The Sunday Assembly, or 'goodbye, politics!'

Should we really all be taking it easy and enjoying the sheer awesomness of the world, or is this in fact a rejection of responsibility for trying to improve the world around us?

Ben Whitham
31 July 2014

The founders of Sunday Assembly

You may have noticed from recent press coverage that a new phenomenon, being dubbed an ‘atheist church’, is spreading through the Anglosphere (and gradually expanding beyond it). The Sunday Assembly is a crowdfunded initiative encouraging irreligious people to gather on Sundays in a local assembly space and to take part in much of the ritual of (‘happy-clappy’, evangelical, Christian) church life, without the once crucial prerequisite of belief in God.

The organisation, which was founded in January 2013 by British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, and now includes branches across the UK, US and Australia, with many more on the way, requires each assembly to stick to the three basic principles of its ‘public charter’:

Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be

Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other

Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in.’

Humanism, and certain rather aggressive strands of atheism in general, have increasingly been subjected to criticism for emulating religion; these belief systems have been seen as a sort of ‘secular theology’, replete with sacred texts (e.g. The God Delusion), articles of faith and other fundamental beliefs or tenets (e.g. the Big Bang theory), which effectively hold up a mirror to religious dogma, rather than cast it aside.

The Sunday Assembly certainly takes a mimetic approach to Christian religious worship, with crowds meeting on a Sunday morning, often in former church buildings, to sing and smile together and hear inspiring talks to help them cope with and improve their lives (to ‘live better’ as the dogma goes). But it also proclaims itself to be ‘radically inclusive’, and welcomes into the fold both the religious and the atheist. Insisting that while ‘we don’t do supernatural’, the congregations ‘won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do’, the Sunday Assembly also claims to ‘have no doctrine’ and to welcome ‘everyone […] regardless of their beliefs’. While this ostensibly pluralist approach seems to avoid some of the pitfalls of aggressive secular humanism, it does so at the cost of one thing: politics. Aside from the myth of neutrality implied in the claim to ‘have no doctrine’ and to welcome all ‘regardless of their beliefs’ (are sexist, racist, or homophobic beliefs welcome?) the Assembly seems to seek to fill in a gap that has traditionally been occupied by social and political movements. Consider, for a moment, what political movements strive for, in the same terms as the Assembly:

Live Better. Political movements also ‘aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be’; some of these ideas are, for example, ‘democracy’, ‘socialism’ and ‘anarchism’.

Help Often. Whether ‘left’, ‘right’, or none of the above, political movements are also ‘communities of action’; just join your local branch of CND or Greenpeace and you’ll be put to work in no time. And that work will often involve charitable giving (in cash or through voluntary work). Whether you’re in a Conservative Club or a Socialist Workers’ Party branch, you’ll be expected to contribute to the general good works of your organization in the area in these ways.

Wonder More. Ok, so there’s less ‘playing games’ in political movements (‘mind games’ notwithstanding!) but ‘hearing talks’ and ‘listening to readings’ will be only too familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in a socialist party, while ‘singing as one’ (the Internationale, anyone?) is as common to neo-fascists and radical lefties as it was to the American Civil Rights movement.

It is only in the last clause of the ‘Wonder More’ principle that we find a really significant divergence between the activities of Sunday Assemblies and those of political movements, which is in the former’s belief in: ‘the awesome world that we live in’. This is backed-up by a series of blog posts to the Sunday Assembly website on the eight principles for ‘being a successful optimist’; the last of which is simply to ‘try to kick out your cynicism’. Therein lies a crucial difference between political movements and religious ones. Religious movements, even where they fail in their missionary work of conversion and salvation, can remain ‘optimists’ since whatever happens is a part of God’s divine plan. Political movements, on the other hand – from right across the spectrum – usually begin from a profound dissatisfaction of some sort with the generally accepted order of things. To many people today, the world is far from ‘awesome’. Instead it is characterized by gross inequality and oppression, along with fear and ignorance with regard to change and dumb acceptance of social ills.

Like Marx, the founders of the Sunday Assembly begin from something of a materialist revelation: if there is no God, no heaven, no hell, and no afterlife at all – if these few decades of life are all we have – then how tragic that we should fail to find our lives fulfilling, exciting and enjoyable. Their solution to this problem, however, could hardly be more different. Whereas Marx’s answer was that we should unite against the patterns of social relations that leave us working most of our waking hours in narrow jobs we have no personal or emotional investment in (‘alienated’ labour), tearing up  the capitalist mode of production and ‘losing our chains’, the Sunday Assembly, on the other hand, ask us to fit meaningful and enjoyable experiences and free social interactions into a Sunday morning mass.

Forgive me, atheist lord, for failing to ‘kick out my cynicism’ but it strikes me that just as the decline of trades unions (I write from a university that recently ‘derecognised’ its support staff unions, a move it was only able to make due to the abysmal membership numbers) has already meant an unprecendented depoliticisation of the workplace and working time, and the Sunday Assembly seems to offer only more depoliticisation. What unions afforded people, apart from the benefits of representation, was an ability to blend politics and their own political ideas into their work, and this is now waning. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, have been effectively ‘privatised’ – relegated to the domain of the private individual and rendered taboo in the neutral ‘public’ sphere of work. We can ‘do’ politics on our own time, thank you very much. The Sunday Assembly not only further entrenches this distinction, but at the same time, through its focus on optimism, marginalises the many critical political stances and discourses that have been developed over centuries as ‘inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas’ to improve the world.

On an unfashionably pessimistic note, then, I would suggest that the bourgeois-bohemian types that will find the Sunday Assembly an attractive prospect – bearded and vintage-dressed hipsters like the founders themselves – would have been precisely people who might, thirty, twenty or even ten years ago, have become committed political activists within wider political movements and inspired by deeper and more coherent political ideas than anything this ‘atheist church’ has to offer. The Sunday Assembly is but one facet of a more general, and utterly lamentable, depoliticisation of everyday life.

Yes we should strive to ‘live better’ and ‘help often’ if we want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, but perhaps if we’re going to ‘wonder more’, it shouldn’t be at how ‘awesome’ the world is, but how bloody awful. For example, at time of writing, 166 children have been killed by the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, while well over one thousand have been injured or permanently maimed by missiles, shelling and shrapnel. Our governments have openly supported this massacre and David Cameron and Barak Obama’s support has been cited by the Israeli right as justification for what is happening. Instead of sitting back and reflecting on the awesomeness of it all on Sunday morning – enjoying a secularised ‘opiate of the masses’ – how about getting down to your local meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, or getting in touch with Friends of Al-Aqsa or any of the many political parties and campaign groups that are organizing action to stop this tragedy. Of course, to do this, we need a certain sort of optimism to believe there’s a chance that our actions will change anything. On the one hand, we must maintain a sharp critical consciousness of the tragic and unfair things that are going on in the world, instead of simply ‘wondering’ at its awesomeness, and on the other hand, by virtue of this very knowledge, we must believe that the key to changing it is within our grasp. This was best characterized by an old advocate of political movements, Antonio Gramsci, in a letter written from his cell, as a prisoner of Mussolini’s fascist regime, as ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.


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