In November the city of churches will add one more to its list — but its congregants won’t be bringing god with them.
The Sunday Assembly, an atheist congregation, opened its first Australian house of not-worshipping in Melbourne earlier this year. The brainchild of UK comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, it now has branches and prospective congregations across the UK and Ireland, in Texas, New York and Silicon Valley, and most recently in Australia.
“We’re a godless congregation that celebrates life for people who want to live better, help often and wonder more,” said Jones. “Our mission is a small one: to help everyone find and fulfil their full potential.”
Evans first wondered if there could ever be an “atheist church” when she stopped believing in god as a 17-year-old. “When I left the church I found it wasn’t god that I missed, but it was church,” she said. “I missed my friends, and I missed that camaraderie, and that feeling that every Sunday there was a place I could go to.”
The Sunday Assembly is attempting to give atheists and agnostics that place, and its popularity is growing by the day — pews are filling at a time when fewer than 15% of Australians are regular church-goers and “no religion” is one of the fastest-growing affiliations in the country.
Almost 100 non-believers of all ages gathered for a recent Sunday Assembly at South Melbourne Commons, where any criticism of religion or mention of god (or the lack thereof) was notably absent from proceedings.
“We’re not going to provide a platform for that,” said organiser Kathryn Murray. “We’re not going to provide a platform for people to get up and bag out on religion. We want to focus on life as this brilliant, fantastic thing that might never happen again. There might not be anything afterwards, so let’s party while we can.”
Hymns, accompanied by a live band, were sung with enthusiasm — I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash, Weather with You by Crowded House and Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash.
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Melbourne comedian and writer Catherine Deveny delivered her homily on the virtue of Winston Churchill’s edict, “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. And there were readings from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizens of the Republic” speech, among others.
All those who took the microphone spoke about the joy of human experience. It ended with a soon-bulging collection hat (for the cost of the hall) and morning tea.
Kate Taylor, who attended the gathering, grew up as a Catholic but now sees herself as a type of agnostic. For her, the Sunday Assembly strikes the right balance between atheist philosophy and church atmosphere. “I wouldn’t have come if this was just an atheist meeting,” she said. “I really like this. It’s like church, but without all the guilt and shame and persecution. They’ve taken all of the good stuff and left out the bad.”
But not everyone’s happy with the new church on the block.
According to Sanderson Jones, much of the criticism has come from fellow atheists. “You do get a lot of abuse, and we have found there are a lot of people getting upset at us,” he said. “There are a lot of militant, intolerant, fundamentalist atheists who say that the way that we don’t believe in god is not the right way to not believe in god, which is ridiculous.”
The Bible Society’s Sophie Timothy wrote that she genuinely had a good time when she attended a Sunday Assembly sermon in April, but that the group would not be sustainable in the long term as religious churches have been:
“The Christian church is a local expression of the body of Christ, not just a bunch of people with similar ideas.”
Several volunteers have put their hands up to run the Adelaide congregation, which is in the process of securing a venue for its gatherings. Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson was approached for comment.