THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


In the Know & in the Pews

Joy, Irony & the Rise of Atheist Church

by Houston Davidson

published November 26, 2013


Society for Ethical Culture 64th Street, Central Park West.

250 people are standing up in pews. Clapping. The demographic is that of the controlled diversity of an evangelical movement: young and old, healthy and sick, jovial and somber, mainly white. In the background on stage-left is a small band of department store flannel twenty-somethings. In the foreground stand a man and a woman. They are leading the crowd in a Powerpoint-assisted, atonal rendition of Kings of Leon’s 2008 hit Use Somebody. The crowd, average age 60 or so, has just hit the wordless refrain. The man and woman on stage thrash about like summer camp counselors at a camp-wide sing-a-long. Their names are Sanderson and Pippa. They are the founders of Sunday Assembly, the fastest growing Atheist church in the world.

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Prior to founding Sunday Assembly, English stand-up comedian Sanderson Jones’s primary gig was running a traveling production known as ComedySale.Com. The show’s gimmick involved conducting preliminary investigations into the social media lives of audience members in order to heap wry abuse upon them in front of strangers. Hardly one for pew-humor, Sanderson’s joke topics included semen dealers and the joy of simultaneously purchasing a copy of the bible and “Anal Adventurers 5” on Amazon. Pippa Evans had made her name skewering self-help groups in a schizophrenic solo-show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Later, she had a comedic hit in her “Loretta Maine” character, a send-up of a fallen, alcohol-frazzled Americana country pop star. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find more unlikely prophets.

Sunday Assembly began on a road trip. The two comedian pals were heading to a show in Bath, England two years back when, in a boredom-induced epiphany, they decided they would “like to do something like church for people who didn’t believe in god but did believe in good.” This line appears in almost all Sunday Assembly interviews, videos, and services. Both Sanderson and Pippa identified as atheists but harbored nostalgia for church as a place to find community, participate in uplifting rituals, and feel intimately connected to a larger enterprise. They wagered that there would be many more atheists like them: turned off by God-speak but eager to attend something like an “atheist church.”

Atheist community organizations are nothing new. Societies for skeptics, humanists, atheists, and secularists abound. Typically, these community organizations offer lectures, community service trips, and occasional social events. What makes Sunday Assembly and its “atheist church” model unique is the way it explicitly and unabashedly appropriates the ritualistic and aesthetic trappings of religious church. In a New York Times editorial, the two write: “church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad...A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”

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The Sunday Assembly first assembled this past January, occupying unoccupied churches around London. Stage veterans Sanderson and Pippa ran these events as priestly comedians, uninhibited and in control of the crowd. Almost immediately, the turnout far exceeded expectations, confirming the co-founder’s hypothesis that atheist church would be more than a fleeting gag.

Before launching, the co-founders wrote a charter. The values in the charter succinctly voice why atheist church could be more appealing than atheist living room. The charter claims that Sunday Assembly has no doctrine (meaning no set texts), no deity (“but we won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do”), is inclusive to everyone (“regardless of religious belief”), free and volunteer-run, dedicated to community service, and not prescriptive of any lifestyle choices. Finally, the charter highlights the Sunday Assembly’s mission to provide a place for quotidian solace when “life can be tough” and  “provoke kindness and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday”.

To join Sunday Assembly, local groups would have to sign the charter. This was no longer to be exclusively the Sanderson & Pippa show. Soon, chapters popped up all over England, from Manchester to Bristol. Outside of the UK, the first Sunday Assemblies sprouted up in Melbourne, New York City and Los Angeles in June, July, and August respectively. Sanderson predicts 2013 will end with forty running Assemblies. Currently, the site’s forum has threads from six continents, run by Atheists looking to forge their own Assemblies. From Stockholm to Lima, Capetown to Silicon Valley, Atheists are looking to “live better, help often, wonder more”—the Sunday Assembly motto.    

Of course, it would take more than a charter to realize the Sunday Assembly’s vision of a global network of atheist churches. The charter had to become a seat of a more fine-tuned brand and elaborate institutional structure. Behold: Gone is the soggy, green-clover logo of the old Sunday Assembly. In its place, an etched isosceles triangle with a sans serif typeface overlaid upon warmly-lit shots of young faces with grins that are part goofy, part ecstatic. 

This idea of the Sunday Assembly “brand” highlights a crucial fact: Sunday Assembly, despite its meta-generic name, is an organization borrowing the institutional structure of a branched church. The co-founders, for their part, understand “atheist church” as borrowing the ceremonial form of a progressive protestant church service. Yet Sunday Assembly’s growth plan suggests that “atheist church” could also be understood to resemble an atheist version of a large evangelical mega-church. The founders demand that member organizations identify as a Sunday Assembly “City,” use the provided branding materials, use approved “themes” for the individual Assemblies, and report their progress back to the central Sunday Assembly operation. This, of course, with the 21st century imperative of an active social media front. 

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The first reader of the night ascends the stage with a ukulele. In an affectedly tender voice—a hybrid between yoga instructor and grade school teacher—she asks the audience if anybody has ever heard of “Stone Soup.” The congregation issues a slightly disingenuous sympathy in their assent. Then, reading with the gentle but sinister charisma of the Leader’s Wife, she quickly evacuates the room of the residual irony of Sanderson’s cheeky shenanigans. Precious ukulele noodlings usher in the story’s platitudinous-pushing-sappy message.

Disarmed by Sanderson and prepared by the psychic cues of the secular-holy interior filled with patient-listening faces, my cynicism is fading. The stupidity of the reading is irrelevant. Critical intelligence is suspended. The tenderness in the room feels and is meant to feel holy. 

The second reader begins her speech by querying the congregation for a childhood spent on a farm. Three of 250 raise their hand. Unruffled, she modifies her question to see who has “visited” a farm. The whole room raises their hand. “Lovely.”

What follows is a lengthy secular sermon. She exhorts the audience to return to the values of a pastoral lifestyle in which everybody “plants and harvests their seeds.” She is milking these metaphors for all they’re worth. After a non sequitir tirade against “agro-corporations,” she shifts away from a back-to-the-farm imaginary—that in this NYC context amounted to little more than Whole Foods romanticism—to extolling the importance of making everyday ethical decisions. Her speech is vacuum-sealed against ironic contamination.

Within moments of the conclusion, Sanderson leaps to the stage, lets fly a string of prosaic jokes, and has the assembly on its feet, ready to meet each other via an assembly-wide round of Danish Clapping. The atmosphere has grown giddy

We are having fun. I am having fun.

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Only several months after their founding, coverage of the Sunday Assembly appeared in all major print publications in the UK and US.  Of this coverage, almost all of it asks the same question: Is Atheism a religion now?

Something specious runs through the media treatment of Sunday Assembly. The tone in these interviews, often underhanded and smug, is frequently paired with leading questions and a patronizing lack of concern for Sunday Assembly’s own formulations of its work. Interviewers press Sanderson in thinly veiled, rude ways. RT, the Russian network, sent television reporters to report on this “bizarre new phenomena of atheist youth getting up on Sunday morning and going to church.” In an interview on the same station, a talking head cynically employs Sanderson to say that “atheists are a religion because they have an epistemology, a worldview.” A BBC reporter openly scoffs at Sanderson’s “big claim” that Sunday Assembly could change the world. 

Still, we cannot dismiss the question of Sunday Assembly’s religiosity. After all, Sunday Assembly brings together mega-church organization, ritual, use of service leaders (the “MC”), quasi-theological notions— “wonder,” “awe,” and “everyday transcendence”— and Sagan-like rhetoric that asks us to “imagine if we combined inspiration, technology, and community to achieve dizzying new heights of human potential.”

To this charge, Sunday Assembly offers a two-part response. First, the Assembly has no “faith.” By “faith,” the founders mean a logically unfounded belief in a god-like entity with transcendent status. Sunday Assembly, as the charter states, “doesn’t do supernatural.” Faith, in this view, works as a first principle for constituting a religion. One reporter does suggest that Sunday Assembly has its own faith, a “faith that there’s nothing out there.” But for Sunday Assembly, a lack of explicit mentions of God, paired with questioning assumptions, means no religion. 

Second, to draw an aesthetic distinction between dour, drama-prone faith and atheism, Sanderson spins a kind of cheery existentialism. The first point of the Charter is that “Sunday Assembly is 100 percent celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.” 

Yet there is a critical deficiency in Sanderson’s answer. It doesn’t deal with the Atheists who charge Sunday Assembly with heresy.

Nobody has more viciously criticized atheist church than the so-called New Atheists. Well known for its incendiary figureheads, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, New Atheism focuses on direct, often polemic, criticisms of religion. It is philosophically characterized by either logicism (the belief that all truth can be deduced from formal logical reasoning) or materialism (the belief that matter is the only real thing and therefore the foundation for our moral and epistemological universe). This is the camp that dichotomizes rational evidence-based science against irrational faith-based religion. New Atheists view the appropriation of the congregational model and rituals as intellectual treason; a critical lack of fortitude in the fight against religious dogma.

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Having completed the origin story, Sanderson ratchets up the enthusiasm. “There are going to be readings!” The crowd cheers. “We are going to sing awesome songs!” The crowd cheers. “There is going to be a moment of silence!” The crowd balks. A strange dilatory wry laugh bubbles up and Sanderson, astutely perceptive of the sudden sense of discomfort, diffuses by reminding the audience that he sees how the moment of silence might seem “a little bit funny”. Then he laughs and we laugh too.

What Sanderson is doing is crystal clear: He is playing religion. His hyper-saturated camp-councilor shtick constitutes a bizarre portrait of the self-aware evangelist. He is cognizant of the tropes of church and how Sunday Assembly uses these, making self-effacing references to these elements throughout. In so doing he performs for the crowd a constant dispelling of their cynical intellectual urge to sit atop the service and witness its similitude in form to a religious service. The audience can’t sit outside for the very reason that Sanderson is already there. Here lies the essential dynamic of Sunday Assembly. It is the subversion of the classic religious cult problematic: Does the leader of the cult believe in the dogma or is his belief strategic (e.g. a bid for power)? Put simply, does the leader drink the kool-aid? 

Nobody understands this better than Sanderson and Pippa. Sanderson’s twitter feed is awash with ironic references to this exact dynamic. In a response tweet to an Atheist critic, he riffs on an insinuation that his beard is cultish: “People with massive beards have something to hide…Yeah, their massive dicks.” In the crowdfunding video, Pippa sweetly says “It’s not a cult” and then there is a jump cut to a toga-clad Pippa spilling a chalice of wine over a submissively kneeling, and shirtless Sanderson’s mouth: “But that’s exactly what we’d say if we were a cult,” the two recite in a sinister monotone cult voice. The breakdown of the money to be crowdfunded has a list of things they won’t be purchasing: “compounds in Nevada, assault rifles, a celebrity centre, ceremonial robes, sacrificial altars, and a shrine to Sanderson Jones”. We get it: they get it.

In performing self-awareness through comedy, Sunday Assembly preempt critique. This self-awareness, however, is a tightrope act. Sunday Assembly’s success rests crucially upon an ability to switch between segregated rhetorical registers, ironic & hyper-sincere. The ironic is used to protect hyper-sincere values (e.g. Assembly themes like “awe, harvest, community”) enshrined in the charter that brought the Assemblers out of hiding and into their seats from cynicism, both internal and external. At no point does Sanderson as acting “MC” riff on the readings or the contributions of the congregants. Bitterness is not permitted. 

This practice of irony is how Sunday Assembly can block out the New Atheists. They nod politely to the critics, and then wink to the congregants. In a clever prodding of New Atheism, Sanderson and Pippa conclude their New York Times editorial with an over-the-top ironic call-to-prayer: “Now, please, close your eyes, open your hearts and join me in a prayer to Richard Dawkins.” Sunday Assembly wants to change the polemic face Dawkins and friends have given atheism. While atheism’s current face scowls and scoffs, the new face of Atheism will smile and wink.

Nowhere in Sunday Assembly formal documents is there a rule that stipulates that the MC of the assembly shall be a comedian. Irony isn’t codified, though the comedic voice of the founders reliably shows up in the more authoritarian sections of the charter to make light of the structure. Wondering about this, I tweeted at Pippa.

Houston Davidson @houstondavidson

@IAmPippaEvans Hi. Q about @SundayAssembly, What happens if MC is not funny? Could the SA get too serious? What do @sandersonjones & you do?

sandersonjones @sandersonjones

@houstondavidson @IAmPippaEvans @SundayAssembly luckily the speakers, address and reading are all entertaining. Its important they are.

Houston Davidson @houstondavidson

@sandersonjones @IAmPippaEvans @SundayAssembly Is there a process that guarantees this?is a certain kind of empathetic irony necessary?thks! 

Pippa Evans @IAmPippaEvans

@houstondavidson @sandersonjones @SundayAssembly it’s about being entertaining, rather than belly laughs. Puncturing tension with humour.

Both of these answers evade the question. Sanderson says it’s important for the “speakers, address, and reading” to be entertaining. Surely, if told they were going to be hearing stone soup read aloud, 200 college-educated adults wouldn’t bother showing up to Sunday Assembly. When Pippa says that the goal of the MC is “puncturing tension with humor,” she hits the nail on the head. Though she doesn’t name this tension, it is precisely the tension I’ve described: the tension of people cynical about religion performing religion-like services uncynically.

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The Assembly has ended. I descend quickly into the windowless basement to privately and prematurely profit from the Assembly’s obligatory “tea & cake” reception. As I make to leave, I see Sanderson standing bouncer in the central doorframe. He shakes my hands like a can of shaving cream. I ask about an interview. His response, both effusive and dismissive: “I hope you liked the show”.

I boogie to catch the last bus to Providence.

HOUSTON DAVIDSON B’14 let the collections bin pass but hasn’t ruled out crowdfunding.