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Sunday Assembly, new atheist 'church' in LA, celebrates 'the one life we know we have'




British comedian Sanderson Jones, a co-founder of The Sunday Assembly, an atheist service held at a converted church, leads a service in north London, on March 3, 2013.
British comedian Sanderson Jones, a co-founder of The Sunday Assembly, an atheist service held at a converted church, leads a service in north London, on March 3, 2013.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

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The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.

— Sunday Assembly website

On September 28th, 2014, an international organization founded in England less than two years ago doubled in size when it launched 35 new affiliates in a single day.

It's called Sunday Assembly, and it has a lot in common with the mainline churches its name calls to mind. It was founded as a place for the like-minded to meet and support each other — to sing songs, hold hands and do good works. It has almost everything people turn to organized religion for — except the God part.

WATCH: Sunday Assembly LA's YouTube channel

Sunday Assembly is an atheist organization, one that's riding a huge wave of secularism in the US. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 1 in 5 Americans are now unaffiliated with any religion — a number that rises to 1 in 3 for people under 30.

Still, it's never exactly been easy to be an atheist in America.

Ian Dodd, a co-director of the LA Branch of Sunday Assembly, which meets this Sunday in LA, was raised in a secular-humanist household. He remembers the topic of religion as a fraught one. "I got threatened [by] the neighborhood kids that I would burn in hell," Dodd says. "Fourth grade? The teacher, in violation of the law, asked each student to recite the Lord's Prayer before we started each school day. This was in a public school. "Eventually it came to be my day, and she said, 'Would you like to lead us in the Lord's Prayer.' I said 'No.'  She looked aghast and said 'Why?' And I said, 'Because I don't know it.'"

(Amy Boyle, RH Greene, and Ian Boyle. Credit: RH Greene)

At 50ish, Ian's a child of the Cold War era, when the word "Godless" often seemed like a first name for the word "Communism." The Atheist as morally bankrupt.

According to Amy Boyle,  co-director of LA's Sunday Assembly, the Cold War may be over, but the stereotype remains. Boyle says people who find out she's an atheist ask her how she can be good "all the time. And I think that idea, it's condescending. We're social people. We feel good when we help people. We feel bad when we hurt people. I didn't learn that from any ancient text. And I don't think we need an ancient text to tell us that we can build great things and make great projects when we build things, and that it's hard to do that if we're all killing each other and running red lights."

So what is Sunday Assembly, exactly? Well, it was created by British comedians for one thing. Which only seems odd until you think about it. Because, what is comedy if not scepticism with a laugh track?

Mel Brooks and the 15, whoops, 10 Commandments

"The genesis of Sunday Assembly," says Ian Dodd, "is that it was the brainchild of two stand-up comedians, Pippa Evans and Saunderson Jones. They were driving to a gig. And they started talking about this idea that 'Gosh, isn't it great when people get together and sing and celebrate. Why do they have to bring all of the superstition along with it?'"

That celebratory aspect sets Sunday Assembly apart from the so-called New Atheists, who have dominated the conversation about unbelief for the past decade or so. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, engaged in showy debates with clerics and other symbols of religious authority.

WATCH: Richard Dawkins on organized religion

The New Atheists embraced the Culture Wars. Sunday Assembly shuns them, controversially at times.

At Sunday Assembly LA's monthly meetings, there's singing. There's dancing. And there are guest speakers who discourse on brainy scientific and social topics in friendly, everyman terms. Where the New Atheism of the 2000s delighted in confrontation, this is Ted Talk Atheism. And if that sounds disparaging, it isn't meant to be. Molotov cocktails offer one kind of fire. A sing-a-long around a hearth offers quite another, and is probably more suited to a movement attempting to go mainstream.

According to Amy Boyle, "there are all these new [Sunday Assemblies] starting. And they're starting all over. They're starting in Brussels. There's a new Sunday Assembly that wants to start in China. There are Sunday Assemblies blossoming in places where it is not yet legal to leave the religion of the state, where 'apostasy' is still punishable by death."

"It isn't about celebrating atheism. It's about having like values, and finding greater meaning in the world, without mentioning the 'God' word."

Hmmm. A transformative philosophical movement whose acolytes are willing to spread their beliefs under pain of death. That reminds me of a story I heard once...

ATTEND this weekend's Sunday Assembly in LA

Sunday Assembly assembles this Sunday in LA. The host is Brian Keith Dalton, aka, "Mr. Deity," and the guest speaker is Dr. Clifford Johnson, theoretical physicist at USC, with a presentation called "The Origin Has Its Own Origin Story."