Las Vegas’ master-planned subdivisions and lack of walkable neighborhoods don’t make for a city that encourages communal bonds. New residents in particular feel this void, given that many of them moved here as adults and don’t have the same deep roots found elsewhere.
Going to church or hanging at a local watering hole can help rectify that. But what do you do if you don’t drink or believe in religion? You go to Sunday Assembly Las Vegas.
The non-believer church was started by two British comics in 2013 as a social gathering, much like Sunday morning worship. Founders of the Las Vegas chapter, Kevin Breen and Cassandra Cicone, describe Sunday Assembly as a church for people who are neither for nor against religion, but who are seeking the same benefits that a congregation offers, such as creating community and connection.
Unlike atheist groups such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the United Church of Bacon, Sunday Assembly isn’t a parody or a mockery of church and religion. According to Breen, Sunday Assembly gathers to celebrate the group’s core tenets: living better, helping often and wondering more.
“We are not an atheist church. We do not proselytize atheism, nor do we limit ourselves to just atheists.” – Cassandra Cicone
Breen, who moved to Las Vegas after a breakup, was seeking like-minded individuals in a city that sees quite a bit of transience in the population. “I didn’t know anyone here and I was depressed and lonely,” he says. “My mom told me I should go to a church, and I knew what she meant. But I knew I couldn’t do that because I didn’t believe in a god, and I would constantly be frustrated by the sermons, and the churchgoers would be frustrated when they tried to evangelize to me.”
Cicone wanted a place that was welcoming to her and her family. Her worry was the awkwardness that comes when people find out that someone is an atheist. “This is a tough place to build community, and we want to provide an environment where people show up and automatically have a pool of friends with whom they will never have to have any uncomfortable conversations about religion.”
The group believes in being “radically inclusive,” Cicone adds. “We are not an atheist church. We do not proselytize atheism, nor do we limit ourselves to just atheists.”
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 30 percent of Nevadans have no religious affiliation. This is a part of a growing trend. A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious and Public Life found that 46 million Americans had no religious affiliation.
Secularism is growing so fast that groups are rallying together to have the same political clout as evangelical Christians. This past weekend, Breen attended Reason Rally 2016 on the National Museum of American History lawn in Washington, D.C. Participants and speakers such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and rappers in Wu-Tang Clang are giving a voice to voters who strongly believe in the separation of church and state. They also want to eradicate the stigma that atheists are somehow immoral.
“Our appeal is that we offer the same kind of community that you would normally only be able to get through a church, but without any religious or spiritual talk,” Cicone says. Sunday Assembly meets on the first Sunday of the month in a UNLV classroom. Members sing pop songs such as “Total Eclipse of the Heart” using kazoos and deliver TED-style talks that provide interesting information or tell a personal story. Childcare is offered for families with young children, and the group relies 100 percent on donations.
“Religious affiliation itself doesn’t seem to have the positive effects that religious attendance does,” Breen says. “Which is great news for people who want those benefits but aren’t religious. There is some preliminary data suggesting that Sunday Assembly provides the same positive health benefits to everyone as church attendance does for religious people.”
Sunday Assembly is now transitioning to a more permanent space near McCarran International Airport called the Center for Science and Wonder. It is the start to what Breen hopes will become the group’s home base while furthering the sense of rootedness needed in the city.
“I love the idea of creating a supportive community,” Cicone says. “Not for Vegas, but for the world. If I moved right now, I could go to any Assembly. Add water, stir and—poof!—immediate social life and support system.”