The Associated Press had a wire story on November 10th about the rising popularity of an atheist gathering called the Sunday Assembly. The AP report referred to it as a “mega-church”. A collective panic in the atheist movement screeched about how it wasn’t a church and how dare anyone call it that. However, If you look like a church, act like a church, and meet on a Sunday then don’t get upset when the religious majority think you are a church. This is a prime example of why using warmed over religious terms or activities and in the case of the Sunday Assembly, avoiding talking about atheism can cause confusion and hurt the atheist movement in the long term.
From the AP report:
It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Several hundred people, including families with small children, packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational talk and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.
Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
An example of the complaint about the AP’s word choice comes from Hemant Mehta at “Friendly Atheist”:
“Atheist assemblies (like the kind we’re talking about here) have dozens of members, no paid staff (except for the two overall organizers, who are currently trying to fundraise their own salaries), no pastors, no dogma you must adhere to, certainly no pastoral mansions and scandals, etc. They meet monthly (if that), not weekly. There aren’t multiple services to accommodate the masses. You just sing a few songs, listen to people talk about how amazing it is to be alive, and hopefully get inspired by that to live a better life and help your community.
The parallel to Christian megachurches just isn’t there.”
I’m not bothered that atheists attend these assemblies because we all like rituals (although this kind of “church” still isn’t my cup of tea). To me these assemblies are a more secular version of a UU church.
I hate to disagree with Hemant but if you look like a church, act like a church, and meet on a Sunday then don’t get upset when the religious majority think you are a church.
I really don’t know why these get togethers have to ape so much of the “church” experience such as meeting on Sunday, signing songs, and an inspirational message. I’ve always believed that since we don’t believe in God we shouldn’t be bound by religious conventions. If we do then we dilute what we believe in and can confuse religious people like the person who wrote the AP article.
What really bothered me about these Sunday Assemblies is something mentioned in Hemant’s post:
“Here’s the most important thing: The Sunday Assembly doesn’t even “preach atheism.” In fact, when I was asked to speak at last Friday’s inaugural event in Chicago, I was specifically told not to talk about atheism. That’s because these events aren’t about getting rid of your faith habit. They’re about celebrating life. That’s it. (Organizers in New York, who wanted to “preach atheism,” were unhappy that the Sunday Assembly shied away from that and ended up starting their own pro-atheism “Godless Revival.”) Hell, most of us who attend already know what we (don’t) believe. We don’t need constant reminders.”
If they seem to be avoiding atheism at these events then what is the point for attending them? If you can’t celebrate life without superstition and make a point of that being the reason then we are denying who we are and is as bad as when theists do it to us – like when Oprah tried to tell Diana Nyad she wasn’t an atheist in an interview.
Besides, it contradicts the statement made earlier in Hemant’s post that there are “no pastors, no dogma you must adhere to..”. Telling me I can’t “preach atheism” sounds like a pastor telling me what approved dogma is allowed.
Getting together to celebrate life and sing songs without any acknowledgement of the foundation of it all is no more of value than getting drunk at the neighborhood bar. I prefer to spend my time in my Humanist community celebrating how good my life is without superstitions and I do that every day of the week not just on a Sunday.
Maybe if these “atheists” are so afraid to be “atheists” they can borrow another label from the religious like “heretic” or “blasphemer“. I mean if we are going to be defined by the religious because we meet on a Sunday to celebrate life, sing songs, and hear an inspirational message then we should use their label for us too.
That’s why I don’t like using warmed over religious terms or activities. It causes confusion and dilutes what we stand for plus the religious will still not like us.
Being an atheist and celebrating life without superstition everyday of the week is far more empowering than the wishy washy Sunday Assembly.