LONDON – Echoing with joyful song and 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 3 months old but it already has more “worshippers” than can fit into its services, while more than 200 nonbelievers worldwide have contacted organizers 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 humor.
“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.
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 “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 voluntary work.
The service ended with big cheers and — as it was in Britain, after all — shouts of “Who would like a cup of tea?”
Like many Western countries, Britain is becoming increasingly faithless. While a majority still consider themselves Christians, census data revealed in December that the number of believers plummeted from 72 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011.
The proportion of Britons with no religion, meanwhile, shot up from 15 percent to 25 percent.
But The Sunday Assembly’s success — 400 Londoners packed two services recently — 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.”
It is an idea that is catching the attention of atheists further field. Jones reeled off the locations of would-be atheist “vicars” who have asked to set up new branches.
“Colombia, Bali, Mexico, Houston, Silicon Valley, Philadelphia, Ohio, Calgary, all across Britain, The Hague, Vienna. . . . It’s so ludicrously exciting that my head occasionally — literally — spins round,” he said.
The pair cheerfully admit that they have “ripped off” many elements of their services from the Christian church. “You’re asking people to do new things, so it makes sense for it to be familiar,” said Jones.
Religious people have been broadly supportive of the aims of The Sunday Assembly.
“The only thing is, they’ve said they’ll have to think about what to do if it gets bigger,” Evans laughed. “Actually, the biggest aggression toward us has probably been from atheists saying that we’re ruining atheism and not believing in God properly. So that’s quite funny.”
The second branch of The Sunday Assembly will be launched in the Scottish city of Glasgow this month, while Evans will open an Australian branch in April.
She and Jones say they do not want to exert too much control over any new assemblies — but they will keep a watchful eye over them. “We only need one child sacrifice at a Sunday Assembly to spoil it for everyone,” Jones joked.
As for how far the idea could eventually spread, the pair are in the dark. “Who knows?” Evans asked. “We have no idea. We’re just enjoying finding out what it is.”