This past weekend, the Sunday Assembly, an atheist congregation that got its start in the U.K., came to New York City as the culmination of a swing through the United States. I was in attendance, and I’ll be happy to tell you all about it!
I have to admit that when I first got there, I didn’t have high expectations. The venue was a Manhattan dive bar called Tobacco Road, tucked away on a grimy, dingy side street next to the Port Authority that was an obstacle course of construction barriers and idling buses. It didn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d come looking for a transcendent experience of atheist spirituality. But when I saw this sign-waving protestor on the sidewalk outside, I knew I’d come to the right place:
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After the swelter and dazzle of a late June day, the interior of the bar was a cool, dark cavern. Tobacco Road’s usual selling point is its skimpily dressed female bartenders, but since that wasn’t the image the Sunday Assembly organizers wanted to send (and good for them), the staff had been asked to cover up for the occasion; some had, others hadn’t. The bar was nearly empty when I got there, but there was a curtained-off room in the back with a stage where the sound crew was tuning up.
I was worried that just a handful of people would show up, which would have made for an agonizingly awkward service. Happy to say, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was one of the first to arrive, but then people started coming, and kept coming, and kept coming. By the time we were ready, the bar area was packed, with a crowd that I’d guess was close to two hundred people. That turnout must have surpassed the organizers’ wildest expectations, because the room in the back had enough chairs for maybe a third of that! When the service started, it was literally standing-room-only.
Even better, the attendees weren’t the monochrome old-white-guy crowd that’s too often the norm at atheist meetings. It was a much more diverse throng of people, tilted toward the younger end of the spectrum but with a wide spread of ages represented. There were a noticeable number of people of color, and (in my unscientific estimation looking out over a dark, crowded room) a very close to even split between men and women. In short, it was just what the atheist movement can and should look like. Whatever the Sunday Assembly did to attract this crowd, it’s something that other atheist groups should be studying!
The main organizer for the NYC service was Sanderson Jones, a U.K. stand-up comic who founded the original Sunday Assembly in London. With a wild mane of hair and a long beard to match, he looked like a yuppie Moses, but had the enthusiasm and energy of a rock-concert promoter. That was appropriate, as it turned out.
I’d come to the Sunday Assembly with no expectations, knowing very little about what was going to happen. What it turned out to be was a rollicking, high-energy service that was half humanist sermon, half rock concert. It started out with some classic rock-and-roll songs from the very good house band, including the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” (an excellent humanist anthem!). The crowd was encouraged to stand, clap and sing along with the lyrics which appeared, karaoke-style, on a screen above the stage.
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Sanderson Jones took the stage, briefly, to discuss what the Sunday Assembly is all about. Then there was a short sermon (speech? lecture?), delivered by Chris Stedman from the Humanist Community of Harvard. I was skeptical about this choice, since Stedman’s soft-shoe, speak-no-evil approach to religion is the kind of thing I’ve often found fault with. But there was nothing about his speech today that I found objectionable. He spoke about his evangelical past and his two coming-out experiences, once as gay and once as an atheist, and about the evidence that community involvement, not religiosity, is the major predictor of charitable giving and civic engagement.
There was a reading by Michael De Dora of CFI, and then a short presentation from two filmmakers who showed us clips from their in-progress documentary about the Clergy Project, “Refusing My Religion“. Then Sanderson took the stage again, delivering (preaching? we need better words) an argument that atheism by itself is “boring” – not believing in gods is a bare minimum, a floor, but not a fully-fledged philosophy by itself. Instead of treating that as a stopping point, we should be using it as a springboard into a life of greater happiness and meaning. (One of his best lines: “Atheism is the diving board, life is the ocean.”)
Insofar as I’m any judge, the service was a major success. The organizers seemed to think so too: they took up a collection near the end, passing around two pitchers which came back stuffed with cash. Although they’d initially planned for this to be their only Stateside visit until the end of the year, Sanderson announced on the spot that they were planning to make the New York Sunday Assembly a monthly meeting to run throughout the summer.
Speaking for myself, I had a great time, and when it happens again, I have every intention of going back. Atheists are known for being non-joiners – it’s practically in the definition – but there’s a real need for groups like this. Socialization among ourselves, visibility in the wider community, exhortation to put one’s moral principles into action: these are all things that we need and that secular community groups like the Sunday Assembly can provide. It’s too early to tell whether this particular one will thrive, but the next meeting will be the major test, to see whether it can sustain the same level of participation and enthusiasm that was in evidence this weekend.