My Sunday at Atheist Church

A thoughtful first-time visitor to SALA shares her impressions. What do you think?

(Reposted with permission.)


Nikki Bailey

This morning, I went to “atheist church.”* Well, I’m sure they wouldn’t call it that but, as steeped in Christian culture as I am and, for lack of a better word…. A woman I know was doing a talk about touch deprivation at Sunday Assembly Los Angeles (SALA). According to their website, SALA is "a god-free community that meets monthly to hear great talks, connect for service projects, sing songs and generally celebrate life.” I’d heard about SALA on NPR some time ago and, since being here, have met a few people who attend their meetings so I decided to check it out. 

I was a few minutes late (cuz, that’s how I roll) so I missed the first song. When I arrived a lovely couple was doing announcements and celebrating community milestones. It was a lot like the joys and concerns part of a worship service at a lot of mainstream Christian churches. A family lost their cat, a couple celebrated an anniversary. There were a few birthdays and a moment to acknowledge the death of a SALA member from the San Diego congregation (hmmmm…group? assembly? It’s hard not to assign churchy language to the experience but Imma try not to.)

There was a musical selection by a family - dad on the guitar, mom on lead vocals, 2 small kids joining the choir on background vocals. (Oh, yes! There’s a choir. They’re called Voices of Reason. They were awesome…but I’ll get back to them in a minute.) This adorable family sang “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers. The lyrics spoke of loneliness and the need for love. The chorus answered with an affirmation of connection and joy: "I belong with you, you belong with me, you're my sweetheart.” I thought the song - the chorus, at least - would be cute to teach a youth choir…at church. Hmmmm.

Then, the speaker - Jean Franzblau - took the stage. She was dynamic and interesting and personable. She talked about touch as a human necessity and had stats to show how Americans and Brits basically suck at touching but the French and Puerto Ricans rock at it. She led an exercise where we learned to ask for touch and to say no to touch and to enthusiastically respect other people’s boundaries around being touched. I got to hug a really cute guy from the choir and the lovely young black woman sitting next to me. (Yes, there were black people there.) Good times.

And then… OMG… This was the best! Voices of Reason got up to do another number. The song was introduced with some words about Darwin and some musings about how the need for touch may have evolved. Then they busted out with an amazing rewrite of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel’s Messiah called “Evolution.” 

"Evolution! Evolution! Evolution, Evolution, Evolution….” 

I wish I’d recorded it! It was FANTASTIC!!!! The choir ended the service (um…meeting?) with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. That too was totally awesome and I belted out my favorite line: “Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it…” HA!!!

Before I got to SALA this morning, I wondered what it would feel like. Usually, when I go to worship or any kind of gathering with a spiritual or religious intent, I FEEL something. Sometimes, I just feel pissed off. (Like, when I stumbled upon a certain Baptist church in Williamstown, NJ that refused to ordain women or even let them in the pulpit…. Ew.) Most of the time, even if I don’t agree with the espoused theology, I can tap into some sense of Presence and Spirit. It’s how I’ve felt at home in synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, mosques (to a lesser degree cuz…women) and churches of all kinds. The common thread of belief in something More has always been enough to allow me to feel Connected and touched in religious settings.

I didn’t have that experience at SALA. As I drove to the assembly, I’d formulated the theory that it was the gathering of people that generated the good feeling, not the beliefs. I thought that it would feel good to me - just as good as a faith-based gathering - because it feels good to be in congregation. But, at SALA, I didn’t feel like I was part of the congregation. And, don’t get me wrong, it was not because of them! Every single person I met was kind and warm and welcomed me with a smile. But, I felt…apart. 

For the first time, I had an appreciation of what it must be like for non-god believing folks to walk around in our Christo-centric, religion-obsessed world. To not believe in a place of belief feels lonely. And, thing is, though I am deeply spiritual, I don’t disagree with my atheist brothers and sisters about a lot of stuff. But as I sat there, I found myself feeling annoyed by the idea that “reason” was somehow incompatible with faith. And, the same with “humanism." I was like, “Whoa!!!! You guys don’t get take those words and exclude me from them just cuz I believe in God!” I was mad. I felt judged even though no one was judging me. “Ain’t nobody studying you!” As my dad would have said. That was all on me. And, I was so stuck in those thoughts that I may have missed the opportunity to connect with the community.

But now I wonder how my atheists friends manage the very real and potent hostility that religious and spiritual folks can heap on those who do not share our beliefs. Cuz, let’s face it, even the most progressive of us can get a little judgey when we meet people who ain’t trying to hear about what we so passionately believe. Whether your spirituality is about Jesus or Buddha, Universal Energy or Nature, we all have those secret moments when we throw some side eye at the people who are - in our view - still too lost/asleep/sinful to accept our truth with a capital T. 

I wonder how my atheist and agnostic homies get along without cussing out church and religious folks on the regular. How do they go to weddings and funerals and family gatherings where their beliefs - or they, themselves - are called evil? How do they deal with proselytization and the arrogance of people who are so caught up in their own righteousness that they often forget to relate and connect person to person? 

I do believe that much of the good feeling I get from religious and spiritual settings is the movement of Spirit. "Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) There is so much beauty and healing available in a room full of people who have invited the God of their understanding into their midst. 

But that's not all of the good feeling. A lot of it also comes from the feeling that I belong. And, what’s so shameful is that religious folks with all of our talk of grace and mercy and loving kindness, frequently do a piss poor job of extending the sense of belonging to EVERYONE who joins us for worship. 

I didn’t feel the good feeling that I get from religious gatherings at SALA because - though they extended every effort and courtesy to include me - I didn’t feel I belonged. The Sunday Assembly space wasn’t created for me cuz, as a person of faith, I have tons of places to go and gather on Sundays. It was created to provide a safe haven - home and community, service and love, reflection and fun - for people who are often misunderstood and judged by the “faithful" masses. I imagine that I would have felt relieved and so very at peace in that setting if I was an atheist or agnostic. And, since I really liked the experience and everyone I met there, I hope that I will allow myself to relax into it a little bit more on my next visit. Cuz, I bet it could feel good to me - like I belonged - if I did. 


For more information on Sunday Assembly LA:

For more information about Jean Franzblau: http://sexualesteemwithjean.comand

*FYI: There actually IS something called Atheist Church. I know nothing about it and I don't know if it has any connection with SALA but, ya know...I wanted to mention that it's a thing.

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