I read through the first couple hundred of the nearly 500 comments on the Guardian website responding to the video of the Cleveland Sunday Assembly, part of the big worldwide rollout of such assemblies around the globe last Sunday that more than doubled the existing number. I was surprised at the number of commenters who were outright hostile to the idea. These were people who said they were nonbelievers themselves but felt this was the wrong thing to do.
What seemed to trigger a lot of anger were the features of the Sunday Assembly that were adapted from religion, and Christianity in particular, like the one hour Sunday morning time slot, the group singing, the readings, the talk (sermon?), and the socializing after the program ends. These commenters seemed to feel that having this kind of event was a form of appeasement to religion by those who were not intellectually tough enough to make a clean break but still hankered after the religious beliefs they left behind. Some suggested that it validated religion it, giving a legitimacy it did not deserve by adopting some of its ritualistic features. The common query was why such people, if they wanted to have a sense of community, did not instead meet at the local pub or go bowling or meet on weekdays or something similar that would not have the trappings of religion.
This puzzles me. I can understand those for whom the idea has no appeal. They do not feel the need to get together on a regular basis with other nonbelievers. But all they have to do is not go. No one is suggesting that these assemblies meet a need for all nonbelievers. But they clearly meet a need for some so why not leave alone those who want it and not criticize it?
It may be that the cause of this divergence is between those who left religion in anger and those who had an amicable split, the former consisting of those who felt they were abused in some way by religion and the institutions of religion. For such people, anything that smacks of religion produces an almost visceral feeling of dislike. I know that some people refused to attend my recent debate with a local pastor because it was being held in a church and they had sworn never to enter one again. I can understand this feeling and the Sunday Assemblies are clearly not for them.
But there are others, like me, who actually had good experiences with church and left religion because it stopped making any sense and we just could not maintain the pretenses involving doctrine anymore. But many of the aspects of church that were independent of the doctrine (the regular getting together with nice people, the music, the social justice activism, the emphasis on moral teachings that were not bigoted) were pleasant. When I was an adolescent, another major attraction of church for my friends and me was that it was an opportunity to meet girls, to sneak looks at them during the service, and interact with them in the socializing afterwards and in the church youth groups. I also had the good fortune of having school chaplains and church ministers who took a modern and intellectual approach to religion and combined it with progressive political views so that even the sermons were worth listening to.
For such people, the only fly in the ointment to the otherwise pleasant experience of church was that by going one was assumed to subscribe to a set of absurd beliefs and they could not in good conscience do so, plus the fact that the institution was part of a larger entity that often was associated with views that were appalling. Take just the religious doctrine and awful views out and you have the Sunday Assembly because, as one participant put it, “This brings the best of religion – and leaves the worst out.”
One worry that I have is that maintaining the assemblies will be not be easy because it is built entirely on volunteers. As with all volunteer groups, it will have the problem of getting enough money to pay for all the incidental expenses, as well as getting enough people to help so that the initial organizers do not get burned out and that continuity is maintained.
I tend to be a big tent sort of person. Nonbelievers are not a monolithic group and they will have a diverse array of needs and wants. As we become more established, people will feel less of a need to talk about their nonbelief with others. It will simply be taken for granted and they will get together around other common interests. As long as people are not doing any harm, I don’t see why they should be criticized for how they spend their time, energy, and money. The Sunday Assemblies clearly meet the needs of some nonbelievers. Even though my split with religion was a purely intellectual one, I personally do not feel the need for this kind of socializing anymore, but I will support the Sunday Assemblies in any way that I can because I can see it being a positive force and serving a need.