On Saturday, I got to have a conversation with Sanderson Jones. He, along with Pippa Evans, is the co-founder of Sunday Assembly. That’s the group that the media has labeled, “The Atheist Church.” And on Sunday, I attended the Sunday Assembly and got to see first-hand what it is all about.
To start with, a number of weeks ago there was a rumor going around that the Sunday Assembly might start a branch in Philadelphia. This was surprising to me because as the head of PhillyCoR, I thought I would be one of the first to hear about it and I still have not really heard about it. All I have heard are rumors. So I took those rumors to Sanderson who told me that there are at least 10 active people in Philadelphia working to being Sunday Assembly to Philly with a planned launch in September. While he could not give me any of their names or give me any way to get in touch with them, he did e-mail those people to tell them to get in contact with me. So we will see how that develops.
Going into this, I have to admit my bias. I am friends with Lee Moore who had a pretty negative experience with group and has even formed his own splinter group called, “The Godless Revival.” Still, as the head of PhillyCoR, I support a big tent approach. If Lee or Sanderson want to form groups here, I will support and promote both groups. I don’t have to join either group nor do they have to fit in with my personal style. I just have to support and promote the existence of these groups. The whole point of the Coalition of Reason is that there are groups for everyone and that not every group is right for every person. We try to match people with the groups that best suit their needs.
With that said, I have to say that Sunday Assembly was not for me. There were certainly things about it that I enjoyed and there were aspects that I strongly support, but there are some criticisms too. For starters, if I wanted an atheist church, I would go to the Ethical Society’s “Sunday Platform” held every week.
Granted, there are differences between the two. I think Sunday Assembly probably attracts a younger crowd (although that was not my experience with yesterday’s event). They are also more energetic and focus more on being uplifting. This last part was something that rubbed me slightly the wrong way. While I am fans of people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Cara Santa Maria, I think they are uplifting in a different way than Sanderson and Pippa. It isn’t the uplifting part that didn’t gel with me, but rather the emptiness of it. I think the Sunday Assembly style just didn’t feel genuine to me. It felt like they were trying to create a sense of jubilation with dancing, singing, and touching without the substance. It felt like they relied on cult tricks rather than philosophical mindfulness.
For people who grew up in evangelical churches, this might feel like home. For me, I would rather this type of feeling come about more organically. Instead of people being told to stand and dance and sing, I would rather people feel inspired to do so on their own. But that’s just me and I know that there are other people out there who might find enjoyment and a sense of happiness from this type of program. They aren’t selling lies like religions do and they may attract more people to the greater movement. So while it’s not for me, I still support it.
I say that a lot in this post because I am being so critical of the Assembly. But don’t mistake my criticism for being not supportive. I want to be honest with my criticism, but I also don’t want to discourage people who might find such a group educational, uplifting, and fun. I want Sunday Assembly to succeed and I will certainly help them to do just that.
Another criticism I have was with the collection plate thing – especially after the singing and dancing. Look, groups need money and nothing is free. So I get the idea of passing around a donation jar or something, but “collection plate” just seems like a bad term to use. That seemed too much like a church — again, especially following the singing and dancing. Get the endorphins flowing and then asking for money was just a reminder of the swindling that goes on with religion.
On the positive side of things, Pippa told a great story about why she and Sanderson want the group to avoid labels (especially the “A-word”). It made sense to me and some Societies of Ethical Culture have a similar position. I can’t do her explanation justice, but I will say that I do see a value in an organization that focuses on values over labels. This of course was the catalyst for the Godless Revival.
I like the idea of the Sunday Assembly doing community work. We don’t have enough atheist groups doing that kind of thing and if they are willing to do it, then that’s awesome. Maybe they can even take point getting other atheist/humanist groups to join in.
There was one part of the Sunday Assembly that I really did enjoy a lot. At one point they wanted people to get up and walk to the other side of the room and introduce themselves to someone they don’t know. While it did seem forced, it was a great exercise. I think it served as a good ice breaker and allowed people to get to know fellow atheists who they might not have talked to otherwise. If other groups adopted this ice breaker, we could build a stronger community and help each other network better too.
Ultimately, Sunday Assembly isn’t for me however I strongly support their efforts and hope that they find success in our movement. To quote Ana Kasparian from The Young Turks, “Do You.” If that is your thing, have fun. Do what makes you happy… as long as it isn’t causing harm. There are people within the greater community of reason who enjoy this type of thing and that’s awesome. The Sunday Assembly organization is pretty new and so there are going to be aspects of their program that don’t work. Hopefully, they will figure out what works for them and their members and what doesn’t work. Maybe a few years down the road, I will go to a Sunday Assembly program and think that it is the greatest thing ever. But based on yesterday’s meeting, I’m not ready to join the congregation just yet.
What are your thoughts and experiences with the Sunday Assembly? Leave a comment below.
- The Sunday Assembly Schism (skepticink.com)
- Harvard humanists spearhead ‘Humanist Community Project’ (examiner.com)
- Not Held Up On Labels (skepticink.com)