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.
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.
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.