The pointlessness of happy-clappy atheism
Sanderson Jones leads the Sunday Assembly, a "godless congregation". Credit: Astrid Riecken; Getty   

“We meet twice monthly on Sundays for inspirational events which combine inspiring talks, sing-along pop songs and a touch of mindfulness, all followed by tea and cake.” Thus reads the blurb for the Sunday Assembly, an evangelical-style church for people who don’t believe in God.

It was founded in 2013 by a couple of comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, and achieved much initial success with large congregations and an international programme of ‘church planting’. At a time when religious belief is declining — at least in the West — this movement was widely hailed as a way of organising goodness and wonder at a local level, bringing people together for support and edification. “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”, was their mission statement.

A number of traditional religious believers were overtly hostile to the project when it was set up, thinking it ludicrous and inherently confused to ape religious practise whilst decrying religious belief. I was not one of those.

Yes, I thought it a little hubristic to assume that it should be a piece of cake to get people together for church-style assemblies, once the remnant of archaic belief had been exorcised. But the basic idea was so clearly well intentioned, it felt churlish to act all superior and sneer at this deep rooted desire to come together to celebrate the best in life. Two cheers for the Sunday Assembly, I thought. I might even pop along one day.

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So, no, I won’t rub my hands together and take pleasure at a report in The Atlantic which suggests that the movement is struggling – attendance is down; centres are closing. But I would like to offer some friendly advice, albeit from the perspective of a traditional Christian believer. After all, we have been doing this kind of thing for a very long time — my church has survived at the Elephant and Castle for 800 years — and we have picked up a thing or two along the way.

Several reasons have been suggested as to why the Sunday Assemblies have struggled. First, because many congregations were split between those who wanted to experience something of the charism of religious worship, just without the God bit, and those who wanted the Assembly to be a rallying point for a campaigning hostility to religious belief. I’m not sure that this is a fatal weakness – all churches need a big tent element, and will need to manage internal disagreements.

Second, though perhaps not unrelated, is that those who came together just didn’t have enough in common to sustain a shared experience. In traditional places of worship, religious belief — and in particular its traditions and Biblical narratives — serve as a common point of reference for an otherwise extremely diverse crowd. It is hard to see how something as nebulous as ‘celebrating life’ can function as a uniting force for what should be an otherwise unrelated crowd.

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This may be the reason that Sunday Assemblies do not feel very diverse in terms of class or ethnicity. In the absence of a shared point of religious reference, social sameness can easily become the focus for community instead of belief. And taking a look at the images used on their web sites, Sunday Assemblies do have the feel of a Boden catalogue convention, with smiley, well-to-do, middle-class people celebrating their own niceness.

And it is actually this niceness that takes us closer to the root of the trouble. It’s all very well celebrating the best of the world. But what about the worst. The real challenge for a God-less church is how it deals with the problem of evil. On one level, of course, they can do this just as easily as traditional churches. When something terrible occurs in the world, the Assemblies can of course analyse its causes, commit to making the world a better place, and take a collection to relieve the suffering of those affected.

But there’s another sort of evil: the darkness within. How do they address that? My acid test, then, for a godless church is this: how would they tackle the funeral of a paedophile? Or: what do they say at the eulogy for a racist?

In church we can say: “Lord, have mercy” and “Father, forgive”. But what is the atheistic equivalent? At the heart of the godless funeral – longer established than the Sunday Assemblies – there is commonly a celebration of the good qualities of the deceased: what they achieved, how much they were loved and admired and so on. But what if that person were an out-and-out rotter, someone about whom very little good could be said? What then?

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Here lies the problem at the heart of the godless movement. Belief is not really about being good and celebrating life and wonder. More importantly, it is about being saved. That is, it is a way of addressing some inherent brokenness about human beings, a brokenness that we are unable to fix by ourselves. The traditionally Christian way of describing all this is original sin – a term that has been overly associated with sex, but is better understood as a meditation on human failure and inadequacy.

The nearest thing a ‘secular’ organisation gets to this — and thus, I suspect, the most promising model for a semi-godless church — is Alcoholics Anonymous. In these meetings, no one is there to celebrate their niceness. Participants are broken and openly so. They have failed and messed up their lives.

People come from all walks of life and from all communities. What binds them together is their failure not their success. And the first thing they need to acknowledge is that they do not have the power to solve their problems by themselves (original sin). Some higher power is invoked to help them (be saved). Without this element — without some deeper acknowledgement of that sweaty panicky sense of failure that steals upon us in the dead of night — all churches, religious or non-religious, are undermined by lies and kitsch.

So my friendly advice to Sunday Assemblies goes something like this. Don’t worry too much about declining numbers. Don’t think of what you are doing as a form of showbiz or entertainment. The best churches, the ones that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, often have small congregations. And the worst, self-congratulatory churches often have big ones.

When numbers decline, a church is inevitably thrown back upon reflection of what they exist for – is it more than razzmatazz? Failure is often a much more intellectually energising experience than success. It forces you to ask what you really believe in, what you exist for. And there, I suppose, is the rub.

Other than as a glorified dating agency for lonely middle class metropolitans, no one really needs happy-clappy atheism. Because if you cannot accommodate failure – your own or that of your congregants – then you don’t have enough to exist for. And you deserve to perish.