Photo via the Atheist Bus campaign in Canada.
I became an atheist because I wanted to stay home on Sundays. Sure, later I read about a bunch of what I think are pretty good reasons to not believe in God and came to agree with them, but when I was 11 or 12 or whatever it was, I mainly wanted a trump card to play in my arguments with my mum over my getting dragged away from video games and comics to church. There was nothing worse than sitting for what felt like years in the pews while the hymns and sermon went on, unless it was attending the Sunday school, where the teachers and kids spoke a strange, Jesus-centric language I didn’t understand. So I said I didn’t believe in God, and eventually I got out of going to church.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if I missed out on anything by not attending services. I’m not really worried about the lack of God in my life, since God doesn’t exist. But it’s possible that by skipping church, I was leaving behind a community and a support network I could have had. Since I’m an atheist, I’ll base this claim on data: studies have shown that those who go to church are happier, more optimistic and healthier than others; attending religious services helps kids fight depression and by some (admittedly biased) accounts makes people more charitable. Obviously most atheists won’t have a very good time gathering at a church or synagogue or temple where everyone is devoted to praising and beseeching an imaginary being, but if you believe these studies, they could do with attending something like church.
A lot of people have been thinking along those lines, and the result has been a flowering of what, for lack of a better term, we can call atheist “churches”. There’s one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana headed by former Pentecostal preacher Jerry DeWitt, one founded by Korey Peters in Calgary, Canada and – maybe most famously – the Sunday Assemblies run by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in the UK.
Nimod Kamer attends the first Sunday Assembly in London.
The Sunday Assemblies, which started in January with the let's-all-get-along motto of “Live better, help often, wonder more,” have been growing like crazy in the atheist-friendly environs of Great Britain. So, like many an evangeliser before him, Sanderson recently took his act on the road and brought it to the US. This past Sunday marked the first ever event the group threw in America – a get-together in the back of Tobacco Road, a bikini bar in Midtown Manhattan.
When I showed up a few minutes before the start of services, there were already a few dozen people lined up in front of the entrance to the back room. We could hear the band warming up from behind the curtain. The bartenders weren’t wearing bikinis, maybe in deference to the event, maybe because it was noon on a Sunday. There was a lone protester outside the bar holding some signs that said, “DEMONIAC HYPOCRITES HAVE SEIZED RELIGION,” and the atheists were pretty thrilled about this. If someone hates you enough to stand out in the midday summer heat and wave vague slogans at you, you must be doing something right.
By the time the service started – with the band doing a singalong version of “With a Little Help from My Friends" – there were probably 75 to 100 people crammed into the small space, most of whom had to stand. This being an atheist event, it wasn’t surprising that there were an awful lot of youngish white dudes there (including me), but there were several older couples mixed in as well. Everyone was into clapping and singing along with “Little Help”, but weren’t as into the apparently less-familiar “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Don’t Stop”, which got played later in the service.
The big question about atheist churches is what exactly do you do once you’ve brought the nonbelievers together? It’s great to talk about how churches foster community and connect people, but you can’t just sit a bunch of folks in a room and go, “Show of hands, who thinks there’s such a thing as a deity? Good, me neither.” If you like, you can see religious communities who use a shared belief in a higher power as an excuse to get together and hang out. So what’s atheists’ excuse?
Sanderson’s answer was to basically skip talking about the nonexistence of God altogether and focus on how wonderful life is and how great it was to be anywhere at all. “You are having the best time of any collection of atoms in the universe!” he said during what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call his sermon. He’s an exciting and excitable speaker – bearded, long-haired, going from jokes to earnest, passionate pleas about the importance and beauty of life in the same sentence while he paces back and forth in front of the audience.
Besides the sermon and the classic rock, there was a screening of a trailer for a documentary about priests and pastors who had lost their faith, a reading of the Teddy Roosevelt passage “The Man in the Arena”, a moment of silent, eyes-closed contemplation that was pretty much prayer and a talk from Chris Stedmen, author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Chris’s story is interesting: he grew up in a nonreligious home but became a born-again Christian in his teens, only to discover that he was gay. After overcoming a period of self-hatred and coming to terms with his sexuality and his belief, he studied religion at a Christian college – then realised that he didn’t believe in God after all. Today he’s a “humanist chaplain” at Harvard, where he organises weekly meetings and community-service projects.
Chris and Sanderson are both examples of what you could call “tolerant atheists” – nonbelievers who don’t necessarily see religion as an evil to be stamped out or religious folk as mouth-breathing morons. At the Sunday Assembly, when someone cracked a joke about liking everyone, “as long as they’re not Christian”, Sanderson took the mic to announce that everyone was welcome and that believers were perfectly fine people. It’s a long way away from the nonbelief of “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have written entire books about how God doesn’t exist and you’re a fool if you think He does, as well as arguing against the idea of God in public debates.
“I don’t think the whole debate about whether there isn't a God or not is constructive, personally,” Chris told me after the Assembly. “I just never know what's being accomplished or what the goal is. I find oftentimes with these debates, both sides come and they cheer on their side and it's like a sporting event.” Chris does a lot of interfaith work (which he has been criticised for by more militant atheists who want to stamp out religion entirely) and, for him, if someone’s “belief in God inspires them to care for other human beings more, to engage in social justice work, to me that's a positive thing… I don't see the benefit in trying to persuade someone like that to not believe in God”.
Sanderson struck some of the same notes in his sermon. “I think atheism is boring,” he said. “Why are we defining ourselves by something we don’t believe in?” For me, at least, that message is more exciting than the prospect of hanging out and singing classic rock every Sunday. Atheists forming communities among themselves is nice, but atheists getting over themselves and finding a way to proclaim their nonbelief without jeering at religions is even better. Righteous anger at injustices perpetuated in the name of religion isn’t misguided or wrong, but you don’t build friendly communities on a foundation of anti-God rage and smugness. And if the core doctrine of Sunday Assemblies and other atheist churches can be boiled down to, “Be nice, because the world will be better that way,” there are plenty of worse ideas.
The New York Sunday Assembly was a resounding success. People came, they had a good time, they donated when the collection plate was passed around (like a church, these events cost money to put on). There’s supposed to be another one at Tobacco Road on July 28, but it’s unclear how well it will do sans Sanderson, who will be back in the UK by then. And there’s the issue of the novelty wearing off – going to an atheist church once is a fun jaunt and an excuse to be in a bar drinking in the afternoon. Giving up one Sunday a month is more of a commitment.
But making a commitment is the whole point. That’s how things are built, and it’s kind of exciting to imagine that, by attending one of these early atheist gatherings, you’re getting in on the ground floor of something good. At one point, Sanderson spoke to the crowd about how he wanted people to see the Sunday Assembly as a second home, a place where people would assemble for weddings, funerals, the christening of children… “Not christenings!” he corrected himself. “Force of habit – sorry. 'Naming ceremonies!'”
Follow Harry on Twitter: @HCheadle
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