Why we need humanist churches
London’s new “atheist church” is a good start, but if non-belief is going to start building actual communities to rival or replace religion, it’s time to get serious says Alom Shaha
I’m a science teacher, but I think I might like to have been a priest. For me, one of the best things about working in a school is belonging to a community and having a sense that I am doing something useful for it. I find a much deeper sense of fulfillment and purpose from the pastoral side of teaching than I do from telling children about the wonders of science. The highlight of my teaching year so far was when many of the students in my tutor group, when asked in an end-of-term questionnaire whether they had anyone they felt they could talk to if they had a problem, responded with “Mr. Shaha”.
One of the best teachers I know, a friend of mine, trained to be a priest. He says that the church he grew up in was “pastorally and socially lovely, we looked after each other and people outside, we weren’t inward looking”. It was his experiences as a member of this church that made him want to be a priest; attending it made him want to “serve others, because it brings joy”. My friend chose to not enter the clergy because, he claims, he “didn’t have the humility or patience”. He told me that he became a teacher instead because it was another way of serving people. He also reminded me that Jesus was, amongst other things, a teacher too.
The parallels between teacher and priest don’t end with the pastoral side of things. Priests are also required to teach their flocks – they’re supposed to have read the holy book of their religion and are expected to have studied it and thought about it more deeply; in short, they’re expected to know what they’re talking about when it comes to their religion. What they teach, ultimately, is how to make sense of the world through the prism of their particular faith.
I wish I’d had a humanist priest to talk to as I was growing up. Like many atheists, I arrived at the conclusion that I didn’t believe in God at a young age, but unlike my religious friends who had priests, rabbis and imams to talk to about their beliefs, there wasn’t an obvious person for me to turn to about this stuff. Religious people can meet the need to strengthen and deepen their faith by going to a place of worship and I think many atheists and humanists would get more out of their atheism and humanism if they could do the same. The problem is, it isn’t as easy to go along to an atheist gathering as it is to go to a church, mosque or synagogue, simply because there aren’t many atheist churches around. But that may be about to change.
On Sunday 5 January I went along to my first atheist “church service” (video here). Set up by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, The Sunday Assembly aims to be “a godless congregation that will meet on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more”.
I first heard of this via Twitter and amongst the tweets I read about it was “No. No. No” from former New Humanist deputy editor Padraig Reidy, who went on to say “It just reinforces the "atheism-is-just-as-much-of-a-religion" argument, in my view.” Padraig wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the idea and the internet was soon awash with atheists being negative about it. I think these people are missing a very important point – as David Belden put it in an article for New Humanist back in 2005, “We are a tribal species. We need communal rituals, songs to sing together, not alone in our rooms. We need ways to care for each other, inspire each other, develop ethics and teach them to our children, through stories, plays, rituals, dances, and music. Yes, you can find all these things in separate places - museums, theatre, evening classes. Why not in a single, humanist place?”
The Sunday Assembly is such a place and the service I attended was packed. It was wonderful to be surrounded by atheists who were clearly excited and happy to be there. I enjoyed the service, as did all the other people I talked to about it. It seems that it even impressed one or two Christians who had snuck in to take a look – Christian blogger Simon Jenkins has written a good summary of the event and seems to have been rather taken with it, commenting that there were “several rewarding moments when the Sunday Assembly shone and which revealed the tiredness of church as I know it” and “I think this is a place where Christians should be”.
I think Sanderson and Evans have created a wonderful thing – I really enjoyed the “service” and I am looking forward to going to the next one. However, I do have a few misgivings about the nature of the event, mainly that, despite its best efforts to emulate a church service, it felt more like a comedy show than anything else. Perhaps tellingly, Sanderson referred to “the show” instead of “the service” at one point in his routine, I mean, sermon. The emphasis on making people laugh (which is no bad thing) may, to some extent, have been inevitable considering the background of the organisers, but I hope that The Sunday Assembly might move away from being performer and entertainment driven (similar to events like Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People which has been running for five years) and become more, dare I say it, serious and thinker-driver (if that makes sense).
While it’s enjoyable to have comedians and other celebrities entertain us and perhaps provide some food for thought, we shouldn’t shy away from further emulating religious practices by having more serious discussions about what it means to live as an atheist or humanist. The people who speak at such services shouldn’t be embarrassed to stand up and say “I think I can help you make better sense of the world”. Even as I write this, I know that some readers will be enraged by such a suggestion, they’ll argue that that’s not what atheism or humanism is about, that it’s all about thinking for ourselves, but I think these people are mistaken – just like most religious people haven’t read their holy texts from cover to cover or engaged in deep theological study, I suspect that most atheists and humanists are not familiar with the rich and vast body of atheistic and humanistic philosophy out there, and could benefit from listening and engaging with those who are.
I think that, in order to lead more fulfilling lives as atheists and humanists, we need people in our lives who occupy the roles priests, imams, rabbis and so on do in the lives of religious people. There are humanist “celebrants” who can preside over birth ceremonies, weddings and funerals, but, more often than not, these people do not know the people at the ceremonies they attend. If and when I have such events in my life, I would love to have a celebrant I know personally, who is a friend and part of my community. I know there are dangers associated with having people take up such positions and I suspect many “freethinkers” would be aghast at the idea of having people “tell” them what to think, but I think we can avoid the pitfalls by being aware of them.
I’m not sure what roles Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans envisage for themselves in The Sunday Assembly, but I hope they’ll give some thought to how best they can meet the needs of their congregation – a congregation I hope to become part of. I’m disappointed that The Sunday Assembly will only be meeting on a monthly basis, I fear that this is not regular enough to build the kind of community that I, and clearly many others, want to be part of. Many atheists and humanists find communities to belong to online, indeed we want to build a strong online community here at the Rationalist Association, but I also want to be part of a humanist community in the real world. I’m hoping The Sunday Assembly becomes a place where we can learn from each other, build friendships, care for and support each other and, like Michael Jackson sang, make a little space, to make a better place.
[Photos and video link courtesy of Nimrod Kamer and Tom Bell]