Thursday, 17 January 2013

Sunday Assembly and being a personal Athiest

There are many atheist writers and thinkers that I enjoy. Dawkins sheer passion and clarity of thought is inspiring and reading Hitchens makes me wish I was smarter and more charming. However, I can always guarantee that Alom Shaha will always make me reconsider what I think about being and becoming an atheist.

Recently, he has been attending a Humanist Sunday Assembly and has been regularly tweeting his experience. Blogging on the rationalist website Alom describes why he enjoyed it and why he thought it was a good idea. His blog feels like it suggests these assemblies can be a rallying point for a kind of humanist congregation. The BHA asked for people’s reactions and I provided my tuppence worth, which wasn’t as negative as some but was a bit knee jerk. As I said, I always enjoy Alom’s writing as it makes me think about what I think so I’d like to expand a little on my tweet.

My gut instinct is that I don’t like Sunday Assemblies. I recall that those first times that I started not –believing (or at least thinking about whether or not what I was being told in church was true) happened precisely there, when I was in Church.
At home, nose pressed to a book or among those 14 hours a day I seemed to spend on a bike the idea of faith or God hardly crossed my mind. On Sunday however, I thought about it a lot. Initially, it was the boredom and repetition of church that started me wondering if this was a good idea. Totally un-engaged, I probably day-dreamed as a young child and railed against it as an older one. The droning ceremony seemed to belie the glory that I was supposed to feel. Looking around at the “flock” mindlessly (or so it seemed to me) re-canting the same prayer and Hymns each week made me question do they really believe this?

I couldn’t see why people I knew in the “real” world would dress and act so differently just because they were talking to God. The idea that he needed a special place or sacrament to understand his creation’s wants and needs seemed absurd. I have friends who while religious, felt the same way and now have prayer meetings in their home; I just didn’t stop questioning and couldn’t believe any longer. So the idea of sitting in a big room with people in their Sunday best (and church was always a social event with all the pretentions that entails) singing along to Imagine by John Lennon immediately transports me back to those days of boredom.

Alternatively, the most recent years where I started to take my non-belief seriously have been the most intellectually and spiritually rewarding. I adore the informality of the various associations, opinions and online groups for atheists provide – the complete lack of mantra and ceremony is what made it so attractive. There isn’t any particular way that you should be an atheist. Finding your niche in (or indeed outside) any atheist group was easy and encouraged. In fact I’m not certain I enjoy describing my atheist experience as being organised – based as it is on catching up with friends and discussing “Hitch” in amongst the films, football and family. My soul has been far more nourished during a chat and a biscuit at a friend’s living room than ever it was in communal worship.

I’m reminded of an early chapter in Susan Cain’s book on Introversion “Quiet” where she describes meeting an Evangelical Christian who feels guilty as he cannot whip himself into the requisite fervour of his particular strand of faith. He longs for a quiet place to contemplate his relationship with his maker. Likewise, I take deep solace in the wonder of the everyday. As the Feminists of the 60’s & 70’s demanded that the “Personal is Political” I feel the same about my relationship with the universe. It’s personal. I initially rejected religion because it tried to format that relationship.

Alom rightly identifies that we are a tribal animal and a communal experience is best when it is genuinely shared. I do greatly enjoy collective activities. Without a regular trip to watch terrible football a group of old school friends and I wouldn’t have an excuse to meet and the habit of doing this is a joy. I’m also aware that football has its own rituals and I don’t baulk at being on the terrace at 3 o’clock on a Saturday singing the same songs as last week. So why do I feel that a Sunday Assembly would be different? I suspect that it might be context.

The Sunday Assembly just feels “churchy” and reminds me of all the things I left behind along with my belief. The ape-ing of religious service feels a bit contrived and I wonder if these people would gather together for a sing song in any other situation (although that is probably a positive reason for having these assemblies). Ultimately, it doesn’t appeal to the inner teen rebel that I’m desperately trying to nurture as I slip into middle age. The setup of the Assembly, the choice of songs…it isn’t very…cool.

What it does demonstrate though is how open atheists/ humanists/whatever you are can be. With no dogma, if you are an individual who needs a collective ceremony to share how you think, wonderful. If you are a wall flower who prefers to meet like-minded creatures virtually that’s wonderful too. If you are misery, who'd rather sit at home and listen to your choice of Music - thats OK to, we'll meet you later for a pint.

I’m not a student of religion but suspect that religious groups early in their formation were similar until the codification of their rules. I am aware of bloody consequences from all the arguments they have had about whose rules were best. I don’t believe that Sunday Assemblies are in any way likely to invoke a heretical witch-hunt, but we must make sure we never allow one person to tell another - this is how you be an atheist…