By Gillian Flaccus
LOS ANGELES: It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Several hundred people, including families with small children, packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.
Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the United States and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted several hundred people bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.
The founders, British duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, are currently on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the United States and Australia to drum up donations and help launch new Sunday Assemblies. They hope to raise more than $800,000 that will help atheists launch their pop-up congregations around the world. So far, they have raised about $50,000.
They don’t bash believers but want to find a new way to meet like-minded people, engage in the community and make their presence more visible in a landscape dominated by faith.
Idea is born
Jones got the idea while leaving a Christmas concert six years ago.
“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 said. “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 that is not to like?”
Sunday Assembly — whose motto is ‘‘Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More’’ — taps into that universe of people who left their faith but now miss the community church provided, said Phil Zuckerman, a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont.
It also plays into a feeling among some atheists that they should make themselves more visible.
“In the U.S., 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,’ ” said Zuckerman. “It’s still a minority, but there’s enough of them now.”
That impulse, however, has raised the ire of those who have spent years pushing back against the idea that atheism itself is a religion.
“The idea that you’re building an entire organization based on what you don’t believe, to me, sounds like an offense against sensibility,” said Michael Luciano, a self-described atheist who was raised Roman Catholic but left when he became disillusioned.
“There’s something not OK with appropriating all of this religious language, imagery and ritual for atheism,” Luciano said.
That sentiment didn’t seem to detract from the excitement Sunday at the inaugural meeting in Los Angeles.
Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection, an “inspirational talk” about forgotten — but important — inventors and scientists and some stand-up comedy.
During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of Lean on Me, Here Comes the Sun and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in Los Angeles.
For atheist Elijah Senn, the morning was perfect and a good start at building a positive image.
“I’m really excited to be able to come together and show that it’s not about destruction,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s about making things and making things better.”