RELIGION NOVEMBER 11, 2013
Twenty-first-century atheists—especially the ones who write prominent books like The God Delusion, The End of Faith and God Is Not Great—have earned a reputation for being as dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists they decry. Last month, for instance, Richard Dawkins told The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner that Pope “Francis is perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and said, “I really, really would like to see religion go away altogether.” And in the recently published Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian calls on non-believers to “actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community—into any and every place the faithful reside—and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.”
But a new kind of non-believer has emerged. British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the co-founders of a chain of secular congregations they call The Sunday Assembly, are hipper, gentler, and less intellectual than your typical secularist preachers. And they’re working from a very different premise—that non-theists are missing out on the benefits of being part of a spiritual community. By providing skeptics with a non-religious place to sing, socialize, and discuss values—they’ve described the assembly as “part foot-stomping show, part atheist church”—they want to reach people who may be turned off by more strident or academic streams of atheism.
“We don’t really use many labels to describe ourselves,” Jones told me. “We do this in a way that appeals to normal people.” Unlike activists like Boghossian, Jones and Evans say they're not out to convert anyone. “We want to make sure everyone is welcome,” said Jones.
Sounds nice, but Evans and Jones are so wary of giving offense or excluding anyone that it’s unclear what, if anything, they do believe. Their website says they subscribe to no doctrine or deity, are “radically inclusive,” and “won’t tell you how to live,” but even their claim to be a "godless congregation" isn't quit true: Jones says that the Sunday Assembly in Brighton is run by a Christian.
As I learned in attending the inaugural Sunday Assembly D.C. last week, that lack of boundaries makes for a muddled, or even nonexistent, message.
Neither Jones nor Evans had been involved in any secular organization before starting their own. Evans grew up in a Christian household but stopped going to church after losing her faith as a teenager. Jones says he worked out his own belief system— basically, celebrate life—after his mother died when he was ten. “I just look at the fact that you’re born from nothing, you go to nothing. That can make every moment a transcendental experience,” he said. When I asked him if he draws on any philosophical tradition, he said, “All and many,” but named none. “I just think that it all goes back to celebrating being alive.”
The idea may be simplistic, but it seems to be catching on. Evans and Jones, who got to know each other on London’s stand-up comedy circuit, came up with the idea for the Sunday Assembly on a road trip and led their first congregation last January at a deconsecrated church in London. They spread the word on social media, and say they were surprised when 200 people turned up—and even more surprised when people around the world started contacting them to ask for help setting up their own chapters. By August, the London congregation had relocated to a 1,200-person venue; the L.A. Assembly is renting a space for 500. “It was a totally unintentional viral success,” said Jones. Now he and Evans are taking their show on the road, hosting Sunday Assemblies in 35 cities across the U.S., Australia and the U.K. On Wednesday, they stopped in D.C.
I met Jones in the lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where he would lead a service later that evening. He was charismatic enough that I forgave him for turning up to our interview three hours late. Many journalists have noted his resemblance to popular representations of Jesus; with his unkempt beard, imposing height and thick glasses, he really does look like some kind of hipster Messiah. The attention being paid to the Sunday Assembly probably has a lot to do with its founders’ look. Evans, with her big green eyes and mass of blonde hair, looks more like a model than a preacher. The idea of a godless congregation isn’t new, after all, but the fledgling Sunday Assembly has already been written up in The Guardian, The Economist and The New York Times.
“Unitarian Universalists have been serving people for decades, but they’re not the next new thing,” said Amanda Poppei, who leads a humanistic congregation called the Washington Ethical Society and came along to the first Sunday Assembly D.C. “Isn’t Sanderson a celebrity in the U.K.?”
Jones isn’t exactly a celebrity, but he’s had some success as an actor—his resume includes commercials for Colgate and Eurostar. Evans, whose background is in improv, is best known for impersonating a made-up bipolar actress called Loretta Maine. The duo now work on the Sunday Assembly full-time, funding the costs of travelling, renting out venues and running a website with their own savings, donations they collect at the end of every service, and an Indiegogo campaign that’s raised $40,000 so far. (They say their goal is $800,000.)
It was obvious during the service that they’re comfortable in front of a crowd. Evans, who wore a black tank top over a bright blue sports bra, led the sing-a-longs. Jones paced up and down the stage, waving his arms and shouting into a microphone, mostly about how great everything is.
“For the next hour we’re just gonna celebrate the amazing fact that we are alive,” he said at the start, before entreating everyone to get on their feet.
We sang songs by Queen and Bon Jovi. We closed our eyes for a minute of silent reflection. Jones talked about gratitude. Upon command, we introduced ourselves to our neighbors and played an awkward clapping game. My partner, who found the event on meetup.com, told me he wouldn’t be coming back. A fan of Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, he said he’s looking for something more cerebral.
Jones told the assembled they were witnessing the birth of a local community, but I’m not so sure. Religious institutions breed communities because their members share a background or at least some core beliefs and values; they perform rituals together and define themselves in opposition to other groups. The only thing the people sitting around me agreed on was that they’re all human. They had diverse and sometimes incongruent beliefs. One woman identified herself to me as agnostic, while a middle-aged man called himself a “praying atheist”; a recovering food addict, he said he invented a female deity to help him through his 12-step program. It was all very inoffensive, but is a shared belief in being human enough of a foundation for a community? Why congregate if there's nothing to bind the congregation but being part of the same species?
Non-believers might be better off seeking community in a book club or sports team, or perhaps even attending a religious service and ignoring the stuff about God and prophets. This is, in fact, what many atheists do: According to one recent study, 17 percent of atheists attend a religious service at least occasionally, and half of all Americans who identify as Jews doubt the existence of God. The Sunday Assembly could still evolve into something substantive. The New York chapter, for instance, has already splintered into different, more defined groups, including a more explicitly atheistic one called the Godless Revival. But in its present form, as I witnessed it, the Sunday Assembly is too nebulous to do more than get some fleeting press attention.