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He certainly has the impressive facial hair of a spiritual leader. Now Sanderson Jones, a 32-year-old stand-up from Stoke Newington, is living up to his bushy beard – of which any self-respecting prophet would be proud – as the figurehead of a new atheist movement.

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He is the co-founder of what many believe to be the nation’s first ever “atheist church” – if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Along with fellow comic Pippa Evans, he hosts the Sunday Assembly once a month in a former church in St Paul’s Road, Canonbury, which is now known as The Nave.

While it may sound like a wacky scheme dreamt up by a pair of confessed jokesters, in truth it is nothing of the sort.

Mr Jones simply wants to create a place where non-believers can experience the positives of religion – without the requirement of faith.

He said: “One of the things that made me think about atheism early in life was my mum dying when I was 10. It was sh**ty.

“While wrestling with my emotions, I started to think about death as a wonderful thing because it makes you concentrate on the fleetingness of life and joy in the tiniest of things.

“But I couldn’t believe in God anymore, there didn’t seem to be any evidence for it.

“I also remember going to a carol service about five or six years ago, and thinking there were lots of wonderful things about it like the singing and making people feel good.

“I first had a proper chat with Pippa about the idea on a car journey to Brighton, as we had both been thinking about some form of atheist church-style thing. I wanted to create somewhere you can just sit and have those life-is-short moments, like when you come back from a summer holiday or a New Year’s party.”

Since performing his first gig in Camden Town in 2007, Mr Jones has carved out a successful comedy career, which has taken him all the way to Australia on tour.

He has become a regular at the Edinburgh Festival and even found time to front a TV advertising campaign for Ikea.

As this stand-up success demonstrates, he clearly has a knack for bringing in audiences – no doubt a handy skill for any church leader.

He is famed for selling all the tickets to his shows by hand and has even filled the Sydney Opera House by doing so, not to mention the Union Chapel in Compton Avenue, Islington.

Nevertheless, he was still blown away when more than 200 flocked to the first assembly at the former St Paul’s Church.

“I was hoping there would be 30 or 40 people there, but suddenly the place was full,” he said.

“We had to open the balcony and people were sitting on these little benches that are not really designed for adults. We have arranged a live video feed from a nearby pub so that we don’t have to turn anyone away.”

He added: “It’s just the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on and I can see myself doing it for the rest of my life.”

The third Sunday Assembly takes place on Sunday March 3. Because of its popularity, there will now be two sessions at 11am and 1.30pm. Visit www.sundayassembly.com for more.

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