In recent years, there has been something of a trend in some unbelieving circles to not throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to religion. While atheists disparage the supernatural aspects of religion, some are beginning to see value in its other aspects, such as its ability to build community and support structures for people, or to encourage people to approach life more contemplatively and selflessly. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this is Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. As de Botton explains in an interview:
[I]t is up to all of us to look at religion and see what bits we can steal and place into the modern world. We might all contribute to the construction of new temples, not the government, but the concerned, interested individual. The salvation of the individual soul remains a serious problem — even when we dismiss the idea of God. In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.
Simon Jenkins recently wrote of his experience with an attempt to “[fill] the modern world with so many important lessons from religion” minus the “occult spirituality”: a church for atheists. Or, more specifically, The Sunday Assembly, the brainchild of comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.
The Sunday Assembly, which is intended to be “a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more”, recently held its first meeting in a deconsecrated Christian church. What Jenkins found there was not too dissimilar from what you’d see in a typical Christian service: there was a worship band (which, instead of singing hymns, sang such songs as Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” and Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger”), some “scripture” readings (Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech), a quiet time for personal reflection, and even a collection.
Overall, he found the Assembly to be “refreshingly unpushy about its atheism” and that the experience “revealed the tiredness of church as I know it”, though overall, it felt like “a sort of thoughtful comedy show”.
After some post-service tea and helping to stack the chairs, I came away liking the Sunday Assembly and I hope it does well. I missed the familiar, faith-based aspects of meeting with others, but also realised that a good percentage of church — any church — is made up of friendship, listening, singing, laughter, giving, receiving and cups of tea.
It’s good to sit with atheists in their space and feel welcome. It’s challenging to think about living better, helping often and wondering more. I think this is a place where Christians should be.
It might be tempting for Christians (and some atheists) to respond to this derisively. (I mean, really: singing “Don’t Look Back In Anger” at a “church” service?! Looks like Steve Martin was right: atheists really don’t have no songs.) Or perhaps we Christians might feel offended that atheists are “stealing” our ideas and desacralizing them. However, gatherings like The Sunday Assembly reveal the deep, God-given need for community and contemplation that all human beings have in common — and that, according to some, is lacking significant expression in atheist circles. Indeed, one could argue that something that encourages people to slow down in this harried age of ours, and seek community and quiet reflection, isn’t a bad thing entirely.
If nothing else, it’s a welcome change from the hyperbolic and vehement condemnation of religion that so often comes from the atheist camp, thanks to folks like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. And who knows what, or Who, else might accidentally carry over as atheists appropriate and experience the “best parts” of religious practices… As that great Christian hymn states, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform”.