“Atheist Church” Launches in University District–Seattle’s New Sunday Assembly is No Mars Hill

Sunday Assembly video

For years Mars Hill Church treated the University of Washington as a field of young souls ripe for harvest. Pastor Mark Driscoll courted on-campus audiences with his now infamous blend of Calvinism and titillation. Mars Hill staff debated the leader of the Secular Student Alliance on campus, graciously covering the costs and hosting videos afterwards — until they hit a conversation that left them fumbling for good answers. They recruited and trained peer “friendship missionaries” from among college student members, turning them into a volunteer sales force.

In 2010, when Mars Hill purchased a large and timeless church building just north of the University, it appeared that Driscoll’s brand of hipster fundamentalism was here to stay, much to the dismay of moderate Christians and secularists who saw the mix as a toxic brew even before  serial scandals erupted. Last month, with the sale of that building in progress, Mars Hill merged the university congregation into its Ballard location, which also is now on the market. The drama culminated last week in Driscoll’s resignation.

In the shadows of the Mars Hill implosion, a new church recently held its first U District gathering. The group is small and experimental — much like Mars Hill in its early days — but beyond that the differences are hard to overstate.

Sunday Assembly Seattle, as it is called, is a local grassroots “franchise” of a secular church started by two London comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, in 2012. Many attendees are refugees from authoritarian forms of religion, and Sunday Assembly is low key by design. Part of its appeal is that organizers lack the polish that draws followers to a charismatic leader like Driscoll. The group’s symbol is a triangle bordered by three short sentences: Live better. Help Often. Wonder More.

A 10 point charter explains that Sunday Assembly “has no doctrine; we have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources. Has no deity; we don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.”

“Everybody is welcome, regardless of their beliefs,” says local organizer Andy Coleman. He envisions a group that is “radically inclusive.”

The launch of Sunday Assembly Seattle on September 28 was timed to coincide with launches in 37 other cities, from Brisbane to Halifax, all are driven by local volunteers.

At the first Seattle gathering, 50 or so people trickled into an old classroom in the University Heights Community Center, past a bar with cookies and drinks that had been laid out to encourage conversation after the service. Classic rock played in the background. Greeters pointed parents to a table where children could entertain themselves with art materials. The service lasted less than an hour, and featured singing (“Lean on Me”, “Yellow Submarine”) and a short homily by Korin Leman, leader of Portland’s Sunday Assembly, which kicked off earlier in the year.

Leman talked about feeling alone after leaving Christianity until her serendipitous discovery of Portland’s Sunday Assembly group. “Research tells us that happiness relates to three factors,” she said. “Gratitude, purpose, and community.” She encouraged her audience to dive in, calling the start-up phase of the Portland assembly one of the hardest and most rewarding times of her life.

“We are not a cult,” Leman assured prospective members. “Then again, every cult says that.” She laughed.  Seattle volunteers passed around sign-up sheets and a couple of empty beer growlers into which attendees could stuff donations.

Will Sunday Assembly grow or fade away? That remains to be seen. “We’re here to stay,” asserts Sunday Assembly’s London website. Organizers in Seattle are busy planning their next gathering. They’ve put out a call for more volunteers, and a band.

Whether this model survives, the fledgling secular church is part of a much broader movement among non-theists who increasingly are exploring how best to foster spirituality and community without supernaturalism. Several years ago British philosopher Alain de Botton spoke at the University of Washington about his book, “Atheism 2.0”.  Letting go of gods is just a starting point, de Botton asserted. We now need to glean what’s good from religion and carry it forward. In Seattle and beyond, efforts are underway to figure out what that might mean.

Earlier this month, neuroscientist and renowned anti-theist Sam Harris spoke to a packed audience at Town Hall about his latest book, “Waking Up:  A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion“. Harris spent years studying meditation with Eastern mystics. He extols the benefits of mindfulness, meditation and other forms of altered consciousness, which he sees as natural, learnable processes.

Psychologist Dale McGowan seeks to build on another positive dimension of religion, the ways in which faith communities encourage altruism and generosity. He started Foundation Beyond Belief to encourage the habit of thoughtful pooled giving among atheists, agnostics and humanists.

Later this month, Seattle Atheists will host former minister Teresa MacBain. She made headlines in 2012 when she left the ministry and came out publicly as an atheist. MacBain is now is a secular community-building consultant and public speaker. Her goal is to help non-believers find connections.

“We all need a place to belong, to be accepted and supported, to celebrate life and mourn loss, and to just have fun,” MacBain says. “Secular community is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; people are different and their communities will be different. But, at its core, the basics are the same: a place to connect, a place to serve, a place to love and a place to call home.”


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

London’s “Atheist Church” Goes All Out to Celebrate Its First Holiday Season

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Christianity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “Atheist Church” Launches in University District–Seattle’s New Sunday Assembly is No Mars Hill

  1. MB says:

    Valerie, after reading about all the misogyny in the atheist community, I’m not so sure that atheist churches are going to be an improvement over Christian fundamentalist churches. Please don’t deny that secularists can be as misogynistic as Christians, Jews and Muslims. And please don’t get defensive about it. I’m not blaming you for it, but it is something that all of us need to watch out for. I want Sunday Assembly Church to affirm the feminist movement just as much as the civil rights and GLBT movements.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What evidence exists that the “atheist community” has any more misogyny than the community at large? I find this idea farfetched.


    • Hi MB –
      It would be silly to deny that secularists can be misogynistic. That said, some of the recent controversies in secularism have left me shaking my head. For example, secularists went wild over Sam Harris’s assertion that there are hard-wired psychological differences between men and women–but the same people have been defending Islam and calling any criticism of Islam “phobic.” While they were busy writing blog post after blog post about Harris, a woman was executed in Saudi Arabia for killing her rapist, dozens of women had acid thrown on their faces for daring to go out unveiled, and millions more were forced into living their lives in mobile tents. Differences of degree are enormously consequential.


  2. shatara46 says:

    Seattle’s new Sunday Assembly Church – Briefly, and looking back over 50 tumultuous years of involvement with both, theist and non-theist groups focusing on relationships, environment and simply being “nice” to one-another, I find this “church” thing just same old, same old, and custom-made to fade away in a very short time, or become just another quiet meaningless appendage of society’s deadly attraction to groups and organizations. Each time a new group is started to fill a gap or correct the mis-behaviour of another, it’s just more dis-empowerment for individuals involved. Earth is my community, however crude, crass, unloving, selfish, greedy, murderous, genocidal, generally dysfunctional. To take that uncomfortable community and filter out what isn’t “likable” about it down to a more appealing tiny separate group solves nothing, does nothing. Man will either decide to become individually self-empowered and detached from his emotional relationships (his plethora of groups and organizations including his family units) or he will go down in violence.
    Question: what’s the difference between “spirituality” and “supernaturalism?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • The difference between “spirituality” and “supernaturalism” is kind of like the difference between communism (under which man exploits man) and fascism (which is the reverse).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Some people use spirituality to mean mind/body dualism. I use the term spirituality to talk about our sense of joy, wonder and transcendence–the sense that we are a part of something bigger than our small, brief individual lives. Even if you limit yourself to naturalistic causal hypotheses, what I just called spirituality is a deeply valued part of the human experience, and I don’t think secularism will ever become the predominant lens for viewing the world unless we find ways to express these experiences without the poison pills of dogma and superstition.


  3. P Yew says:

    I’m deeply conflicted over the idea of atheist churches. For me it is the rejection of church, tradition, trappings, ceremony, and so on that defines my apostasy. Why would I wish to embrace something I’ve worked so hard to rid myself of? It reminds me of those who “quit smoking” and chew 2 packs of nicotine gum an hour, have a patch on each arm.
    On the other hand, I recognize the need to foster community within peer groups. I don’t have a solution and I don’t like my current choices, either. :)


  4. shatara46 says:

    The idea of an atheist church is the same as an apolitical political party. It’s a complete contradiction, pure and simple, unless there’s a deeper agenda the sheeple aren’t being made a party to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perry Bulwer says:

      I think it is Valerie who used the word ‘church’, not The Sunday Assembly. I did a quick look at their about page on their website and they use the word ‘congregation’, which has a secular meaning, as does the word ‘assembly’. But I didn’t see the word ‘church’. While the word ‘church’ does seem to have a solely religious meaning, the other two don’t. So if I’m right that The Sunday Assembly does not refer to itself as a church, then there is no contradiction.


  5. mixed feelings…gathering weekly CAN have a strong impact. I think its one of the habits the missionaries brought that seduced many of our traditional Native people into the church. We traditionally had monthly ceremonies with dances and feasts…but weekly gatherings can create a strong bond that can separate attendees from the rest of their community.This began to weaken the inter-relational clan system of checks and balances and became an “us and them” dividing our people into believers and traditionalists. BUT weekly gatherings can also provide a sense of brotherhood/sisterhood of shared responsibility to communities and our world. I doubt I’d attend such a thing, but some people who’ve left church miss the weekly fellowship that’s offered.


    • shatara46 says:

      I agree with the top part of the comment. Always disempowering of the rank and file.
      Quote: “BUT weekly gatherings can also provide a sense of brotherhood/sisterhood of shared responsibility to communities and our world.” To me that’s just continuing the crutch system. In the end it’s the blind leading the blind, or worse, the sheeple syndrome: give us your money and time and we will protect/shield/counsel/entertain you. Which of course brings up the million dollar question: how’s this thing being financed? PS: I totally dis, and mis – trust all institutions. By their very nature they attract abusers and controllers to their leadership – look around. Quote from the back of my mind: “The shepherd’s goal is to continually make the sheep believe he’s got their well-being in mind.”


  6. April Rose says:

    I belong to The Church of Constructive Critical Thinking. What else do I need?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rick Drake says:

    Hi Great article. Sort of like AA No dues or fees just a desire to be.


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