While people may disagree on the philosophy of religion, it’s clear they have the process of community building down to a science. You’d hope so after thousands of years of perfecting the art. Unfortunately, since it also has the lion’s share of the market, there are few other widely-available opportunities for those who don’t buy into any of the core beliefs that hold any of those communities together.
Well, people are working on that.
Earlier this year, a UK-based secular humanist / freethinker group called The Sunday Assembly went on line. Their goal, based on the information on their website, is to provide a regular opportunity for atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and other assorted non-religious and non-believing folks to get together, listen to some talks, hear some cool music, and connect with one another. Their motto – “Live better, help often, wonder more” – is the foundation upon which their entire organization is based, and helps people achieve this through sharing ideas, hosting charity events, and inviting speakers to give talks about the universe we live in.
So obviously, the parallels spark the expected line of questions (OMG is atheism a religion now?) … to which “no” is and always has been the answer, but I think people enjoy asking either because they enjoy stirring the pot a little or because they don’t understand what either atheism or religion really is. Nor do they understand that since there’s no central atheist “authority”, we’re all just doing whatever makes sense and works for us.
Atheism, for one, is a single position on a single issue: belief in a god or gods. Atheism lacks this belief, and that’s it. You can take on any kind of personal philosophy or world view that you like, and as long as you don’t believe in a god in the process, you’re still an atheist. Further, this simple act of rejecting the claims made by religion that God exists on the basis that they have never met their burden of proof in no way creates a new religion in the process, nor does it convert someone to another. It simply removes that person from that entire belief system altogether.
A better question would be whether secular humanism – a common but not inevitable destination subsequent to shedding one’s belief in the supernatural – should be considered a religion. Again, the obvious answer is no, since there’s no deity, rituals, or holy scripture involved thus making it fall squarely into the category of a philosophy, but it’s still a better question than the original one.
As for the “atheist church”? Well, that’s where it gets a little muddy. It doesn’t matter what you call it; atheism still isn’t a religion. As the Salon article points out, the founders of the movement are trying to “scale down” its automatic association with atheism specifically and just focus on the humanist components for a more inclusive experience. Good idea, since that’s really what it is to start with. I didn’t go to a “theist” church when I was growing up; I was Catholic. Even though my philosophical position was that of theism, I went to the church I did because of my Catholicism. In other words, it’s true that an overwhelming majority of attendees to this church will be atheists, they will attend because of their humanist worldview.
OK WE’RE BACK.
Right now, they’re in the very early stages of the process, meaning there’s going to be problems, issues, arguments, and constant revisions until the whole thing either gets scrapped or finds a way to adjust to suit the needs of each local community in which there is a branch location. (Sorry, I’m not going to call them churches.) However, their goal is pretty straightforward.
What should you expect from a Sunday Assembly event?
Just by being with us you should be energised, vitalised, restored, repaired, refreshed and recharged. No matter what the subject of the Assembly, it will solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday.
But life can be tough… It is. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn’t fair. We want The Sunday Assembly to be a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved.
Most of all, have fun, be nice and join in.
They also emphasize there is no doctrine, no deity, and no dogma. Despite this, the entire idea still smacks of the church many of us knew, loved, and later left when we were growing up … only with the “god” bits taken out. There’s organizational spaces for songs, speakers (either from outside the congregation or internal personal ‘testimonies’), and a moment of “silent reflection”. All in all, it sounds interesting enough for me to want to pay them a visit if they happen to start one up around here, though I admit that unless the talks were very interesting (on the order of some of the TED stuff I’ve seen) I still wouldn’t find myself there every week.
On the other hand, it would get me out of the house, put me in the same room with people of similar but not identical beliefs, and force me to think about my own views of atheism, secularism, and how the movement as a whole can successfully move forward in the 21st century.