The Religious Atheists: Community, Ritual, and Dogma in a Secular Age
Though it goes without saying, the twenty-first century has been characterized by a growing number of people who are abandoning institutionalized religion. The Pew Forum’s research found in 2012 that a fifth of the U.S. population and a third of adults under thirty now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Though many have been quick to ascribe this change to a rapid secularization of American society, Pew Forum notes that many of these “nones,” as they are characterized, exhibit belief in God, practice prayer, and describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”1 Far from being a society on the brink of doing away with spirituality, Americans are developing the belief that they can experience transcendence and appreciate meaning without the backing of an institution and the support of a spiritual community.
Within this changing individualistic religious milieu, enter the Sunday Assembly, a self-proclaimed “godless congregation” that aims to “keep all the best bits of church, but without the religion.”2 Dreamt up by two British comedians, the Sunday Assembly now has 186 congregations in six continents, the vast majority in North America, Britain, and Australia. The “Assemblies,” as they are called, meet on Sunday mornings, sing classic rock and modern pop songs, listen to poetry, hear lectures on topics relevant to secularism, and invite the congregation to communal humanitarian events.3 According to their website, the Assemblies are to live by a Ten Commandments of sorts, some of the teachings include, “We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.” Also, “[The Assembly] has no doctrine,” “has no deity,” “is radically inclusive,” and “We won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can.”4
Most importantly, each Assembly is called to live by a particular creed,
“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”5
The Sunday Assembly is an odd bird, exhibiting something of a contradiction in its very existence-”free thinking,” and yet congregational, “scientific” and yet worshipful, “non-doctrinal” yet “We are born from nothing.” The Sunday Assembly also represents an attempt to plunder the goods of institutionalized religion while still attempting to stay outside of it. Despite the Assembly’s best efforts, this article will argue that the Sunday Assembly does indeed represent institutionalized religion within the three points of community, ritual, and dogma. Unfortunately, the “celebration” of the Sunday Assembly appears empty, resulting in an unfortunate parody of the riches of the real Body of Christ. Reflecting on the existence of the Sunday Assembly, like eating tofu and yearning for filet mignon, should have Christians rejoice in the good news in the true assembly.
The Sunday Assembly website expands upon its motto of “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More,” by explaining that inherent within this motto is the importance of gathering together. This gathering serves three purposes-to encourage one another to find meaning to one’s life, to engender curiosity within a godless universe, and to mutually inspire each other toward humanitarian mission. Each of these three purposes, the Assembly believes, are best able to be promoted within community. This sensibility stands in contrast to the anti-institutionalism of the “nones.” The Sunday Assembly, although it may not like to admit this, actually represents a conservative move back to institutionalized religion rather than a leaving behind of it. As the “nones” retreat to individualist spiritualities of all sorts, the Assembly promotes a regular weekly meeting to promote particular values. American Catholics, Evangelicals, and Assemblers (I made that up) actually turn out to be bedfellows, forming an awkward ménage à trois against the rising tide of individualist spirituality.
Sounding much like the liturgy of a run-of-the-mill evangelical church, the Sunday Assembly’s course of service includes singing a couple of songs, then hearing the announcements of the community, hearing an inspirational poem, sending the children off to their own special time during the lecture, a twenty to thirty minute lecture on secular ethics/evolutionary biology/gender identification etc., and a special time for meeting the people you are sitting next to.6 Though many within the Sunday Assembly community might believe that they are leaving behind religious ritual, the structure of the service strikingly resembles that of a “contemporary” church service within an evangelical church (see the youtube link below for a service). Who would’ve thunk that the same rituals designed to have a Christian become “on fire for Jesus” would also be utilized to have an atheist “Wonder More?”
Though the Sunday Assembly may say that they do not have doctrines or “won’t tell you how to live,” the Sunday service says otherwise. Clearly, the Assembly wishes to educate the attendee within a particular belief system that holds science as the highest authority, believes that “we come from nothing and go to nothing,” and understands that the world is filled with meaning despite its lack of divine designer. These beliefs represent particiular doctrines that the Assembly attempts to promote within its members. The Assembly firmly rejects any sort of nihilism (a belief that many atheists have held regarding the lack of meaning within the universe), opting instead for secular moral obligations and the beauties of the universe that science discovers. Though many who attend the Assemblies would describe themselves as “free-thinkers,” the existence of a gathering to promote a specific belief system and plausibility structure contradicts this notion. Contrary to the growing individualist “spiritual but not religious” segment of American society, the Sunday Assembly attempts to promote mutual upholding of secularist beliefs and principles.
What good news the true church offers in contrast to the parody offered in the Sunday Assembly. To the Christian, the attempts of the Sunday Assembly to “keep all the best bits of church,” ultimately appear empty. To those that seek to “Live Better,” how precious is the truth that the God of the universe has walked in our shoes, having conquered every temptation, loved the unlovable, and died for every sin. To those that seek to “Help Often,” how awesome is the consistent theme of the scriptures to care for the widow, fatherless, and foreigner. To those that seek to “Wonder More,” how beautiful is the mystery of the Incarnation that invites humanity to plunge into the depths of the love of God. And to those that yearn for community, ritual, and dogma (as I believe we all do), come and worship with the bride of Christ, feast at the table of our Lord, and believe in the one who died and rose again. Any imitation to this Church pales in comparison.
View Sources 1. “”Nones” on the Rise,” Pew Forum, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ 2. “Our Story,” Sunday Assembly, http://sundayassembly.com/story/ 3. Mandalit Del Barco, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam,” npr, http://www.npr.org/2014/01/07/260184473/sunday-assembly-a-church-for-the-godless-picks-up-steam 4. “About,” Sunday Assembly, http://sundayassembly.com/about/ 5. Ibid. 6. “Sunday Assembly San Diego [01/18/14],” Sunday Assembly San Diego, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynTAikVAvS8
1. “”Nones” on the Rise,” Pew Forum, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
2. “Our Story,” Sunday Assembly, http://sundayassembly.com/story/
3. Mandalit Del Barco, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam,” npr, http://www.npr.org/2014/01/07/260184473/sunday-assembly-a-church-for-the-godless-picks-up-steam
4. “About,” Sunday Assembly, http://sundayassembly.com/about/
6. “Sunday Assembly San Diego [01/18/14],” Sunday Assembly San Diego, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynTAikVAvS8