Stop me if you've heard this one: A couple of comedians start an atheist church in London. And--get this--lots of people come. So many that they have to send overflow atheists to a pub around the corner to watch the service via computer stream. Now they're thinking about creating a YouTube channel.
Funny? Well, maybe not in the same sort of way that Jon Stewart is or The Simpsons used to be. No one, as far as I know, is laughing about the success of The Sunday Assembly--least of all the comedians who created it. After all, they're now looking at cutting back on their comedy gigs to become full-time atheist pastors.
But it is funny as in ... well, curious. I'd imagine many atheists turned to atheism specifically so they'd never have to go to church again.
“We’ve had a pretty positive response from people of faith. Hardly anyone seems to be saying anything negative," Assembly co-founder Pippa Evans told the New York Daily News. “Atheists, in fact, seem to be the ones most upset with us because some say we’re creating a religion.”
Yeah, about those upset atheists? They may have a point.
Not to suggest that atheism is a religion, exactly. Sure, they share some similarities. But in all my years as a religion reporter, I never once attended anything like an atheist church, and I can't imagine that one have much in common with the Methodist congregation down the street. There'd be no scripture readings--though perhaps someone read passages from a Christopher Hitchens' book. Instead of hymns, congregants would be forced to sing John Lennon's "Imagine" over and over again. (It's a very pretty song, but I, ahem, imagine it'd get old after a while.) Prayer time would be right out. The only thing left to do in atheist church, really, would be to listen to the message itself (inspiring, I'm sure) and pass around the offering plate.
But there's gotta be something curious happening at London's Sunday Assembly--something unexpected and, yeah, maybe a little funny. Some London atheists, it seems, felt like they were missing something in their non-believing lives: A strange itch that going to church, somehow, is able to scratch.
It's arguable that those attending the Sunday Assembly were just looking for community--a yearning that all of us, regardless of what we believe, have. We all like to talk with people who share our interests and outlooks. We all like to feel like we're a part of a larger body, a piece of a movement or something something greater than ourselves.
There's power in community. Sometimes, it can be a terrible, awful power, as we've seen both in religious and secular circles. But very often, that communal energy can be harnessed for great good--something that the folks at the Sunday Assembly understand. The Daily News reports that last week, congregants heard a message on the theme of volunteerism--how important it is to help out folks in need.
And that's great. Awesome, really. But ... funny.
See, altruism, as far as I'm aware, really germinated in the soil of religion. This is not to say that atheists can't be very generous or that religious folks can't be very selfish. But the concept of altruism--volunteering, giving to the needy, etc.--historically finds its first and (if I may say so) its most beautiful expression in the context of faith. All the great major religions embrace altruism, and have for thousands of years. If you believe the Bible, God was talking about providing for widows, orphans and aliens when Moses and the Israelites were still tromping around the wilderness.
Altruism and charity are dependent, I think, on the concept of good and evil--a sense of right and wrong that goes beyond anything that science can explain. If we're all merely creatures of evolution, with our survival predicated on our strength and cunning and swift adaptation, it doesn't make a lot of sense to give away our time or money or energy to someone who can never pay us back. And yet many of us--whatever we believe--feel that altruistic impulse deep inside us: The desire to do "good." The longing to help when and where we can.
Where does that longing come from? Science, I don't believe, holds the answer to that question. That answer is found elsewhere.
Perhaps that longing, and others related to it, is part of the subconscious pull of the Sunday Assembly--why people give up an hour or two of their weekend to gather with people of like minds, to raise their voices and reach for a transcendent reality they say they don't believe in. Perhaps they know that they're merely products of evolutionary chance ... and yet they somehow sense that there's more to it than that. Perhaps they have purpose beyond their biological makeup, a calling beyond chemistry. Perhaps they were meant to be. And the church--excuse me, the Assembly--gives them just a hint of that deeper meaning.
Funny, isn't it?