‘Atheist church’ provides community without supernatural origin

Giant green balloons bounced through the audience as the crowd sang along to upbeat pop, but this was no rock concert.

“Live better. Help often. Wonder more.”

That’s the motto of Sunday Assembly, a global network of congregations that meet to celebrate life with the best bits of church — communal singing, inspirational speakers and camaraderie — minus the religion.

The movement, dubbed “atheist church” by some, was launched by stand-up comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in January 2013 in London. Fueled partly by an Indiegogo campaign and a 40-day comedy tour of the United States and Australia, the Sunday Assembly mission has boomed with more than 68 groups around the world.

“Our mission: A Sunday Assembly in every town, city and village that wants one. Our vision: To help everyone live life as fully as possible,” the organization’s website proclaims.

Las Vegas resident Cassandra Cicone heard about Sunday Assembly via a magazine article and searched to see if groups were meeting in Las Vegas. She found an announcement for a tentative Las Vegas launch event. But when she contacted the venue, she learned no one had stepped forward to organize it, and nothing was booked.

“I was so disappointed to find out it was not going to happen,” she said.

Cicone turned that disappointment into action and decided to host the first meeting in her home. From there, Mark Rowland with Downtown Project helped the group find space to meet at the Learning Village.

Recent Las Vegas transplant Kevin Breen said he struggled to find one of the initial meetings in the Learning Village. After stumbling into a homeless help event, where he was offered a free haircut, he realized the group needed him.

“I have a printing company,” Breen said. “I can help out. If you’re going to get people like me there, you’ve got to be very clear. I thought my biggest contribution would be donating signs.”

Since then, he has gone beyond pro bono printing and serves as the group’s host and co-organizer with Cicone.

After its first few gatherings, the group found a meeting space at a clubhouse in a manufactured home community. Feeling they had outgrown that space, organizers moved the monthly meeting into an auditorium in the Carol C. Harter Classroom Building Complex at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Supporters met there for the first time June 14 and are slated to gather again at 12:30 p.m. July 12.

Why meet at all? Isn’t skipping church supposed to be one of the boons of being an atheist?

“I don’t want to define myself by what I don’t do,” Breen said. “A lot of people have a thirst to define themselves by what they do do.”

Cicone said she was looking for a community where she and her family would be accepted. She felt isolated during her pregnancy and the first year of her now 3-year-old daughter’s life.

“I wanted to get out and do things with my daughter, and I don’t know other people with children her age,” she said.

When she finally found a playmate for her daughter, she was surprised when the mother abruptly cut off contact. Cicone went to her former friend’s Facebook page and saw that she had replaced her profile photo with a cross.

But more than accepting friends, Cicone wanted emotional experiences. She said there is a transcendent joy found in sitting in a room singing together and sharing ideas and experiences. She felt some of that when she traveled with other Sunday Assembly leaders to Atlanta for an international conference in May.

“We laughed, we cried, we hugged each other and had a deeper emotional experience usually reserved for church,” she said. “You don’t need it to be a supernatural origin, but we do want it.”

Breen grew up in a small town in Michigan where church was his whole life.

“Looking back at my social life through adolescence, church was the center of everything,” he said. “A big part of the appeal of Sunday Assembly is, it’s a way to get back some of that sense of community that was everything to me growing up.”

Breen said listening to inspirational speakers akin to those who give TED Talks is also among his goals.

Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor and subject of the documentary “Year Without God,” spoke at the June 14 meeting about his experiences leaving the ministry.

“I couldn’t conceive of a world in which I wasn’t a pastor,” he said. “It took a lot for me to admit it wasn’t working.”

Bell said he was so determined to care for his parishioners that he was the last to admit he was no longer a Seventh-day Adventist. It took his boss taking him aside to drive it home.

“He was super nice about it,” Bell said.

Losing his job forced him to analyze his feelings about his own religion, then Christianity and, finally, “the whole God thing altogether.”

At next month’s meeting, sociologist Lori Fazzino is slated to talk about the importance of interfaith cooperation, and Raul Martinez, president of Humanists and Atheists of Las Vegas and the local chapter of the Coalition of Reason, is set to talk about how he became a humanist.

Breen said all are welcome at gatherings, regardless of their lack or abundance of faith.

“Other groups are adamant that you be an atheist,” he said. “Even if you’re agnostic you catch flack. We don’t want to be like that. One of our core values is being radically inclusive.”

Cicone said the goal is to get the group focusing on what they do believe in, not what they don’t, as they celebrate the wonder of life together.

Goals for the future include recruiting volunteers to help members in need, starting youth groups, offering comparative religion classes, launching more small group activities (dubbed Smoups by organizers), hosting secular addiction recovery group meetings and maybe someday having a home of their own.

Critics of the international movement have said Sunday Assembly organizers are in it to make money. Sunday Assembly Las Vegas has no paid staff, and Breen and Cicone have used their own money to rent venues, apply for nonprofit status and more.

“I don’t think either of us wants to look at receipts and calculate what we’ve put into this,” Breen said. “We’ve had a few donations, and it’s getting better, but we aren’t going to be out of the red for a very, very long time. But we’re fine with that because it’s a labor of love. That’s not to say we don’t want donations. If someone came up and said, ‘I’m going to give you $20,000,’ we wouldn’t say, ‘No, it’s a labor of love.’ ”

For more information about Sunday Assembly Las Vegas, visit sundayassemblylasvegas.com.

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