The novelty of the phrase “atheist church,” the audacity of its expansion plan, and the fact that its founders were comedians rather than ministers had netted it publicity far beyond what more established organizations could generate. I could easily discover that it was new and hot and cool, but exactly what it was—that was harder to get a handle on. So when the founding duo’s “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour arrived in Boston (actually Cambridge), I printed out a ticket and went to get my questions answered.
What is Sunday Assembly? The founding myth goes like this: three years ago British comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones were driving to a gig “when it turned out that we both wanted to do something like church for people who didn’t believe in God, but did believe in good.”
Last January that turned into the opening of Sunday Assembly London, and the response there was so good that by March they had announced Sunday Assembly Everywhere, a framework for local groups to organize their own Sunday Assemblies. By November, Pippa and Sanderson—they radiate such informality that it is impossible to think of them as Evans and Jones—hit the road to help local organizers from Ireland to Australia kick off their own Sunday Assemblies.
What happens at a Sunday Assembly? Singing, talking, silence, announcements, and a collection. At the order-of-service level, it doesn’t look that different from any other kind of church.
As a Unitarian Universalist, the fact that the talks weren’t about God didn’t surprise me. But the music did. Aided by a three-piece band and screen-projected lyrics, we sang pop songs that you might dance to at a wedding reception or sing at a karaoke bar: “Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and other examples of the genre Sanderson calls “power cheese.” The point seems to be to let go and join in. We were just blending our voices together, having fun, and facing our fear of looking silly in public.
The lyrics were projected onto a screen and a three-person band accompanied, but one song was performed karaoke-style to recorded music.
Did anyone show up? About 100 people, which seems typical. Journalists reported similar numbers in Chicago and Nashville, while Los Angeles Assembly drew over 400.
In Cambridge, I was far from the only Unitarian Universalist present. I spotted two other members of my church, and the open seat I randomly plopped into was next to two UU ministers I had not previously met. They pointed out UUA President Peter Morales on the other side of the room.
Is it really an atheist church? Depends on your definition of atheist and church. The charter begins: “Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life.” Using a business-startup term, Sanderson describes a regular public meeting as the minimum viable product, “the smallest thing you can do to start the community.” How many additional churchy qualities—Sunday school, study groups, potluck dinners—a local congregation takes on is up to them.
What kind of atheism are we talking about? God is absent, but not actively banished. The charter says: “Sunday Assembly . . . has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.” Pippa expresses that idea like a comedian: “I don’t like . . . when people assume we spend an hour saying religion is stupid and people who go to church are dickheads, because we very rarely do that.”
On his Friendly Atheist blog, Hemant Mehta wrote: “. . . when I was asked to speak at last Friday’s inaugural event in Chicago, I was specifically told not to talk about atheism. That’s because these events aren’t about getting rid of your faith habit. They’re about celebrating life.”
So if you come to Sunday Assembly expecting a Christopher Hitchens-style attack on religion, you’ll leave disappointed. This issue has already caused a schism in New York, where the more anti-religious faction of the organizing committee dropped the Sunday Assembly label and started Godless Revival.
Isn’t that Humanism? Yes, but when Harvard Humanist Chaplain (and Sunday Assembly Boston co-organizer) Greg Epstein suggested the term, Sanderson brushed it aside: “Nobody knows what it means, and most of the people who think they do don’t like it.” And Pippa chimed in that “labels don’t help.”
Haven’t Humanist Unitarians and UUs been doing this since the 1920s? Not exactly. According to ABC, “Sanderson said he was tired of the dour meetings held by the Humanists and the Unitarians. ‘Why on earth aren’t people clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down at those gatherings?’ he asked.”
An excellent question, I’d say. I think most UUs agree with the goal of celebrating life, but even if you wouldn’t accept “dour” as a description of your church, few UU services include “clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down.” UUism in general and UU Humanism in particular continue to react against the environment of intellectual repression that incubated them. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between emotion and reason, and energy-raising group events are more than just cheap manipulation.
In any case, Sunday Assembly lacks our suspicion of “irrational” emotions and the manipulative potential of energetic group rituals.
Is there some reason we can’t do what Sunday Assembly is doing? Content isn’t necessarily a problem, but style is iffier. My church’s music director would throw a fit if we shifted to a program of pop-song karaoke. And like Shakespeare’s fools, comedians can get away with exaggerations and inaccuracies that would be hard to take from a minister, even one who tells a good joke.
So while I wouldn’t recommend that a UU church replace its service with a Sunday Assembly program, churches looking to add a second or third service might consider the Sunday Assembly model. And if an independent Sunday Assembly group started using a UU church’s space, the two organizations might soon find themselves sharing members, social events, and social-action projects.
Why didn’t we? Like those gray-rectangle-on-a-black-rectangle paintings by Mark Rothko, the simplicity and success of Sunday Assembly tempts the “I could have thought of that” response. Imagine USA Today profiling the exciting new movement inside Unitarian Universalism!
But realistically, Sunday Assembly has stayed simple because it is two people’s vision. I can’t imagine two UUs hatching an idea in a car and keeping ownership of the project all the way to global expansion. Consensus, democratic process, getting everybody’s buy-in (plus our fear of personality cults)—we just don’t roll that way.
What can UUs learn from Sunday Assembly? The biggest lesson I draw is that selling Humanism to humans should be as simple as Molière’s bourgeois gentleman realizing that he’s been speaking prose all his life.
Sunday Assembly has its message down to six words: “Live better. Help often. Wonder more.” Other simple truths may not make it into those central six words, but are never far away: being alive is something to celebrate, and being alive with others is even better. Singing with a crowd is fun, especially if you already know the tune, the words are projected on a screen, and nobody’s judging how good you sound. Life may be a serious matter, but you can think about it, talk about it, and be grateful for it without taking yourself too seriously. In fact, a little silliness might actually help.
By contrast, a few years ago a UU-Humanist leader spoke at my church. Our discussion afterwards lost a considerable chunk of time to an argument about the relative merits of the terms humanist, atheist, non-theist, agnostic, ignostic, naturalist, and a few others I’ve forgotten.
Pippa’s right: the labels aren’t helping. That time might have been better spent singing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
Should UUs be worried about the competition on our Humanist flank? Starting a movement is harder than just having an idea, getting publicity, and founding a few dozen congregations. So I wouldn’t abandon the field to Sunday Assembly just yet.
But whether Sunday Assembly ultimately succeeds or not, it should remind us that Unitarian Universalism has a Humanist flank. And if you cruise the UU-Humanist blogs, you’ll find a lot of discontent out there. At the moment those people have few options for like-minded community, but sooner or later, somebody is going to get this godless-congregation (or godless-worship-option-within-a-larger-community) thing right.
I suppose we could wait for that to happen and then wring our hands about what could have been. But as the English say, that seems like a rubbish plan.