My Sunday at an Atheistic Church

An atheist church (yes, you read that correctly) has been receiving national attention lately. One of our pastors, Kyle, was fortunate enough to attend the group’s second-ever service. Read about his experience below.

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Originally posted in February 2013

Last month I stumbled upon an article about an atheistic “church service” in London.  I didn’t even read the whole thing before I decided I had to go.

The Sunday Assembly, as the group is called, meets once a month at The Nave in North London for “anybody searching for a sense of community, to meet and ‘turn good intentions into action.'”

It is, all things considered, an atheistic church.

Yes.  A church for atheists.

IMG_1700
The Nave – new home to the atheistic church The Sunday Assembly

This morning I woke up, sacrificed hearing Os Guinness speak at my own church, and ventured down to Islington with my wife who is used to being dragged to peculiar things like this by now.

We showed up 40 minutes early, but weren’t the first ones there.

In typical British fashion, we all politely “queued up” as we waited for the doors to open.  The press was there catching interviews.  (They also recorded the entire service along with the attendees to a point that it made it uncomfortable).

In fact, I’ll probably end up in The Guardian or The Independent.  I can see it now: Local Atheist Londoner Worships at The Sunday Assembly.

You can’t trust everything you read in the news.

People "queuing up" to attend the second-ever service of The Sunday Assembly. Media reporters captured every moment.
People “queuing up” to attend the second-ever service of The Sunday Assembly. Media reporters captured every moment.

Once the doors opened, the church filled up fast.  In fact, by the time the service started there was standing room only.  There had to have been about 200+ in a church meant to comfortably hold 150.

After snagging two great seats, I surreptitiously wandered around taking photos of the event.  I was, after all, running a clandestine intel-gathering mission behind enemy lines.  In just three months, I’ll be joining the staff of a church.  Before then, however… game on.  (Sarcasm, for those who don’t know me.)

Standing room only in the back. Eventually, the balcony was full as well.
Standing room only in the back. Eventually, the balcony was full as well.

To be honest, I was taken aback by how many people showed up.  Church planters dream of a second-ever service this full, and here I was in the midst of atheists, humanists, and agnostics who were all anticipating something new, something fresh, something exciting for their movement.

Just ten minutes before the service was set to start and the place was packed. More were in the balcony, standing in the back and in the foyer.

Once 11:00 came the service kicked off with the band.

Yes.  There was an atheistic church band.  (Bet you never thought you’d read that in your life.)  It was led by comedian Pippa Evans.

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A (perhaps first-ever) atheistic church band leading the congregation in hits from Queen, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone.

Once the band had captured our attention, the “pastor” figure of this service exploded onto the stage.  And he was hilarious.

Rightfully so, as the entire service was led by British comedian Sanderson Jones.  Jones kicked the service off by warmly welcoming everyone and offering an amusing story of how he had learned that it was actually fellow atheists, not Christians as he had expected, who vocally disapproved of The Sunday Assembly.

He displayed a screenshot of his twitter feed from one disgruntled atheist who claimed that the term “church” to all atheists is like the term “concentration camp” to all Jews.  Jones made short work of the mystery atheist – it was pretty funny.

After his introduction, we sang a Queen song as the service moved along.

ONE IN A BILLION

After some singing, the service shifted to the talk.

It was given by the (wonderfully articulate and intelligent) guest speaker, Harry Cliff – a researcher at the University of Cambridge and super particle physicist from CERN.  Cliff delivered a great talk, which I believe ironically pointed to the very God of creation that the church was disavowing.

His talk, entitled “It’s a Wonder We’re All Here” in keeping with the theme of “wonder,” centered around the seeming impossibility of all matter (and consequently us) of existing at all.  Why are we all here to wonder why we’re all here in the first place?

As Cliff explained, according to a theory from physicist Paul Dirac, nothing should exist.  The stars, the planets, us, all matter… none of it should exist.  But it does.  So why?

The answer is found in anti-matter.  “Whenever you create a particle of anti-matter,” Cliff explained, “you also have to create a particle of matter.”  Likewise, whenever matter and anti-matter meet, they annihilate each other, a la the spectacular climax to Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons.

Couple this with the theory of the Big Bang, when energy was converted into matter, and the symmetry of one particle of anti-matter to one particle of matter should have made everything disappear.  What should have happened after the Big Bang is not the universe we know today, but rather a cold, empty universe of nothing.  No stars, no galaxies, no us, no nothing.

But, again, here we are.  So, what happened?

Cliff, in his own words, explained what happened.

Harry Cliff gives his talk "It's A Wonder We're All Here"
Harry Cliff gives his talk “It’s A Wonder We’re All Here”

“At the Big Bang, matter and anti-matter annihilate each other producing particles of light so every billion particles of light corresponds to one of those annihilations.  So everything in the universe is just one-billionth of what was originally there – we are just a tiny leftover of what was there at the beginning of the universe.

All of that is enough to create all the galaxies, all the stars, all the stuff of you and me.  So we are basically talking of absolute, tiny asymmetry of matter and anti-matter that allowed us to exist.  In fact, if the asymmetry hadn’t been there, we would live in a completely empty universe.”

“So,” I thought to myself, “at the creation of the universe from nothing there was an inconceivable amount of light followed by the most improbable conditions that allowed for the entire universe to exist.”

I couldn’t hold back a huge smile.

Why?  Because Cliff’s talk sounded an awful lot like this:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

The earth was without form and void…

and God said, ‘Let there be light.'”

Genesis 1.1-3

Here we were at an atheistic church service being delivered evidences of both God’s existence (the improbability of asymmetry at the Big Bang) and the Bible’s trustworthiness (the fact that God’s first creative act was light).

Awesome.

Although, I doubt anyone else in the church shared my sentiment.

My only complaint about Cliff’s talk was that he never discussed the obvious question of how the most improbable condition was probable in the first place.  What made the asymmetry, well, asymmetrical?  He essentially sidestepped the chicken-or-the-egg issue with the Big Bang.

Perhaps it’s because there needed to be an intelligence behind the asymmetry of matter and anti-matter in order to bring about the creation of the universe in the most explosive display of light in the universe’s entire existence.

The answer is clear – God caused the conditions for the asymmetry.  Furthermore, an ancient culture of divinly-inspired Jews nailed it on describing the event.  If you’re not looking at this data from a theistic perspective, the obvious will always evade you.

But, hey.  That’s just me.

“I WANTED MUSIC AND COMMUNITY AGAIN”

Throughout the service, I began to notice a consistent theme with almost everyone we spoke with, overheard, or witnessed in the service – everyone missed the music and community of their childhood experiences in church and want to bring it back into their lives.

I feel comfortable saying that many of the atheists in attendance were there precisely because they missed the community and songs of church.

The leader, Jones, mentioned that he missed the community and songs that his childhood church had given him.  The woman seated behind us made a similar claim.  Another woman, I overheard, said she missed singing songs and being with other people.

“When I was a kid, at church there was always music and other people.  I wanted music and community again,” she said in a conversation with a fellow atheist.

It seemed that most people were there for those very reasons – community and singing.  Or, what we Christians like to call, fellowship and worship.

The congregation listening to Sanderson Jones speak.
The congregation standing just before singing “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.

People missed the fellowship and worship they left behind in their childhood churches, but have since yearned for a return to them.

The more I came to realize this point, the more obvious it became – all of these people, made in God’s image, are simply trying to fill the void of their design and purpose without actually knowing how.

Every human is created in the image of a triune God (community) who designed us to worship.  That doesn’t go away simply because you don’t believe in Him.

Deep down in every human being, we yearn to be in community and fellowship, just like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enjoyed for eternity.

Deep down in every human being, we are compelled to worship, because it’s what we were created to do.

Just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean that all goes away.  And today only drove that point home for me.  It’s doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God, every human being still desires community and wants to worship.  Where we find our community and what we worship, however, is what will eventually define our joy, lives, and destinies.

Everyone at The Sunday Assembly seemed to believe that by adding community once a month and singing random songs, they will fill that nagging void in their life.

The more I though about this, the more I wanted to stand on my chair and yell “You’re missing the point!  It’s not enough!” But, perhaps the unusually large amount of cameras and journalists stopped me in my tracks.  After all, I didn’t want to be that guy.

It doesn’t matter how many songs you sing or how many people you hang out with – if it’s not centered around Jesus (the true reason for church in the first place) it’s never going to be enough.

The Sunday Assembly was gathered today in celebration of life, but not the life.

The Sunday Assembly attempted to instill wonder, but without the God of Wonder behind it.

The Sunday Assembly tried to experience a spirit in singing, but without the Holy Spirit of a good, perfect, and loving God.

They are missing the point entirely.

Church isn’t about music, it isn’t about making people feel happy, and it isn’t about instilling wonder.  Church isn’t even about getting together in community to get your felt needs met.

Church is about Jesus.

Because we were designed to worship and to live in community, we do get some felt needs met at church, but it’s not the entire focus or purpose of church.  The entire focus and purpose of church should be Jesus.

Until the good people of The Sunday Assembly understand this simple truth, they will never fill that missing void of worshipping Jesus in the community of imperfect yet redeemed people, no matter how many songs they sing, guest speakers they have, or good works they promote.

THE “REAL CHURCH” NEXT DOOR

Next to The Nave was a small (in comparison, tiny) chapel annex that was housing an African worship service.  While we were first “queuing up” to get in The Nave, a woman dressed in Sunday’s best squeezed her way past us.  “Excuse me,” she politely asked for a clearing to walk through.  Two women behind us giggled as one muttered, “I bet she’s going to real church.”

The real church service started before The Sunday Assembly and was still running after our service had ended.  I snuck into the back of the chapel annex to hear the prayer that the pastor of this tiny church offered his congregation in the shadow of their new atheist neighbors next door.

The annex next to The Nave where "real church" was being held.
The annex next to The Nave where “real church” was being held.

His voice filled the room.

“We love you Jesus,” he said with a thick African accent. “We love you so much and want other’s to know you, so they can experience your love and, in return, love you simply for who you are and what you’ve done for us.”

“Amen,” I thought to myself. That was the most encouraging thing I had heard all day.

A group of people, most of whom were down-and-out, gathered together in community to worship Jesus in song and prayer.  No media attention, no comedian-led entertainment, no high-profile speaker.

Just a few Jesus people getting together to worship, fellowship, and pray on a Sunday morning.

Now that’s church.

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A special thanks to The Christian Post for picking up this post.

UPDATE: The Guardian did a piece on this service.  In it, an interesting quote;

“‘I feel sorry for the church next door, waiting for their three people to trickle in,'” says Nick Julius, glancing at the small adjacent hall that will shortly be hosting its own gathering.”

Don’t feel sorry for them, Nick.  They were the ones attending church this morning.

Also, check out BBC’s piece on the service.

16 thoughts on “My Sunday at an Atheistic Church

  1. As an Atheist I feel the having services in a church kind of misses the point, though it sounds like an interesting experience.

    However, there is a big difference between missing songs and having a void in your life that only Jesus can fill. I think you presuppose an awful lot of things about other people you don’t know. I’m not going to guess you have an emptiness in your life based on my beliefs.

    Otherwise interesting story, but I doubt that Atheist Church will last. Its too contradictory.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Robert. You’re right – we cannot presuppose the same is the case for every individual present in the service; however, it seemed to be the general consensus among those I interacted with.

      Like you, I’m not sure how long this will last. It seemed that most of the “energy” in the service was stemmed from the novelty of the idea. That can only sustain an organization – religious or non – for so long.

  2. I had to gloss over some details, but nevertheless a good article on an intriguing concept! Scientists, rock music, and comedians? I don’t know if I would consider that a church, but rather a communal gathering of people with like interests. I have no desire to attend any church and this one would be no exception. Although if advertised as a scientific lecture every week/month for the public, there would be a higher chance I would attend. Kudos for them to spreading difficult science to the public, but the hypothesis of symmetrical origins is a new one, and is difficult to test. Not all science presented by atheists have to be about controversial topics like the creation of the universe. There are many interesting topics to be discussed. By summer, I bet this new tradition falls apart. The idea is too contradicting. Like you said, the novelty is probably the driving force for attendance, and that can only last so long.

  3. I am a follower of Jesus, committed to doing so at all times, although at times, the following is a challenge. Thanks for the article but I was left thinking that maybe you are asking the wrong questions. Maybe the atheistic church will not last but the reason you gave for them being there, is for the most part the reason why most people attend ‘church’ – for community & music. Unfortunately most don’t meet up with Jesus as revealed by the God of the universe but a characterisation of him, which is superficially appealing but if we are honest with ourselves, it probably doesn’t last the test of time. We may stick at it out from some sense of obligation but we need to encounter Jesus & for the most part I haven’t often found him in what is conventionally know as church. I meet him as I have coffee with all manner of people or as I give of my time & resources to those in need. That is what Jesus did – he spent very little time in ‘church meetings.’ This is probably because he never left ‘being church’ as he lived life with his friends & the outcasts of his day. Let us ask an honest question – why was the first meeting so well attended compared to the second?

  4. saw this article on bbc news website. as i christian i find it very amusing how those atheists are using a church as their base and i read they sing songs from artist stevie wonder who i believe is a christian. ironic don’t you think. the lord works in mysterious ways….MOO HA HA HA!!!

  5. This is a great article and I think demonstrates the God shaped hole that exists in many who were there (no trying to be filled with God-less talks, songs and community). I reckon though over time, once the buzz wears off, there will be little foundation there to keep people. You can only sing “Imagine” so many times …

  6. Also, though, I do wonder how many people like you were in the congregation. The inquisitive, journalists, and just spectators.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I felt there were quite a few spectators – journalists were in full force. There is a buzz with the movement and it will no doubt grow (there are plans for two “services” next month), but as others have said, it’s yet to be seen for how long.

      It seems to me that the formula they are planning on utilizing for sustainment involves interesting speakers, community involvement, and the social aspect that comes with such gatherings. But, as a Christian, I would argue church without Jesus is unsustainable and the movement will only continue as perhaps an atheistic interest group with social and community involvement aspects.

  7. No offense, but I feel you’ve missed the point entirely. Everyone likes to have a sense of community with like-minded people. It’s in our nature as gregarious beings. Just because people like to come together and socialize or share ideas doesn’t automatically mean that they are missing a mythical deity in their lives. Rather, it’s more likely that they are tired of being excluded because of their unwillingness to conform and their tendency to ask awkward questions that religious people cannot answer without applying circular reasoning. Your article is poorly written and condescending. It fails to look at actual human nature (why do people feel the need to have fellowship in the first place?) and makes great leaps of assumption in order for you to fit these people into your neat little box. Well done on failing at objective journalism!

  8. Excellent Kyle. Well done. As you so well stated, we are designed by God for fellowship with Him and worship of Him – together with others – in His name, and even when we decline to live according to our Divine Design, when we reject our Maker, when we throw away the owner’s manual and go a different way, the compunction to fellowship and worship remains. Why? Because we are designed that way. God has pre-programmed our operating software….

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