‘The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles and mean contentment, has kept humanity in helpless degradation.’ – Emma Goldman
In her essay The Philosophy of Atheism Emma Goldman groups religion with other man-made systems of domination. The essay came to mind recently while reading an Alternet article by Alex Gabriel titled 10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy. His experiences with religion were much harsher than mine and the piece is eye-opening to a whole new experience of discovering atheism. One in which the author and his family would have been unable to leave the church if they’d wanted to because of how much they depended upon it for support. In his article Alex tells those claiming to offer ‘alternatives to church’ to offer more, writing:
When I was five with a mum on benefits, we had intense beliefs, but mainly church meant help. Our priest wrote a check when she needed money. Church friends offered food when we had none. Cast-offs were donated when I needed clothes. Lifts were given when we had to travel.
This help was paid for in religious loyalty. It’s easy to demand people quit their churches, but quitting’s sometimes impossible. Where would these things have come from had we left? If you want to replace religion, don’t just replace the abstractions the middle-class get from it. Replace the food and clothes. Find out who needs a fridge, a lift, a babysitter. Keep track of this. Put volunteers and email lists in place.
And don’t just do what churches do, do what rationalists do. Distribute food and clothes and condoms. Support meetings for humanist choir practice… and a secular sobriety circle. (Looking for class-related issues faith groups hijack? Substance abuse should be high on your list.)
Today I read a piece written by Simon Clare titled I have left Sunday Assembly. It’s important to me to point out that I have a lot of respect for Simon and how he approaches ideas. When Simon writes ‘I love the idea of reclaiming the positive aspects of traditional churches for humanity, but those in charge of the Central Sunday Assembly (SA) group have lost sight of this aim, allowing SA to succumb to the same flaws that twisted the institutions we’re supposed to be providing an alternative to’ I pay close attention and think others should too. I’d recommend reading his piece before continuing.
I have written my thoughts about Sunday Assembly before, concluding that if it floated your boat that was great, but that I hoped you’d also find something to float your boat that didn’t mimic religious traditions. Sunday Assembly, you see, offers those abstractions that Alex Gabriel wrote of. The nice bits. The feel good bits. The singing and the assurance that life is good, that you are good, and that there is purpose for the non-religious. However, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think what Sunday Assembly offers is enough. Even if it does float your godless boat.
‘Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion our of his reawakened and illumined conciousness a new world upon earth.’ – Emma Goldman
A friend recently wrote “Until I attended the Sunday Assembly I thought my problem with religion was God. As it turns out, my problem with religion is church.” The church service, in my humble opinion, is one of those chains that Emma Goldman writes of. A fetter to be broken. That whole communities have, for centuries, been built up around the local church, that our ancestors were suspected of devil worship if they did not attend their local church service is disturbing. (Conflict of interest declaration: Somewhere in my family tree there are Pendle witches…)
When I have been vocal about my dislike of Sunday Assembly people have asked me ‘what’s the harm?’ and while there’s little harm, we do risk becoming complacent in our opposition of the dominance religion has in modern society. I’m sure that many who attend Sunday Assembly support other organisations who actually work in communities to help those in need which is great, but the point of Sunday Assembly then, is completely lost on me.
That the most popular alternative to religious church ceremonies mimics church ceremonies so closely is unsettling. If secularists want to reclaim the good of religion and forget the bad then they need to forget religious traditions altogether. We already know that as secular people we can do good without any mimicking of religious traditions or settings.
People don’t need church and Alex Gabriel is right when he talks about access to the vital things in life being more important; access to education, to food, housing, addiction treatment programmes, counselling, health services and more… services that, at the moment, are often heavily influenced by the church.
So, while Sunday Assembly pays their CEO to do what he does so that godless people can feel good, I hope others will continue supporting secular causes that reach out for humanity in the dark corners of society where no singing can be heard…
British Humanist Society
Medecins Sans Frontieres
National Aids Trust
National Secular Society