The Sunday Assembly: church without God

I first heard about the Sunday Assembly (dubbed the “atheist church”) in the news earlier this year. Taking the form of a church service, it is a communal celebration of life (without any reference to a deity), aiming to help people “live better, help often and wonder more”. I thought that if I was ever in London on a Sunday, I would definitely check it out. Even better: the Sunday Assembly and its founders have come to Edinburgh during the Fringe festival! So I got to check it out today :)

It was held in a bingo hall, and it felt pretty surreal to make my way through rows of fruit machines and take my seat at a bingo table – for a church service. I’ve never even been into a bingo hall before! People were steadily streaming in, not to a tranquil atmosphere but to a rousing background of dance-pop songs; a bar was open selling alcoholic drinks along with the the more usual brunch-time fare of coffees and croissants. I had no idea what to expect as I sat down and waited for it to begin.

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It started not with an introduction but with an invitation to get up on our feet and – BAM – straight into some energetic singing of uplifting, well-known pop songs, aided by a small band, a few leading singers, and words projected on a screen. Out of nowhere, it suddenly felt like church!

I was every bit as blown away by the experience as I had been when I first went to Unitarian church. I wasn’t at all prepared for the emotional uplift of lively congregational singing and clapping, and I felt tears welling up. Like the first Unitarian experience, this brought me back to an episode from my spiritual past, but a different one: the charismatic episode. This was a reconnection, a reminding, and to some extent a reconciliation with that part of me that responded to exuberant worship, all those years ago, and still responds now to the same experience in a very different context. And once again, a tremendous excitement to feel that I can still have those experiences, even without the beliefs that formed the original context.

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The service was a mix of songs, talks, poetry, reflection, interaction. It was at times comedic; at times quiet (although not for very long). The singing had an atmosphere of humour and exaggeration, which I think was the result of smashing through British reservedness, but there was also a feeling that despite ourselves, we were doing more than just being daft and having a good time. We were lifting ourselves and each other up a little bit; we really were. “I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never going to keep me down!”

Trying to live a good life is hard. We do get knocked down, a lot. Religion at its best brings us together, makes us feel less alone in that struggle. I didn’t even know how badly I needed that today.

The really exciting part is, a new Sunday Assembly is going to start here in Edinburgh from October!! I joined in a short discussion about this after today’s service. The movement really seems to be taking off: the congregation in London is several hundred strong, and interest from around the world seems to be growing faster than their ability to manage the addition of these new branches. They are concerned to make sure that it doesn’t go off in unintended directions: it isn’t, for example, supposed to be a tool for atheist evangelism, nor is it really about atheism at all. It simply takes the aspects of church that work well (Sanderson Jones is quite transparent about his plagiarism!) and makes that accessible to people who aren’t into God.

This makes it quite similar to Unitarianism, although the tone and atmosphere of the service (and style of music) was quite different. The main other difference is probably the absence of any references to God, ultimate reality, spirit, worship and so on, which Unitarian services are full of. Unitarianism attempts to make such references as wide as possible, to embrace the plurality of world views in the congregation; those who are more naturalistic may take such references as metaphors to human experiences, while others may take them more literally. This is the first time I have come across a religious experience without any of that. And it seems you don’t necessarily need it in order to have an uplifting experience of connection with something greater, and a sense of community. Moreover, to my mind at least, keeping the focus on the everyday here and now makes for a more believable set of expectations than the “transformed lives and a changed world” that religion often promises.

I guess I’m at a point where this is exactly what I need. I still very much enjoy philosophical/theological discussion, but I don’t find it relevant on a personal level any more. I look for connection, not with God, but with other people. I’d like to be in a community like a church that fosters efforts to reach out and be nice to other people; to attend services that address the emotional and personal in a way that I can connect with; but I have no interest in looking to anything beyond the here and now for inspiration. Judging by the Sunday Assembly’s rapid popularity, I am not alone in this. I’m looking forward to getting involved. :)

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13 Responses to The Sunday Assembly: church without God

  1. Keyra says:

    Atheism isn’t a religion, eh?

  2. I wish we had a Sunday Assembly in Dublin!

  3. LK says:

    Fascinating. Its funny, because the Unitarian Church I went to you would have thought it was some sort of Pagan Buddhist religion. Everything was Pagan based for the most part. It wasn’t very broad. I suppose it just depends on who is doing your services.

    I think all people desire a community of like thinkers. This is such a great idea.

    • Sarah says:

      Wow! How did you feel at that church? I think you’re right, it depends on the minister, the members, and what they all want. I’ve noticed this when guest ministers come in, it can be quite different.

  4. This sounds really interesting. I think it’s something I would quite enjoy, wish they had one in Belfast! How you described the singing at the start made me think of my own time in the charismatic area of spirituality, and how the music at the start of the service always made me feel quite uplifted. I think this is a really good idea.

  5. Marahm says:

    That the Sunday Assembly evokes the same the same sort of bonding, uplifting response as a church service is no surprise. If you consider the one common denominator in all world religions, you’ll be compelled to conclude that congregational activity is it. Moreover, the congregational activity must be effective in achieving the purposes of binding the people together in a common effort to inspire, teach, energize, and connect with each other without having to be prompted by selfish considerations. None of that needs a god concept, but a god concept fits the model perfectly.

    I suspect the Sunday Assembly will get off to a roaring start, and then fall into a predictable rut, with all the binders that flank most ruts. Maybe it will become an atheist platform, or a yoga platform or something less intense, but you must enjoy it and draw from it whatever satisfaction it offers, for now.

    People like us, who think too much and believe too little, need all the help we can get.

    • Sarah says:

      Absolutely! Community and congregation are central to this type of experience. And it’s so hard to find one these days where I can really feel at home. It will definitely be interesting to see what becomes of the Sunday Assembly movement over time.

      • UU&OtherClubs says:

        My English is bad..Due to that , without comparing to UU churches and other organizations which you are very interested to participate, I can refer you and like minded people to join Rotary club International or Lions club (I do not know whether this club still exists).

  6. Pingback: A new beginning | Meaning and Truth

  7. tonymcneile says:

    This is a fascinating article as are the comments. I agree entirely about a community having a purpose and mutual respect amongst its membership. It applies to football clubs as well as churches, however football clubs don’t always lift the spirits (my favourite certainly isn’t at the moment!) and nor do churches, many of them. To go and hear how unworthy I am and to sing a hymn which is a dirge is not a turn on. I am a Unitarian and go around preaching in the North of England. I think life should be fun and we should be in love with all of it, but if we have a personal shipwreck we should trust our community enough to throw ourselves into their arms for comfort. I also feel that there is a mystery to our existence that we sometimes glimpse and it inspires – so I want to look deeper in the writings of the world – and without the shackles of an unpringing where the Christain church adopted the God of the Old Testament who promised us wrath and punishment as well as favouritism. Thanks for your thoughts.

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