There are a lot of people who grew up going to church, who have since become atheists, who miss having that church community on Sunday mornings. That's why British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans created Sunday Assembly, an international movement that has gained so many followers its being called an Atheist Mega Church. Sunday Assemblies have popped up everywhere from Portland, Oregon to Melbourne, Australia.
But can it be church without religion? Seattle Atheists member Brandon Hendrickson thinks so. A former Evangelical Christian, who enjoyed religion until he no longer believed in it, says he has always liked the model.
"Churches do ritual very well. They do let's eat together, they do let's come and hear a talk together, right? This idea of an atheist church is actually very controversial within the atheist community. There's a lot of angry talk online, that I try and avoid, about this. At least in my mind, the idea that we shouldn't hear people talk and shouldn't sing songs together and shouldn't eat pastries together and shouldn't help one another. This is silliness! We need to accept the fact that churches have figured some things out and we would be wise to fully embrace our humanity and borrow wisely from them."
But I wondered, if you're going to sing non religious songs, why not go do karaoke with your friends? Or go see a speaker at Town Hall? Why seek out an atheist church?
"I think they're tapping into something that's really widely felt," Brandon explained. "In Seattle we talk about having the Seattle Freeze. There's this weird thing in Seattle that even though everyone's nice, we're not necessarily very welcoming to new community. So, to whatever extent, this sort of alienation, dislocation, people not feeling comfortable with each other, I think it's a wonderful idea to have any kind of new, social entrepreneurship that brings people together."
Seattle Atheists President Ericka Johnson says there's something to finding a group of like-minded people who want to have fun, but also make a difference in the world.
"For some people they want just to not have to be near anything that's religious because they have negative associations. For some people it's just refreshing to not have to worry about saying you're an atheist. That you don't have to worry about somebody thinking you have an agenda. You can just relax, you can just be yourself around other people who also happen to be godless."
She loves the Sunday Assembly's motto, Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More, but the group, that has about 200 dues-paying members, will not be joining that particular movement. They do their own events that involve speakers, activities for children, and general community building activities like book clubs, a knitting group and a discussion group at a pub. They also do a lot of charity work and have a non-religious AA style group for atheists recovering from addiction. Brandon says being a part of Seattle Atheists is appealing as a father.
"I think there's something special that happens when you have kids and you sense this, 'How can I raise these kids in a moral community?' and you go looking for churches. It's actually, demographically, one of the biggest times that churches attract new members, new parents. So I think among our young parent group there's a desire for some kind of weekly meeting. Particularly some place where we can stash our kids, go hang out by ourselves, and know they're learning really wonderful things that will help them as people."
It may not always be a Sunday service.
"Different people want different things," Ericka said. "I personally like sleeping in."
But for many atheists around the world, they're finding their church, whatever that means to them.
"We think this can't just be it," said Brandon. "There must be something more than this. And of course that human emotion, that feeling, is absolutely correct. Religions, one of the wonderful things that they do, when they work well, is connect people with that feeling. They validate that feeling. But of course, you don't need God beliefs to believe that there's something more than what's outside of our 21st century lives. The universe is bigger than that."