20 December 2013 10:19

This month I was invited to preach in the atheist church in London – though I was actually asked to “talk” and it’s not a church it’s the “Sunday Assembly.” It gathers twice a month in Conway Hall, Holborn, a creaky Ethical Society building inscribed with the motto “To Thy Own Self be True.” There are other Assemblies springing up in Britain, Australia and North America.

I was expecting it to be anti-religion. It wasn’t at all. It was more like a Charismatic Christian service with lots of rowdy singing interspersed with talks and reflections. We sang along with a Freddie Mercury video; Mike Garry (Roman Catholic) read some of his wonderful poems; a member of the “congregation” reflected on his new year resolutions; I talked about rituals. There was a collection for the homeless. At coffee afterwards I met two Anglicans, a Quaker, and one atheist.

The point about the Sunday Assembly is not that it’s against religion, but that it’s in favour of life. “This is 100% a celebration of life” says its website. “We are here for everyone who wants to Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More.” It’s radically inclusive: “Everyone is welcome, regardless of belief.” That even includes people who believe in God.

The way the Assembly lives this out is by using popular culture to get its message across. In November they held a service for Remembrance Day and showed the scene from WWI Blackadder when the soldiers go over the top and the scene fades to a field of poppies. People had tears in their eyes. The representatives from the British Legion who took part said it was the best memorial service they’d ever attended: “usually the only thing you’ve got to look at is a wreath.”

The Sunday Assembly concept seems to be taking off. New Assemblies are being established all over the place – and anyone can set one up. At this stage we’re only talking about thousands of people, small beer in religious terms. Could it really succeed?

With my realism hat on I’d say that all depends on resource factors – like money and organisational skills. But my more positive observation as a professional religion-watcher is that it has tapped into Britain’s largest and fastest-growing religion – “no religion.”

According to surveys I carried out with YouGov this year, nearly half (48%) of young adults (under 30) say they have no religion, while only 26% identify with a Christian denomination (CofE, Catholic, Baptist, etc). On the other hand, for those over 60, the situation is more than reversed, with 27% saying with “no religion” and 58% a Christian denomination. (The balance either do not wish to state, or state their religion as “other” or a non-Christian faith.) The differences are greater if you draw the lines younger than 30 or older than 60. So the trend is clear.

As the Sunday Assembly recognises, this doesn’t mean we’ve all become atheists. Looking at my surveys again, only one in five people in Great Britain are atheists, and younger people are only a little more likely to say there is no God than older people. Half of us believe in God, and the remainder are not sure. We wouldn’t be knocking on the door of the old “Ethical Society” in greater numbers, and Richard Dawkins is never going to be made Pope.

As a society then, a majority have become increasingly hostile or indifferent to institutional forms of religion, whilst remaining open to faith, a spiritual realm, or just “something more.” It’s this large pool that the Sunday Assembly is tapping into. Its trick is to build on a residual memory of a Christian service, filling it out with more resonant content from popular culture. Many of its values – love, honesty, helping others, community – are also recognisably Christian, though other religions and philosophies share them too.

Where the Sunday Assembly really parts company with much traditional church Christianity is in its rejection of paternalistic puritanism. Its meeting was the very opposite of sitting politely in a pew and being told what not to do by a “Father”. The service is led by women and men in equal roles, and they are cheerleaders and MCs rather than preachers. They assume that we are all adults capable of taking responsibility for our own lives, but that we can do it better together, and sometimes with a helping hand. It seems a growing number of people agree.

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