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Why would a Christian pastor help an atheist start a ‘godless congregation’?

Last weekend the number of "godless congregation" Sunday Assembly locations more than doubled. Here's why their rapid growth is a welcome reminder of the value of working with and learning from others.

A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.
A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.

A Sunday Assembly meeting. Image via Sunday Assembly.

Last weekend the number of Sunday Assembly locations more than doubled, continuing the impressively rapid spread of these “godless congregations” since the first one launched in January 2013.

Why are these congregations expanding so quickly? I think there are a number of reasons:

  • They’re meeting a real need that some nonreligious people have for community, connection, and inspiration.
  • They’re overtly welcoming of all people, nonreligious and religious alike.
  • They offer people an opportunity to give back to their communities and act on their values through service work.
  • As the atheist movement struggles with its reputation as being largely made up of (and concerned about) white heterosexual men, Sunday Assemblies are notably more diverse.

But there’s another factor worth noting: The Sunday Assembly model explicitly looks to religious communities for ideas and inspiration.

This was strikingly clear when The Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt visited the launch of a new Sunday Assembly location near Cleveland last weekend, filming the service and interviewing participants and organizers. Midway into their video on the event, Gabbatt asked Layla Nelson, one of the organizers, if she gets pushback from religious people for being a “prominent atheist” and Sunday Assembly organizer.

“I do have several close friends who are religious—one of my best friends from high school, she is a pastor,” Nelson replied. “I actually turned to my pastor friend to ask her, ‘How do we start a church?” And she gave me reams of advice. Lots of great ideas.”

“So your pastor friend gave you advice on how to start a godless church?” Gabbatt said, laughing.

You can hear the surprise in Gabbatt’s voice as he takes in her response. But Nelson’s approach is a big part of why Sunday Assembly is growing, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to see more of.

In a pluralistic society, communities thrive when they work together and learn from one another. In “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” Harvard University’s Robert Putnam explains that diversity can help build strong communities. But, generally speaking, people tend to “hunker down” with those that they see as similar and view others suspiciously. So for diversity—including religious diversity—to be an asset instead of an obstacle, people from different communities need to reach across lines of difference and learn from one another.

Years ago, as an atheist studying in theological schools alongside religious classmates, I came to understand that some of the most important things I’ve learned have come from relationships with individuals and communities that do not share my views. As an interfaith activist, I’ve since met countless other people who say that working with and learning from people of other faiths and beliefs has enriched their work in their own communities. And sure enough, many of the strategies I use today as an atheist and Humanist community organizer came directly from my work with a Missionary Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago, the Somali Muslim community in Minneapolis, and other religious communities.

Many other atheists have suggested that we look to other communities (including religious ones) for inspiration before—a recent example of this was Alain de Botton’s thought-provoking book Religion for Atheists. But as more and more atheists invest in community for the nonreligious, it’s helpful to have another reminder that we can learn from how religious communities bring people together, help them celebrate life’s joys and reflect on its challenges, and offer opportunities to improve the world—even as we disagree with some of their ideas.

When we’re not afraid to learn from other communities—both religious communities and other atheist and Humanist communities like Ethical Culture—we can benefit from their experience and expertise.

As I continue to learn and grow as a Humanist community organizer, I’m grateful that Sunday Assembly is demonstrating the value of working with and learning from others. Their success is a welcome reminder that (to borrow one of my friend Vlad‘s favorite expressions) a rising tide lifts all ships.