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.
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.
- 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.