Faithlessness, Skepticism

In Defence of Sunday Assembly

It is a common reaction for parents whose child has been criticised to say something along the lines of “oh but she’s a good girl really”. This is easily dismissed as bias, but so be it. The parent thinks that if only the critic really knew their child, they wouldn’t have said such a thing. But then again, if the critic only knew enough to make the criticism then, well, there was still something to criticise. It’s not the responsibility of critics to investigate what was really meant – it’s up to you to show them in the first place.

That is a little how I feel after reading Marianne’s blog post (please do read it yourself). Having heard hundreds of comments, mostly positive but some critical, I’ve learnt to take the rough with the smooth but I found myself dwelling on this one a bit so I thought I’d do a Robin Ince style rambly blog-burst to get it out of my system. I can’t respond on behalf of the London team as I’m only involved in the Brighton one, but criticism of one group does reflect onto other groups so I want to bat for Brighton.


St Andrew’s Hove, the glorious venue for SA Brighton

I have a lot of respect for Noodlemaz’s opinion so I had been hoping her visit to the London Sunday Assembly the other day was going to result in her being impressed without reservation. That is not how the world works though and the content of her article needs to be faced up to. It would be all too easy to say “oh if you don’t like it you don’t have to go along” and while that is technically true it is not constructive or useful, especially not for an organisation that calls itself “Radically inclusive”. The criticism was valid and deserves a proper response.

Oh God, the Songs…

Many of Marianne’s reservations have been voiced by others before and in my role of “Floor manager” for Sunday Assembly Brighton, I get to hear them all. Some of the points remain matters of personal taste, such as the vexed issue of song choice (our greatest headache at Brighton). We have found this is the most common cause of passionate disagreement among the organising committee and we have had to resort to an actual democratic voting system (the horror!) to avoid strife. This now works pretty well but there is usually at least one song I have to accept despite the pain – the worst was probably when we did the “Friends” theme tune. I still shudder. This week, though, we did Material Girl, Can’t Buy Me Love and 9 to 5 which was a pretty solid set. A song like the ghastly Get Lucky that Marianne had to endure in London would have been unlikely to get through our quality control system. I despise that song with a poisonous fury but my resentment is aimed squarely at society (that’s YOU LOT) for lapping up such a vacuous and cynical un-song with such relish. It sounds like a naff Jamiroquai tribute band and the original Jamiroquai were barely endurable. That’s enough of my useless musical opinion for now.

Things to Address

But some of the observations simply must be addressed.The most serious of which, for me, was Marianne’s observation about the lack of any explanation as to what the collection is for. We must tell people exactly why the collection is needed (as well as assuring them that there is no compulsion whatsoever). This is especially important if money is going towards any side-projects the organisers have in mind; the congregation may give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the collection is for running costs but if the organisers have any other intentions for that money this has to be made crystal clear before the baskets go around.

In Brighton, our collection covers building hire, insurance, tea and coffee gear, the occasional band practice, and hire of projection gear. At Christmas we gave any additional funds raised that month to a local homeless charity and despite being super-conscious of the importance of telling everyone this, I completely forgot about it on the day so we had to announce it afterwards. I still blush at the memory. After running costs, we had £130 left over and that went to the Brighton Housing Trust. We now have about £700 in our account, which we are very fortunate to have. We’ll keep some money for contingencies but pretty soon we’ll have enough to invest, for example, in our own decent projection gear so that we don’t have to hire it any more. This means we won’t have to rely on the hire shop always having the projector we want and would also save a lot of car journeys collecting and dropping it all off. For the first couple of months we were using the South East Skeptics’ projector but it’s not really good enough for a bright white church on a sunny Sunday morning.

The lack of ethnic diversity is very apparent and it’s something we have spoken about from the start. It’s hard to know how to address this, to be honest, and we’re open to ideas. Since before our first show in Brighton, we have talked about the importance of having women speakers and my experience in the skeptic/atheist world shows me that this is something that one can’t afford to ignore. Gender balance can be easily messed up if you are not conscious of it and I’m glad that we’ve found it relatively easy to get it right (in fact, out of all of the on-stage roles since we began, 11 have been performed by men and 13 by women). I have had people comment on how glad they are to see so many women involved in the show and this pleases me greatly. The issue of ethnic diversity is a much tougher nut to crack but it’s not something we’ll shy away from.

If You Like That Sort of Thing

The moment of silence we have is a funny old thing. I think I enjoy it mostly because it is so odd, but there is something uniquely collaborative about a group silence. Everyone plays their part in it. At Brighton we would never suggest that people use the silence to “be thankful”, we just announce the silence and suggest that people think about the content they’ve heard so far. Our services are pretty content-rich, so it actually works out quite well having a couple of minutes to let it sink in. This Sunday the silence came straight after our regular (brilliant) science slot and our second reading, so it was handy to pause for breath for a bit before continuing.

One of the most common criticisms we get from atheists is that they find it a bit churchy, or a bit too reminiscent of traditional religious worship. It is undeniable that the format is based essentially on a Church of England service and it is to be expected that atheists will be uncomfortable with that. I was sceptical about it myself when SA first started up, having been a loud-mouthed critic of religion for as long as I can remember. It is natural to associate the church-service format closely with religions – that is how we all came to know the format after all. Religions have for centuries known that one thing humans tend to do is gather in order to mark events, have feasts or to burn witches. Those religions have made this tendency their own and have harnessed the psychology of groups to push their own agenda. They have taken an activity that was human and made it indistinguishable from an activity that is religious. I think it’s high time that humanity reclaimed such activities for itself.

For our generation, gathering together to listen to interesting talks, sing songs and share silence might “feel a bit churchy” but unless secular humanity claims such gatherings for itself, future generations will see it as a religious activitity too. By providing a godless, high-quality alternative to the religious hijacking of this human trait, we show that we can still congregate on a Sunday morning (if we want to) and find the gathering enjoyable in its own right, without any involvement from the supernatural or the interference of those who claim to know the mind of God.

“Enjoyable” does not have to mean jumping around and waving one’s hands in the air and at Brighton I think we’ve done a pretty good job of gauging the preferences of the audience in that respect. Of course, no matter how thoroughly we ditch the happy-clappyness it is still true that many people just don’t like the idea of gathering together or singing songs and that is absolutely fine – I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone enjoyed it. But I do hope that people who end up disliking it do so because they simply don’t like it and not just because it feels a bit too churchy.


Do check out our website to see what we have coming up in Brighton

As it’s the Brighton Science Festival in February, we are putting on not one but TWO science-themed Sunday Assemblies. On the 23rd of February we have Dr Adam Rutherford giving the main talk and on the 2nd of March we host Professor Jim Al-Khalili.

1 Comment

  1. January 29, 2014    

    Thanks for this, Simon!

    I actually warmed to Get Lucky (the “real” version, that is) as it is pretty catchy/funky, having taken an instant dislike to it because of, as you said, the vacuous lyrics. It wasn’t Daft Punk style (and I love them as a band usually).
    So, taking away the one redeeming feature of the song and leaving us with the lyrics is just about the worst thing one could possibly do with it. I recommend the Youtube video of the Soul Train set to it.

    Thanks for the explanation of the collection, too. It was made clear that all SA people were volunteers, so room hire, tea and biscuits is a given. For a room of 400 people giving a sizeable donation, though, it seemed like there should be more clarity around plans for charity work – as that’s the main thing I’d praise (local charity work, community help projects etc.) if it were going on or in the pipeline.

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