Godless Londoners flock to new atheist church

Abundant local and global interest in comedians' idea shows craving for a sense of community

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 2:55am


Echoing with joyful song and with a congregation bent on leading better lives, this London church is like any other - except there is no mention of God.

Britain's atheist church is barely three months old but it already has more "worshippers" than can fit into its services, while more than 200 non-believers worldwide have contacted organisers to ask how they can set up their own branch.

Officially named The Sunday Assembly, the church was the brainchild of Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two comedians who suspected there might be an appetite for atheist gatherings that borrowed a few aspects of religious worship.

Held in an airy, ramshackle former church in north London, their quirky monthly meetings combine music, speeches and moral pondering with large doses of humour. "There's so much about Church that has nothing to do with God - it's about meeting people, it's about thinking about improving your life," said Jones, a gregarious 32-year-old with a bushy beard.

There's so much about Church that has nothing to do with God - it's about meeting people, it's about thinking about improving your life

The Sunday Assembly's central tenets are to "help often, live better and wonder more" - themes that would not be out of keeping with the teachings of any major world religion. At a recent Sunday service, which had a volunteering theme, songs included Help by the Beatles and Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler.

The "sermon" was given by the founder of an education charity, while in a section called Pippa Is Trying Her Best, Evans had the congregation in stitches as she reported on her attempts at voluntary work.

Like many Western countries, Britain is becoming an increasingly faithless nation.

While a majority still consider themselves Christians, census data revealed in December that their numbers dived from 72 per cent in 2001 to 59 per cent in 2011. The proportion of Britons with no religion, meanwhile, shot up from 15 per cent to 25 per cent over the same period.

But the Sunday Assembly's success - 400 people packed into last week's two services, while 60 had to be turned away at the door - suggests many urban atheists crave the sense of community that comes with joining a church.

"You can spend all day in London not talking to anyone," said Evans. "I think people really want somewhere they can go and meet other people, which doesn't involve drinking and which you don't have to pay to get into."

Religious people have been broadly supportive of the aims of the atheist church.

The assembly met the approval of local vicar Dave Tomlinson. "Being here, I felt there was as much of what I call 'God' as there was in my own church this morning," he said.

"Everything we've said here would be completely at home in my church. I hope it grows and sustains."