Sunday Assembly is not enough

‘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…

Abortion Rights
Age UK
Amnesty International

British Humanist Society
Fairtrade Foundation

Oxfam UK 
Medecins Sans Frontieres 
National Aids Trust

National Secular Society

About Hayley Stevens 448 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

11 Comments on Sunday Assembly is not enough

  1. Hi Hayley,

    I’ve attended a only small number of Sunday Assemblies, one in Nottingham and a couple in Leeds. I don’t know enough about the internal workings of the Sunday Assembly in London to comment on Simon Clare’s departure but can talk about the actual services.

    I am an atheist and unapologetically so. My approach to attending was simple: why should religion have a monopoly on the notion of singing in groups, gathering to hear positive messages and doing charity work?

    Attending Sunday Assembly for me is, partly, about belonging. But further it was about taking back the idea that community action and gathering needed a religious basis. It’s not – the other part of my attendance is a defiance against those baseless religious claims.

    I understand how these things can make you uncomfortable. But a lot of the things you reference in your post ( seem to be misnomers rather than true of the actual services.

    I do feel (referring to some of your Facebook comments on Marsh’s post that your comments stereotype Sunday Assembly members as weird and cultish. Certainly, it was my biggest concern when I attended. Frankly, I found the vast majority of people were worried by exactly the same thing and happy to find that it just wasn’t like that.

    Anyway, SA isn’t the church and whilst I’d encourage attendance (it’s not clear whether you’ve been or not), I hope nobody ever makes you feel like a bad person for not coming.

  2. From what I’ve read, it does seem like Sunday Assemblies have some serious organizational issues, and maybe it is more of a way for the two organizers to eventually get rich.

    I wouldn’t throw out all secular gatherings, though. I’ve been really happy with our local affiliate of the Society of Secular Judaism, Kol Hadash. I like the services, they do community work, and they have programs that serve its members. It’s not the same as SA, because it’s working with an established culture, while SA seems to be building a culture from scratch.

    Great post. 🙂

  3. Hi Hayley, Sanderson here. Just to let you know that The Sunday Assembly is fully committed to volunteering for social justice causes. We are halfway through a social impact study of Assemblies (11 Assemblies gave information so far), and on average they have volunteered 154 hours per Assembly to outside organisations in 6 months. And, those 11 Assemblies have helped 51 different organisations.

    We start Assemblies to not only help the people who attend them build social capital, have a sense of belonging, and have a positive environment, all of which are shown to have real world health benefits, and deal with issues such as social isolation, but to also promote volunteering in the wider community.

    We are at the start of a journey, and can’t wait to report more of the impact we have the more we grow. We want to start foodbanks, deal with addiction and all those other things that folks do, once there is a community in place. That’s why we help first start the communities, as they will then help around them.

    Thanks for your interest. Sanderson

  4. My shrink suggested that I join a church to help develop a sense of community and to connect with the outside world. At the time I was one of those who said I was “Spiritual” but not religious. After searching around, I started going to a Unitarian-Universalist Church. I went for a few years, but fell away from it. Most of the members were atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, there were also a fair amount of pagans and a smattering of other faiths. The minister was an atheist. There were all the trappings of a church, though the topics of service and discussions covered all faiths and social action. The church taught love, justice, equality and dignity for all. We all gave money to a wide variety of causes. Unfortunately, there were a few people who talked the talked, but didn’t walk the walk. They treated my wife (who also has a mental illness) and me with contempt. I stopped going. In the interim, I stumbled into the skepticism and subsequently dropped all pretenses of being “spiritual” and realized I was an atheist all along. I also lost my belief in the paranormal. I tried going back a few times, but was unable to feel the same connection. Being rural, there are few options. There was an atheist group they had meet-ups, but they were organized to form an atheist political party. I have finally decided that I am comfortable in not having some organized community of homogeneous worldviews. I volunteer in the schools and with animal shelters. I help my neighbors, family and anyone that looks like they need a few bucks, a meal, handiwork or a kind word. I still donate money to some larger causes, but I focus more on local needs. I discovered I was already in a community; I just had to step out the door.

  5. > If secularists want to reclaim the good of religion and forget the bad…

    …then study ethics, right?

    > My shrink suggested that I join a church to help develop a sense of community and to connect with the outside world.

    Or join a softball league, babysit for friends, volunteer at a homeless shelter, help clean up a park…

    • Everybody has an opinion and people have a right to express those opinions (especially in their own blogs). To call someone an idiot isn’t a valid argument. Name-calling contributes nothing to a dialog. You can disagree with someone’s opinion, but to be taken seriously you need to express the points of why you disagree.

  6. Perhaps, being an idiot himself, John feels he has special standing to recognise and dispense idiocy.

    However, being as he is an idiot, we are not entirely convinced by John’s argument from experience.

    (Oh, John! The logical conundrums of being an idiot! I do not envy you.)

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