It’s no secret that nonbelievers still grapple with social stigma. Last year, more than half of Americans told pollsters that they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if they learned he was an atheist. The nonbelievers I met were eager to challenge the stereotype of atheists as ill-tempered nihilists whose only sacred tradition is picketing the City Hall Christmas tree.
How will these nonbelievers do that? By focusing on a “100 percent celebration of life” and being “radically inclusive,” according to Sunday Assembly’s non-creedal creed. They’d rather befriend a Christian than argue about faith and reason. “When it comes to daily life, ideas are not the thing that matters; human connection matters,” said Nichelle Reed, who helped found Chapel Hill’s Sunday Assembly.
Most Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, would find the outlines of Sunday Assembly familiar: hymns and a worship band; a sermon; afterward, coffee hour. (The organization attracts a mix of recovering believers and people who have never been religious.) The meeting last month even featured a ritual that echoed the ancient Christian practice of the Passing of the Peace, the moment when congregants reconcile with one another, often by shaking hands. Instead, the Assembly leader asked us to turn to our neighbors for a quick thumb-wrestling match.