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.