Church for Atheists

Today I went to the Sunday Assembly. Describing itself as a “godless congregation”, this is essentially a church service for atheists. The hour and half comprised singing (pop songs, mostly to do with love), a guest speaker (Layard – a good draw) a reading, some time of quiet reflection (in lieu of prayer) a description of some charity work and a couple of comedic yet heartfelt addresses by the organisers Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans (who are also comedians).

The theme of this Sunday’s assembly was happiness, and Layard was a great choice of speaker, given his influence on governmental policies on psychological wellbeing. Unfortunately the sound balance needed work so it was hard to hear the first half of what Layard had to say, but what I did hear spoke to known psychological benefits of being kind to others, and of attending church, which fits with the Sunday Assembly’s ethos.

The Assembly ends with tea and cake, although I confess we got fed up queuing and nipped next door for lunch instead. The atmosphere at the gathering was friendly though, and you could go on your own or with others and feel equally at ease.

Overall there are still a few things for the Assembly to iron out: mainly getting the speaker easily seen and heard by the whole congregation, and maybe having them speak for a little longer. The difficulty in hearing might have been a consequence of a recent review in Time Out, resulting in a doubling of their numbers this month (there were apparently about 600 people in the audience). There was a touch too much singing from my point of view too, with the same unfortunate tendency that church services have of pitching the songs in a key which is both too low and too high. But choral singing has been linked to happiness too, so maybe this was more than an aping of a church service and in fact another tactical happiness-boosting technique.

Overall the Assembly is an interesting idea, with charismatic leaders and the potential to be a really stimulating event. It reminded me a bit of the principles of De Botton’s ‘School of Life‘, in that it targets people who like to think about how they live their lives without necessarily doing this through the lens of a religion. Unlike talks at other places, this is free to attend though (you can give a donation if you like). It had the flavour of a community rather than a commercial venture. I’ll definitely be back in a couple of months to see how it’s evolving.

The Sunday Assembly is on the first Sunday of every month. Check out their website here

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