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The Church of Nobody in Particular: Oakland's Atheists Gather to Worship Nothing. (There Is Singing, Though.) 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014
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On a Sunday morning in an Oakland building with a high ceiling and chairs set out like pews, there is something vaguely church-like happening.

Seven people stand in front of a microphone, waiting for a cue from Daniel McCoy. The man with the neat beard taps his Macbook Air and a song comes pulsing through a large speaker, sending the group swinging and swaying and snapping with the verve of a congregational choir.

Except they're not belting out "Glory Hallelujah." It's Kool & the Gang's "Celebration." When they finish, a projector beams these words onto a screen: "Good is great."

This is Sunday Assembly. Or, as the group is more casually known, the atheist church.

East Bay Sunday Assembly, one of 28 chapters around the world, is part of a fast-growing movement of godless churches. The organization, started in London in early 2013 by a pair of British comedians, hit the Bay Area last November, and is now getting ready to christen about 30 new international branches. Assemblies can be found everywhere from Sydney to San Diego, and in nearby Silicon Valley.

Heading up the East Bay group is McCoy, a soft-spoken man whose interests include Carl Sagan and storytelling.

"I've always been kind of a doubter," says the 62-year-old, a technical director at Pixar. "I studied Eastern philosophy a bit in college, but I never found anything I wanted to belong to really." Until he discovered Sunday Assembly.

"One of the things I like about Sunday Assembly is it's not dogmatic," McCoy says. "It's not like you have to be an atheist here. There's no requirement on your inner belief. We just don't do the God thing."

While many participants are indeed atheists, it's not an exclusive club.

"'Atheist church' is a lovely label because it catches people's eyes and it's the thing that allowed us to break out," says Sanderson Jones, one of the organization's founders, on a Skype call from London. "[But] by concentrating on celebrating life and talking about the things we believe in, not the things we don't believe in, suddenly you create a far larger room."

At the latest meeting God wasn't part of the service. (And yes, they call their meetings "services" and their groups "congregations.") Instead, there was a TED-style talk on the act of listening by a Berkeley psychology Ph.D., a group exercise on how to pay attention, and some awkward, coffee-fueled 11 a.m. dancing.

The godlessness might be what attracts the members, but the sense of community is what keeps them coming back.

"It's trying to find a way of getting the good things of religion, but leaving the baggage on the platform," McCoy says.

The setup is not unlike a regular church service, including a moment of silent reflection, a sermon of sorts — in previous months McCoy has taken on themes including "robots" and "smiling" — and an unabashed plea for money. The venue, usually the Humanist Hall in Oakland (though September's event will be at the Oakland Peace Center), doesn't pay for itself, says McCoy. But none of the funds go to any members or even to the umbrella organization. Each chapter is fairly autonomous, while falling under the guidance of the London team.

"People all over the world started getting in touch and saying 'We want to have a Sunday Assembly where I am,'" says Jones. "We had to work out a way to let other people do what we did, because you know, we don't want any of the ones sacrificing children and saying it was a Sunday Assembly."

East Bay meetings are the fourth Sunday of each month. August's gathering drew about 70 people. (London's last meeting had about 400.)

At the beginning of the August meeting, McCoy addresses the congregation. "Hello — welcome to Sunday Assembly!" he exclaims. "Everyone who's been before knows what we do first thing."

"Sing a song!" someone yells.

With that comes the sweet, secular sounds of "Footloose" and the collective chant of the choir: Footloose, kick off the Sunday shoes ... you're burning yearning for someone to tell you life ain't passing you by.

Later, an assembly member steps to the mic for a "reading" — a passage from a TED talk given by a man who took a 17-year vow of silence. That leads directly to the lecture on listening, then a team exercise where one person talks and another tries to do nothing but listen.

At this meeting a quarter of the participants are first-timers, and others are visiting from Sacramento.

Jeff Thomas, 32, came with a small cohort preparing for the church's launch in the capital on Sept. 28. He's come to the past three meetings to get ideas for his own fledgling congregation.

"There's an active nonbeliever community in Sacramento," he says. "We expect a good turnout."

The 28th is the worldwide kickoff date for new assemblies. It's the first time Sunday Assembly will hit non-English-speaking countries: one in Berlin, and four in the Netherlands.

"We seem to have moved from a bit of a curiosity to people in policy saying, 'There's really something here,'" says Jones. He adds, "If Airbnb can create a million hotels out of people's spare rooms, we're trying to create thousands of communities from people's spare time."

The East Bay assembly grew out of a San Francisco gathering last November, when Jones and co-founder Pippa Evans led a worldwide tour promoting the organization. But difficulty finding a regular venue there led local organizers across the bay. A small group is still trying to get something started in San Francisco, but hasn't gotten enough traction, McCoy says.

Despite all the talk of community- building, not all visitors are impressed. After the listening exercise, one couple heads quietly for the door.

"There's no spirituality in this, and I don't mean God," says Dave Sammons. "It's like walking into a lecture. I want something more."

The 76-year-old retired Unitarian minister and his wife, Jan, had come to see what all the fuss was about.

"When I go into a church building I expect to feel I'm in a special place," says Jan. "I didn't feel that here."

Another turn-off: the tunes. "Footloose" just doesn't jive with everyone the way it used to. In the assembly's defense, it isn't easy to find songs that are both appropriate and not cheesy. A more significant criticism, also mentioned by the couple, is the East Bay assembly's lack of diversity: The congregation, for now, is mostly white, and seems to skew older.

Overall though, nonbelievers are just happy to have a place to belong to — and some think the fledgling movement could be a sign of things to come.

"It's already becoming a part of people's lives," says Erin Midkiff, 26, of San Francisco. "It'll be a while before there's a big enough godless community in the country, but I can see it having lasting power years from now."

Says 29-year-old Chris Berry: "When they start officiating weddings and funerals, that's how I know they've become a cultural institution."


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Arvin Temkar

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