According to the news today, the “Sunday Assembly” has split. For those of you who don’t know, the Sunday Assembly is a church-style service, only it’s run by atheists. This is the vision from their website*:
The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.
Lots of ink was spilled over this when the assembly first started – I didn’t contribute at the time, but having heard this news I have a few thoughts. In particular, I do wonder whether an atheistic assembly is destined for failure.
The problem is, I think in order for a group to exist it has to have something as its core to unite around. Every group in the world has a raison d’etre: a common interest of some kind, or a common goal. Something has to bring and hold a diverse group of people together. Now, I wonder whether atheism itself is enough to actually hold together a group of people. As I have blogged about before, atheism is not a replacement for religion: atheism is simply a belief that God (or gods) does not exist. Anyone can be an atheist – you can belief pretty much whatever you like as long as it does not involve belief in God/gods.
And this is what makes me wonder whether a godless assembly actually has enough at its core to hold onto people. If all people have in common is a belief that something is not true, can that bring them together? If, by way of analogy, I got together a group of people who didn’t believe in politics – and by voter turnouts there would surely be enough of them in this country – would they want to keep meeting to moan about politics? Founding some kind of group on a negative premise seems self-defeating to me. I don’t enjoy being disenchanted with politics, and I’m not passionate enough to really care about meeting with other ‘like-minded’ people.
I also wonder whether atheism in and of itself doesn’t lend itself to this kind of gathering. Atheism is somewhat anti-authoritarian: there is no leader, you don’t have to sign up to any creed, anything goes. In fact, given that atheism is still a minority view (especially from a global perspective) – to be an atheist you have to reject the views of the majority of the world. Atheists also tend to self-define as ‘skeptical’, which probably doesn’t lend itself to getting on board with someone else’s ideas for making the world better. Much of the change in the world has been ideologically-driven, and ideologies don’t come with the benefit of scientific support.
It seems to me that a church-like assembly needs something positive to unite around – an ideology. On Twitter earlier, I suggested humanism to someone. Humanism is at least trying to be a positive ideology (although I think it’s a wrong one, but let’s not go there right now). I think people could get behind humanism in a way that people can’t ‘get behind’ atheism.
All this should give us pause for thought and wonder why the church has survived (and, indeed, grown) for the last 2000 years despite severe persecution at many times and in many places. I find it fascinating to read articles written by atheists, talking about the things we can learn from religion: most of them have a sentence somewhere in the article, something like “Although of course what these religions teach is false, they seem to be onto something…” I wonder whether one day they’re going to wake up and realise that religions are indeed onto something: God does actually exist, and has created humanity to be in relationship with him.
* At the time of writing, across the front of their website is a massive “DONATE” link – interesting how the church often gets criticised for just wanting your money! I know that’s unfair, I just thought it was funny.