Singing hymns at atheist services makes as much sense as celebrating one’s elbow

Opinion: Not believing in a deity does not involve subscribing to any particuclar moral viewpoint

Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, co-founders of The Sunday Assembly. Britain’s atheist church is barely three months old but it already has more “worshippers” than can fit into its services. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, co-founders of The Sunday Assembly. Britain’s atheist church is barely three months old but it already has more “worshippers” than can fit into its services. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 00:01

I’m not conventionally religious, but I do like to think of myself as a spiritual person. Only joking. Of course, I don’t. I do not have a “spiritual side”. There is no “spiritual dimension” to my life. It has, in fact, never been clear to me what that overused statement means. One has some notion what a practising Jew, Hindu or Roman Catholic believes. By way of contrast, the “spiritual person” seems to walk through life as an empty bucket, eager to collect the splattered cast-offs from any passing moral philosophy.

Such thoughts are triggered by the unwelcome news that 2013 has seen the emergence of an “atheist megachurch”. It’s hard to know quite how serious Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones are about this enterprise. Last January, the two English comedians launched the first “Sunday Assembly” in an unprepossessing London church. People leapt about, sang songs and testified to their lack of belief in a stubborn superstition.

By November, the Assembly had become a movement. An event took place in Los Angeles and, as you read, a “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour is snaking its way across Australia and the United States. The aim is to raise $800,000 (€579,000) for the setting-up of atheist churches across the world.

Even if Evans and Jones didn’t tell jokes for a living, you would be tempted to take this for a massive exercise in communal satire. It’s rather as if the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had taken to launching intercontinental ballistic missiles with custard pies where the warheads used to be. But it looks as if the organisers are not entirely facetious in their intentions.

‘Awesome songs’

“If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad,” Jones said recently. “It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people.”

There is quite a bit to unpick here. Mr Jones’s remarks about hearing good music and attractive language in church set one pondering certain alterations in religious practices over the past century or so. The average Christian would be entirely within his or her rights – indeed, would be obliged – to scowl at any non-believer who frowned upon such innovations as lessons from the “Good News” Bible and drippy acoustic folk that hasn’t been fashionable since Bob Dylan released Bringing it all Back Home. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a zealot to observe that Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion and the King James Bible wipe the floor with “God is my forever buddy” and the 23rd psalm rewritten as the instruction manual for a Korean washing machine.

Yet it is that class of informal, “trendy” (in fact, anything but) ceremony to which the Sunday Assembly seems to be gesturing. Oh well. Maybe there really are atheists who grew up with the post-hippie class of Christian service and yearn to stimulate the relevant nostalgia glands. Anyway, aesthetic objections always run up against the rocks of subjective taste.

Belief system

No, the really troubling issue here is the apparent assumption that atheism is some sort of belief system that binds its “followers” together in a shared set of values. To be fair, Evans and Jones maintain that more or less everybody is welcome (they acknowledge the “spiritual side” referenced above, you see). But if that is so then any equivalenc

e with a religious service wastes into dust. You may as well call the event a social club or a self-help group. Whatever the founders’ intentions, however, the Sunday Assembly is, in its American incarnation, being treated as some sort of atheist rite.

A gift is thus being handed to those militant deists in the United States who so often describe atheism as a religion. It is not that. The word merely describes a person who – when he or she bothers to consider such things – comes to the conclusion that no governing deity exists. No moral teaching flows from this attitude. How could it? No moral code springs from one’s certainty that water flows downhill or that horses have tongues. Whereas belief in the traditional Christian God should colour virtually every one of the believer’s daily actions, lack of belief in God is no more helpful in coping with commonplace challenges than lack of belief in the Westmeath panther.

From time to time, circumstances arise under which atheists may reasonably unite: fighting for secular education; resisting lunatic theories such as creationism; keeping religious doctrine out of hospitals. But holding a rational attitude to certain irrational beliefs does not admit you into any sort of secular sect. Atheism should be of so little importance to the proper non-believer that he or she will feel slightly perturbed that the absence even has a name. After all, we don’t gather together on Sundays to celebrate the possession of elbows.

Let’s knock this one on the head.

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