Sunday Assembly is a new “atheist church” movement that’s catching fire in various places around the world – receiving accolades as well as criticism from both believers and the godless. “Fellowship, belonging and a sense of community” are three of the things that many ex-believers miss most about their former religious lives, so it’s not difficult to see why Sunday Assembly has become so popular so quickly.
Still, it’s an odd concept for some to wrap their heads around – how can you have a church without the Most Important Ingredient? Isn’t it just “playing church” at this point? Well, to a non-believer, traditional church is pretty much a very old, communal game of “let’s pretend”. All of the bells and whistles employed by mega-churches are a means to an end – freshening up the “game” to keep people from leaving in pursuit of the myriad of other distractions that modern life has to offer.
The problem is that you can only change so much of it – the programming and the rule-book for the game were last updated about 1,600 years ago. Before Twitter and Facebook, before the internet and cable television, before color television, before black and white television or even radio, before space travel and airplanes and buses and cars, before films, before silent films, before buses and cars, and before the telegraph or printing press, modern science or modern medicine. And even before that. In fact, before practically everything that surrounds us today – plus a millenium. In a world where the earth was considered flat, people believed the sun orbited the earth and the moon gave off its own light, and what we know today as mental illness was believed to be infestations of demonic beings from a fiery netherworld. Tack on the assertion that the rule-book was allegedly handed down by a heavenly being, is without error and cannot be updated or changed, and you’re not left with a whole lot that you can really update to keep up with a rapidly-changing world but eye candy. Flashing lights, a booming audiovisual system, a contemporary worship band, and lots and lots of emotion. A few little bits might be creatively reinterpreted here and there by one congregation or another, but it’s still a game played by modern people employing rules created by ancient tribes of generally-illiterate individuals who seldom, if ever, explored the world outside their own borders.
A number of atheists have rolled their eyes at the Sunday Assembly concept, but I’m not as willing to write it off. Of course, it’s not for everyone – but there’s certainly enough interest in the idea that it’s for some people. Also, what about those who, for lack of anything to replace it, continue to go through the motions at church every Sunday despite their diminished faith? It might be for them, as well. There’s the Unitarian-Universalist churches, of course, but there’s still quite a bit of emphasis of the “god-concept” there, even if in a more nebulous sense than in mainstream churches, mosques or synagogues.
I think that, if it can provide greater positive visibility for atheism in society as a whole, Sunday Assembly could be potentially a very good thing – especially in places like the United States, where non-believers are considered to be among the least trustworthy members of society. There probably could not be a better time for it, either – as Christianity in America continues to ride off the rails, with “Christ the Gentle Servant” being replaced with “Christ the Weaponized Republican Capitalist”.
Sunday Assembly is planning a first meeting in Oklahoma City this fall. I’ve submitted my RSVP, and I’ll be there to check it out.
Their official website can be found at sundayassembly.com.