David Goodhew

Atheism kills community. Secularism has risen in the West, alongside acute loneliness and the hollowing out of many communal practices. This is not a coincidence.

This article explores atheism’s baleful impact on community, using as a lens the curious trajectory of the atheist “Sunday Assembly” movement.

The Curious Case of the Sunday Assembly

A decade ago, the Sunday Assembly — a self-styled “Church for Atheists” — was lionized by publications from The New York Times to Huffington Post to Britain’s Guardian. The Assembly aimed to offer the good bits of church, without the theology. It rapidly spread from central London to major cities in the U.K., North America, Europe, and Australasia. It offered a mix of community singing, motivational talks, fellowship, and community action.


Founded in 2013, it seemed, to the media, to be the future. But a decade can be a long time in ideology. Scroll forward to 2023, and the Sunday Assembly movement is a shadow of its earlier years. A handful of branches continue (22 worldwide). Most are small. And its telegenic founding father and mother (comedians by profession) have moved on to other projects. COVID undoubtedly played a part, but the assembly’s decline was happening before 2020, and its post-COVID dip is deeper than that of most denominations.

The branches that exist have some value to those who join them. They offer space for communal activity, intellectual input, friendship, and community service. All good, but hardly earth-shattering. The demographic the assemblies touch is also very narrow. It has always been overwhelmingly middle class, largely white, and found usually in major urban centers — although the assemblies are hugely unrepresentative of the cities in which they are mostly found.

Many atheists take great relish pointing out church decline. So it would take a heart of stone for Christians not to feel grim amusement at the Sunday Assembly’s trajectory. It turns out that it is not only congregations that struggle to keep going.

But the Sunday Assembly’s trajectory has lessons for churches. As we look at atheism’s struggles to form community, we can learn about the nature of contemporary atheism and about the potential of the church.

The Eclipse of Community in the West

Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone articulated a thesis that succeeding decades continue to prove right. The more modern, the more alone. Most recently, a study showed how Americans have far fewer friends now than 30 years ago. In 1990, 55 percent of U.S. men said they had six or more close friends; by 2023, that figure had halved. One study suggests that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But we all know, instinctively, that loneliness is a curse. It is not good for men or women to be alone.


As the West has grown more secular, it has grown more lonely. There is a strong correlation between secularity and the collapse of community. But how far is this correlation, or causation? In one sense this is very hard to confirm, but there are times when the level of correlation is so great that to argue that this is merely coincidence won’t wash.

Sartre famously stated that hell is other people. And the overarching narrative of Western secularism is profoundly individualistic. Following Charles Taylor, the Sunday Assembly looks like a classic illustration of expressive individualism. It has no narrative for why community is essential for humans and how humans are incomplete without it — rather, it is “nice for those who like that kind of thing.” And the assembly has shown itself fragile in the face of modernity’s individualistic bias and the sledgehammer of COVID lockdowns.

It is striking how the Sunday Assembly slavishly copied ecclesial practices (singing, talks, fellowship, even the choice of Sunday as the day to meet). Yet, without the doctrinal scaffolding, such communities have proved short-lived. This shows how important theology is for sustaining community. You need a compelling narrative, an eschatology to keep communities together. Saying, to quote Bob Marley, that we can just “get together and feel all right” is empirically untrue.

COVID hit churches hard too. But a crumb of comfort for congregations is that they appear more resilient than many other forms of community. Why? They offer a response to suffering in lament and prayer and a long history (meaning many individual churches and most denominations have raw memories of how their fortunes wax and wane — which gives resources to keep going in tough days and hope for better times ahead).

The assemblies offer no hope beyond death. In lives where death is rare and late, this may feel less of an issue. But COVID (and many other things) starkly remind moderns that we are far from masters of our destinies. Asserting that there is nothing beyond the grave has never been a great selling point. And many secular Westerners hanker for something beyond.

The Sunday Assembly’s strapline is “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” This is supposed to help people “live the lives they want to live and be the people they want to be” in “the awesome world we live in.” It is achingly nice — and that is its biggest problem. It only works in a nice world. The assumption is that all have agency and can live as they want. It assumes that all are good — so no messy backstories trip us up. And it assumes the world is “awesome” — when large slices of the planet do not fit such a rosy depiction. Classic works righteousness plus Pollyanna. No room for failures, frailty, ugliness, or grace.

Atheism offers no way back for sinners. Atheism offers no absolution: either it says you’re fine and have no need of it or you cannot be forgiven as there is no one to forgive you. It can give no rationale for community if the individual feels no need for it (since the individual is king, complete and entire unto him/herself); it offers no sense of community beyond death (since there is no afterlife); no telos for community.

Important Lessons for Churches

The fate of the Sunday Assembly has valuable lessons for churches. First, sustaining community in the modern West is really hard. The survival of churches in the late 20th century and after COVID is no mean feat. The Sunday Assembly was a rocket that shot up, but couldn’t fly for the long haul. It is not just churches that have suffered decline in modernity. Many forms of concrete community have shrunk or shut, often faster than congregations. Churches should be bothered about congregational decline, but should note communal decline is not just confined to them.

The Sunday Assemblies lacked varied seasons (unlike the church year’s balance of feast and fast). They lacked varied and complex Scriptures (offering a simple, vapid, message of “be kind”). They lacked sacraments with their connectivity to ancient community, their message embodied, not wordy, accessible to those whose lack of cognitive capacity many moderns despise.

Second, atheism in the West often has a very specific ethnic and class location — the Sunday Assemblies were achingly middle class and staggeringly non-diverse. Compare them to New York and London’s churches, which  are more non-white than white, with a far greater social reach.

Atheism cannot nourish community — and note how the churches that echo its expressive individualism and are most eager to jettison orthodox theology are most prone to decline.


Faced with the decline of the Sunday Assembly, Christians should beware schadenfreude — not a few churches face something similar. But, given the superiority complex of much Western atheism and its continual scorn for churches, it is fair to ask that, if atheists wish to throw rocks, their own conduct be subject to inspection. And on inspection it turns out that atheism is strikingly bad at sustaining community and churches are often better at it.

Doing community is tough. And churches, with all their faults, are quite resilient. And it is non-diet community that goes the distance. When we slim down worship, jettison theology, and focus on fellowship and moralizing, we undermine community, rather than enhance it. Community needs more than just a vague sense of bonhomie. Community needs theology. It is Christ’s death and resurrection that constitutes churches.

There is a deep ache within Western culture for community. It is not good for men and women to be alone. We were not made for that. The Sunday Assembly gave a fragile balm for that ache. Christian congregations have a stronger medicine, needed now more than ever.

About The Author

David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England.


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4 Responses

  1. Mark Buckman

    Grown adults do not need to be believing in fairy tales. Atheism is the default before cultists come and fill children’s minds with a book full of lies.

    Being free of religion is being truly free to live and enjoy life.

    • The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew

      Dear Mark,

      One of the great strengths of some early atheists is their commitment to evidence-based debate. Can I ask you, therefore, to consider some of the evidence to hand:
      – the contemporary west is clearly more secular and it is also clearly facing a tsunami of mental illness. It is not at all obvious that being secular makes people ‘free to live and enjoy life’.
      – there are a range of countries which have sought a thoroughly atheist society – notably the USSR and its satellite states and contemporary China. These were/are some of the most unfree societies in the world.

      Faith, including Christian faith, has many fallibilities. But so does the faith of atheists that humans are masters of themselves.



  2. Ashley Heren

    The Sunday Assembly appears to be a strawman for poor organized religion. I’m curious if their struggles are similar to the Acts 29 network or other personality driven American churches. I think comparing house churches to vegan potluck groups is a more equitable comparison than one new failed mega anti-church experiment to 3000 years of awkward Christian congregations.
    I think the existence of the exvangelical movement counters the idea that atheists alone fail at community. The Church too is at a crisis of community and is so busy spiliting hairs and creating programs that we don’t have time for pool parties, meal trains, or 4th trimester cleaning parties.


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