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
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.
“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.