Deconstructing the assembly

The Sunday Assembly idea is getting a lot of mockery – at least I think it is, but maybe that’s because most of my friends on social media are the kind of people who mock things like Sunday assemblies, which they certainly are. That could be it. It could be that people who have more social media friends who sing solemn songs about Sunday assemblies or crochet scarves (from organic non-GMO fully local twice-blessed wool sheared from athletic non-smoking sheep) to wear to Sunday assemblies – it could be that people like that don’t have the impression that the Sunday Assemblies idea is getting a lot of mockery. I do though.

Melbourne has already hosted five Sunday Assemblies. Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra are next.

“Because it is a godless congregation, we don’t have a doctrine to rely on so we take reference from everything in the world,” Kathryn Murray, the Assembly’s Melbourne convenor, said.

“From the arts, from nature, from everything that we can get our hands on.”

A typical service includes inspirational talks, readings and sing-alongs and always finishes with tea and cake.

Hmm. Why does it sound so dire? Well because of the inspirational talks, readings and sing-alongs and the tea and cake. (I must be assuming the cake will be inspirational as opposed to good, because normally the idea of cake does not repel me, but the cake that would follow the inspirational talks, readings and sing-alongs does repel me. I suppose I think it must be damp and taste like shortbread.

So what should there be instead?

The things there are anyway, I guess. Third places – coffee shops, pubs, taverns, concerts, visits among friends, flea markets, farmers’ markets, bakeries, plays, movies, parks, games, marathons – lots of things. Just talking, instead of inspirational talks.

Maybe it’s this whole caper of setting out to be inspirational. I don’t hold with it. I’d rather look at a sunset instead.


  1. Andrew B. says

    “The things there are anyway, I guess. Third places – coffee shops, pubs, taverns, concerts, visits among friends, flea markets, farmers’ markets, bakeries, plays, movies, parks, games, marathons – lots of things. Just talking, instead of inspirational talks.”

    I started attending a UU church a few months ago. I needed to meet people, because despite living in town for 20 years, I’ve never made close connections with other people. The Sunday Assembly sounds like a similar set-up.

    None of the things you mentioned are specifically set up to foster connections with people. There’s not a lot of “getting to know people” at marathons, bakeries, movies, concerts, etc. And coffee shops/taverns/pubs are great places to talk with people, but not necessarily meet new people. Plus, some people don’t really like the atmosphere of pubs/taverns and might not like to be around alcohol.

    UU is not terribly old, not more than two-hundred years. It was created to fulfill some need for community and belonging, as well as unconditional acceptance. There’s no reason that the sunday assembly couldn’t work out just as well.

    Not everyone has an easy time fitting in, making connections. If you don’t fit in one place, you just have to keep looking. Things like the Sunday Assembly, or UU churches just offer one more option.

    Plus, the cake kicks fucking ass.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Your closing line reminds me of a favorite Travis McGee quote:

    “…organized religion, the formalities and routines, it’s like being marched in formation to look at a sunset.” – John D. MacDonald, A Deadly Shade of Gold

  3. says

    I just recorded an episode of Minnesota Atheists local TV show on godless congregations with someone with long experience running MNA, someone with long experience running Humanists of MN, and a minister from our local Unitarian Society, which was founded as an explicitly atheist congregation almost 100 years ago. Both the atheists and humanists offer a variety of kinds of meetings through (I tend to agree with David Niose that Meetup is one of the biggest boons to nonbeliever organizations in a very long time.)

    The minister suggested that one of the biggest things UU does is function as a landing place for people who no longer believe but aren’t ready to restructure their lives to that degree because of it. Other people just like ritual and emotional experiences in large groups. I’m not one of them, but as a theater-goer, I can’t say I don’t relate at all.

  4. John Morales says

    Andrew B., I am not surprised that someone such as you got their “ass” kicked by a piece of cake.

    But I take your point; such as you obviously perceive a need for such gatherings, and I guess they’re less problematic than those provided under the aegis of a religion.

    (You should perhaps be aware that not all of us feel this need you feel to “fit in”)

  5. Andrew B. says

    “Andrew B., I am not surprised that someone such as you got their “ass” kicked by a piece of cake”

    Well what’s that snotty sentence supposed to mean? Someone such as myself? What? A person with normal social needs?

    “You should perhaps be aware that not all of us feel this need you feel to “fit in””

    Oh, should I? I should be aware of something which is plain as day and is made apparent to me every fucking time I go outside? I like the quotes around “fit in,” too, as though achieving a sense of belonging is some trite and obscure need when it reality it’s actually quite basic and ordinary. It’s fine that you don’t have the same social needs as most of humanity, but don’t dismiss those of us that do. And keep your pointless snottery to yourself, thanks.

  6. John Morales says

    Andrew B., if your fucking ass wasn’t kicked by that cake, then it was not an fucking ass-kicking cake, was it?

    More to the point: leaving aside you consider to be my pointless snottiness, it is not I who attempted to justify something purely on the basis of its normality, nor is it I who generalises about people as if they shared my own predilections.

    Again: I accept that those such as you perceive a need for such things, and I accept that they’re somewhat less pernicious than their religious counterparts.

    Do you accept that such as I (who are not normal in that respect) face social pressure to conform to these activities, and a corresponding social reproach and alienation if we don’t?

    (There’s a reason I participate in our yearly office party… and it ain’t that I enjoy having to endure it)

  7. Cam says

    I rather like sing-alongs and cake. In fact, I went to a sing-along a couple of weeks ago. It’s the inspirational readings I draw the line at.

    I bet the cake’s pretty decent. It’d have to be, to get people to sit through the inspirational readings.

  8. says

    I like singalongs. And cake. I’m not sure about the rest, but a social gathering of atheists with a bit of structure might be a nice thing maybe sort of? Or not, depending on the implementation. I’m really not quite sure why the idea rubs me the wrong way. I used to go to science in the pub when I lived in Sydney – that was inspirational and had readings, and beer but not cake or singing.

  9. John Morales says

    Alethea, the ostensible purpose of church-going is religious, but the justification for its analogues seem to be the social satisfaction aspect, though people like Andrew B couch it in terms of social need*.

    As with Croft’s “temple of the future” and de Botton’s “temple for atheists”, this initiative seems to me to be aping the form of Western-style organised religion participation — and since form tends to follow function, it suggests that the activity is a type of secular religion, especially given the sermons “inspirational talks”.

    For those of us who are not just atheistic but also areligious, that is irritating; for those who (like me) are further asocial, it is doubly so.

    * The connotations of something couched as a ‘need’ are different to those couched as a ‘desire’, even though the two are often used interchangeably in ordinary discourse.

  10. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says


    I can definitely identify “inspirational talks” as the thing that rubs me the wrong way. What will the readings be from? If the title started with anything like with How to live/be/love…., I’d probably lose my appetite for the cakes.
    A lot of things can be inspirational, but when something’s stated purpose is being inspirational… ugh.

    A person with normal social needs?


    I have issues with people liking me, and yet this idea about atheist services is something I find repellent.
    Different strokes and all, so don’t declare what is or isn’t normal, yeah?

  11. says

    Agree with chigau @6. If I was ever to get up on a Sunday morning, it sure wouldn’t be to be sober in a group of inspired along-singing atheists.
    And since the evidence suggests that most atheists are smug assholes, I will stay away from any such meeting as far as I possibly can. The whole idea is repulsive.

    To me, that is. At the same time I can see that it may present an opportunity to attract closeted atheists to come out by giving them a substitute for their church-based community experience. Like Methadone programs for Heroin addicts.

    I won’t judge the people who go to these meetings, but for me it is not.

  12. Hertta (Herttainen) says

    Here in northern Europe even believers don’t go the church. About 2% of Finns attend Sunday services. I think the problem from the church’s point of view is, that what they’ve achieved in being an establishment that penetrates the whole society with 80% membership, they’ve lost in enthusiasm and sense of community. For Lutherans becoming atheist doesn’t mean losing a community or having to rethink what to do on Sundays and I’d be very surprised if someone tried to start something like Sunday Assemblies here.

    It is, of course, different for people in places where the community and the social safety net are provided by the church. But unless the Atheist church starts to provide things like food assistance, child care, help paying medical bills and so on, Sunday Assemblies only answer a very specific need and do nothing for people who depend on their church for those very concrete things. But I guess they successfully meet that specific need. Like onesies, I don’t get it, but I’m happy they are available for those who always felt uncomfortable in separate college pants and sweatshirt.

  13. Lofty says

    Sundays are the time when I worship at the Temple of the Self, one not-so-godlike body heaves itself on to the bicycle and gets out for a decent days ride. Sometimes it’s with friends, sometimes alone. I’d hate to waste any of my precious Sundays on a singalong. Fresh air feeds the brain better than cake and beer! And you’d be amazed by how many of the world’s problems you can cure on a social ride…

  14. says

    Hey guys, everyone here is talking about “inspirational readings” as if this is a precise term. I’d be interested to know what you think “inspirational readings” are and why they repel you.

    Sunday Assembly readings are things like Bob Dylan lyrics, Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, or passages from Dr Suess, to name a few examples that have been used. You know, things that inspire people. Seems okay to me.

  15. says

    I sleep in on Sundays. I spend every Saturday evening folk dancing. We often sing as we dance, and sometimes there is cake. There is a group that goes out to eat afterwards.

  16. says

    Our local CFI group has a Sunday morning Unsermon. Which is held in a pub, and the idea is just discuss in small groups, whatever is suggested as the theme for that week. (I rarely go myself, but it’s fairly popular).

  17. says


    Not gonna speak for anyone else, but I’m perfectly capable of reading Bob Dylan lyrics (or trying to parse them from his singing) or reading/watching Carl Sagan by myself, and discussing it with my (pleasantly small) social circle. “Inspirational talks” makes me think of (at best) a keynote speaker talking about how his (they always seemed to be men, for me) interpretation of his experience was just so gosh-darnedly relevant to everyone in the room. At worst, it sounds like another word for a homily.

    I haven’t really had much to say on the Sunday Assemblies, because they are “not my bag”, so to speak. I don’t like sitting in big crowds. I don’t like being touched by strangers. And group ceremonies take me back to my practicing Catholic days, which make me singularly uncomfortable.

    But feel free to take everything in this post with a grain of salt. I have 20 “friends” on Facebook…apparently that makes me quite the anomaly.

  18. says

    I attended a preview “Sunday Assembly” in Boston held this Tuesday night.

    I had a fun time, but its not for everyone.

    My main impression of it was as karaoke night with some other stuff added in. Now, I’m sure many of you don’t like karaoke, but I do. There was a live band with words flashed on a screen, and upbeat songs including “Build Me Up Buttercup,” the singing of which could be described as defiantly cheesy.

    I think this could appeal to a different crowd than is currently served by the typical format of the Harvard Humanist Community and Ethical Society, which tends to be a lecture followed by Q&A. I often enjoy these, but they are really targeted toward the narrow slice of humanist that has or is working on graduate school degrees. Sunday Assembly could appeal to nonbelievers who like American Idol and/or sing in the shower.

  19. iknklast says

    I don’t know where this idea that we need to have rituals in our life comes from, or that people somehow go to church for community. In most of the western world, church attendance is incredibly low, even among believers. In the US, it’s only about 20% (yes, I know some figures say 40%, but studies have suggested those surveys are elevated, perhaps because people don’t always tell the truth). If even believers aren’t wanting to go to church, why are we imagining that somehow getting together is the reason religion is surviving, and that we need to get some sort of secular counterpart?

    I hate ritual, I’m not fond of inspirational talks, and I think if we do meet, it should be sometime other than Sunday morning, which sounds suspiciously like church. I, for one, do not miss the “community” of my church. I was delighted when I was old enough to decide not to go. I hated it when I was a believer; I hated it once I quit believing, and the thought of attending anything similar, even if secular, now – well, I hate that too. Ritual is creepy. People following the leader. Even at football games, ritual chants bother me and creep me out.

    If people want community, there are better ways than “church” or “assembly”. No matter what you call it, it’s something worth avoiding.

  20. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Even at football games, ritual chants bother me and creep me out.

    Seconded, although we’re probably talking about two different kinds of football (mine involves feet kicking the ball, you know, as implied in the name *grin*).

  21. Al Dente says

    Recently my company had mandatory training for all employees on customer relations. Part of the training was to walk up to a complete stranger and talk to them for five minutes. Another complete introvert and I spent five minutes saying “um…er…ah” to each other for three minutes and then agreeing that we hated enforced chumminess.

    I’m sure there are people who enjoy Sunday Assemblies, who listen raptly to “inspirational talks” and think the cake is delicious and moist (as a Portal player, I know the cake is a lie). I’ll stay at home and talk to people on the internet or do something else, whatever I feel like doing.

  22. stevebowen says

    I went to one of these put on as part of the BHA conference in Leeds earlier this year. It was “fun” but because I had already had an opportunity to meet many of the people there as part of the conference a lot of the natural awkwardness of interacting in faux familiar ways was ameliorated.
    Also it did revove around Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the originators of the Sunday Assembly, so it was slick and professionally presented, something which could get lost as it is devolved or franchised.
    Honestly, I’m equivocal about it to the point that part of me would love to see the concept succeed yet I could not see myself committing to regularly attending myself. Horses for courses I guess…

  23. iknklast says

    Seconded, although we’re probably talking about two different kinds of football (mine involves feet kicking the ball, you know, as implied in the name *grin*

    Actually, we’re talking about the same. The football game was Sporting Kansas City against the Toronto team.

  24. Pieter B, FCD says

    Pierce R Butler, #2

    …organized religion, the formalities and routines, it’s like being marched in formation to look at a sunset. – John D. MacDonald, A Deadly Shade of Gold

    That stuck with me the moment I read it, and I’ve quoted it many times, but not in recent years. Thanks for jogging my memory.

  25. mudpuddles says

    Hi Andrew B,
    I relate fully to what you’ve said. I had a rough time after coming out as atheist to my family a couple of years ago, and then moving away from home to a place where I knew no one. Coming out meant I temporarily lost contact with my mother (my dad having recently passed away, this was pretty rough) and other relatives. I didn’t have a need to fit in as such, just a basic need to socialise with people with whom I shared at least some interests – which was easier said than done in one of the most conservative areas of rural Ireland. I guess it was a basic desire for human interaction more meaningful than what I’d experience at a cash register or bank counter. Going to a cinema, restaurant or theatre on my own was not much fun, and I avoid pubs (Ireland’s drinking culture is really not my thing), and after a few months of feeling quite isolated I was getting a bit down, which is not helpful for someone who suffers from depression.

    I found a secular meet up group, through one of the Meet Up webpages, organised around a town a short distance away, and it gave me just what I needed – a place to meet and interact with people, some of whom are now close friends even though I have moved on again. I received real support from this group – just by knowing I had people to connect with – in what was a very difficult time. We didn’t sing (which is great because my singing would be enough to make me a real outcast), but we went to a few gigs; we didn’t do inspirational readings but some of the group had a reading club where they spoke about and debated recent books, current affairs or media articles; we also occasionally did cool things like organise events for the wider community, including night meets to watch meteor showers or go on bat walks, even a trip to the northernmost headland on the island (Malin Head) to watch the Northern Lights last year, which we arranged with local school teachers. (We also occasionally shared ass-kicking cake, with very little snottiness.)

  26. brianpansky says

    Andrew B., if your fucking ass wasn’t kicked by that cake, then it was not an fucking ass-kicking cake, was it?

    the fuck?

  27. Martha says

    I don’t understand the need for mockery. It smacks of the One-True-Wayism that offends so many of us about religion in the first place. I get that the forced socialization many have experienced, especially introverts who live in the US, a relentlessly extroverted culture, is a turn-off for lots of people. I agree that there should be no pressure to attend organized atheist or humanist assemblies.

    But why should there be pressure not to do so? Or ridicule, even open derision (I’m looking at you, John Morales) of people who find such communities useful? After all, churches and their equivalents provide a number of useful services that few local atheist gatherings do. Child care perhaps foremost among them– and practical support for raising secular kids, especially in the US. We need a wider variety of ways for atheists to meet, or we won’t broaden the appeal of commitment to a secular society. To laugh at those who prefer a different way reinforces the perception of atheism as an elitist sphere– with respect to intellect, class, gender, race and other words to which ism can be attached grammatically.

    FTB and related blogs give me many of the things I have valued about being a (for the most part, extremely inactive) UU for most of my adult life: intelligent conversation with people from many walks of life, increased awareness about social justice issues, contact with people who read widely in the humanities, excellent resources for dealing with creationists and global warming deniers, and a place to think about how morality works– and doesn’t work– without the need to invoke the supernatural.

    Others have already spoken about the support they find in non-theistic communities. I will only say that I was very glad to have the support of mine after a horrific family tragedy. Yes, there are other community resources for those dealing with grief, but they are not necessarily safe spaces formed by people with a shared commitment to secular values and social justice.

    Safe spaces are important. Unfortunately, it is abundantly clear that the atheist internet is not a safe space. We’ve seen what happens when people talk about feminism, racism, sexual harassment and sexual assault on line. People facing those issues should not have to be heroes to be involved in atheism. But they’ll need to be if they restrict their involvement to public fora on the internet.

    There are a lot of ways to live in a secular world. One of them involves taking a couple hours out of one’s Sunday mornings (when most atheists just happen to be free….) to spend time with other secularists and their families.

  28. brucegorton says

    Personally, I wouldn’t go with tea and cake I would go with a braai.

    The nice thing with the braai option is that it combines sociable eating with sociable cooking, people hang around the fire to chat while burning their meat or vegetables (though vleis is traditional, I always quite liked doing brinjals, potato wedges, various squash, peppers etc… vegetarian isn’t only perfectly do-able on a braai, it is delicious.)

    The tea and cake thing tends not to have quite that same effect, they are a bit more of a sit down activity. Besides, everyone knows not to trust cake.

    I don’t think the assembly idea really works for much the same reason I didn’t enjoy them in primary school – they aren’t really all that interactive and can get very dull. The best inspirational speaking isn’t some guy on a stage pretending to be your school headmaster waxing lyrical about some great sports ‘hero’ of his who will ultimately turn out to be chemically enhanced a few years later*.

    The best inspiration comes from people just being people, mingled and relaxed talking about the things that interest them.

    Or at the very least people talking about the things that fuel them, and make them interesting to talk to. A feminist speaking on issues of feminism is far more interesting than some generic rah-rah bullshit, and a scientist talking about their science is going to get me a lot more inspired than somebody telling me how inspired I should be.

    Lectures can be fun and interesting, inspirational talks meanwhile always give me the feeling that I am being treated like a child.

    *Was I alone in finding the Lance Armstrong revelations supremely satisfying?

  29. John Morales says

    Martha @29, not only can’t I see where anyone has expressed a need for mockery, I can’t even see where anyone has expressed ridicule or open derision towards those who find these Sunday Assembly activities satisfying; what I see is multiple people saying it’s not for them.

    It is true that I implied (@7) that I find both the justification and generalisation Andrew provided to be specious; your own justification (that the ancillary benefits of a church-style community* such as emotional support and camaraderie between like-minded people make the activity as described worthwhile overall) is not so feeble — but neither do I consider it particularly meritorious, since such benefits can as well be provided by social clubs or community groups.

    * From the link provided: “”The Sunday Assembly has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs,” British comedian Sanderson Jones said.”

  30. John Morales says


    brianpansky @28, since you evince perplexity, I here elucidate: I took Ophelia’s wry reference to the cake to be allegorical (the ascribed merit of the cake representing that of the enterprise) and further interpreted Andrew’s response to be to its literal form; accordingly, I amused myself by similarly (though knowingly) responding to his retort’s idiomatic form literally.

    (It was but a throwaway aside)

  31. Minow says

    (There’s a reason I participate in our yearly office party… and it ain’t that I enjoy having to endure it)

    John, honestly, I would relax about this. I have a strong suspicion that the office would not mind too much if you didn’t go along.

  32. John Morales says

    [OT + meta]

    So, no response either from Martha or from Andrew B.

    Minow @34, perhaps you would relax — but then, you’re not me, are you?

    (Also, I have a strong suspicion that your strong suspicion is based upon ignorance of the actual circumstances)

  33. theobromine says

    I’m somewhat positive about the “Sunday Assembly” concept (though I wish they wouldnt call it “atheist church”)
    I can do without your typical “inspirational message” (though if it ends up being something like a conference talk, that’s likely to be enjoyable)
    I like group singing (though I know a lot of people don’t, and I won’t hold it against them)
    I like tea and cake.

    Some people do not need community. Some people have families, friends, co-workers, parents who provide all the social support they could want. That’s fine – no one is going to make them join a community. But what about the couple with 2 young children who recently moved from another city? Mark and Allan have no local familty or friends. Mark falls ill and has to stay in the hospital. If Allan wants to visit Mark, who will babysit the kids? If it was Mark and Ellen instead, they could go to pretty much any church and find someone to help. But not in this case…

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