The Sunday Assembly, an organization dubbed by the media as the first “atheist church,” more than doubled its number of “congregations” over one weekend. This group almost replicates the church model in that they meet on Sundays, they sing songs and listen to speakers, they bring snacks and coffee, and they focus their “assemblies” on building community and living a good life—they just simply do all of this with no reference to a deity or the supernatural. At first glance this seems paradoxical. Why do nonbelievers want to create something so much like the church that believers frequent? Sociologists point to one major reason – community.
The drive to come together and share space and ideas with others is a fundamental way humans build identity and community. As far back as Emile Durkheim, sociologists have shown how sharing beliefs and rituals both create and sustain identities, communities, and society. Today, sociologists are finding the same thing happening among nonbelievers who are riffing on the structure and rituals of religious institutions in order to build their own community.
- Jessie Smith. 2013. “Creating a Godless Community: The Collective Identity Work of Contemporary American Atheists.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52(1)
- Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press.
Community building has historically centered around religious institutions. As Americans leave churches at an increasingly higher rate, they are left at a loss with how to form communities without the church model. In many ways, the atheist church phenomenon is due to what sociologists call “institutional isomorphism,” which shapes the available models for building community.
- Mary Pattillo. 1998. “Church Culture as a Strategy of Action in the Black Community.” American Sociological Review 63(6)
- Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell. 1983. “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.” American Sociological Review 48(2)
The church model is not the only thing that nonbelievers are borrowing either. Groups of nonbelievers have used social movement rhetoric from civil rights groups, especially LGBTQ rights, to build a movement around non-believing identities. This kind of appropriation is common, however, and sociologists argue that all movements do some version of this, looking to past movement successes to build from when creating their own strategies.
- Whitney Anspach, Kevin Coe, and Crispin Thurlow. 2007. “The Other Closet?: Atheists, Homosexuals and the Lateral Appropriation of Discursive Capital.” Critical Discourse Studies. 4(1).