On the Sunday Assembly

On January 19th I got up earlier than I would have liked for a Sunday, downed a mug of tea and headed to Holborn to check out the Sunday Assembly at Conway Hall.

I’ll say it at the start and I’ll probably have to say it at the end – this isn’t just criticism. It’s my experience, it’s what I thought and felt. I’m sure it’s valuable to people – the hall wouldn’t fill up otherwise. I’ve seen people express interest so I’ll share my thoughts – people are most welcome to their own.

Not because I thought that would be a fun thing to do, but because I had a visitor who wanted to check it out. Equally, not for fun, but as a journalist. I thought it might at least be interesting, given the theme for the day was “brains” – brains are cool, and certainly fascinating. Why not?

Well, the reason I don’t go to these things is because I don’t feel like I need to; what benefit would I derive from what is essentially a church service that just happens to not be in a church and lacks mention of a god? I was never forced to church as a child (thanks, mum ‘n’ dad) and the collective acts of worship I was required to attend at school only ever made me quite uncomfortable.

People preaching to me (even if I actually agree with them) isn’t something I enjoy, so why voluntarily go in for it? Makes more sense to stay at home, have a bit of a lie in, watch The Big Questions with a big mug of tea and in a mild rage, then get on with some housework.

I livetweeted my experience, which was met with a mixture of “oh that sounds as awful as I expected!” and “that’s what I thought” across to “what’s your problem, people are having fun, leave it”. Which is all fair. Some of my posts were quite snarky but, honestly, I was terrified – beforehand, and very much during. I just found it really intimidating – for the above reasons, it’s just not my scene.

Particularly when it started properly. After finding a seat high up with a direct view to the stage, where there was a screen showing the London Assembly’s logo/slogan and a band off to one side, the music began. Sanderson Jones – the… convenor? – then began clapping and pretty much everyone joined in straight away. They stood up. Karaoke I’m So Excited. I was excited in a scared sort of way. We remained seated, although wary of being odd-ones-out.

Then people were jumping. To a karaoke song! On a Sunday morning! How confusing. The song finished, but straight into the next one: Daft Punk – Get Lucky. They altered the chorus slightly to make it “a bit less creepy” – replacing the original “he’s/she’s/I’m” pronouns with “we’re”.

We’re up all night ’til the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky…

Repeat almost literally ad nauseam. Not that I’m uncomfortable with songs about sex – sex is great! And being a fuzzy godless liberal, one is perfectly allowed to express such sentiments (slut-shaming problems aside), although the precise implications of the Daft Punk lyrics aren’t without issues. It’s catchy for the tune and nothing else, for me. But this was the kind of awkward that occurs when you’re watching a film with your parents then some characters are suddenly naked and squirming and making grunty noises. Why is this mishmash room full of people of all ages singing a song about shagging..?

Something else that bothered me the whole way through was the fact that we were being filmed from a variety of angles. Not even on mobile phones or little handheld camcorders, but giant balance-on-your-shoulder Proper Cameras. I hope we don’t stick out like a sore thumb, sitting among the revelers, with my pale apprehensive face.

Speaking of pale faces, the room was overwhelmingly white. I suppose there are a number of reasons for that – central London, other things I haven’t considered. Plenty other groups suffer the same lack of diversity – it would be good to address it positively, but I don’t have the answers myself.

We had a little skit from a couple of guys that imagined aliens speaking about animal life on Earth, and particularly humans, surprised that “meat” could do all we do, especially talk. It was quite well-done, I like sci-fi and I enjoyed it.

Sam Nightingale, a neurologist, gave a talk about the relative infancy of neuroscience, the general brilliance of the human brain, and closed with an inspiring speech praising our squishy thought generators (my phrase).

The next karaoke special was something by Elvis. This was followed by a moving and fascinating talk from a woman called Lotje, who had a brain haemorrhage at age 32 but survived – only she lost her memories and verbal abilities. Having re-learned a lot of what we take for granted, she still cannot read, but has a healthy appreciation for her brain regardless. What it’s been through, how much she has recovered, and how beautiful the world seems to her every day. Very humbling.

We were all invited to take part in some “silent reflection” which felt very much like the “let us pray” moment at school. I found that strange – it wasn’t for anything in particular, just to be generally “thankful”. I’ve no issue with silences performed out of respect, but again it was the context that made it uncomfortable for me.

At the end several collection vessels were passed around and a surprising amount of people were clutching £5 notes. There’s no required contribution, I’m not sure exactly what they’re collecting for – some explanation would have been nice. I’m told the group tries to be very open about their finances but we agreed with each other that this seemed strange. If your aim is to be as helpful in a community as church groups often are, why not elaborate? There was a short talk from a guy who, separately, takes part in Casserole Club, but no indication we were funding it, more of a recruitment drive.

So, as I said at the start, most of this isn’t even criticism really, it’s just that I felt immensely uncomfortable being there. On their own, each of the things wouldn’t bother me, or I’d actively enjoy them.

Of course I like celebrating science and humanity – that’s why I consider myself a humanist, I go to science talks/lectures of an evening for fun, I go to Skeptics in the Pub and things like Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People (I was even in it!!). I go to Conway Hall often for various events, but never feel as out of place there as I did that Sunday.

The difference at those other events, I feel, is that there’s no expectation of overt and uniform enjoyment and agreement. Everyone who attends does so as an individual, no one tells you what to do or think (indeed discussion is generally the most fun bit) and invitations to be full of wonder aren’t accompanied by an applause prompt or followed by a sing-song.

If you like that sort of thing…

I love music and singing. I love gigs, and jumping around to songs can be good fun. Just not so much when standing in a hall full of clapping folks singing along to a rendition of a pop song, led by a slightly awkward (although very talented)  karaoke aficionado on-stage with a man doing big encouraging over-head claps at the crowd. I guess you have to be there.

It’s great to encourage people to make an effort, to better themselves, to help out where they can. I’m just not sure a branded get together helps with that in any real way besides making attendees feel like they’re part of a community – which again in itself is no bad thing, I like the communities I’ve joined. I don’t feel like they expect me to act a certain way at events, though, and none of those things I like feel like church – but this did.

To quote the 9 Lessons creator himself:

[NB: typos top/to, between/be]

Therein lies my problem. As a pretty-much-always godless person, I feel no need to bring church into my life. All the cringeworthy groupthink and [Edit: WP has deleted the rest of this sentence for me; I'm not sure what else I said. Something more about communities probably]. Some might feel a form of it is missing, or enjoy finding it – no problem. I just find it strange, too, that the model is the same.

If you do feel like you need a church, but not the God stuff, I guess the Sunday Assembly might be for you. They might not call it an atheist church but that’s really what it is. Will it suffer the same fate as those that have gone before? We’ll see.

Links

  • My Storify from the day – scared tweets!
  • Andrew Watts went to this same service and has shared his experience via the Spectator; he has his own faith and was surprised someone asked him about it at SA.
  • Alom Shaha‘s original piece on his experience, though he says “My thoughts have moved on since then” – good to read the comments, too.
  • @MrRegars seems to have had a similar experience to me but also enjoyed finding out why some others were there.
  • Simon Clare writes “In Defence of Sunday Assembly” (not that my aim was to make this an attack…) from his Brighton perspective.
  • Simon Clare resigns from the Brighton Sunday Assembly due to double standards and financial issues relating to the London founding group
  • Alex Gabriel discusses the new call for full-time SA interns on £20/week (in Central London…)

16 Responses to “On the Sunday Assembly”

  1. ashleyjamespryce Says:

    I have never been keen on going, but your review as well as other comments I’ve seen elsewhere really put me off. I’ve gone from confused to indifferent to now absolutely put off.

    • noodlemaz Says:

      Do share links if you have more reviews, I’ll add them above!

      I’m not intending to put anyone off but perhaps save people very much of the same mindset as me the trouble of sitting through it to confirm assumptions. Some people clearly enjoy it… whatever floats yer boat.

  2. A. Cuerden Says:

    I take it the sketch was this? http://www.terrybisson.com/page6/page6.html

    Frankly, it sounds dreadful – Outside of Lotje, who I’d like to hear, but, y’know, that’s what Skeptics at the Pub is for.

  3. Randy Says:

    It’s early days. I think the whole point of Sunday Assembly is that it seems more like an atheist community effort to do good (charity work, pastoral care, etc) than to line their pockets with cash as a private enterprise. c.f. http://www.theschooloflife.com/ Which is a private company lining their pockets. Hats off to them for trying to put the humans back into Humanism.

  4. Tim M (@schmerg) Says:

    Sounds like the uncomfortable feeling I have whenever someone trying to build “a community” starts actually trying to assemble “a mob” (intentionally or not). A mob is actually easier to assemble, but is more dangerous, and while it can be easier to assemble and herd, it’s much harder to control or direct in that it reacts in chaotic ways (meaning butterfly-wings type chaotic – a few small nudges in the right spot whether intended or not, from inside, outside, above or below can have major effects).

    One of the things that sticks in the mind was when I was a schoolkid, we had a “performance poet/mime” come in and give an extended assembly to an audience that was largely skeptical of anything sounding like mime & poetry. As he started to engage with us, and win a few of us over, he then started some “audience participation” activities with a subversive bent.

    “Right, you’re all just sitting there… who’d rather be outside, come on, hands up… oh, you’re nervous about the teachers seeing you, right so who’d rather be up here … no, tell you what, everyone stand up.. now let’s get it so the teachers can’t see who’s not liking this, everyone shout yeah, come on, everyone, they can’t tell you off… I’ve been invited here to do this and I’m telling you to do it so, come on… one two three.. shout THIS SUCKS… not half of you, let’s try that again, I want to hear you all THIS SUCKS …”

    As the whole crowd joined gradually joined in, he reinforced the behaviour, encouraged everyone on their feet, and gradually turned us into a mob… “Shout POETRY SUCKS…. now turn to the person next to you and shout POETRY IS FOR WIMPS… now turn to someone else and shout TEACHERS ARE IDIOTS” and then, just as we all got swept up, he started to twist it to something nasty (I think it was something like “why are we all stuck in here, LETS GO STEAL THE TEACHERS STUFF FROM THEIR COMMON ROOM” or “LETS BEAT UP THE POETRY STUDENTS”) and then BANG – stopped everything dead in its tracks (lights came on, stunned silence in the room).

    And then explained how we’d become a mob, how it was unlikely that we’d actually go and raid the teachers common room or whatever it was that he’d climaxed with telling us to do, but showing how we’d been swept up into a frenzied mob, even those of us, especially those of us who didn’t really agree but were joining in out of peer pressure and thereby lending legitimacy to the whole thing.

    And that was the real point of why he’d been invited in, to talk about mob dynamics, to offer us the insight to look at when what seems to be “a crowd” starts becoming a mob, either with or without a visible leader. To encourage us to step away from our immediate experience and to look at it from the outside, and to avoid being swept up in something that could be dangerous and against our own moral values.

    Anyway, long anecdote more easily told in person, but what I read in your description is that trepidation, that the techniques being used are, not necessarily maliciously, those used to assemble mobs. The sorts of things that people look back on afterwards and say they must have been subjected to “group hypnosis” or “brainwashing”.

    I’d perhaps recommend Alain De Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” (for anyone who hasn’t read it) as a list of things that we *can* take from religious practices & structures such as scheduling a regular time for contemplation rather than trying to fit in in where we can – it sounds to me like the Sunday Assembly is trying to achieve this, but is bringing too many of the groupthink herding practices that have built numbers elsewhere. I’d share your discomfort with that…

    • noodlemaz Says:

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for this, it’s really interesting. I think you’re right that the almost-mob-mentality is a big part of what can make some of us feel uncomfortable in that kind of situation.

      I hate panto, find it tacky and irritating – perhaps because of that cheesey audience participation element. I don’t think it’s universally a bad thing (it can be done well), but context is everything!

  5. Andrew Maynard (@2020science) Says:

    Thanks for writing this up Marianne – extremely interesting. I’ve experienced most types of church service, and your account both sounded extremely close to many services I’ve been in (I guess that’s part of the aim), and also captured very well many of the reasons why I feel so uncomfortable in them. It’s not just the God bit, but everything around it – including preaching, and to some extent the communal singing, pushing someone else’s ideas on you. And the anxiety of either joining the crowd doing things you don’t necessarily want to – or not joining in and sticking out: been there!

    I can fully understand the ideas behind the movement – including creating community and providing non-religious social support. But I would worry that there is too much emulation here without founding substance – a bit cargo cult-ish in that respect. Long lasting church communities survive because they have well established values and aims, and the expression of these grows from them. Where you have the trappings of something without the reasons why those trappings are there, you lack the substance that’s needed for long term sustainability.

    But maybe I’m wrong – good on the movement and it’s members for trying something different.

    • noodlemaz Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Andrew.

      I also understand where it comes from. I know there are people who have a church-shaped hole to fill, whether they realise it or not, and that this can have value for some. My intention wasn’t to rubbish it as a waste of time or something that should be stopped – just sharing my experience!

      Equally I’ve had some comments saying it would be extremely traumatic, having gone to e.g. Baptist services as a child. So it depends very much on personal experience, I think, as to what kind of impact this set-up would have. Hopefully none of those people who would have a really adverse reaction will find themselves there – which is maybe where these shared experiences could help!

  6. noodlemaz Says:

    Anonymous comment from a friend (atheism isn’t something everyone can share with the world, yet!) that I think really adds to the post:

    “I went to the first SA up here with friends at Nottingham skeptics…
    In a word: cringe.

    – Forced fun is not my thing (we had to play some silly thigh slapping game).
    – Standing up and singing was weird. I would have preferred just listening to the very good band play some songs
    – The talks were interesting…but felt weird not having a Q&A! Perhaps due to the sort of talks we normally go to. I especially didn’t agree with the “sermon” (stop using social media, and go out with your friends instead. Which, as I met many of my IRL friends through social media, I obviously didn’t agree with).

    What I did like:
    – Chatting with strangers after the service. That was nice.
    We’ve even thought about skipping the service, and just turning up when it finishes to socialise.

    In summary, I’m with you: It’s not for me. I don’t need it.
    But I acknowledge that I don’t need it as I have other communities to hang out with like minded people.

    And I acknowledge that this is a “godsend” for some. This was brought home to me by one of the conversations I had with strangers after the service. I was totally blown away by this conversation, and now completely understand who SA is for.

    There was an Asian family there (mum, dad, 4 kids aged 10-20-ish). I made a point of speaking to them as I am usually the only Asian face at these type of events. [Ed: See link in the post to @MrRegars post]

    They had been secret atheists for ages. When the dad’s dad died recently, he finally announced to the community that he was an atheist, and so was the whole family.
    They lost everyone. I mean everyone. They have zero friends. All their spare time was spent with people from their community. And none from that community wanted anything to do with them now.

    So they came to Nottingham SA (came up from Leicester) in the hope of making new friends. And now they are setting up Leicester SA.

    That’s what SA is for.
    I don’t need it, you don’t need, some people do.”

    Indeed, I fully acknowledge there’s a place for this kind of thing in some people’s lives. More on this to follow, hopefully.

  7. Wes Says:

    It’s unfortunate that you dismiss it as weird. I guessed that you would before you even went, which is also a bit meh. Anyway, I don’t think it’s my thing, but as someone who was completely submerged in this lifestyle as a christian back in the day, I understand why it’s popular among people who might have had a similar background to me. I also understand why it comes across as weird. Unless you’ve been brought up where it’s normal, then it will seem weird – But so will any social situation/culture which is completely different from what you’re comfortable with. This is different to what I’m used to , therefore it’s weird

    This event is entertainment (like a number of churches I went to as I got older, I realised they weren’t teaching/instructing, but entertaining, and it was one of the key things that set me on the road out.) A very similar event used to happen in Belfast on a Sat night in one of the then largest venues. Always free, always full. Mass ‘safe’ Christian entertainment. This is similar, but with the religious bit chucked out. It provides a place for community, socialising, enjoyment, entertainment, freedom, learning of like-minded (or similarly-backgrounded) people. Seems to me like a very positive thing, even if not for me. There are other forms of entertainment also not for me (gaming, maybe?) but don’t call them all weirdos.

    With regards to diversity, i can offer my own slightly reductive hypothesis. This event is not based on “church” but on a UK, 1970s happy clappy (but still extremely reserved) modern church. Or for convenience (and perhaps apologies) a “white” church. The churches which I went to on occasion which were “black” were tumultuous, raucous, loud, (tremendously enjoyable, even though I felt like a fish out of water) dramatic, emotional – a world away from what I would have called church. If this event is a church surrogate for atheists, then it’s only a surrogate for people for whom that represents “church without the religious bit”. My experience (limited) suggests that will be a demographic of white middle class. It’s only a half-baked thought and offered as such.

    I’ve tried but can’t distinguish the difference from “being preached at” with “going to hear someone give a talk/lecture”, apart from semantics, but maybe I missed the point on that.

    The bit about money also seem a bit nitpicky, if I could be so lippy. Free events cost money to put on.

    Anyway as to Robin Ince’s note about holding on to the structures of religion – this is both its freedom and chains. By being a church surrogate it will be hard for them to include “outsiders” (as in ppl without churchy upbringing) but will be seen as a godsend (apols) by lots of ppl looking to break away from their traditional christian upbringing. It won’t cater for everybody (it can try, but I think that would be a mistake).

    Will it survive? Yes, as long as there are people from middle class Christianity who need it to help them ditch religion. I’ve been through it and it is life-changingly and psychologically explosive to try and dislodge things you’ve been told as true since you were born. I’ve done it, it’s really really really difficult, or it least it can be! (Also, it’s made of humans, therefore whatever its philosophy it will suffer from schism, disruption, personality, blah blah – that won’t mean it’s a failure, only that it is human, and indeed, will make it more like a church than perhaps they realise.

    Phew. Sorry. I do care much less about Sunday Assembly that ^ suggests, honest!

    • noodlemaz Says:

      Hi, thanks for this.

      First, I’m not “dismissing it as weird” – I’m summarising my experience/feelings as “weird”. Like I said, I didn’t choose to go before because I thought that would be the case from the very concept, I was actually still surprised by the extent of weird that I felt, and I wouldn’t go again as a result. That’s just my assessment, I’m not at all trying to say it shouldn’t even exist, just because of what I think – because it’s clearly not for me, as further discussion (and my original assumption) has shown.

      Not everything is for me – I hate gyms, but understand (sort of) the appeal, and they’re not going away. Nor should they.

      “I understand why it’s popular among people who might have had a similar background to me.” – indeed, if people like to replace one community with another, that’s fine. It makes sense.
      Equally, if something like SA is a sort of cultural methadone, weaning people off a religious habit with toxic elements and keeping the positives while ditching the negatives, that’s a valuable public service!

      If it’s just entertainment then I wouldn’t go for the same reason I don’t watch stuff like X Factor; I just don’t like it. People can write critically about entertainment (don’t people get paid to do that..??).

      Re the preaching vs. lecturing thought, I’ll borrow from a Facebook discussion:
      “if you go to a lecture you’re listening to someone explain their ideas, whereas if you go to an evangelical church service, you’re actively participating in expressing whatever values they claim to represent by singing and dancing or whatever” – I hope that clears it up a bit, but it is a fuzzy idea and again more of a feeling that’s hard to express.

      I’ll not expand on the money thing, I think it’s a whole separate discussion – and Simon Clare’s post goes into it a little (link now at the end of the post).

      You’re the second to do the “godsend” bit ;)

      Overall I think you’ve made constructive points, so thanks for adding them here. Perhaps others who have endured religious indoctrination and escape from it could add more to enlighten people like me who are largely ignorant of it, having only an outsiders’ view to go on.

      • Wes Says:

        “if you go to a lecture you’re listening to someone explain their ideas, whereas if you go to an evangelical church service, you’re actively participating in expressing whatever values they claim to represent by singing and dancing or whatever”
        Hmmm.. not buying that one. Preaching doesn’t rely on singing/dancing. Preaching is just a person conveying ideas. The level of scrutiny given by the listeners by vary, given the amount of emotional hoo-haa preceding it, but the preaching is just church-ese for lecturing/story telling whatever.
        Cultural methadone might not be too bad an analogy, except I don’t see anything wrong with SA attendences not moving on from it. They are having fun, enjoying themselves, meeting people, discussing ideas, getting out of the house, breaking free from things which they have rejected – no need to “go clean” is there?

  8. Adrian Says:

    I feel uncomfortable in a happy-clappy environment, but let’s avoid the Association Fallacy. Religion doesn’t own communal activities like this, and there is nothing un-atheist about engaging in them.

    • noodlemaz Says:

      I’m talking about my feelings. Being in that congregation (as they call it) made me feel like it was a church. I don’t get that. Say, at a gig – thousands singing along to a song they love before a band they admire, great! This, didn’t like. That’s all I’m saying.

  9. krditnqb@gmail.com Says:

    Yes, no problem. It will work just fine.


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