They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked.

Secular organizers started their own congregations. But to succeed, they need to do a better job of imitating religion.

Stained-glass windows
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Updated at 5:21 p.m. ET on July 22, 2019.

When Justina Walford moved to New York City nine years ago, she’d never felt more alone. She’d left behind her Church, her God, and her old city, Los Angeles. Then a secular congregation called Sunday Assembly filled the spiritual void—at least for a time.

Walford had just turned 40. As a child, she had been deeply religious. Her parents had no interest in religion, and didn’t understand why she would; they’d sent her to a Christian school in hopes of good discipline and education. But Justina fell headlong into faith, delighting in her Church community and dreaming of one day becoming a pastor herself.

By the time she turned up in New York, her faith had long since unraveled, a casualty of overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth. But still she grieved the loss of God. “It was like breaking up with someone that you thought was your soulmate,” Walford told me. “It’s for the better. It’s for your own good,” she remembered thinking. Even though it no longer made sense to her to believe, she felt a gaping hole where her Church—her people, her psalms, her stained-glass windows—used to be.

Then Walford read an article about Sunday Assembly, a community started in Great Britain in 2013 that had spread quickly across the Atlantic to her doorstep. Members gather on Sundays, sing together, listen to speakers, and converse over coffee and donuts. Meetings are meant to be just like Church services—but without God. “That’s it,” she thought. “That’s what I want.”

When Walford shed her faith, she joined a large and fast-growing group—the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated. According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community. Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. As these and other traditional social supports hollow out, Americans are left “bowling alone,” as the political scientist Robert Putnam famously put it.

Secular congregations such as Sunday Assembly and Oasis—a similar group started in 2012—seek to offer a solution. Both were founded by faithless seekers hoping to carry on certain aspects of religious life: the community, the moral deliberation, and the rich sense of wonder. When they were growing so rapidly in their early years, these congregations were heavily covered by media outlets. “The Hot New Atheist Church,” gushed a 2013 Daily Beast headline about Sunday Assembly. HuffPost noted that the number of assemblies had doubled in a single weekend in 2014. The media coverage emphasized the new community’s high-energy services, its celebratory message, and the top-of-your-lungs group renditions of pop anthems such as “Livin’ on a Prayer.” For those uncomfortable with the level of overt spirituality even within relatively liberal denominations, such as Unitarian Universalism, secular communities offered a different option.

But even as the growth of “nones” has revved up in the intervening years, the growth of secular congregations hasn’t kept pace. After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out—including the New York one that Walford joined. Building a durable community of nonbelievers, it turns out, is more complicated than just excising God.

If the sudden emergence of secular communities speaks to a desire for human connection and a deeper sense of meaning, their subsequent decline shows the difficulty of making people feel part of something bigger than themselves. One thing has become clear: The yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home.

The New York Sunday Assembly was everything that Justina Walford had been hungering for since leaving her faith. Meetings involved “sermons” from scientists, artists, and academics; members sang pop songs together and snapped their fingers to poetry readings. Old-timers chatted by the snack table and invited newbies to meals outside the group. “I just fell in love with it,” Walford said. “I loved the singing … I loved the interaction. I loved once a month seeing the same people.” She became an organizer, one of the leaders of the chapter working long volunteer hours to put each service together. That lasted for a couple of years—and then things began to fall apart.

There just weren’t enough people. Making a congregation happen basically meant putting on a big show on a regular basis. Somebody needed to book bands, find speakers, set up chairs, pick up snacks. Anne Klaeysen, who was a board member for the New York chapter at the time, told me the same thing. “The core group worked their hearts out, but it wasn’t sustainable.”

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings—but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

Beneath the surface were other rifts. Even within the community of nonbelievers were different groups with different priorities: Some ardent atheists wanted to rail against religion, for example, or have heated debates. But at Sunday Assembly, the point wasn’t to put down faith or even to celebrate being faithless, per se—the point of being there was being there, together.

Still, in a city like New York, people have plenty of other options on a Sunday morning. Boot camps. SoulCycle. Brunch. “You’re competing with hundreds of other events at the same time,” Walford said. Getting enough people to show up felt impossible. The chapter officially closed down in early 2016, three years after opening.

These issues didn’t just affect the New York chapter. Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years—from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. The number of chapters is down from 70 three years ago to about 40 this year.

Sustaining any kind of new congregation—indeed, any new group activity at all—is hard work. But religious groups have more tradition, history, and institutional support behind them, and these factors can stand as a kind of safety net behind religious start-ups. “If Sunday Assembly was a Christian community that suddenly had brand recognition, a flock of pastors would come and bring all their skills and experience,” says Sanderson Jones, one of the founders of Sunday Assembly. “You could buy training videos, there’d be conferences you could go to—there are all these different preexisting structures.” But for secular congregations, there are no training videos. There are no “Church planting” experts to help them grow roots. They’re starting from scratch.

Even more challenging than the logistical barriers are the psychological ones. Linda Woodhead, a scholar of religion and culture at Lancaster University in Great Britain, told me that structured communities just aren’t easy to form. “Meeting in a building with the same group of people every week … I don’t think there’s any natural need for that,” she said.

Woodhead believes that communities can be hugely important to people, of course—but you can’t just meet for the sake of community itself. You need a very powerful motivating element to keep people coming, something that attendees have in common.

Some congregations have that. That Salt Lake City is home to one of the most successful Oasis chapters may not be a coincidence. The chapter has become an important hub for ex-Mormons; these members are bound by the shared experience of leaving the denomination they grew up in and feeling isolated in a hometown over which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looms large.

For many nones, however, their lack of religion is not a strong part of their identity. Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at Pew Research Center, says that about one-third of nones fall into the category of “principled rejecters” of organized religion or “principled embracers” of atheism or humanism. But the majority of nones are just indifferent to religion. “On what basis would you pull them together?” Cooperman asked. “Being uninterested in something is about the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilizing cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.”

Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of PRRI, told me that 93 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they’re not searching for a religion that would be right for them. “One appeal of a secular congregation is to be an alternative but familiar way to fill social and spiritual needs that have historically been filled by Churches and other religious congregations,” he said. “But the overwhelming number of people who were raised religious but now have left report being pretty content.” To hear all these experts talk, the surprise is less that Sunday Assembly and Oasis have shrunk than that they grew so quickly in the first place.

Ara Norenzayan, a psychologist studying religion at the University of British Columbia, told me that secular communities might have trouble getting members to inconvenience themselves, as people of faith routinely do for their congregations. He cited a study by Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who studied 200 American communes founded in the 19th century. Sosis found that 39 percent of religious communes were still functioning 20 years after their start, but only 6 percent of secular communes were alive after the same amount of time. And he determined that a single variable was making this difference: the number of sacrifices—such as giving up alcohol, following a dress code, or fasting—that each commune demanded of its members.

For religious communes, the more sacrifices demanded, the longer they lasted; however, this connection didn’t hold for secular communes. The implication, Norenzayan said, was that challenging rituals and taxing rules work only when they’re part of something sacred; once the veil of sacrality is removed, people no longer care to commit to things that demand their time and dedication. “If it’s ‘Come and go as you wish,’ that’s not going to work,” he said. Even if secular congregations could create a sense of the sacred, they tend to attract people who are explicitly looking for a community without costly rituals—one that lets you do what you want.

When I talked with Richard Sosis himself, though, he added that costly sacrifice isn’t the only way that groups can inspire devoted membership. Religions can be understood as systems, which consist of core, interconnected features—like sacrifice and belief in the supernatural, but also like ritual or storytelling. Theses phenomena all probably evolved separately, and only together are understood as “religion.” You can remove an element, and the others may be strong enough to uphold the system. But as more of these core features disappear, he said, the system begins to suffer: “You can’t take out the lungs and wonder what’ll happen to the body.”

Sosis’s point is that while costly sacrifice might not be present in these communities—and they may be suffering for that reason—they have other tools in their toolkit. They already have collective singing and live music, for example, which sets meetings apart from everyday experiences. And he believes they can and will adapt over time, evolving into something closer to conventional religion, even if no deities are involved. Secular congregations can become as meaningful as religious ones, he said, “but there has to be a sense of transcendence … Transcendence is what gives the community a higher level of meaning than going to Johnny’s Little League game.” It might mean developing more rituals, or sharing more stories. It might mean that ideals they already espouse—such as helping others, or finding wonder in nature—get elevated to a sacred level. The irony is that to get away from religion, they may need to re-create it.

Secular-community organizers are trying their hardest every day to prove that Sosis is right—that their nonreligious congregations can provide the same fulfillment as religious ones. Some have spent time researching what makes a lasting religious community, hoping to reverse-engineer its machinery for secular use. Sunday Assembly’s Sanderson Jones, for example, has developed a framework of five core components in any congregation: “community life,” “transformational gatherings,” “personal growth,” “helping others,” and “changing the world.” This may sound like clumsy marketing-speak. It can feel awkward to watch a so-called atheist Church work out its evangelization strategy in real time. Then again, traditional religious groups have spent hundreds or thousands of years figuring out how to get people in the door. We just aren’t seeing the shaky early experiments happen in front of us.

Some leaders of Sunday Assembly and Oasis told me they’re trying to make those weekly meetings so interesting, so entertaining, so powerful that people will keep showing up. “The quality of the content is what keeps people coming back,” Taylor Gibson, director of community engagement for Kansas City Oasis, said in an interview.* “There are speakers on so many different issues … these events give people a sense of purpose.”

The secular organizers whom I interviewed are thinking carefully about how the social interaction they provide differs from the kinds of relationships that prospective members already have. Being part of a network can be comforting—and the right network can be hard to find. “We get a lot of people asking, how do you make friends as an adult, post-college? How do you meet people outside of your work or school environment?” Gibson said. “It lends [itself] to that—to helping establish connections that are outside your small scope of influence, with people you may not have met before.”

Justina Walford, for her part, has been without a community since the New York Sunday Assembly closed down. After a relocation to Dallas, she tried out a Southern Baptist Church near her home—and she loved it. She loved the services, the singing, the people. But the more enmeshed she became, the guiltier she felt about the secret she was carrying: She didn’t believe in God. So she stopped showing up. Sometimes she thinks about starting a Sunday Assembly chapter in Dallas, but the idea is daunting. She knows now how much work it is, and how much it hurts when things fall apart.

For those who stick with Sunday Assembly or Oasis, the challenge now is to make the community last beyond their own generation—and to find new congregants as the number of nonbelievers grows. Organizers hope that other adults will see how wonderful it is to be accepted and accepting, to sing Bon Jovi badly in an abandoned church building or hear a talk about quantum physics in a local Y with other like-minded and familiar people. And that, having had these experiences, they’ll keep showing up.

* This article originally misidentified Taylor Gibson as the executive director of Oasis.