There’s a couple of comedians over in the U.K. – Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – who happen to be atheists that decided it was time atheists had a church of their own. So they set about creating The Sunday Assembly, a monthly gathering of atheists that’s somewhat akin to a church service without all that God nonsense. The first service was held back in January and there was a smattering of news articles about it which made the rounds back then, but was otherwise mostly ignored. I think most folks thought it was a silly idea and would fade away quickly even if 300 people did show up for that inaugural session in a deconsecrated church. The following months would see that number grow to upwards of 600 people requiring a change in venue.
Now they’re back in the news again because the assemblies have branched out to 30 other cities around the world including Dublin, New York, San Diego, and even one in Grand Rapids. The founders have set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to grow the organization even further (they’re at £29,556 of their £500,000 goal so far) with a world-tour to promote the idea taking place right now. It would appear they’ve struck a chord that is resonating with a lot of atheists.
Which shouldn’t be too surprising considering that a lot of atheists are, like myself, former believers. There are studies done all the time that reveal that there is no shortage of atheists who continue to attend church long after they stop believing. Some of them do it for their kids or spouse who continue to be believers, some do it because they enjoy the community and/or rituals involved, and some do it because they find the experience meaningful despite their lack of belief. Many former-believers-turned-atheists report feeling a sense of loss of community and belonging after leaving their faiths so the appeal of a non-religious substitute for that community seems like a no-brainer.
Not surprisingly, the success of this movement has attracted no small amount of criticism with some of the most pointed of it coming from fellow atheists. Take as an example this article from Michael Luciano titled Why “Atheist Churches” Are a Disaster For Atheism:
And at a time when atheists are trying to fight this mischaracterization – including in the courts– it is incredibly counterproductive for Jones and Evans to feed the misconceptions with their charade because the fact is, an “atheist church” makes as much sense as a Baptist synagogue.
Michael’s primary criticism seems to be that this movement will allow believers to claim that atheism is very much a religion because it now has a “church” and, undoubtedly, some folks will indeed try to make that argument. Of course that ignores the fact that plenty of religious nutcases already make that argument anyway including someone named Zac right here on SEB. He tried to make the argument that atheism was not just a belief, but a religion and that Richard Dawkins was our Pope. Will the Sunday Assembly contribute to that misconception? Possibly, but it’s not like it wasn’t there already so I’m not sure how much more harm it can cause.
Michael goes on to say:
Earlier this year, the duo explained their motivations in the New York Times: “[C]hurch has got so many awesome things going for it. Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”
Based on my own personal experience attending church, as well as other believers-turned-heretics I have spoken with, church had so few “awesome things going for it,” that we left. For atheists every religious service is predicated on a falsehood, regardless of whatever feel-good niceties may accompany its production.
The above is arguably true for a great many atheists, but not all atheists are the same. The above comes across as the No True Scotsman fallacy. Simply because Michael and some atheists he happens to have spoken with don’t think there was much that was awesome about church attendance, that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate atheists out there who do. Plenty of atheists don’t participate in Christmas or Easter festivities, but I and many others that I know personally do. We just take out the religious nonsense from it and I don’t consider myself any less of an atheist for doing so. While I may not be all that big on the community aspects of church attendance, I can certainly see how it might be appealing to others. I don’t begrudge them their indulging in it if that’s what makes them happy.
Of course, the blame for this silliness cannot be placed entirely with Jones and Evans. Clearly they have tapped into a market of nonbelievers who for some reason still find it necessary to attend “church” to infuse their lives with meaning. It really is a sad state of affairs, as what they are aiming for can just as well be accomplished by an informal gathering at a coffee shop, bar, book club, concert, lecture, or in their own homes. For the freethought movement’s sake, I sincerely hope that the Sunday Assembly is a fleeting cultural idiosyncrasy and not emblematic of a broader trend.
Other than the idea that this will give believers an argument to claim atheism is as much of a religion as any other, Michael doesn’t do a very good job of stating why Sunday Assembly is a “disaster” for the atheist movement. Perhaps he’s right that the same results could be achieved by an informal gathering at other random places, but I’m not sure I understand why that’s an argument against the Sunday Assembly itself. If you prefer your atheist meetups at bars there are groups out there doing just that which you can participate in. Bars not your thing, there’s all manner of other atheist meetups out there to look into. Many of which seem to have similar goals to the Sunday Assembly. The only thing I can see about SA that is upsetting to Michael is that they’re using churchy terminology.
It’s also not clear that Sunday Assembly is all that formal. I’ve never been to one myself (and I suspect Michael hasn’t either), but if the YouTube video for their Indiegogo project is anything to go by then “formal” is probably not an accurate description of the proceedings. According to the About Page on their website, the three core ideas behind SA are as follows:
We are here for everyone who wants to:
Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be
Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other
Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in.
That sounds pretty innocuous to me. They go on to be a bit more specific with:
The Sunday Assembly
- Is 100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.
- Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.
- Has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.
- Is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting.
- Is free to attend, not-for-profit and volunteer run. We ask for donations to cover our costs and support our community work.
- Has a community mission. Through our Action Heroes (you!), we will be a force for good.
- Is independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside businesses, organisations or services
- Is here to stay. With your involvement, The Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place
- We won’t won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can
- And remember point 1… The Sunday Assembly is a celebration of the one life we know we have
Again, this doesn’t sound like a terrible thing to me. That doesn’t stop Sadhbh Walshe of The Guardian from declaring that Atheist ‘mega-churches’ undermine what atheism’s supposed to be about.
Determined to show that those who believe in nothing are just as good as those who believe in something, the faithless are establishing a church of their own, and a mega-church at that. On the surface it seems like a rather brilliant idea. What’s not to like about beating the faithful at their own game? Apart from the one small caveat that establishing a place of worship for the faithless, even a godless one, rather negates what atheism is supposed to be all about.
Really? I must have missed that day of Atheism 101 Class wherein we were told what atheism was “all about” because as far as I know it’s only about not believing in God(s) with everything else being up to the individual to decide.
This past Sunday, the groups’ inaugural assembly in Los Angeles attracted some 400 people. Similar gatherings across the states have also drawn big crowds, bursting to do all the good stuff religious people do, just without the God stuff. As one of those non-believing types – the kind who’d be inclined to tick off the “spiritual but not religious” checkbox on a dating profile – I should fall right into the Sunday Assembly movement’s target demographic. If only the central idea of dragging atheists into a church so they can prove they are just as worthy as traditional churchgoers didn’t strike me as a bit of joke.
I’ve read through the entirety of the SA website and I can’t seem to locate the part that says the goal is to prove atheists are just as worthy as traditional churchgoers. I’ve seen a lot of stuff about providing a community to do awesome things with and love and compassion and some other vaguely hippy stuff, but nothing about proving atheists as worthy. Maybe that really is the goal of the founders, but if it is they’ve done a good job of hiding it.
She goes on to write:
I don’t mean to downplay the human need to find like-minded communities either or to explore the deeper purpose of our existence. I just can’t quite embrace the notion that atheists should be under any obligation to prove their worthiness to religious types, or that to do so they should mimic the long established religious practices that non-believers have typically eschewed.
As near as I can tell, and again I’ve gone over the website carefully, the founders aren’t suggesting that atheists are under any obligation to do jack or prove shit. Nor do they say atheists “should” mimic anything. They are saying that if some of the stuff you used to do in church appeals to you and you’d like a place to do it again without all that God nonsense then they have an option for you to explore. How is that a bad thing?
I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.
Again, I must have missed that class. As far as I’m aware atheism has no message. There are no tenets, no holy book, no rites, no great wisdoms handed down from on high. From what I can see of Sunday Assemblies — and I’ll say again that I have not attended one — it’s a church only in the sense of being a gathering of like-minded people communing with each other and perhaps working towards making the world a better place. Considering that Miss Walshe goes on to say that she’s dabbled with Buddhist retreats and Hinduism meditation, both of which are ritualized in many ways, I’m not sure what her problem with SA is.
Here she tries to explain what her problem actually is:
That is why I have a fundamental problem with the so called atheist mega-church movement that Jones and Evans are spearheading. While they have every right to form congregations and get together with like-minded people and to share hugs and plan good deeds, they don’t have the right to co-opt atheism for their cause.
Ah, it’s the old THIS-THING-IS-MINE-YOU-CAN’T-HAVE-IT-CAUSE-IT’S-MINE problem. Yet again I fail to see anywhere in anything I’ve read about Sunday Assemblies that they are out to co-opt atheism for their cause. I don’t think they’ve managed to raise enough money to hire a private Atheist Mercenary Army with which to force all the atheists to attend their church and abide by their holy writ lest they be rounded up and sent off to the Atheist Gulags for reeducation.
In point of fact, comparing the Sunday Assembly’s approach to organizing atheists (which is what they are doing) to another attempt at doing so seems an apt thing to do. When the folks behind Atheism Plus launched their effort to bring together like-minded atheists to push for social justice issues there was quite a bit of talk about them doing exactly what Miss Walshe is accusing the folks behind SA of doing in terms of trying to co-opt the movement. When Jen McCreight wrote her infamous entry that launched Atheism Plus titled How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism she made it quite clear that the goal was to redefine the atheism movement:
I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.*
[...] The Boy’s Club may have historically ruled the movement, but they don’t own it. We can.
It’s quite clear that her goal is to weed out the folks she considers “bad” from what she views as “her” movement. This was repeated by other early adopters of Atheism Plus such as Richard Carrier who wrote:
There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all (I mean people like these and these). I was already mulling a way to do this back in June when discussion in the comments on my post On Sexual Harassment generated an idea (inspired by Anne C. Hanna) to start a blog series building a system of shared values that separates the light side of the force from the dark side within the atheism movement, so we could start marginalizing the evil in our midst, and grooming the next generation more consistently and clearly into a system of more enlightened humanist values.
If you’ve never read his whole article then it’s worth doing so. Whether you agree or not with Carrier’s opinion on what constitutes a good atheist vis–à–vis a bad atheist, it’s clear that he thinks Atheism Plus should come to dominate the atheism “movement”, inasmuch such a thing exists. Carrier’s remarks in particular were seen by many in the atheist community as a you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us we’ll do everything we can to kick you out of the movement polemic that turned off a lot of otherwise sympathetic people. So much so that no less than Jen McCreight herself repudiated his comments:
Which I find interesting as he didn’t really say anything she hadn’t suggested herself in her original blog entry about it. Atheism Plus was the next chapter in what some would consider the growing schism in the atheist community online that started with the ElevatorGate incident. The whole thing got so stupid that it caused me to stop reading a lot of atheist bloggers I respected on both sides of the “debate” because they spent most of their time trash talking the other side.
In comparison the Sunday Assembly folks don’t seem to me to be attempting to do anything other than offer folks who miss the community of their old churches someplace to experience it once again without all the God nonsense. How Miss Walshe sees that as co-opting is beyond me. She concludes her article with the following:
I’m sure the Sunday Assemblies have the potential to benefit many people and will fill a void for anyone who likes the idea of being part of a community. But if faithlessness ends up becoming a quasi-religion with its very own church, where are the true atheists – the ones who don’t feel the need to join a congregation or to sing and hold hands to show the world we’re good and worthy – supposed to call home?
Again with the idea of “True Atheists.” If someone attending a SA event doesn’t believe in Gods then how are they not a True Atheist? Again I’ll ask: Does the fact that I put up Christmas lights and a Christmas tree and eat Christmas dinner and exchange Christmas gifts mean I’m not a True Atheist in her book? I don’t believe in Gods, but I do enjoy Christmas rituals and can even find beauty in Christmas songs such as O’ Holy Night. If Miss Walshe doesn’t want to attend an atheist “church”, but still wants someplace to call home then why doesn’t she look into any of the other atheist events I mentioned earlier in this essay? Does she think every atheist out there is going to fall under the siren song of SA such that all those other events and meetups all dry up and blow away?
Personally, I’ll probably not become a member of a Sunday Assembly if one sets up shop nearby (Grand Rapids is a helluva drive from Ann Arbor even if it is only once a month), but that’s just me. I’ve only ever attended one meeting of a local Skeptics in the Pub. I didn’t have a problem with the group, I’m just not the sort of person who attends events like that regularly.
About the only real problem I can foresee with SA is the same problem that crops up in any grouping of people once it gets large enough. The seemingly inevitable power struggles that occur between competing visions of what said group is supposed to be about. No group is immune to it and the bigger a group gets the more likely it is to fall victim to it. We see it in politics, religion, World of Warcraft clans, and any number of online communities. The atheist movement is experiencing it just as the video gaming community is (and often over the same issues) just as the Republicans are and as the Democrats will (as they have in the past). That’s just human nature I suppose, but to claim that Sunday Assembly is a “disaster for atheism” or is “co-opting the movement” just isn’t supported by what I’ve seen of it so far. Compared to Atheism Plus I’d go so far as to say it’s relatively harmless to the greater movement. And if it makes some folks happy then what the fuck is the problem?