New atheist-led Charlotte group Sunday Assembly Charlotte wants community without dogma

A congregation calling itself Sunday Assembly Charlotte gathered for the first time Sunday morning. There was a sermon on “new beginnings,” lots of singing, a collection plate, even a moment of silence.

But the 65 or so people who filed into an art gallery in NoDa – some lugging their own chairs – were welcomed not by a pastor, but by Richard Fortuna, a 37-year-old atheist who described himself as the host and the event as “a godless celebration of life.”

And that moment of silence? The congregants stayed mum, but the sound system played the music, though not the lyrics from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which begins by asking listeners to imagine there’s no heaven.

At a time when pollsters say “Nones” – mostly young Americans with no religious affiliation – are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, Sunday Assembly is the latest alternative to churches for those who want the sense of community but not the doses of theology associated with Sunday mornings.

The Charlotte congregation, which plans to gather one Sunday a month, is a franchise of an international movement founded in London in 2012 by two comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Since then, scores of Sunday Assemblies have popped up in cities around the globe and across the United States.

Sunday Assembly Charlotte – a volunteer-driven effort that is seeking nonprofit status from the IRS – is the first such congregation in North Carolina, though Fortuna told his secular flock that Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem are slated to launch others early next year.

Some in the news media have dubbed Sunday Assembly an “atheist church.” But, judging from who turned out Sunday in Charlotte, it might be more accurate to call it an umbrella group that includes atheists, agnostics, New Agers, Buddhists, Unitarians and those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

On Sunday, Fortuna was reminded of this diversity when he told the crowd, “We don’t believe in a god, but we’re not going to say you’re wrong if you do.”

At that, his wife, Karen Montgomery, piped up. “Speak for yourself on that. Some of us believe in God,” said Montgomery, 42, a former Baptist who now calls herself spiritual but not religious.

Reflecting national trend

There were a few graybeards in the audience Sunday, but most appeared to be in their 20s, 30s and early 40s – many of whom found out about Sunday Assembly Charlotte from social media. Dress was casual, and some parents brought their young children.

The age breakdown Sunday appeared to mirror Pew Research poll results, which found in 2012 that an increasing number of young people identify themselves as “Nones.” It’s a group that now makes up one-fifth of the U.S. population, Pew reported, but a third of those under 30 years old. Among the “Nones,” nearly 70 percent say they believe in God, with only a small number of atheists and agnostics.

Among those attending Sunday Assembly Charlotte:

• Nicole Ciaramella, 29, an accounting student from Indian Trail, said she came Sunday because “I wanted to see something different.”

Raised Roman Catholic in Long Island, N.Y., she said she subscribes to a personal spirituality that borrows a little bit from various religions but doesn’t adhere completely to any.

When she moved to Charlotte in 2010, she was told she should go to church to meet people. But, she said, “for many churches, if you don’t share their belief, you’re an outcast.”

Will she return to Sunday Assembly? “Absolutely,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to come to a place where everybody has their own beliefs but we can be together.”

• Andrew Riebe, 33, a programmer and podcaster, is a Buddhist who believes in a higher power.

A Charlotte native whose parents were not churchgoers, Riebe said he’s always “sought truth” but never felt included whenever he attended a church, mosque or synagogue.

“Here (at Sunday Assembly), I don’t feel excluded from anything,” he said. “We are not here arguing beliefs. ... I feel welcome.”

• Drew Pate, 28, grew up in Charlotte and embraced atheism when he was 16. “There was nothing here (for atheists) then,” he said. “It was hard.”

If he comes back to future Sunday Assembly gatherings, he said it’ll be because of the people and the environment of openness he found Sunday.

“What’s selling it for me is being able to find other people who may have experienced what it’s like to be atheist,” he said. “They’re willing to talk about it and not necessarily make judgments.”

Stigma of atheism

But at least some who showed up for Sunday Assembly Charlotte appeared reticent about letting others know they were attending an event associated with atheists – a group that still gets the cold shoulder from many Americans in public opinion polls.

Fortuna invited those who didn’t want to be on YouTube – a volunteer filmed Sunday’s event – to sit in the back, behind a black line.

Nearly half did, including two women in their 40s who later told the Observer they preferred that their employers and family not have to deal with the stigma attached to atheism, especially in the South.

Still, the mood Sunday was mostly upbeat, with many clapping and singing along to such pop songs as Jon Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”

Tina Marshall, one of the organizers, announced the formation of three “smoups” – short for small groups – that will read books, discuss philosophy and sing karaoke.

Fortuna, who grew up in Pentecostal and Catholic churches in Wilkes County, said he wanted Sunday Assembly Charlotte to feel so welcoming that even a “hard-core Baptist” could feel at home if he or she happened to walk in one Sunday.

He pointed out that, unlike some atheist groups, the congregation has no interest in belittling the religious. Its motto stresses the positive: “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.”

And, said Fortuna, who does tech work for a Charlotte company, he wants to provide for the non-churchgoer a churchlike experience – minus the dogma.

“I really loved being in (church), but everything I loved about it had nothing to do with religion,” he said. “When you walked in, it was family. There was singing. And the woman in back hugged your neck. ... I want a person leaving religion to be able to come here and get that support they need for a life of ... free thought.”