The Telegraph reports…
“Viewed from the outside, the pointy-roofed building in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee deep in the heart of America’s Bible Belt, looks very much like a church.
And stepping inside, where a congregation is swaying along to music, listening to sermons and discussing ways to help their local community, it sounds very much like a church, too.
There is, however, one rather fundamental missing ingredient that sets this congregation apart from the hundreds of others turning out to worship this Sunday morning in Nashville: this is a church without God.
“I pass seven big churches between my house and the main road two miles away, there are plenty of churches in Nashville, but we needed a place for us,” says David Lyle, a founder-member of the Nashville branch of the “Sunday Assembly” secular church movement.
Started in London in January 2013 by a pair of British stand-up comedians, Sunday Assembly offers a church experience but without the ‘God part’ and, according to organisers, it is starting to catch on in America.
Sanderson Jones, one of the London co-founders, says that almost 400 towns from Sao Paulo to Singapore are now expressing interest in setting up an Assembly, and more than 150 of these are in America.
“People hear about it and email saying ‘I’ve been waiting for this my entire life’,” he says. “It turns out that loads of us had this idea, we were just the ones who were stupid enough to try it.”
The movement is non-profit, founded with £12,000 in crowd-sourced funding and a £7,000 grant, and it has resonated not just on America’s liberal coasts, but also in conservative places like Nashville, where non-believers are a beleaguered minority.
It also hopes to tap into a rising tide of secularisation which – for all the continued power of the US religious right – now sees almost a third of Americans under-29 saying they have no religious affiliation. These are the so-called “fuzzy faithful”.
For Kris Tyrell, a 28-year-old atheist who was raised as a Catholic in Jamaica but brings up her six-year-old daughter, Kai, outside any faith, the Sunday Assembly provides a welcome opportunity to belong to something without having to believe.
“We came here from South Florida where religion was a ‘thing’, but nothing like it is here. It’s difficult for my daughter in a class full of kids saying ‘I’m thankful for my Jesus’ and she wants to know why we are different. So this is something for us,” she says.
While the Nashville congregation is mostly atheist – several joke about being “recovering Fundamentalists” – it is also careful not to be aggressively so.
Adam Newton, a 38-year-old musician whose marriage broke up when he lost his faith, describes the group as “radically inclusive” – positively embracing a life without God, not looking to run down the faithful.
“The idea is why not steal all the good bits about church – the music, the fellowship, the community work – and lose the God stuff,” he says. “Luther said ‘why should the Devil have all the good tunes’. We kind of feel that way about the church.”
The Nashville group, conscious of the continued stigma attached to atheism in bible-minded places, also does public works, providing a monthly meal for the homeless and rounding up volunteers to clean up a local creek.
“Not having a church doesn’t mean I don’t have a moral code,” says Landry Butler, a 46-year-old graphic designer who co-founded the Nashville branch. “I want to get away from this idea that ‘you have to have God to be good’. You don’t.”
The group’s monthly service is held in an old church building that is now used as a recording studio and, under a rubric laid out in a charter from London headquarters, they rotate the master of ceremonies role to avoid any one person or charismatic individual taking over the show.
This weekend Mrs Tyrell is leading, and she introduces the movement for the sake of any first-timers in the audience. “Sunday Assembly is all about coming together to celebrate the one life we know we have,” she says, “our motto is ‘Live better, Help Often, and Wonder More’.”
It is a snappy formulation which sets Sunday Assembly apart from a long history of secular churches, according to James Croft of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and a leading scholar on humanist movement.
“Atheist congregations need to update their business models, and they haven’t for 140 years,” says Mr Croft, referring to the Ethical Culture Movement, a network of atheist congregations set up by the son of New York Rabbi that is still around today.
“Most humanist congregations are all classical music and long talks on some social concern; a hymn or 60s protest song maybe,” he adds. “The Sunday Assembly model is more like an Evangelical Christian church but without God. Music and clapping, active participation, short talks, humour and pop music.”
The service or the “show” (no-one is quite sure what to call it) fairly fizzes along, although there is a long moment’s silence, at which the congregation is invited to “turn down their inner volume knob” and, in a little dig at the idea that only God can bring meaning, “be grateful to this impersonal universe that you have a place, and people in it that love you.”
But mostly the emphasis is upbeat and life-affirming. At one point members of the congregation are literally dancing in the aisles as the band plays a cover of Jesus Jones’s “Right Here, Right Now” before speakers step up to “share” on a range of topics around the theme of “balance”.
One member talks about coping with depression; then a life-coach talks about the importance of self-knowledge that isn’t narcissism while a third – it being Mother’s Day – talks movingly about his mother’s battle with an abusive husband and his decision to respect, not mock her Christian faith.
It all ends with a quotation from Albert Einstein – “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving” – before coffee and doughnuts are served, followed by lunch at a local Southern barbecue restaurant.
Soon the hall is filled with running children, suddenly released from the discipline of having to sit through the service, a joyous cacophony which also points to one unavoidable similarity between going to Sunday Assembly and going to church.
“The kids still moan about it,” admits Craig Mueller, a lapsed Catholic who has four children under 10 and comes to the service because he enjoys the sense of community. “I tell my nine-year-old son, it’s time to go to Sunday Assembly and he’s like ‘argh, no, boring’.”