The Assembly: Atheist Churches Coming to a City Near You (Maybe. Depending on Where You Live.)

[Content Note: Abuse; religious supremacy.]

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 crowdfunded 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.

...As of now, Jones is still tweaking the message. But he's confident in the model: "It's a way to scale goodness."
Aaaaaaaand I already have a problem with your atheist church, Mr. Jones. Believing one has the market cornered on "goodness" is one of the biggest problems with organized religion. That belief abets abuse; it inherently others; it underwrites the sort of judgment that is not based on the assessment of individual actions, but on statements of religious belief.

I am an atheist, and I do not believe that atheism has the market cornered on "goodness." Not because I believe some faulty religious logic about humans needing god(s) to be decent, but because I pay attention to movement atheism. Which is not universally "good," as it turns out.

This is not the only problem I have with the Assembly:
As the atheist church becomes more church-like, however, it seems to be deliberately downplaying its atheism. Where the Assembly once stridently rejected theism (at April's Assembly, Jones poked fun at the crucifixion), it is now far more equivocal. "How atheist should our Assembly be?", Jones wrote in a recent blog post. "The short answer to that is: not very."

"'Atheist Church' as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity," Evans elaborated. "But the term 'atheist' does hold negative connotations. Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the UK anyway, are not defined by their non-belief." At a recent assembly, Jones opined: "I think atheism is boring. Why are we defining ourselves by something we don't believe in?"
Katie Engelhart, who wrote the quoted piece, rhetorically asks in response: "Because that's what atheism is?" Which: Yeah. An atheist church who wants me to downplay my atheism in deference to the religious supremacists who believe I can't possibly be a moral person, I can't possibly have values or faith, without god-belief? Fuck that.

I don't have to "define myself" by my atheism to believe unreservedly that it is nothing of which to be ashamed.

Then again, I'm not building a business. And churches, atheist or otherwise, might not like to think of themselves as businesses, but they're businesses all the same. And that inevitably affects the message. Which is another things churches aren't too keen to admit, even when the Pope himself will make messaging recommendations to improve the PR of his business.

Anyway. I get the urge behind the Assembly. Especially in large parts of the US, like in the small towns in which the Assembly isn't yet targeting, where social life resolves around churches, it might be nice to have some sort of equivalent if you're an atheist. (Of course, those also tend to be the most dangerous places to identify oneself as an atheist.) It might be nice to have a ready-made community of like-minded people if you move to a new town. Etc. I get the social aspect of it.

I don't imagine anyone here needs me to elaborate on my resounding desire to build beloved community.

But god-belief isn't the only problem with religious churches. And it looks to me like some of the problems of a lot of religious institutions are already being replicated. Whooooooooops.

If the Assembly Atheist Church is your thing, I am genuinely happy for you! But it is definitely not for me. No thanks!

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