How to Build an Atheist Church: Day 3, how atheist should our assembly be?
Sanderson Jones blogs about The Sunday Assembly as a celebration of life, and how people from all faiths are welcome
How atheist should our Assembly be? The short answer to that is: not very. The Sunday Assembly has gone round the world in double quick time because the tag "Atheist Church" (Pippa will write next about the double-edged sword of that label) but we only really use the word just to let people know that there will be no supernatural or theistic elements in The Sunday Assembly.
In our ideal world we could just call ourselves a celebration of life, and folk would just assume there was no god involved. This choice is very reflective of the environment Pippa and I live in. We’re stand up comedians who do comedy shows to the sort of audiences where non-belief is assumed. Fully none of my friends go to church, and those that aren't atheist, would be some form of “I think, there’s something out there. Probably?” agnostic (there’ll be a blog post later in the series on Sunday Assembly in different cultures (I say different cultures, it’ll mostly be about the US)).
But if there’s no god that makes it atheist! – I hear you cry (wow! You've got a loud voice. And you scream at your computer? Weird). Yes it does, technically. We just don’t talk about what we don’t believe in but what we do. That makes you humanist! – I hear you cry (what’s with the shouting at the screen?). Yes it does, technically. But, and I feel bad writing this on the Rationalist website, the word humanist means nothing to most people. Sorry.
Not believing in God is not why my heart frequently wants to beat out of my chest, and my breath gets short, as I contemplate the sheer wonder of being alive. Not believing in God is not what sends joyous waves of physical sensation crashing across my mind. Not believing in God is not what turns a mouthful of Macchi Masala fish curry at Mama India’s curry house into a nigh-on transcendental experience. No, that is the realization that for the next 50 years (death at 82 would be fine), I will be an alive human with the ability to love, and laugh, and sing, and think, and feel, and eat fish curry.
We want to celebrate that life. It is what makes your matter matter.
And those are all things that you can talk about without saying that God doesn't exist. We can certainly talk about all of this without mocking people who believe in God. Quick survey: what do Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, Galileo, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I – OK, I'm going to stop listing incredibly smart people who believed in God now, but I think you get my point.
That’s not to say that I haven’t been the mickey taking type of atheist in the past, but it seems boring now. I lost God but, in return, I was given life. This one life that we know we have lived more vibrantly, intensely and blissfully than ever before. Indeed, I find that the happier I am to simply be alive, the happier I am in life. It becomes a virtuous circle: the more you love life, the more that love pours out of you, the more people feel that love, the more it reflects back to you. Let’s talk about that, and not take potshots at the beliefs of 95% of the humans that ever existed.
What does this mean if you’re trying to organize an Assembly? It means being aware that The Sunday Assembly welcomes people of all beliefs (our Brighton Assembly is being organized by a Christian), we just come from the point of view of there being no god. The distinction is subtle but vital.
Tune in next time for Pippa on “Why the label ‘The Atheist Church’ holds us back”.