Beyond belief: the hell of ‘atheist church’

Sunday Assembly looked like church, sort of. There was a band on stage, crammed in next to a projector screen framed with twee paper bunting. It reminded me of the Anglican Girls’ Friendly Society meetings I went to as a pre-teen, except we were singing ‘Tiny Dancer’ instead of ‘God Rules’.

By the time we got around to addressing the theme of the week, happiness, it was clear that Sunday Assembly is not church. Not even ‘atheist church’, which is what some observers, including me, have been calling it.

After some short clips of animals on YouTube, the first speaker began to meander through her presentation. She hopped over a TED radio show, neuroscientific research, and something called a ‘psychological immune system’. Pausing frequently, she apologised for how little she knew about the topic and joked about having Googled ‘what is happiness’ the day before. ‘How do you cure a case of the sads?’ she asked.

‘Shopping?’ answered a woman in the congregation. We laughed, but the presentation didn’t offer any compelling alternatives.

By the end I felt sorry for her, and a little confused. Why was I listening to this? What were any of us doing here?

‘What am I doing here?’ is a question I asked myself a lot over the next hour, and one the organisers of Sunday Assembly could do with asking themselves. Designed to offer a godless congregation that celebrates ‘the one life we know we have’, Sunday Assembly was founded by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans last year in London. It’s since become a burgeoning global franchise, with services in over thirty cities, including the one I went to in Sydney.

The impression I got from reading about the Assembly online, as well as checking out my fellow attendees, is that I am their target demographic. I’m a young, urban atheist who isn’t hostile toward ritual or religion. I don’t believe in God, but given a choice between participating in a church service and attending a New Atheist convention, I’ll choose church every time. Sunday Assembly advertises itself as the answer to the wet atheist’s prayers: church without dogma, a gathering of like-minded people, a free and spiritually fulfilling community of nonbelievers. Less God than the Uniting Church, cooler than Unitarian Universalism, cheaper and easier than joining a UFO cult.

The service, however, was neither spiritual nor non-dogmatic. After another awkward sing-along to ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, two hipster-dad guys named Mark and Adam got up to tell us about The Happy Project, an initiative they started in order to ‘spread the most amount of happiness to the most people’.

Wondering if they’d ever heard of the utility monster thought experiment, I listened to them explain their happiness competition: they would take submissions, judge them, and reward the most joy-increasing idea with … a crowdfunding campaign. The winning idea turned out to be erecting a bunch of borderline-dystopic billboards painted with platitudes like ‘Everything is going to be okay’ and ‘You have enough’.

‘We’re using the language of advertising to spread happiness without having a commercial agenda!’ said Mark (or perhaps Adam). They both seemed excited by this idea, as though the language of advertising has some inherent value. That it might be weird to treat happiness as though it were literally saleable didn’t seem to occur. Neither mentioned the sort of material disadvantage to which a lot of human misery is attributable, except to recommend we all practise mindful gratitude when we compare ourselves to ‘the less fortunate’.

Mark and Adam repeatedly affirmed their project wasn’t trying to sell us anything, but its activism was so empty it was hard to see what other reason there could have been for its existence. It was the kind of glib amorality that some religious people suspect is the natural result of a world without truth. If that is ‘celebrating the one life we know we have’, sign me up for religion, any religion. Their sentimentality, underscored by a lack of interest in real questions about what it means to be happy, made The Happy Project about as satisfying as eating a can of cake frosting for dinner.

Again, I found myself asking: why am I here? How is this an alternative to religious observance? Sunday Assembly tells us to ‘wonder more’, but the only thing I wondered was whether everyone else was as disappointed as I did. The whole thing had a curiously AstroTurf atmosphere, I suspect because none of us knew each other, or had anything in common. We didn’t live in the same suburb. We weren’t dedicated to any sort of collective cause. We could have had common values or beliefs, but none of us really got the chance to find out.

If atheists, or non-religious people, want to create some sense of ritual or community, it can’t be based on imitating low-church Protestantism without the inconvenient God stuff. Attending Sunday Assembly felt like sitting inside a toddler’s crayon drawing of a religious service, and on some level I’m sure some of the other people there must have felt similarly. The organisers, at least of the Sydney event, seemed to have misunderstood what it is about religious observance and worship that adds meaning to people’s lives.

The sort of engaged, ethical community that Sunday Assembly tries to build isn’t necessarily religious (although the bells and smells help). But it does require dedication to a common cause, an approach that is the opposite of sitting around Googling ‘what is happiness’. When The Happy Project guys told us the value of doing nice things for other people, it was instrumental. ‘Do nice things for other people because altruism makes you feel good.’ Sure, but does it make you feel good to know that your motivation for altruistic behaviour is ultimately self-interested? Probably not. The rewards of living an ethical life (if there are any, which there often aren’t) come from disregarding short-sighted narcissism.

These sorts of conversations, the ones that might help us lead better lives, were absent from the Sunday Assembly service. Without taking any intellectual or spiritual cues from religion or philosophy, it was a hollow gathering with no clear purpose. If this is atheist church, I suspect I will be staying home on Sunday mornings for the time being.

Eleanor Robertson

Eleanor Robertson is a writer and feminist living in Sydney. She contributes regularly to Frankie magazine and tweets as @marrowing.

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  1. Surely the altruism of religious folk “doing good” is ultimately self interest? Gotta get into heaven somehow.

    And let’s not forget that the church has had many hundreds of years practice at this sort of thing. I wonder how well they were going six months in?

  2. Find it a bit rich that a writer from a fashion magazine should lecture a non-profit community group on the evils of advertising and lack of meaningful content.

    Seems just having a community group is more meaningful than selling and promoting fashion.

  3. Blueblood, six months ‘in’, by which you mean, I suppose, six months after the resurrection, I think that people would have been dazed, but in a state of confused bliss. Also probably terrified of being branded as threats to pubic order and executed. There was a fair bit of that around at the time.

    Rather more significant than mere ‘happiness’.

    And no, most Christians do not have the idea of buying a timeshare in heaven through careful investment of good works.

    I’ll stick to the King James Version and trying to work my way through David Bentley Hart for Lent, even though I would disagree with him (DBH) on social issues. I think if I went to one of these shindigs I would be thinking of Mephistopheles and his comment ‘Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it…’ A jolly sort of hell.

    Nice article.

  4. Atheism is just an “absence of belief”; in other words it is an empty bucket. That’s what you would expect to find at an atheist gathering dedicated to atheist principles: there are none.

  5. I minister to a congregation in Canada that has been a welcome refuge to atheists and freethinkers for a decade. I’m an atheist. We’re “growing out of the Christian tradition” which means we have roots. Many of the SA plants don’t have those roots and some will, as the parable says, grow up and then wither for lack of good soil. But it’s important to note that not every Sunday is an intellectual or spiritual orgasm in any church. Sometimes things don’t come together, the crowd is thin, or the music is poorly handled; or it’s been a long week and I’m tired and can’t find my groove. It is absolutely unfair to judge such a young “congregation” on one experience which seems to be the thing to do these days. Work with it. Lean in. Help make it happen. It’s always easier being the critic; being the critic after only a brief glimpse at the screen is so easy, it’s malpractice.

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