Sunday Assembly: 'Church for People Who Don't Go to Church'

Austin atheist group seeks joy in community

There's no sermonizing at this Sunday Assembly.
There's no sermonizing at this Sunday Assembly. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Prewitt)

A former Mormon, an ex-Catholic, and a lapsed Southern Baptist walk into a church. "Eye of the Tiger" replaces "Amazing Grace." There's singing and clapping, although it's not clear if that's worship or just enthusiasm for Eighties pop. It may seem like a joke, but there is no punch line. As the founders describe it, it's simply a "church for people who don't go to church."

The gathering last month at the Austin History Center was the first Austin Sunday Assembly, informally known as "atheist church." Dylan Moench, Ben Morrison, Steven Becerra, and Katie Fitzgerald spearheaded the local effort that they call "a celebration of life." All raised in religious settings that offered community, the founders of the Austin chapter of the international movement were drawn to the opportunity to create a parallel "congregation" of nonbelievers. Though atheist groups already exist in Austin, members of the Sunday Assembly want to provide a place of positivity.

"Our whole point is not just about being atheist, but about being more than that, not just what are you against, but what are you for," Moench explains, preferring to think of himself as atheist without being anti-theist.

Exactly what Moench and company are for is embodied in the motto of Sunday Assem­bly – "Live better, help often, wonder more." The organization embraces the kind of appreciation of life that one might expect through religion, but the Austin founders are quick to dispel any religious connotations. "There's a lot of different lenses to look at these things through and I think that this is just one that doesn't have a god," says Morrison, the former Southern Baptist of the group.

The assembly itself functions somewhat like a church – with songs, a "sermon" (really a rotating designated speaker), and a moment of reflection – after which the assembled are invited to stay for cookies and coffee. The church of nonbelievers departs from tradition with activities like Danish clapping, an adult revival of patty-cake meant to bond those gathered at each service. The Sunday Assembly also offers a policy of being "radically inclusive." Believers of any organized religion are welcome to belt out lyrics with the nonbelievers.

The Austin chapter is part of an international organization that has expanded to three continents in the year since its founding. The "religion" was founded by British comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones in an attempt to combine "all the best bits of church, but with no religion, and awesome pop songs," according to a crowdfunding video pitch the pair created. The gathering's popularity coincides with a rise in global atheism – a 4% increase in atheism in the United States was noted between 2005 and 2012. Despite this, Moench says the assembly isn't trying to "convert" new people. Instead, they hope to portray a positive and charitable side of atheism.

For the international organization, Jones and Evans are looking to add nonreligious ceremonies like weddings and funerals (no afterlife!) to the community of assemblers. Moench, however, just really, really wants a live band.

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