The strange opposition by some to the Sunday Assembly movement

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.


  1. Dunc says

    One of the things you have to remember is that a significant number of comments on any article at the Guardian will be outright hostile to whatever it is the article is about. You could literally write an article about how rainbows are pretty and then watch the comments fill up with people vehemently asserting this not to be the case.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Having spent decades telling all who asked that “My religion is sleeping late on Sundays”, I view this Assemblies movement as outright heresy.

  3. says

    If it works for others, then great!

    My personal issue and why I could never go to one, at least while certain in-laws are still living and in the same city, is that the gossip and harrassment would get even worse. I’m already the devil incarnate in their eyes, having “stolen” their son and, apparently, ruined his health and life. He’s now a pagan and I get blamed for that too.

    So yeah, I’m glad it’s working out for others, but I don’t need the extra stress.

  4. Friendly says

    There are already plenty of Unitarian Universalist and other “secular churches” out there that atheists who want “the church experience” can attend if they want to. I guess I don’t understand why people need yet another venue in which to do this.

  5. Mano Singham says


    I asked this same question of some and got the response that UU churches are variable and although they have atheists as members, there is sometimes a transcendental vibe that they find off-putting

  6. Mano Singham says


    Parents like to blame others for their children’s defection from religion because if they had drifted away on their own, it means that the parents did not do a good enough job.

    I was speaking to a woman recently who said that her in-laws also blamed her for their son’s lapse even though they had met on an online dating site where he had described himself as atheist!

  7. John Horstman says

    I share your confusion at people’s hostility to things that they can avoid entirely and that do not impact them in the slightest. It’s a pretty common thing, though, so it doesn’t surprise me in this particular case, but the behavior generally confuses me.

  8. smhll says

    I’m fairly interested in trying out Sunday Assembly myself, but my husband would never go, not even if I baked his favorite pie and threw in other inducements.

    I agree that people who were forced to attend churches and experienced harm from religious pressure are likely to be most resistant to Sunday Assembly. Closely followed by people who don’t want to get out of bed that early.

    The idea “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go” seems unexceptionable. However, if there is a fixed number of atheist events held per week in a particular town and that number is one, then I can understand that people who would have preferred an evening event or one that is substantially different than a church service feel disappointed or “deprived” of getting the event they would prefer. (Yes, they can be encouraged to start other events.)

    Maybe one way to kindly compensate and bring in more people is to make it possible (and attractive for people) who don’t like ‘sermons’ to arrive after the sermon and still participate in coffee hour and still be a real member of the non-believer community and still be eligible to try to recruit people for hiking or bowling or drinking or debating clubs from within the group.

    I have no idea how to make it attractive to people who don’t like coffee and small talk. (I’m interesting in hearing what other people come up with.)

    For atheists who are compelled to be in the closet, it would be great to have some virtual outreach. Sometimes online ‘community’ doesn’t feel as warm, but it’s better than nothing, and it feeds the mind.

  9. says

    I see the target audience for the Sunday Assemblies as being people like me, who left religion regretfully when we found we just could not keep swallowing the bullshit. I like the singing and the fellowship and the being part of a group, I just don’t like the god stuff or mysticism. In fact, I’ve even thought of starting something like this, just not specifically tied to Sundays and a bit more diverse than just… well, assembling on Sunday.

    The effort is still in its infancy, and I hope it is given a chance to mature.

  10. Tom Phoenix says

    Atheists are often accused of having “a God-shaped hole in [their] heart” that they (we) are striving in vain to fill. Although I do not oppose SA, I fear it may provide the fuel to make some say, “See! Atheists need church too; they’re just too stubborn/sinful to admit it.”

  11. moarscienceplz says

    I have a few bad memories associated with church, but that is due to the fact that my father bought into the idea that religion was a prerequisite to a good moral code, and the fact that he was a giant asshat. I actually enjoyed the Sunday night potlucks and doing stuff with the youth group. The actual Sunday service was pretty damn boring, though.
    Structuring the Assemblies so similar to church services does seem odd to me. I think it kind of sends the message that we really are like the caricature of Nietzsche that religion apologists always prattle on about: deeply sorry that we can’t believe in God and pressing our noses to the stained glass windows like homeless children looking longingly at a toy store.
    Furthermore, holding them on Sunday morning makes it more difficult to do other weekend fun. But, of course, if enough folks really like it to keep it going, I wish them well.

  12. doublereed says

    People using Sunday Assemblies as some sort of argument against atheists is silly and bizarre. What’s the argument? “People innately like to get together and sing and stuff?” Okay. Big whoop.

    I see absolutely no reason why that should make anyone even slightly hesitate. Throw it on the pile of their transparently bullshit arguments.

  13. lanir says

    The Sunday Assemblies are atheist gatherings. I think people who identify with atheism might be used to defending it. Maybe to other people, maybe just to themselves. And if they also had antagonistic breaks with religion I can see where they could be very conflicted about whether to attack the trappings of religion or defend the idea of atheism.

    I think it’s difficult to stay quiet and be considerate of other people’s opinions when you’re conflicted like that.

  14. Loren Petrich says

    That sort of thing can be taken to absurd lengths, as philosopher Auguste Comte did in the mid 19th cy. with his Positivist “Religion of Humanity”. Its practice was a ripoff of Roman Catholic practice complete with the cassocks that its priests would wear. As a result, one critic called it Catholicism minus Christianity.

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