The frustrations of trying to build community

It’s about time I updated my blog on my Sunday Assembly journey. I have barely mentioned it since Sunday Assembly Edinburgh was born over two years ago!

So – it turns out it’s pretty challenging to establish a secular equivalent of church with just a handful of volunteer organisers. I have found myself incredibly envious of organised religions, having their own buildings to act as a community hub, and having paid clergy!

I have given this project a lot of my time; for a spell recently, I was even the committee chair. We would meet in noisy cafes to work through too-long agendas, ever hopeful that new people would respond to the monthly pleas for help and show up. But they largely don’t – even the informal social meet-ups we tried to hold (in-between the monthly assembly events) were very sparsely attended. I have found it increasingly difficult to feel positive about my efforts to help build a “community” – it felt more like I was just working hard to put on a free show every month. Feeling overworked by it – and over-relied-upon – eventually pushed my mood in a mildly misanthropic direction, which I had to admit is kind of ironic, and at that point I knew I was done. :)

What was I hoping for? I went into it because I thought that I valued community, I valued people getting together and being uplifted, I valued trying to make things better collectively – and I liked the idea of a community in which I wouldn’t be at the margins in being secular-minded. But it’s difficult to feel uplifted when you are burned out from effort and carrying a bigger burden of responsibility than you feel is reasonable. And apart from a beach clean on one occasion, being of practical help in the wider community has remained sort of a holy grail that no-one has time and energy left over to think about or organise.

I think we have done some good in fostering friendship; it’s rare in adulthood to maintain a sizeable group of friends who all hang out together, and that is something positive that we have done just as well as church – at least for the people who are actively involved (organisers, band, and so on). And I have certainly benefited from the experience of playing in a band; up to now I continue to participate at that level. Are there other, less complicated ways we could have achieved the same things? I’m really not sure.

I also have some discontentment with the development of Sunday Assembly as a global phenomenon. We have a central organisation that in my view acts a lot like a business, trying to define and protect its brand and expand itself globally. Sure, it is only responding to demand from around the world, but I think how it responds is quite revealing. It is now moving from a grassroots model to something like a franchise, where new groups who want to start a Sunday Assembly will have to pay for mandatory training and each candidate organiser will be interviewed. (Seems to undermine “radical inclusiveness” a little bit, does it not…?) Once up and running, accreditation must be sought; the accreditation criteria are quite demanding in my view, culminating in a visit to the assembly event to judge the quality and conformity to the charter in various ways.

I have found this off-putting; I had always viewed Sunday Assembly as a movement, which implied the central organisation’s main role was to facilitate the sharing of ideas and experience between the network of assemblies – mutually – rather than trying to set itself up as an authority. I’ve looked into other models for comparison: the British Humanist Association requires local groups (known as “partners”) to sign a partnership agreement, and as far as I can see that is all – no onsite visits to make sure the talks are interesting and the welcomers are friendly and so on. The Unitarian church in UK is a network of autonomous churches, and the central organisation is defined by that network, not the other way round. Both those models are more appealing to me personally.

Anyway, what do I conclude on the question of providing the benefits of church (or its equivalent in other faiths) without religion? Hmm. I guess I’m not sure if there is a real appetite among the non-religious for communities like the churches some of us grew up in: like old-fashioned villages, where everyone knows everyone, significant points in people’s lives are marked and supported, and kids grow up with numerous surrogate aunties and uncles that care about them. Perhaps the people who want something like this are those of us that got involved in organising Sunday Assembly. Or perhaps this community concept does appeal more widely, and it would just require more resources to actually bring it about – weekly assemblies, rather than monthly, for example. Would people come weekly? Would people come to socials or small-group events if there was a permanent building to come to rather than having to come out and buy an overpriced coffee in a noisy cafe sitting awkwardly at a table of people they don’t yet know? Or is it that it’s simply less awkward when people are able to bond over some shared characteristic (such as faith), or are ideologically committed to being part of a community in a way that atheists wouldn’t ever be? I don’t know.

Sunday Assembly Edinburgh is still going, though (for now), and still as well-attended as ever. I suppose that says something positive.

Posted in Humanism, personal reflection, Sunday Assembly, Unitarian | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments



OK winter, you win, with your short, cold days.

And you, New Year, you have exhausted me already.

You win, Christmas melancholy; you win, misery of disconnection.

You win, the lot of you.

I give up.

There will be no new deep and searching blog posts this holiday, no new songs vocalised, no epiphanies here.

Only comfort-seeking and the passage of time.

Posted in personal reflection | 1 Comment

Thoughts on the role of art in life’s struggles

I’ve been pondering how people handle pain and discomfort, in situations where walking away from it either isn’t an option or isn’t a choice they are willing to make. Possibly triggered partly by a book I’m reading in which a woman overcomes her demons by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, learning in an extreme way how to deal with discomfort (because it couldn’t be avoided on the trail).

It seems like leaning in to the discomfort has to be healthier than chronic avoidance and comfort-seeking – but surely there has to be some relief sometimes too?

There is this concept of “self-care”, but when I think about that, it just seems like more effort on top of the effort of working through life’s stressfulness: having the discipline to go to bed early; making the effort to get some exercise, and to cook yourself proper food (and resist those comforting takeaways and sweet “treats”)…

Meditation is also this thing that is supposed to help, but for me it always requires Herculean effort too, and however much I tried, I could never be completely convinced that developing a “second-order awareness” wasn’t just a way of detaching and ceasing to be so moved by things – which is too scary an idea.

I was still in bed this morning when I suddenly registered another approach: making art. Art in the broad sense, including things like music, poetry, prose.

I suppose the whole point of leaning in to discomfort is to find a way through it, through growth, through learning new ways of being, through insight. Art can accelerate that process. Art is the human engine of meaning creation; art is where deep connection with the discomfort brings relief. Art is vulnerability; art is connection with others. Art is reconnection with oneself.

Perhaps art can actually power those imaginative leaps that lead to growth: even counselling, or journalling, is narrative construction and that is art. We might think we are organising facts and experiences but in reality we are telling stories.

In this view, art is not a luxury, or the preserve of the talented; it is a vital life-line.

I am going to give myself permission to learn to use it in more ways.

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Delusions of Gender: so why do girls play with dolls and boys play with cars?

[This is the 7th (and last) of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

We become aware of gender at a very young age. In fact, as Cordelia Fine reports in the last section of her book, we seem to be only too eager to learn the ‘language’ of gender:

“Developmental psychologists Carol Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children become ‘gender detectives’, in search of clues as to the implications of belonging to the male or female tribe. Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The academic literature is scattered with anecdotal reports of preschoolers’ amusingly flawed scientific accounts of gender difference… In fact, young children are so eager to carve up the world into what is female and what is male that Martin and Ruble have reported finding it difficult to create stimuli for their studies that children see as gender neutral, ‘because children appear to seize on any element that may implicate a gender norm so that they may categorize it as male or female.’”

This is fascinating, and very much seems to support Francis Burton’s theory around gender being a set of learned, culturally-determined behaviours, where the predisposition to learn and follow either the male or the female norms is hormonally-triggered. It’s also interesting to reflect that in most languages (English being a bit of an exception), all nouns are gendered: as if the gendering instinct is so very strong that it spills over and colours everything we see… Kind of reminds me of the way belief in supernatural agents seems to be a spillover of our over-active theory of mind. But I digress.

The main thrust of this part of the book is that, for our part, adults seem astonishingly eager to impose gender upon children, even while we often claim that we are not doing so! Differentiation between the sexes starts even before birth:

“Sociologist Barbara Rothman asked a group of mothers to describe the movements of their foetuses in the last three months of pregnancy. Among the women who didn’t know the sex of their baby while they were pregnant, there was no particular pattern to the way that (what turned out to be) male and female babies were described. But women who knew the sex of their unborn baby described the movements of sons and daughters differently. All were ‘active’, but male activity was more likely to be described as ‘vigorous’ and ‘strong’…”

A series of studies are described in the book showing the myriad ways parents go on to treat girls and boys differently. Toys, even at a very young age, are gender-specific and laden with expectations that children readily pick up. Parents converse more with girl babies, despite boys being no less responsive to it; they underestimate / overestimate what physical feats their child can accomplish, depending on the child’s sex. Everything is colour-coded pink and blue just to really drive it all home. In short, “children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance.”

Some of the studies gave glimpses of just how arbitrary these gender norms might be. In one, preschool-aged girls were, over a period of time, exposed to some stories that portrayed females in stereotypically masculine roles and activities. The result?

“After just a few readings of the counterstereotypic stories, these girls abandoned stroller, baby doll and ironing board to experiment with fire trucks, blocks and helicopters. By the last few days of the experiment these girls were playing almost exclusively with the boyish toys.”

(And why the hell wouldn’t they?! Those things are much more fun!)

The more I’ve thought about all this, the more weird it all seems. We do all this effortful socialisation of boys and girls, and we hardly even notice we’re doing it. And yet it’s pretty much culturally compulsory when you think of the fear and horror that would be aroused in some folks by dressing a boy in girls’ clothes, or giving a girl nothing but fire trucks and helicopters to play with… It’s as if we think deep down that children need to be socialised into their respective genders, to avoid setting them up for lifelong confusion… And yet, when faced with the resulting differences in boys’ and girls’ preferences and behaviours – and much later in life, the career choices they make – we so readily forget all that, throw our hands up in the air and say, well, it simply must all be biological!

“Emily Kane suggests that the rapidity with which highly educated and privileged parents fall back on biological explanations reflects their position at ‘the vanguard of a limited sociological imagination’. Harsh but, I think, fair.”

Posted in 'Delusions of Gender', feminism, gender, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Liberal self-criticism

I frequently come across interesting articles and blog posts that trigger a desire to write, to explore for myself the issues they raise. This week, a long train journey gave me a rare opportunity to actually do so.

These two articles were posted on social media by friends of mine recently:
Ayaan to Liberals: Get Your Priorities Straight
The New Intolerance of Student Activism

The interview in the first article mainly focuses on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s views on reforming Islam. I’m particularly interested in what she says about western liberals being too politically correct: refusing to criticise foreign systems of oppression (such as sharia laws), in an apparently mistaken belief that it would be wrong to impose their cultural paradigms and conceptions of freedom on others around the world. They prefer instead to nit-pick the supposedly relatively trivial problems in their own societies.

I don’t really recognise this picture of a liberalism of excessive humility. I recently ruffled a few feathers in an online Sunday Assembly forum by daring to suggest that atheism as a “movement” had some issues with sexism, ableism and other ways of marginalising people. Apparently rationality is immune to such things and it is, frankly, disloyal of me to suggest otherwise. ;)

Clearly I am one of those Ayaan would criticise. She asserts that the oppression faced by various marginalised groups in the US is pretty minimal compared to what these groups face elsewhere, and focusing on it feeds a victim mentality. For example, feminism has done its job, and the issues faced by women in the west now amount to nothing more than an argument about who does the dishes.

The second article, in a similar defence of western society’s progress, accuses student activists of making mountains out of molehills after their university refused any longer to officially discourage cultural appropriation at Halloween. The writer argues that these students are upset not because of real marginalisation but because they have been sold an ideology of victimhood. That the way out of a sense of disempowerment is to stop reinforcing it by talking about it:

“Here’s one of the ways that white men at Yale are most privileged of all: When a white male student at an elite college says that he feels disempowered, the first impulse of the campus left is to show him the extent of his power and privilege. When any other students say they feel disempowered, the campus left’s impulse is to validate their statements. This does a huge disservice to everyone except white male students.”

Is this true? I think it depends on whether there is some significant, unacknowledged power differential, of which those who are privileged by that differential are blissfully unaware. If so, then surely it does need to be called out and addressed. Unconscious attitudes can’t be changed just by pretending they are not there.

Is it possible that people cling unhelpfully to a victim status? Yes. It’s possible for anyone to feel victimised in some way, and of course in excess it can be hugely problematic. But I’m not sure it makes sense to demand that a person’s disproportionate reaction is cut down to size before being willing to listen to them – willing to understand what needs to be understood. Especially since without that full understanding, it is not possible to judge what is and isn’t a disproportionate reaction anyway.

A counter to Ayaan’s rosy view of the west might say that we have chopped the most ugly tip of the iceberg off: at least women, gay people, and ethnic minorities all have appropriate legal rights now, and more physical safety than before. But the iceberg remains. The cultural ideas and attitudes resulting from the legacy of domination of one group over another are stubborn, despite society believing that it has fully moved on. They still cause real pain and real disadvantage, and the threat of worse things reappearing is ever-present.

It’s all about perspective. Maybe it’s not very helpful to loudly demand other cultures chop the tip off their own iceberg, when not only does that lack the humility of recognising that we have a long way to go ourselves (and that we don’t exactly have a great track record of exporting brilliant ideas to the rest of the world), but also, it may just reinforce another power differential – the one that gives the western voice such volume in the world anyway…

Posted in feminism, Humanism, moral issues, social justice, Sunday Assembly | Tagged , | 1 Comment


I just read “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkemann. It presented several different counter-intuitive paths to happiness, having first discussed the limitations and ineffectiveness of a lot of the “positive thinking” cult.

One of these paths was Stoicism. I had never come across this philosophy before, but it sounded like my kind of thing! Stoicism advocates mulling over the “worst that could happen” – and sometimes even seeking out feared experiences – because often when examined closely and realistically, that worst is not the true disaster we initially fear. Rather than seeking reassurance that the worst won’t happen, comfort and security is found through being able to truly accept the possibility of it happening.

This doesn’t mean being indifferent to whatever happens – a bad outcome is still something to try and avoid, up to a point – it’s just about having a realistic and proportionate view of things, which for some reason seems to require a bit of effort. A lot of the time, when we seek happiness, we’re actually just seeking pleasure / avoiding displeasure, and ignoring the deeper ways in which happiness can come about.

It reminded me of the research on lottery winners and paraplegics, which suggested happiness levels don’t follow expected patterns, and big changes in circumstances might even have no long-term effect on happiness. What does all this mean for seeking happiness, for oneself or others?

It’s difficult to define the true “best” when sometimes the worst brings gifts that the best cannot. Perhaps it’s stupid to even think so one-dimensionally. Happiness is a big, weird, complex thing. And happiness is only one part of a good life; its presence in a slum does not make a slum a good thing.


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Delusions of Gender: neurosexism

[This is the 6th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine – finally getting around to finishing off the series!]

In part 2 of the book, Cordelia Fine critiques the neuroscience of sex differences. I didn’t find the neuroscience part as interesting and understandable as the earlier psychology and social science-based discussions, but it deserves a blog post for completeness’ sake – so here is a pretty brief summary, based around quotations from the book. Her criticisms of the science include the following points:

  • A simple consequence of statistical sampling is “that even if males and females, overall, respond the same way on a task, five percent of studies investigating this question will throw up a ‘significant’ difference between the sexes by chance.” And, of course, studies that show a difference that seems to correspond to some popular, stereotyped notions are much more likely to be published than those that show the boring result of no sex difference at all.
  • “…there’s plenty of scope for spurious findings of sex differences in neuroimaging research. … because imaging is so expensive, a small number of participants is the rule rather than the exception, and small neuroimaging studies may be especially unreliable, because nuisance variables (like breathing rate and caffeine intake, or even menstrual cycle in women) can dramatically change the imaging signal without having any effect on behaviour.”
  • “… neuroimagers are now finding that reported sex differences in brain activation haven’t been put to adequate statistical testing, or can come and go depending on how the analysis is done, or can fail to generalise to a distinct but similar task within a second group of men and women, or that the kind of analyses used to establish sex differences in brain activation can also ‘discover’ brain activation differences between randomly created groups (matched on sex, performance and obvious demographic characteristics). For all these reasons, it’s critical not to place too much faith in a single study that shows sex differences”
  • Dodgy science used in a waffly, hand-waving manner to back up popular stereotypes is an even worse distortion of the truth: “why stick to language and visuospatial skills when, as certain academics have shown us, any gender stereotype can be pinned to sex differences in hemisphere use, in impressively scientific-sounding fashion? For instance, what began as women’s supposedly more bilateral language skills quickly transformed into the basis of womanly intuition and multitasking skills while, as John Gray explains in Why Mars and Venus Collide, men’s more localised brain activity even explains their propensity to forget to buy milk.”
  • There is a “problem with interpreting sex differences in the brain: what do they actually mean for differences in the mind? … the obscurity of the relationship between brain structure and psychological function means that just-so stories can be all too easily written and rewritten.”
  • Brain functions are continually influenced and shaped by culture and other aspects of the environment. This is a kind of feedback loop whereby our brains influence the environment and the environments influences our brains right back, and this “seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning.”

The overall picture of gender science is one of continual, embarrassingly reluctant, revision:

“… speculating about sex differences from the frontiers of science is not a job for the faint-hearted who hate to get it wrong. So far, the items on that list of brain differences that are thought to explain the gender status quo have always, in the end, been crossed off. But before this happens, speculation becomes elevated to the status of fact, especially in the hands of some popular writers. Once in the public domain these supposed facts about male and female brains become part of the culture, often lingering on well past their best-by dates. Here, they reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain.”

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