What next for the atheist church?
Since it opened its doors in January the Sunday Assembly, also known in the press as the Atheist Church, has gained hundreds of congregants, acres of press coverage and a lot of criticism, much of it from atheists. Here Sanderson Jones, co-creator of the Assembly, answers our questions about what’s happened so far and where it’s all going
Rationalist Association: Hi Sanderson. We're not quite sure how to address you. Are you an atheist priest, a godless pastor, or what?
Sanderson Jones: We are wondering about the terminology and quite like the idea of the person at the front being the host. It's friendly, welcoming. The one problem is the association with the heavenly host, which is not the link we are making.
On the whole we are pretty wary of titles. The wrong title could lead swiftly to long robes, silly hats and this sort of thing. Also, I need zero encouragement in this area. I am a massive Lady Gaga fan and love dressing up, so give me an inch and I'll have an outfit that would make Ziggy Stardust say: "Ooooh, that's a bit much".
RA: Have you had negative reactions from atheists who don’t want to be seen as just another religion?
SJ: Yes. There have been those criticisms, but there’s more chance of water buying a house on a duck’s back than that annoying me. Being against the Sunday Assembly because religious people will then accuse atheism of being a religion seems as though you’re letting your enemies define your behaviour.
I know atheism isn’t a religion. You know atheism isn’t a religion. That’s the end of that argument.
The criticism I got most upset by was Rory Fenton’s who said that the positive message of the Sunday Assembly was similar to the sort of "Wish for it and it will happen" tripe that The Secret promotes.
Not at all. I love the work of Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre and flinch when I hear someone say “I’m a naturopath”. Any positive thinking must be married to lots of hard work and a bit of luck.
RA: Your slogan is "Live better, help often and wonder more". How will you aid your ‘flock" in doing this?
SJ: We are working on that. For a start having things in your mind already helps you do them. That’s why advertisers pay mega-bucks to repeat things to you. They want you to have it front of mind. It has started to work for me. For instance, as I was riding my bike up the Kingsland Road and I knocked over a bollard. In the past I would have sailed on serenely but, instead, I thought “Come on SJ, help often. What would it be like if everyone did that?”
Corporations pay millions to take over your brain. Why not come along to Sunday Assembly to hear positive messages that you choose to have in your head?
RA: Priests and other religious pastors get training – do you think you, or other non-religious pastors, should be trained?
SJ: Pretty much anyone, in any job, gets better with some training.
RA: Outside of actual services priests provide pastoral care and a support for their parishioners – do you intend to provide this?
SJ: So many things that the church does are there because they answer basic human needs. And sometimes you need someone to talk to about your problems. If we find a model that lets us support that sort of pastoral care, then it would be wonderful to provide it.
I was having a lunch with a vicar called Dave (this sort of thing happens to me quite often now). He is super. He told me that he has two parishioners, both retired psychotherapists, who would lend a hand when pastoral care crossed the line into something more serious. I was delighted to tell him, there’s already one psychotherapist who wrote in to us saying she would like to help out in that way.
RA: Do you have plans to grow? How?
SJ: There was always a plan for there to be a network of Sunday Assemblies, we just didn’t think expect the demand would be so great. Since our first service, just 6 weeks ago, over 170 people have got in touch asking to start their own Assemblies.
We’re working on something that should enable that to happen. Now, we want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy The Sunday Assembly. But we also want to give everyone who goes to a Sunday Assembly has the real honest to goodness Sunday Assembly experience.
The plans we're putting together should enable us to fulfil both of those criteria. Something that will allow folks to customise their own Assembly – choose the songs, find local speakers, pick awesome readings – while making sure that it stays true to the life celebrating spirit of the London party (I think we should use the word "party" more).
There’ll be more news in a couple of weeks, an awesome Kickstarter campaign in a month or so and, hopefully, super fun, get-togethers of like-minded people happening by May.
RA: What do you think of Alom Shaha’s argument that the church needs to have less comedy/performance and be more serious about ideas?
SJ: We are 100 per cent onboard with that. He saw our first show (ha, that is how much of a reflex comedy is, I used the word “show” not “service”). He saw our first service, when our instincts got the better of us. The second show (I did it again – old habits…). The second service was definitely less funny.
On the other hand, I do think that Sunday Assembly has to be fun and entertaining. We don’t have heaven and hell to get people in, so it can’t be dry. The larger goal is long term personal change and impact on the community, but the congregation should get immediate gratification from the first service.
RA: What can the Sunday Assembly learn from religion?
SJ: We want to learn loads of things from religion but learn it in an evidence-based manner. People pray and feel good. Why is it that believing in God helps athletes perform better? But what is happening then? What is the power of internal enquiry? What’s the way to do it best? Our goal is to collect the best evidence-based tips, tools and techniques from all sources that will help turbo-charge your life.
The psychotherapist who got in touch (she also wants to start an Assembly), says that she’s always been frustrated that these high-performance techniques are out of the reach of normal people, who simply want to make their lives better. The NHS looks after people with severe problems, but the only the rich, or top flight sports people, can afford to use science to get ahead.
RA: Are religious people welcome?
SJ: Yes they are. There will never be any hint of the supernatural in what they will hear at the Sunday Assembly, but if they want to celebrate life, sing cracking songs and enjoy a cup of tea with lovely people, then come on down.
I was thinking about this very thing, recently, and in so doing I came up with an atheist version of Pascal’s Wager (it might have been written somewhere before, but I haven’t seen it), which I shall dub “Sanderson’s Wager”.
It would look something like this:
In the absence of firm evidence for any particular God, why not to live your life as though it is the only one you have? Every moment will be sweeter, every minute more precious. Then, if there is a God, they will doubly reward you for living a good life without the bribe of heaven, or the threat of hell.
RA: Some people have made the accusation that the church is simply self-promotion for you, to boost your comedy career. How do you respond?
SJ: Mostly with: Ha ha ha ha ha. I have had to quit most of my comedy work in order to go full time on the Sunday Assembly, my regular show Comedy Sale London is on hold, and just last week I told two producers I couldn’t work with them because I was busy starting a church. My agent is mystified.
It is bizarre how life pans out. Five years ago I was working as an ad salesman, and the thought of earning my living from comedy seemed a fantasy. Now, just as things are starting to happen, this goddamn godless congregation takes over my life. No god works in mysterious ways.
RA: How can people help out if they want?
SJ: If people do want to help please get in touch here. Due to ridiculous demand it looks like we’re going to have to scale up fast. Luckily, the internet has never made it easier for that to happen.
One idea is to run the Sunday Assembly like Wikipedia. To turn the organization inside out and to let it self-assemble. So, if you have a skill and want to help out, please get in touch. If your skill is in crowdsourcing digital teams really get in touch.