If you’re an atheist what do you do on Sunday mornings? Sleep in? Relax? Picnic? How about go to church? While “atheist” and “church” may seem to go together about as well as oil and water, two atheist stand-up comics in London are trying to change that.
On the way to a stand-up comedy performance, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans began talking to each other about their mutual enjoyment of ritual, music, church architecture and lack of belief in God. They knew they both wanted to do “something in a church, but without the God bit.”
After reading a significant number or articles and interviews I’d like to take the next few moments to look at what Jones and Evans have created and ask a few questions and make a few observations.
Sanderson, who plays the role of pastor of the church (and ironically looks a bit like Jesus probably would have with his long hair and beard), is a stand-up comic and former salesman. He doesn’t view himself as a charismatic preacher rather “I just get very excited about things and want to share that with people.” (But isn’t that exactly what a charismatic pastor would say about themselves?) Nevertheless, Sanderson claims the death of his mother greatly influenced his own spiritual journey. (On a side note, I think he is more right about this than he realizes. I’ll have much more to say about this topic in a future post.)
In January 2013 Jones and Evans opened the doors to The Sunday Assembly. They were expecting 20 people and 200 showed up. Soon they had 300, then standing room only, then overflow, then streaming via the web, and now, less than two months later, there is talk of expanding into neighboring countries.
The audience, which is mostly young, white and middle class, crams together in an old church building where they listen to sermons (which range from science lectures to reading from Alice in Wonderland), pray (it’s formally called “silent time”), have fellowship, share food, sing songs, and collect an offering. Furthermore, they are currently seeking the UK equivalent of 501c3 status (non-profit, charitable organization) so that they can become better organized.
As I read more and more about the structure and format, I realized that other than absolutely no mention of God, it would be hard for a visitor to differentiate The Sunday Assembly from a normal church in terms of flow of the service.
While Jones and Evans claim that they don’t put down other religions at their services, it’s hard to support those claims with sermon titles such as “Everyone will die and there is no afterlife” and song titles like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” or “Don’t look back in anger.” In fact, to be honest, while watching the videos about the church and reading the sermon and song titles I got the feeling that they are more hurt and angry and are trying to channel those emotions into something that makes sense to them, more than they are trying to truly be church.
Giving serious thought to some of the claims made by Jones and Evans I have come up with a few questions and observations that merit further discussion. The official purpose statement of The Sunday Assembly is “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” My question is How and Why? What does it mean to live better? Better than what? Aren’t you already living better than the 200,000 men, women and children that die every week in India due to malnutrition and treatable diseases? You live in a very wealthy and expensive first world country with access to some of the best health care and sanitary conditions in human history. What is it you want better? An even better question than that is Why? Why should I help often? What is the purpose of that? Why is that a good thing to do? Both of these questions are very important, because outside of an objective moral standard set by God, you cannot say that helping others is good or that dying in poverty is bad. You can say “I would personally choose to help someone” or “I would prefer not to be in poverty” but you cannot say “It is good for you to help someone.” Goodness, outside of God, cannot and does not exist. God, by definition, is the only being capable of setting that standard. (Volumes of books have been written about this subject so I cannot, in the space of a paragraph, give a full explanation of my argument here.)
Jones and Evans claim that they “celebrate life.” My question is “How can you celebrate something that happened entirely by random chance?” Or even better, “Why should you?” And “Why is life a worthier cause to celebrate than death?” If there was no intentionality or causal factor to our existence, what is worthy of celebration? That you lasted one more day before the lights went out in a world full of tragedy, violence and pain where children are abused and humans trafficked the same way you buy milk or bread at the store? If there is no God, than those things are equally as virtuous as honesty, kindness and love. Even serial killer Jeffery Dahmer saw the consequences of an atheistic worldview.
My last question deals more with the structure and content of The Sunday Assembly. If fellowship is truly your goal, then why not come together at a community center and share a meal together. Why make your event virtually identical to the antithesis of what you believe in? Many atheists I’ve talked to told me they used to believe in God, but didn’t like what they saw in the church. Whether that be hypocrisy, distrust of well known clergy, churches always asking for money or a number of other issues. I’ve experienced some of those things as well in my own story. The Sunday Assembly however, collects an offering, has a celebrity as their pastor, soon will be a legally recognized organization and meets in a church building, but few seem to have a problem with that. Furthermore, why is getting up on Sunday morning and going to a building that historically represents what you are completely opposed to, to listen to depressing sermons that speak of no afterlife and no hope to sing songs openly mocking others, a worthy endeavor? If you’re truly seeking community, is that where you find it?
In my research about what The Sunday Assembly truly is and isn’t, I realized there are several implications for the church today.
First, one of the articles states “A gathering of nonbelievers in an old deconsecrated church in North London has apparently discovered that once you’re free of all that drab God mumbo jumbo, church can be a blast.” Why is the assumption that church is a drag? Why is it not enjoyable now? Followers of Jesus know the only cure for the most deadly disease in the history of civilization (sin has a 100% mortality rate), shouldn’t sharing that with others be cause for joy and celebration. When did our houses of worship turn to drab and boring? Why are they perceived that way? How can we change it back?
Second, Evans says “The idea is about keeping a center of community for those who are losing their religious faith.” I find it very interesting that she says “losing” and not “lost.” These are disenfranchised people. Rather than embracing them we’ve (the church) ended up pushing them away. At another point in one of the articles it states “Many attendees wouldn’t actively identify themselves as atheists, yet have decided to abandon their Christian faith.” Reading firsthand accounts from those that enthusiastically attend The Sunday Assembly, I wonder if their problem is really with God or, more likely, with the church? Is it any wonder that while The Sunday Assembly has over 300 people attending their service, the St. Paul’s church next door has only 30?
Third, perhaps The Sunday Assembly attendee Gintare Karalyte says it best when she says “I think people need that sense of connectedness because everyone is so singular right now, and to be part of something, and to feel like you are part of something that’s what people are craving in the world.” I couldn’t agree with her more. People are longing to be part of something. Even a cursory reading of Acts 2:42-47 or Hebrews 10:24-25 shows that a huge part of the purpose of the church is fellowship. A place where people belong, are welcomed and loved.
I sincerely hope that those attending the atheist church will soon see it for what it truly is; empty, depressing, and providing all the wrong answers because if there is truly is no God, than science lectures, Alice in Wonderland, and songs by Queen is as good as it will ever get until the lights go out for good.
All quotes were taking from the following articles: