THIS time last year, I went one cold Sunday to an empty shell of
a church in an area of Hackney, London, called De Beauvoir Town.
The church, a Victorian behemoth long deconsecrated, was a
beautiful wreck, with scaffolding outside and crumbling plaster
It looked like church as you might imagine it after the
Apocalypse: the faithful gone, the organ falling to bits, the stone
reredos missing chunks of masonry, the glory departed. The old
place had been cannibalised by a school, the side aisles and
upstairs balcony crudely screened off with plasterboard.
Actually, forget the Apocalypse. This could just be the present
reality of the Church in lingering decline.
But, on this Sunday, the building had found a new congregation.
As I turned in at the church gate, a couple of bright young things
greeted me with smiles and leaflets and directed me towards the
building. There was a crowd at the door, and I experienced a
surreal moment of queuing to get into church. Had I slipped into a
I could easily have been witnessing a church-plant, with a
couple of hundred keen Evangelicals from Holy Trinity, Brompton,
bused in; but, instead, this was the launch event of the Sunday
Assembly (the new "godless" congregation or "atheist church")
(News, 11 January 2013). The service came complete with a secular
sermon, plus hymns - not by Mrs Cecil Alexander, or even by Graham
Kendrick, but by Freddie Mercury and Stevie Wonder.
I found the dissonance between failed church building and
vibrant atheist gathering both striking and challenging. Crowds of
atheists happily chatting over post-service cups of tea, and
enthusiastically taking over where Christians had faded away did
not exactly fit the script that Jesus laid out at the great
The Sunday Assembly is perhaps the most churchlike of several
recent ventures where atheism has got itself up in the borrowed
clothes of religion. This has mostly been done in an ironic way,
but the Sunday Assembly is a departure, because - although it
markets itself with a great deal of comedy - it has embraced the
for-mat of church sincerely, often to the point of scandalising
ONE of them, the pop philosopher Alain de Botton, complains that
the Sunday Assembly has merely copied what he set up across town at
the School of Life. The School has run "Sunday sermons" for several
years, and getting the audience to sing pop songs, just as
congregations sing hymns, was probably invented there.
Other atheists have hosted events that sound like church - such
as the comedian Robin Ince's annual Nine Lessons and Carols for
Godless People, a stage show that brings together comics and
scientists - but there is not much of a nod to religion beyond the
The part played by comedians in the visible rise of New Atheism
seems to be significant in all this. It looksas if a number of
stand-up com-edians have taken on the part of the preacher, or even
the evangelist, as they pour hilarious invective on the real and
perceived contradictions of faith. Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle
have been especially effective in turning the scorn of Richard
Dawkins into comedy.
I do not think that it would be a stretch to argue that a whole
generation of young people are laughing their way into atheism,
agnosticism, or plain indifference towards God.
The comedian Frank Skinner, in a public conversation with then
Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2011, talked about how, in almost
every stand-up routine he heard, the comedian would make time to
ridicule God and religion. Skinner, a Roman Catholic, believed that
this was alarming, because it widely discredited faith, and he
teasingly asked the Archbishop - as if he still had the power of
his medieval predecessors - "What are you going to do about
ATHEIST church was born when comedy gig segued seamlessly into
godless service. The founding parents of the Sunday Assembly,
Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, both seasoned stand-ups, came up
with the idea on a drive home after performing. But, although the
Assembly's services are run with huge energy and lashings of
comedy, the underlying aim of the project, to '"live better, help
often, wonder more", is heartfelt and serious.
The services are a warm and barnstorming celebration of life
rather than a chance to have a go at religion. "How atheist should
our Assembly be?" Jones asks. "The short answer to that is: not
This positive approach, coupled with regular services where
people can sing, listen to a talk, reflect on their lives, be
entertained, and meet others - all without the outrageous claims of
religious belief - appeals to a segment of the 48 per cent of young
adults who wrote "No religion" on their UK census forms in
It offers all the good and human things about church, but
without the requirement to sign up to a creed - and that is very
appealing in our culture right now.
The Sunday Assembly, a New Year blog post on its website states,
now has 28 active congregations around the world - including
several in the UK - which attract numbers that would be the envy of
many parish churches. The movement is only one year old, and it is
hard to predict whether the founders' ambitious plans for growth
will work out, but the movement does not look as if it's about to
The Assembly in New York City even had its own church split,
when some members were being more determinedly atheist than others.
That schism surely proves that atheist church is just like real
church, and is here to stay.
Simon Jenkins is editor of shipoffools.com, and tweets as