A few years ago, I was listening to one of my favourite skeptics of all time, Dr Martin Bridgstock, discuss how he thought that there could very well be a “critical thinking” version of the Alpha Course: promoting rationalism in a community gathering, but without the religious element.
While Martin’s idea was more about skepticism than atheism, I remember thinking of his idea when contacting philosopher Alain deBotton to talk about “On Religion For Atheists” and “temples for atheism”:
Kylie: One argument is that there are hundreds of options that serve the functions of religion – sports clubs, political groups and the like – why should atheism, which has no organising center, need to join these secular groups?
Alain: I agree, this isn’t my point. I’m just arguing that there are needs in secular society which can be illuminated rather fascinatingly by looking at what religious get up to. The needs I refer to are principally the need for community, an ethical framework, an escape from material values and consolations from art. Of course the secular world is exploring these issues all the time, but as an atheist, I wanted to take a look at what religions were doing in these areas.
So it was with great interest that I started reading dozens of news items (and even a local Perth radio interview) with Sanderson Jones about The Sunday Assembly and how they were bringing it to Australia!
Sadly, the interview I did with co-creator Sanderson Jones had incredibly scratchy audio, so it wasn’t able to be used for my podcast. However, over the past few weeks I’ve been typing out a transcript – and since tomorrow, on Sunday, 21st of April, they’ll be holding their first event in Melbourne, I thought it’d be good to pass on more details as to what’s going on with Sunday Assemblies!
Kylie Sturgess: You’re a “comedian turned atheist evangelical” is one way that I’ve seen you being described online. Is that accurate?
Sanderson Jones: The word “evangelical” comes up on occasion! I’m a comedian. I just thought it would be a super thing to try to start some form of communal activity, to allow people to celebrate and reaffirm and can actually help build a community to change minds. I think there’s probably a lot of people who will agree with what we do, to have a place for that.
Kylie: How did this all begin?
Sanderson: Pippa and I have done this together, and it started with discussions – the turn from idea to action was actually precipitated in a bar in Melbourne, in a couple of shows I did there. I was saying this is what I wanted to do and Pippa said, “You really have to do that! Make sure you do that!” That kicked my a into g!
We started fleshing it out: coming up with the order of service; the language to describe what we were doing; finding someone who I met in Melbourne whilst I was promoting my comedy show, and got someone to do the artwork for us. It’s one of those things. Whenever we talk about it, just amazing people would come forward to help. Just today, I met a project planner who’s really good. That’s the part we need help on. I don’t know when it really started but we started going into real action in May last year.
Kylie: It’s been an incredibly rapid series of events then, I guess…
Sanderson: There’s one thing spending quite a few months together and finding the money and getting together all of that stuff. But between the first one on January the 6th and today [March the 19th] in two and a half months, we have had almost 300 people now wanting to start their own.
From across Australia, people have come on our forums saying that they want to start a Sunday Assembly. They started organizing. We have to come up with a way that people can do their own Assemblies! We’ve got our first one in Melbourne on April the 21st.
We obviously did it because it was something that we really wanted to do. We thought that would be great; just a place where you can just recharge, think about all the good things that you have on offer in life. It’s hard to come by, those opportunities. And then we found out that loads of people want that.
Now, we’ve got to try to find a way to do that – get to as many people as possible as soon as possible, whilst at the same time avoiding a silly situation, I think!
Kylie: What can a person expect if they go to a Sunday Assembly? What’s it like?
Sanderson: The one we have in London is that we pick a theme. We’ve had a theme of “Lend a Hand,” we’ve had a theme of “Wonder,” had a theme “Beginning.” The next one coming up is called “Easter for Atheists,” because that is a British story. It’s originally a Spring Festival, so we’re well on the way to chuck away anything! For that one, we’re coming up with songs which are about new life, rebirth, and a bit of magic. So, looking at “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Then we’re going to have a couple of talks, along how Italian peasants in the Renaissance would have experienced that time of the year. Then focus on how we can use mixed stories and metaphors as a way to understand the world.
And so, people come along. Then for each song, as it starts off with a song, there’s a reading, then there’s a talk, there’s another song, a bit from the congregation, a moment of silent meditation, then the collection to pay for the rent of the room, then an address and another song.
It’s free to get in, and the tea is free at the end. We’re just starting now to go from here to work out how to apply it to other people and how we can deepen the sense of community. Do community activities – all sorts of stuff which is happening way quicker than we imagined, but it’s really exciting. It’s fantastic!
Kylie: Are they in any way inspired by Alain de Botton’s efforts to build Atheist communities? I noticed that he was very keen on that sort of thing, in his last book…
Sanderson: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this for years, and Pippa has too. She went to church a lot as a teenager, a really fun church, which she really enjoyed. I’ve not been inspired by that, but anything which is a way of showing that we can do this but be an Atheist?
Not believing in God is one thing, but the more interesting question is: how can we use humans, who are designed for meaning in their lives, and for self‑improvement – to really help each other, and then to help other people?
Kylie: I imagine you must get a lot of people who, previous church‑goers, and who are now Atheists, who are seeking out that form of community…
Sanderson: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who might be that way inclined, who used to have those experiences. In fact, people who are religious are far more understanding of a group of people getting together and concentrating on what they want, how they want to live their lives and having that community. There’s been a lot of Atheists, who have been against us. We’ve just try to say: look at our actions and labels and keep to the important stuff.
Kylie: What’s been the general response to the Sunday Assemblies? I know some media reports said that even religious representatives weren’t particularly concerned and that some were even supportive of the idea. How do you think people view it in general?
Sanderson: Well, judging from feedback, most people are hugely supportive. It’s amazing – after just describing it, people really want to start a Sunday Assembly. Admittedly not everyone, but lots of people who really think and who really connect with the idea?
There’s been some Atheists who’ve been against it; we’ve had one Christian minister say, “The Devil is working through them. They are trying to replace the Church of Christ with the Church of the Devil!” Mostly people understand it as being really interesting.
Kylie: Who’s generally the target audience? I know that there’s a criticism I’ve seen in the media that attendees are overwhelmingly young, white, and middle class – but often that’s just the demographic of Atheists in the mainstream, anyway. Is there a key demographic that you want to reach? Are there any major issues that prevent Atheists from gathering together if there is such a thing as a Sunday Assembly?
Sanderson: What’s been interesting is that the feedback we’ve had, which is maybe reflective of the resident popularity of Atheism in different communities, is that there’s this interesting Asian, Ex‑Muslim Atheism community? Someone from the London Black Atheists got in touch, and they said what was great was to see other Asians and black people, because if you’re Atheists in that community, then it can be really isolating. They said the reverse [of what you might think about demographics] – but, again, I think it’s one of the ideas was slightly formulated on a BBC program with a Vicar who said that he can’t see this getting out of a “right metropolitan elite”. I think that’s incredibly condescending.
All we do is we get together, we sing songs, we concentrate on thinking about living life better, and helping other people. I would think that that would appeal to people. I think that it’s going to be certain followings, maybe it’d be a challenge to see all manner of different forms of the Assembly. There’s one person who’s even saying they’d like to see an Atheist Mosque. That’s a very interesting concept!
Kylie: That’d be fascinating – and you never know who’s going to pick it up, adopt it and therefore lead it into a different kind of demographic.
Sanderson: That’s the thing. We’re really clear about what we’re a godless congregation that celebrates life with people who want to live better, to help often and want more. Our aim is to help people find and fulfill their own potential. We meet together, because we think we’re stronger together than on our own. It’s actually a possible thing. I think that is what appeals to people.
Kylie: Finally, what can Australia expect from having Sunday Assemblies? It originally started here. Where do people go to find out more?
Sanderson: They can go to www.Sundayassembly.com. There are forums there where they can go and chat to other people in Scotland. We’ve got one in Melbourne happening and Pippa is going to be there. We can start talking to other people about it, and then we’re going to try out this thing we call Sunday Assembly everywhere, which is our framework which allows anyone to do it.
We’re starting that about July, hopefully, to do that – then people really can get up and start their own service and be proactive. We network, and we can also support each other.
There’s so many people that want to start them, but word of warning – it’s quite a lot of work! The point isn’t just starting them, it’s making sure they can be sustainable. Once they’re up and running, once a month, then next year… then we can plan the next step which is to try to go and find people who can come in and host it. That’s the word we use, full time. We’re just really excited to see where it goes!
It’s been amazing response from Australia so far and so this year it’s been very annoying because we’re doing this, I’ve had to stay in the UK the whole time. Pippa’s there this year. Next year, I’ll try to make sure that I’ll get to go to Australia, while she minds the shop!
Kylie: Brilliant. Thanks so much for talking to me, Sanderson!
Sanderson: An absolute pleasure, Kylie, you have a super day.
Sunday Assembly Melbourne: ‘The Big C(omedy/hurch/ancer)’ with Luke Ryan – 11am, South Melbourne Commons, 217 – 239A Montague St, South Melbourne.