Why Atheists Go to “Church”: Explaining Sunday Assembly

By Ann Norman of Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh

I used to have a Nigerian friend who chaffed when Americans continually complemented his perfect English; English happens to be the official language of Nigeria.

I feel that I’m now in a similar situation when I mention to people, that I’m an atheist who goes to Sunday Assembly—a “church” for those who don’t necessarily believe in God. This is usually met with an involuntary laugh. “But why?” they ask, with amusement.

The quickest answer is, I go to Sunday Assembly for the same reasons as you go to church. Because I am pretty much exactly the same as you. And it does hurt a tiny bit that religious people find this so counterintuitive. So let me explain why this churchy thing comes naturally to me and so many other nonbelievers. Nonbelief in God is, to us, like nonbelief in Santa Claus. It’s not shocking or strange or sad, and it doesn’t turn us into new class of humans with totally different motivations from others around us.

The official answer to “Why Sunday Assembly” is “We get together to celebrate the one life we know we have.” Sunday Assembly is not-anti-god. In fact we try hard to avoid the topic of god at Sunday Assembly, moving right along to more interesting things, as summarized in our slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

“BUT why?” some will continue to protest. I even get arguments that atheists aren’t supposed to care about any of these things. Believe me, we do.

Yes, we want to live better. Why? Because we’ve only got one life. Let’s make the most of it.

Help often? Sure! We’d like to be part of a community that supports and encourages each other. We want to reach out and be part of something bigger than ourselves and to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Wonder more? This is about feelings of awe and inspiration—yes, we experience those too. In fact for me, this is one of the best things about atheism: being able to wonder freely, explore reality, and follow the clues wherever they may lead.

Finally, put yourself in our shoes for a minute. Atheists look at churches and see that there are undeniably some positive aspects. YOU, the religious person, is getting something out of it. You have community, encouragement, inspirational songs and lectures, and celebration. And, from our point of view, your church is already happening without god–because we don’t think god is real. But we do see that your community is real. We just want that too. So let us try our little experiment. We’ll take the format of church, subtract the mention of God, and see how it goes. So far, it’s been going great.

We had a December celebration that included a “sermon” on the secular origins of Christmas (many aspects of this celebration predate Christianity), a reading of the Grinch that Stole Christmas that caused all the children to spontaneously stop playing and gather sitting in the isle to listen, and a ceremony involving everyone lighting candles in a circle.

We had our own Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh band for a while with guitars and drums. But then the band broke up. So we switched to karakoe, beginning with “Bohemian Rapsody.” It was . . . transcendent.

Each week we have a segment called “X is doing their Best” in which a member gets up and shares about something going on in their life, which may also be useful to others.

We had a baby-naming ceremony with poems, promises, and a blessing (well wishes), and we sang “It’s a Wonderful World.”

We have tea and cookies after our “service” and stay late socializing.

Yes, before Sunday Assembly, the atheists and freethinkers of Pittsburgh already had a full schedule of lectures, discussion groups, and social nights organized spontaneously through Meet-Up. But if that is our only structure, it  is rather transient. What ought to happen when a Pittsburgh atheist becomes sick or even dies? Shouldn’t we have a churchlike community in place to pitch in, assist, and bring casseroles to the house?

There are many liberal churches these days where we would probably be accepted. But even among the most liberal Christian group, we atheists would still be the odd ones out. Our nonbelief would be framed as a problem. And to us, it is not a problem. I am asked why we don’t just join the Unitarians. We could and we do. But some of us don’t want to keep talking about religion; we want to move along to other things. So we create our own “church,” slightly different from the rest.

One last reason that this particular atheist wants a Sunday Assembly: Church is an important part of my culture. I grew up with church. I am nostalgic for choirs, the quiet sitting together in rows while the sun shines through the stain glass window, kids making noise, and potluck dinners.

As with the Nigerians speaking perfect English, it may seem surprising that atheists would have a “church,” but on second thought . . . it’s not.


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3 Responses to Why Atheists Go to “Church”: Explaining Sunday Assembly

  1. rosmaholland@aol.com says:

    Hey, absolutely none of that is much different than why people go to Unitarian Churches or people who gave up the conservative versions of Catholic Theology still go as well. There are lots of very honest atheists and agnostics in Unitarian Churches and in the pews of every denomination and probably synagogues and mosques as well – if more people were more honest about it.

  2. Laurie Mann says:

    I like the sound of that. I was raised Congregationalist (Unite Church of Christ – a liberal Protestant denomination), sometimes went to the Unitarian Church, but even that can be a bit dogmatic.I like the sound of Sunday Assembly, though my husband and I often spend late Sunday morning/early Sunday afternoon out hiking when the weather allows.

  3. Jen Worsham says:

    Lovely, Ann. Just like you!!! <3

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