The Atheist Church: Sunday Assembly

The Sunday Assembly, better known as The Atheist Church, recently opened its Adelaide doors… in the backroom of a pub.

“Live better, help often and wonder more,” the 80-strong audience packed into the back room of The Austral is told. ;The experience feels like church. We sit in rows facing a stage, and hear exaltations from a bearded man. We are being told of the wonders of life. We sing along in unison. We talk candidly with one another, sharing where we have come from and why we are here today Yet, unlike a church, many here are cradling pints of beer or glasses of wine. We sing Men At Work’s Down Under and Kool & the Gang’s Celebration. There is no talk of the mystical, except of course to explain that we should in no case talk about God. The man on stage is not a priest, but a comedian from the UK called Sanderson Jones, who set up what has been dubbed The Atheist Church in January 2013. As Jones says, “This is like a church, just without the supernatural stuff”. When one hears the Sunday Assembly described as an “Atheist Church”, it is easy to jump to conclusions as to what the group is all about. The term evokes an idea of an ironic attack on religious gatherings and worship from the hard-line atheists following in the indignant, chest-beating mould of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. One might expect to see a congregation of people all happy and willing to worship Dawkins’ Flying Spaghetti Monster, and satirise the perceived idiocy of religion. It might even be a place to worship science, proof and logic, like Alain de Botton’s planned ‘Temple to Atheism’ in London. Jones resents this label and any suggestion that the Sunday Assembly is out to divide or attack people. Sunday Assembly welcomes people of any faith, he explains. In Jones’ ;address to the crowd, which is more stand-up than sermon, he tells us how Twitter’s more militant atheists have attacked the group for being traitorous to the godless cause. Sunday Assembly “Twitter was made for people from all over the world to tell you how stupid you are.” Yet the web’s connectivity is key to the Sunday Assembly’s exploding interest around the world. Jones’ visit to Adelaide is part of the ‘40 Days, 40 Nights Roadshow’, where Jones spreads the good word in 35 cities over 40 days in the UK, US and Australia. Having only started in January of this year, there are now dozens of Sunday Assemblies worldwide, some were started by practising Christians. With ontinued viral media interest and events like the Melbourne chapter’s upcoming Festivus for the Rest of Us!, it can only be expected to grow. The group’s critics, both atheist and religious, ;say Sunday Assembly is a “happy-clappy congregation”. For critical atheists, the group mimics the practise of organised religion too closely, while for the religious, it lacks depth of meaning and a unifying code to bring everyone together. Those involved disagree. A schoolteacher in the front row explains that he has traveled and taught around the country, but has come to roost in Adelaide to make a difference and participate in an active community. He hopes that Sunday Assembly will provide him that chance. On Sunday Assembly’s Adelaide web forum, a woman contests that, “It’s a real shame that society is getting more fragmented, and that most community groups and support networks have a religious hook. I want to meet some nice people, have tea and a biscuit, and maybe even sing some Lighthouse Family.” Evidently, there are people who are not taken by the spiritual trappings of modern religion, but still want to congregate in a religious, communitarian tradition. Indeed, there is a lot of clapping as the service goes on. It all begins with a lead in clap, like the crowd clapping a fast bowler’s delivery during a cricket match. We clap to the beat of ;the songs we sing and are pushed to dance. We play the ‘Danish Clapping Game’, where two participants clap their hands together, throw them to the left, right or the sky, meet in the middle with a double-clap if they have moved in the same direction, ad infinitum. “How’s that for happy-clappy?” Jones asks, at once satirising his critics and encouraging us to clap harder. As the service progresses, Jones exhorts us to ponder the importance of daily thankfulness for our circumstances, we hold a minute’s silence to contemplate our own lives, and the crowd has a chance to participate in the service themselves. One fellow sings an old English folk song, acapella until the audience learns and joins the chorus. There are similarities in Jones’ Sunday Assembly to a church service, but for that the crowd are content. They have not come to attack religion, as the group’s religious participants will testify, but hope to celebrate life in a tradition more resembling humanism than atheism. For some, this is too much; too church-like, strict and dogmatic. For others, it won’t be enough. But for those who want to join in, this will be, as Jones puts it, “All the best bits of church, without the religion, and pop songs”.  

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