an atheist studying in theological schools alongside religious classmates, I came to understand that some of the most important things I’ve learned have come from relationships with individuals and communities that do not share my views. As an interfaith activist, I’ve since met countless other people who say that working with and learning from people of other faiths and beliefs has enriched their work in their own communities. And sure enough, many of the strategies I use today as an atheist and Humanist community organizer came directly from my work with a Missionary Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago, the Somali Muslim community in Minneapolis, and other religious communities.

Many other atheists have suggested that we look to other communities (including religious ones) for inspiration before—a recent example of this was Alain de Botton’s thought-provoking book Religion for Atheists. But as more and more atheists invest in community for the nonreligious, it’s helpful to have another reminder that we can learn from how religious communities bring people together, help them celebrate life’s joys and reflect on its challenges, and offer opportunities to improve the world—even as we disagree with some of their ideas.

When we’re not afraid to learn from other communities—both religious communities and other atheist and Humanist communities like Ethical Culture—we can benefit from their experience and expertise.

As I continue to learn and grow as a Humanist community organizer, I’m grateful that Sunday Assembly is demonstrating the value of working with and learning from others. Their success is a welcome reminder that (to borrow one of my friend Vlad‘s favorite expressions) a rising tide lifts all ships.


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  • That’s a very good but the answer is only that false religion would be the promoter of it! God wants his followers to worship him in spirit and truth and not lies about him! (John 4:24)

  • The Christian pastor probably sees this “athiest church” as sort of like training wheels for the athiests. You soften up their resistence with “athiest church,” getting them ready for Jesus to penetrate their souls with His light!

  • Atheist Assemblies are fun.
    But it isn’t religion and it isn’t a cult.

    Its just some fun songs, some words of secular wisdom and good food.
    Everybody behaves nicely toward one another, has fun and helps cleanup.
    And nobody has to show up and there is no guilt trip.

    And some of them are getting more interesting with poetry readings, science workshops for kids and humanitarian outreach.

    Many Atheists are eager to help those in need. The Assemblies offer a chance to do outreach which don’t waste time and money on supernatural mumbo jumbo.

  • Actually, the specific “advice” that was offered by the “Christian pastor”, is not explained or listed in this article. Nor is there any explanation given from said pastor as to WHY (or with what purposes) she offered atheist Layla Nelson advice on “how to start a church.”

    Maybe the clergyperson was just trying to be friendly. Nobody seems to know.

    Just saying that we honestly don’t know what this pastor “probably sees” or not, regarding this “atheist church.” We’re simply told that this person gave some sort of advice, upon request, to atheist Layla Nelson. And apparently the advice, whatever it was, was well-received by Nelson and other atheists.

    And no, this “atheist church”, whatever it is, is NOT a church in the New Testament sense. Not at all. Not even close. It’s a religion, oh yes, but it absolutely is NOT a church.

  • Wonderful article, Chris! Yes, a rising tide lifts all ships!

    For those who don’t understand, the Sunday Assembly is less of an “Atheist” church than it is simply a non-religious church-like gathering. Our Cleveland group meets once a month, but we do charitable and social activities outside of the regular meeting. My pastor friend and I have supported each other through our endeavors, and I have enjoyed attending her church services over the years. When she preaches, she makes a point to welcome everyone–including the non-believers (which she knows I am). I see her as a role model as she has always made me feel welcome. She doesn’t try to convert me, and I don’t try to convert her. Our mutual respect is the foundation of our friendship (or perhaps it is all those late nights we spent in high school talking about our significant others).

    To respond to Doc Anthony, my clery friend spent a considerable amount of time helping me understand all that goes into developing a church-like community. She gave me guidance on topics I hadn’t even thought of. My friend understands that I don’t have a problem with other humans believing in unproven ideas–my dislike of religion occurs when churches use these unproven ideas to restrict the rights of church members as well as those outside of the church. On this point, my pastor friend agrees with me 100%. My friend plans on attending and participating in future meetings, and we will work to ensure that she and other religious attendees do not feel alienated for their beliefs.

    My experiences with the church are 99% positive. My only problem was a run-in with a Sunday school teacher who reprimanded me for drawing a picture of God. The reason I am not Christian (or any other religion) is that my brain requires proof before it will believe in something–faith is not enough for me. Also, I am comfortable not knowing the answers to many of life’s questions. I have been asked by religious acquaintances, “How can you stand not knowing what happens to you when you die (or why we are here)?” and my response is, “I don’t know a lot of things, including calculus, how genes work, and where my socks disappear in the dryer. But I’m Ok with not knowing how these things work–they will continue working without my understanding. I’m not going to create or believe an unproven explanation.”

    Regardless of my lack of faith, I still have an innate need to gather with others, be inspired to improve my life, and participate in humanitarian efforts. Before the Sunday Assembly came about, I felt pretty “unwanted” since I didn’t fit into any group. My son, who has also chosen to be atheist, has experienced feeling “unwanted” himself–he cannot participate in the Boy Scouts without taking a false oath, and he doesn’t know what to say during the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Other children have asked him why he doesn’t go to church, and he has expressed sadness to me that he doesn’t know how to respond. Now that we have the Sunday Assembly, he feels more confident in his choice to be atheist. And before folks respond that I probably didn’t give my son a choice, I will point out that I read him children’s Bible stories alongside mythology and other creation stories when he was younger so that he could see many viewpoints to make up his own mind. For a year or so, he firmly believed that God was a “Transformer in the Sky,” and I never argued him out of it. Two years ago, he told me that he doesn’t believe in God, and doesn’t understand why other people do when there is no proof (he’s a devout fan of “Mythbusters,” and he made a comparison to the TV show when he informed me of his decision).

    I am grateful to the founders of the Sunday Assembly (Pippa Anderson and Sanderson Jones) for recognizing the need for this sort of thing. Clearly, the several thousand Sunday Assembly members around the world would agree that a void is now filled, and we can live happier, healthier, more meaningful lives as a result.

  • I’m a member of the Sunday Assembly in Nashville, Tennessee.
    For me, it’s not a religion. It isn’t just fun, good friends, good music, good food, good conversations and interesting topics from a wide range of disciplines being presented although all of these things are there. It isn’t just an opportunity to get involved in community service, which is also important.
    It’s a safe harbor for people who have to either hide their true beliefs or always have a defense prepared. Many religious people are encouraged to try to convert or attack us and this is very common in the Bible Belt. We encounter hostility from strangers, coworkers, friends, and even family on the regular. It’s really good to have some time set aside once a month where we don’t have to worry about that.

  • It is i think helpful in discussions of these types for people to get a better sense of what “Religion” actually Means.

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Latin term religiō, origin of the modern lexeme religion (via Old French/Middle Latin) is of ultimately obscure etymology. It is recorded beginning in the 1st century BC, i.e. in Classical Latin at the beginning of the Roman Empire, notably by Cicero, in the sense of “scrupulous or strict observance of the traditional cultus”.

    The classical explanation of the word, traced to Cicero himself, derives it from re- (again) + lego in the sense of “choose”, “go over again” or “consider carefully”. Modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell favor the derivation from ligo “bind, connect”, probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re- (again) + ligare or “to reconnect,” which was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius.”

    In the origen of the term we see three things
    1. Ritual observance (a civic duty in the Roman Empire)
    2. Deliberate selection
    3. Binding together

    Religion is not, as was propounded by the enlightenment, primarily about assent to doctrinal statements, but more a social technology for maintain a community.

    As an additional note, the word in the New Testament commonly translated as “Church” can also be translated “assembly” 🙂
    From Latin ecclēsia, from Ancient Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklēsía, “gathering”).