Thursday, January 9, 2014

Atheist "Sunday Assemblies"

On NPR's Morning Edition the other day, I listened to a fascinating report on the growth of Atheist "Sunday Assemblies." A "Sunday Assembly" is a church-like experience for those who don't believe in God. The movement was started in the U.K. by two British comedians,
Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, and now has some 30 chapters around the world. "There are loads of people out there who want to live better, help often and wonder more," according to co-founder Sanderson Jones. "It's all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs," adds the other co-founder Pippa Evans.

It's a light-hearted approach to non-religious religion that is actually somewhat serious in attempting to provide people whom Phil Zuckerman, who teaches secularism at a southern California college, calls "optimistic atheists." By that Zuckerman means those who have some positive association with religion and church that they would like to retain even in their unbelief. "They miss the community, they miss the music, they miss the multigenerational coming together with people that you might not otherwise be hanging out with," Zuckerman says.

If nothing else, this seems to highlight the reality that religious impulses remain deeply embedded in people and are hard to shake off. The "spiritual but not religious" syndrome has always suffered from two fundamental lacks - the lack, obviously, of God, but also the lack of authentic human community. Atheist "Sunday Assemblies" apparently aim to fill that second void. Their existence testifies not only to religion's continued relevance in relation to fundamental human needs - in this case responding to the sadness of living and being alone in the world - but also to post-modern secular society's failure to fulfill those fundamental communitarian needs.

My guess is that "Sunday Assemblies" - like Ethical Culture for an earlier generation - will appeal to a fairly narrow niche market. Most non-religious people will probably happily settle for Sunday Brunch, sports, or some other leisure activity in place of church.  "Sunday Assemblies" - again like Ethical Culture - just seem too much like what they aim to replace to appeal to those who have lost (or never had) religion. That they tap into a real human need just suggests that post-modern secular society will likely continue to fail at fulfilling that need.

For the original NPR news story, go to:

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