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A Sunday gathering billed as the nation’s first-ever “atheist church” got off to a flying start this week – despite irking one the UK’s most famous non-believers who says he did it first.

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There was standing room only as some 200 people descended on the first congregation of the Sunday Assembly, cramming into an ex-church in St Paul’s Road, Canonbury.

But writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, who is known as one of the most forthright atheists in the UK and last year published a book titled Religion for Atheists, told the Gazette that his organisation beat them to the punch.

Mr de Botton, whose School of Life centre in Bloomsbury hosts Sunday gatherings of atheists, said: “We want to wish the comedians all the very best on their venture, while modestly adding that we have been ploughing this furrow for many years and they shouldn’t therefore claim the idea as their own.”

He added: “We wouldn’t want to start a schism so early on in the movement.”

The School of Life’s Sunday Sermons are not based in a church building and cost £15, while the Sunday Assembly is funded by donations.

It takes place at the former St Paul’s Church, now known as The Nave, and the inaugural gathering on January 6 was devoted to the theme of “beginnings”.

Attendees enjoyed uplifting talks, readings, music and some time for quiet reflection, as founders and stand-up comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans led proceedings.

Mr Jones said: “We’re huge fans of Alain’s and would love to get him down to talk, if he wants to. We don’t really want to get involved in a ‘who did what when’ conversation.”

Mr Jones describes the assembly as a “godless congregation”, and says the idea is to take the best bits from religion and “celebrate the wonder of life”, while weddings and funerals could be on the cards.

He added: “Even as an atheist, there’s just as much going on spiritually, in a non-superstitious way.

“So many people turned up and were getting really excited, it was just overwhelming. It seems people just loved the idea and it far surpassed our hopes.”

The next gathering is on February 3 and comedian Lucy Porter will be among the speakers.

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