When I was 11, one of my school friends went to what I call a ‘happy-clappy’ church. It was far more fun than my church, so I started going there instead. So, from the age of 11 until I was 17, I was very involved in a Baptist church in Ealing, London. I got baptised, helped out with Sunday school and sang at the front of church.
I stopped believing in God very slowly, which was related to having been brought up believing in him. As I got older, I realised that I could ask myself ‘Does God exist?’, rather than just believe what the grown-ups were saying. When I stopped believing, I found church really awkward. I loved it because all my friends were there and it was a special community, but whenever we prayed or sang hymns celebrating God, a lump came to my throat. Because I had become a member of the church, I had to go and tell the leadership that I didn’t want to be a member any more. It was very traumatic; almost like breaking up with someone.
I’m not sure exactly why I stopped believing. I began to view what I had thought of as God talking to me as me talking to myself. I was having a conversation with myself, simply reassuring myself of my decisions.
When I left church, I realised that what I missed wasn’t God, but the community and my friends. I missed having a place of commonality with people and an excuse to do good things.
I first thought about whether it was possible to run an atheist church around 13 years ago, when I was 18. Then, last year, I was talking to fellow comedian, Sanderson Jones. We found ourselves saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could do church without God?’
‘Let’s do it,’ we said.
A year later, we started looking for a venue. We found a deconsecrated church in North London, and held our first atheist church meeting [The Sunday Assembly] in January 2013. We expected around 50 people; over 200 showed up. We thought, ‘Uh-oh, what have we done?’
Atheist churches are now taking place across the globe; 30 have opened this year. We are an international movement. We had a lot of press after we held the first one, partly because of the name ‘Atheist Church’. People got in touch with us saying, ‘I love the idea. How do we start one?’ Sanderson and I have since toured the world, showing people how to run their first meeting. We called it ‘40 Dates’
Any Instinct we have to do good and care for others comes from being human and being connected to the world
We are absolutely on to something with atheist church. I think what makes us different from other non-faith groups is that we describe ourselves as ‘radically inclusive’ ? we say we don’t believe in God, but we don’t talk about that in our meetings. What we talk about is how we can help others. We are not there to discuss whether you believe in God or not, we are there to look at what we agree on, whatever you believe in. We never say to someone, ‘This is how you should live your life.’ We ask them, ‘How do you want to live?’
I believe that there is something that links us together as humans. Any instinct we have to do good and care for others comes from being human and being connected to the world. I also agree with most of the Ten Commandments. They make sense. But whether or not they came from a mountain and were written on stone tablets is to be discussed.
I have found that most Christians totally understand what we are doing. I’ve actually had more trouble from hardcore atheists, who think we are too wishy-washy. A few Christians say, ‘I don’t see the point of it if you don’t have a connection with Jesus.’ It’s not something I’m bothered about arguing with. My job is not to convince someone not to believe in God; my job is to live a good life and be a positive influence.
Pippa Evans is a comedian and co-founder of The Sunday Assembly.