Sunday Assembly and My Unanswered Atheist Childhood Prayers

She’s baaaaack…

Disclaimer: This post is best enjoyed when paired with the sounds of Kasey Musgraves, specifically “Merry Go ‘Round”. Just open it. If you’ve spent any time in a small town, it’ll all make sense. You’ll end up hitting repeat a couple times, because she refers to non-belief in the first verse, she’s openly critical of capitalism, and she’s a really gifted songwriter.

Our story begins as many great stories do, with a drunken Freudian slip.

This post is about a moment of accidental vulnerability, which led to a surprising revelation. This led to some self-reflection, a little regret, and a few birthday cake oreos. It ended with a semi-hopeful note about community building, so…yay?

Enjoy.

It all started with an article about the Sunday Assembly in the UK, a self-identified atheist church. Initially, my general skepticism about just about everything made me prickle at the idea, atheists working within/reclaiming an institutional model that used to burn us at the stake and still tells us we’re unacceptable human beings. Much of my research concerns questions of whether one can find liberation within oppressive institutions (in this case, literally), and if so, at what cost or compromise? My simple answer is that some institutions are more flexible than others, and historically, Christianity is most flexible when making some concessions to the people will preserve institutional authority. Granted, that’s my simple answer, and the Sunday Assembly may have found a loophole. The article shows how they build community through the rituals that many churches find effective. The difference is that they destabilize the content. Traditional hymns and contemporary Christian music are replaced with secular songs (Stevie Wonder is pretty into Jesus, but whatever), and particle physicists replace pastors.

Also, I’m sorry I linked you to GodTube. Really sorry.

A few people have asked for my feels about the very existence of an atheist church, whether it’s viable, valuable, or even possible. But despite my skepticism, there is a piece of me that really wants this to catch on, and it doesn’t have much basis in rationality or cost-benefit analysis. Granted, I have a problem with the kind of logic that argues that emotion necessarily negates rational thought. I won’t go there now, but I know the desire to cheer them on is coming from a part of me that only seems to show its face when I drink.

For anyone who doesn’t know me outside the skeptic blogosphere, I’m a social dancer, mostly swing and blues. This hobby/sport/art form attracts every brand of human being, from well-mannered seminarians to radical secular humanists like me. There are dancers who claim that you don’t need to drink to enjoy it, but I’m here to tell you that that’s only half true. Sometimes, after a night of dance scene drama, beer has a way of holding the community together.

So after a long night of dance, my good dance friends and I end up at a little local place, and one of my secular dance friends mentioned the Sunday Assembly. We discussed our respective religious backgrounds, casually and anecdotally at first, but I felt a familiar emptiness that usually accompanies stories about my seven years as a wannabe Presbyterian. Before I could stop myself, I said it.

“I miss church, too.”

Wait. Shit. What?

Talk about a confusing sentiment for an atheist, but as I unpacked it, it made more sense. Like so many closeted skeptics before me, I learned how to perform a Christian identity at a young age, to be some shade of normal in my small midwestern hometown. Before I had the words to describe my sexual orientation and radical politics, I knew I saw the world in a fundamentally different way than the people I tried so desperately to connect with. In small town Illinois, church affiliation granted special access to social networks and resources, and the Christian identity was inextricable from human worth. I was a misfit kid who understood that the institution was inescapable, and I wanted to find a part of my community to call home. They say that if you really want to believe something, you can convince yourself of anything, but it’s not always true. I wanted to be a Christian so badly, but I couldn’t reconcile it with my skeptical ontology and those pesky free thoughts.

That’s the really sticky part. I did find community in my church, and that’s what I miss. I miss having a network of people who didn’t really care if I believed or not. No one tried to change me; they just seemed to appreciate my presence, my willingness to learn, and my commitment to hands-on service. I miss having a place where the doors are always open, where I can kick my shoes off and lay down in a pew like it’s in my living room. I miss the music, the ASL performances (I was pretty damn good), and even some of the sermons, because my pastor was a really excellent human being. I was really fortunate that way, but my awesome congregation inadvertently gave me a social consciousness and depth of Bible knowledge that made me a better atheist.

As I get older, I’m slowly figuring out that my self-worth is not determined by public opinion or religious affiliation. I am simply determined to not be an asshole, and to be an excellent human being for the sake of being excellent. I walked away from Christianity, but I believe in the power of community spaces, where humans can be human. We can tap into those visceral and cerebral experiences to try and figure out how to cope with the shittiness of reality. I really want this atheist church/community building to work because people connect through central spaces. These spaces aren’t perfect or perfectly rational, but they are perfectly human. Atheists can learn from each other in common spaces without subscribing to a single-minded ideology and becoming slaves to unscientific emotion (FSM forbid). This is how we can discuss and survive the human experience, but like the Sunday Assembly, we need to break open to let each other in.

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