Once the Associated Press takes hold of a story, it gets ripped off the wires and republished all over the world. That’s what’s happened this week to a story written by AP reporter Gillian Flaccus about “atheist megachurches” rapidly spreading all across the world.
The events aren’t exactly churches, in the traditional sense, and they’re not yet truly mega in size. They don’t have dedicated buildings or paid staff, as churches do. They do have many resemblances to churches, though, and are called Sunday Assemblies.
Like churches, the Sunday Assemblies have their main gatherings on Sundays. Why? Well, that’s the time Christian churches have always met. Like churches, the Sunday Assemblies have a particular order of activities – songs, readings, and sermons, with refreshments afterwards. Why? Well, that’s the way most Christian churches do things. As with churches, people sit in rows in an audience, while a small number of officiants conduct the ceremony up at front? Why? Well, that’s what Christian churches do.
See the pattern? Sunday Assemblies do everything that Christian churches do, except require their participants to declare a belief in the Christian god.
These Sunday Assemblies, then, aren’t really non-Christian. They’re something more like atheist Christianity, practicing many of the rituals of Christianity, derived directly from the Christian tradition, with the theism of Christianity extracted.
Why would atheists do this? Some of the materials from Sunday Assemblies suggest that the events are for people who grew up Christian, have decided that they don’t believe in the Christian god, but miss the ritual of going to a Christian church. There’s an odd sort of disconnection of thought and action in this, as these people reject a central tenet of Christian ideology but still want to outwardly behave as Christians do.
These Sunday Assemblies exhibit a conspicuous god-shaped hole in their ceremonies, suggesting that participants are nervous about venturing out into the world without a Christian tether tied around their waists.
People who have grown up without Christianity aren’t as likely to find comfort in these groups, which seem more like the next logical step in the Protestant Reformation, rather than a truly non-Christian movement. Ideas are embedded in the actions we take, after all, not just in the words we say about what we think.
There’s nothing wrong with people who call themselves atheists attending these Sunday Assemblies. It’s just that Sunday Assemblies won’t be the ticket for people who are more interested in the open field of possibilities as we develop ideas and rituals centered in our own contemporary experience, separate from the traditions of the past. There’s an infinite territory outside of Christianity, after all, far bigger than what can be contained in a church with just one aspect of Christianity removed.