A Eucharistic minister, choral performer and altar girl, Amy Boyle rarely missed a Sunday at her Sarasota, Florida, church during high school.
Two years later, she stopped believing in God.
The year was 1999, and halfway to her theatre degree at the University of Southern California, Boyle told her roommate of her doubts, spurred by an Eastern religions class and the culmination of years of questioning. Her discomfort came with the misogyny and guilt she felt was pushed on her by the Catholic church, and the overarching premise that people are inherently unworthy and must do penance.
Hoping for a glimpse of familiarity or understanding, instead Boyle saw disappointment and fear in the eyes of her Christian roommate, who fled their dorm room in tears. It was then Boyle learned she could not always speak freely about her non-belief.
For more than a decade, Boyle stopped attending church.
In February, the petite blond, now thirty-three, stood on a Hollywood auditorium stage in front of more than 250 people staring at her in rapt attention and announced her pregnancy. It wasn’t planned, but seemed appropriate because she was back at church. Atheist church.
Boyle is one of the ten founding organizers of Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, launched by a group of atheists who wanted to create a community of people who can be and do “good” without the threat of a punishing God.
That Sunday, more than 250 people had driven in to the rented auditorium, at the Professional Musicians Local 47, from as far as Orange County and Simi Valley for the monthly godless congregation. College students, young families and the elderly stood together at the start of the service, some tapping their feet, some swaying, some singing along to the words displayed on a projection screen, others just looking on as the band played Green Day’s “Good Riddance.”
Founded in London, Sunday Assembly is a network of godless congregations with chapters in twenty-eight cities across Europe, Australia and the United States, all with the same branding. Some call it atheism, franchised.
The group’s motto is “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” The website calls it “the best bits of church, but with no religion.” The catchphrase has garnered widespread media attention and helped it generate a following.
The attention has also brought criticism from many corners, religious and atheist alike. Those who attend don’t have to renounce God altogether, leading some to wonder if it really is atheist.
Attendees may believe there is no God. They may believe there probably is no God. They may believe there could be a God, they just aren’t sure. All are welcome.
“We’re constantly navigating questions of tone,” says Boyle, co-director of Sunday Assembly Los Angeles. “We’re a godless community that isn’t just about being godless.”
For Boyle, it’s about creating something that gives others a safe place to work through tough questions like: Do I need religion and God to be a good person? What am I willing to give up for what I believe? How do I better myself and my community? She hopes to help other nonbelievers find an understanding ear and acceptance.
As a child, church had been a meditative and comforting experience. She loved the singing, the sense of community and the time to reflect on her life. Now expecting twins, Boyle wants to raise her children in a like-minded community, where they feel inherently good and worthy. She hopes Sunday Assembly will become a place that contains the benefits of an idealized “church” — camaraderie, non-judgment and freedom of expression.
She sees the possibilities already. When Boyle walked off stage, no less than three women approached her to say they were also expecting, and one suggested they start a parenting group.
“We want this to be about forming lasting relationships,” Boyle says. “This is, in a way, an experiment. How will you continue to be relevant when all you have is something you don’t believe in?”
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You won’t hear any denigration of religion or even overt mentions of atheism or agnosticism at Sunday Assembly. It’s not only the organizers who follow the policy; speakers and band members are encouraged to abide by it as well.
This almost-atheist approach created a rift between organizers of the Sunday Assembly New York, when a faction broke off to start their own group called the Godless Revival. Dismissing Sunday Assembly as a “centralized humanist religion” in a blog post, Lee Moore said he decided to form a group where atheism could be freely and openly discussed and “celebrated.”
“‘Atheist’ is not a dirty word,” says Godless Revival co-director Michael Dorian. “In America, the conservative Right still has some real social and political sway. It’s important to uphold equal treatment of atheists, who are not fairly or accurately represented in media or public.”
Dorian says the conflict centered on a difference in vision between three New York organizers, who wanted an adults-only variety hour for and by atheists, and Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who wanted a family-friendly atmosphere open to all.
Godless Revival hosts its monthly gatherings in a bar, inviting comedians to poke “good-hearted” fun at the religious establishment, and asking atheist activists to speak about such issues as separation of church and state.
“A lot of what Sunday Assembly does smacks deliberately of church rituals and church format,” says Dorian. “It’s a little thin, a little superficial or shallow. It’s very middle-of-the-road in order to appeal to a lot of people.”
Boyle says Sunday Assembly does not want to be like established atheist groups “where people who believe the same things argue with each other until they don’t agree anymore,” nor like Unitarian church where “everyone believes in God but they don’t say the word ‘God.’”
“We’re not building it to fight against something, or make it exclusively or mostly about non-belief,” she says. “We keep the anti-theism out of Sunday Assembly, and have it be positive.”
Sunday Assembly is part of a growing trend of secular organizations gathering in ways that appear distinctly religion-like, says Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard University.
“As this current generation, millennials, come of age and start living adult lives, there is a need for something new,” says Epstein, who is writing a book about nonreligious organizations like Sunday Assembly. “The need is for something that takes a bold approach to being nonreligious in the twenty-first century, where for the first time nonreligious people are a very influential minority or even a majority, especially on most major college campuses in the United States.”
One-fifth of the American public, and one-third of adults under the age of thirty, do not identify with a religious tradition, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study. They may refer to themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist or spiritual — just not religious. The Sunday Assembly wants to tap into the rise of these “nones,” or people who say they do not affiliate with a particular religion.
A rise in nones does not necessarily mean there are fewer people who believe in God or a universal spirit, according to the Pew Research Center, which reports two thirds of nones say they do believe in God. Instead, it likely indicates that more people are not finding what they need in organized religion, particularly young people, who, like Boyle, often stop attending church after college, and are doing so in larger numbers than ever before.
Epstein says nonreligious people are beginning to openly and unapologetically take back what they view as a claim to morality held by religions. “In this next generation,” he says, “you will be able to go to any city in the U.S. and meet up with an inspiring, influential and great group of people to build a community with, who are not necessarily religious.”
Therein lies the answer to sustainability, Sunday Assembly leaders say. They don’t have all the answers yet, but for now, they have a growing group of people they want to be around.
The group is enthused about the continued turnout and the demographics, particularly how they are fundamentally different from other atheist groups, which skew toward older white males. Sunday Assembly Los Angeles attracts about as many women as men and couples with young children, and boasts diversity in ethnicity.
It’s a post-theist world, says Ian Dodd, co-director of Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, meaning the conversation is no longer about whether one believes in God or not. “It’s a moot point,” Dodd says. “What’s relevant is how we are going to act and relate and engage in the world.”
Dodd, a fifty-three-year-old cameraman, was raised atheist. He regularly attends a Unitarian church with his wife, where he leads a monthly discussion group for people who don’t believe in God or a universal spirit.
“A rational world view goes a long way towards making the world a better place,” Dodd says. “When decisions on science education, reproductive rights for women and civil rights for LGBT members are based on two-thousand-year-old myths with no basis in reality, it’s necessary to bring another voice to the conversation, one based in evidence and critical thinking and reason, not fables told by shepherds.”
When he heard about Sunday Assembly in London last year, Dodd saw it as an opportunity for “rationalists” to have a greater impact on the broader social conversation.
He contacted Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans and in June met them over beers in Los Angeles. Jones and Evans, who are both comedians, held the first Sunday Assembly gathering in London in January 2013 and used a savvy social media presence and public relations push, in addition to the buzzy monikers “atheist church” and “atheist megachurch” to garner media attention.
While the numbers at the Sunday Assembly in London and elsewhere do not come close to the more than two-thousand-plus-attendee-mark that usually constitutes a megachurch, the media attention kept interest pouring in from all corners.
In the fall, Jones and Evans launched a “global missionary tour” to raise awareness for their crowdfunded Indiegogo campaign. They aspired to raise 500,000 Euros to cover their salaries for a couple of years while helping launch Sunday Assemblies around the world.
The effort raised a little more than 50,000 Euros when it concluded in December, but the tour did help launch the assembly in twenty-eight cities in Australia, the United States and Europe. As many as one hundred additional assemblies will begin the accreditation process this September.
The group estimates about 4,000 people attend a Sunday Assembly service somewhere in the world each month.
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Boyle worked as an actress after college and as an activist for religious freedom and issues around the separation of church and state. She dropped acting when she became a community organizer for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2011, and puts the experience to use as she volunteers full-time with Sunday Assembly. Her days include managing the website, coordinating organizers and volunteers, mentoring Sunday Assembly organizers in other cities and managing requests from congregants and press.
During a recent assembly, Boyle introduced silent reflection. She suggested people take time to think about what projects they are working on, or what they are doing to better themselves and the secular world. But this was not a requirement, as she made sure to point out. “We don’t tell you what to do here.”
Many people didn’t close their eyes during silent reflection, just as dozens of people did not stand up when the band’s lead singer requested it.
As volunteers walked row to row with collection baskets and digital credit card readers, Boyle drew a laugh by calling sign-ups for reoccurring thirty-dollar monthly donations “a secular Godsend.”
Boyle says Sunday Assembly is still figuring out what it is, but she is optimistic about creating something lasting. More than 150 people have already RSVP’ed for the next assembly in Los Angeles on April 13.
As last month’s assembly closed to a rendition of the Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” at the back of one of the aisles, one hand on her belly, one arm around her husband, Boyle smiled and sang along.
“Community,” she said, “is its own end.”
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Rachana Rathi is a Los Angeles-based contributor for Newsweek and Narratively, and is a former staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter at @rachana_rathi.
David Biskup is a U.K.-based Illustrator. He has done illustrations for The NewYork Times, G4S and Runner’s World, among others, and regularly self-publishes comics, the most recent of which is “David Biskup Looks Forward to Middle Age.”