The Sunday Assembly, popularly known as the atheist church, has taken off in the UK and is quickly spreading world-wide. But what do people who don’t believe in anything do in a church-like gathering? Like many I felt curious to find out.

Apart from writers such as Alain de Botton who have argued non-believers should steal the best aspects of religion, many non-believers have been skeptical of such projects. They pride themselves on being independent thinkers, rejecting dogma and not following leaders. Was the Assembly going to recreate the worst aspects of religion by getting uncomfortably close to the very thing rejected?

Waking up early on a cold, Sunday morning in Bognor Regis for a 25 minute walk to get a train to Brighton, tiredness risked dampening curiosity. The train journey took 1 hour and I fell asleep during the journey. I arrived at my destination feeling weak and disoriented with a 15 minute walk ahead of me.

I arrived at St Andrews, a de-consecrated church, where friendly young women welcomed newcomers inside, advising us to keep our coats on as it was cold inside due to a boiler failure.

At Andrew's ChurchIt was already getting full with people of all ages, from babies to seniors. At the front of the altar area was a screen projecting the theme for today’s event, Lend A Hand, and a small band of musicians to the side. I took my seat in a pew close to the front.

A buzz of excited conversations from the ‘congregation’ brought the church to life, undoubtedly enjoying the irony of possessing this space that was now a monument to former times. Many churches in the UK are struggling to maintain a congregation, and this one, St Andrews, was now being preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust as part of UK history and as a hireable venue.

Our host, Simon Clare, took the platform to introduce the event and, as the lyrics for the first song, Help! by the Beatles, projected onto the screen, I wondered if this was going to be somewhat embarrassing or twee. But the immediate enthusiasm and energy of the singing by the 204 people present, and the beautiful singing voice of the young woman next to me, immediately relaxed me and brought new significance to the lyrics.

The song finished with rapturous applause and our host returned to the stage to give a brief introduction about allowing people to make their own mistakes but being there to provide a safety net. This was followed by a reading by his 13 year old daughter – a story, “Bringing Down the Moon”.

The ‘sermon‘ was by clinical psychologist, Dr. Anita Marsden, who gave an engaging presentation related to her work. Whilst our society talks about entitlements, studies show that giving and helping will bring greater happinesses. While general well-being has increased in the UK, depression is on the rise. Evidence suggests the causes are shortcuts to happinesses.

Positive psychology is a new approach to dealing with the problem and Martin Seligman is one of the proponents.

Seligman identifies levels of happiness:

  1. Pleasure – the temporary effects of pursuits like eating chocolate
  2. Engagement – the feeling of ‘flow’ you get when totally absorbed in something you’re good at
  3. Meaning and purpose – using our strengths to benefit others

According to research, compassion and acts of kindness can make people happier, and compassion focusedBrighton Sunday Assembly therapy is used to combat depression. Happiness is 50% determined by our genes, the rest we can influence.

To help we were given the following activity:

  • outline 3 things each day you’re grateful for
  • engage in acts of kindness

A round of applause at the talk led to the Bill Withers song Lean On Me.

Our science spot was a humorous talk on symbiosis by a science teacher. Plants and species that team up for mutual benefit in unusual ways were discussed. The message – if these random pairings can help each other out then surely we, from the same species, can too!

Simon McGregor, a former patient of clinical depression (“imagine being normal only worse”), gave his testimony on ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ which had everyone laughing out loud.
His basic message was if there’s something you can’t do, maybe it’s something you really can do…with help.

A moment of silence followed with a collection for the venue hire, followed by greeting the people around us. The young woman with the lovely voice was there with her mother, an ex-Catholic who had also tried Buddhism. Due to the influence of her strictly atheist father she had been raised without belief and exuded calm and positivity about life. It reminded me of a childhood friend, Mark, who raised his daughters without religious indoctrination. Apart from taking advantage of the free sweets the local Baptist church handed out in an attempt to bribe children into their doors, they had no interest in religion. I was struck with the happinesses and laughter that exuded in Mark’s house and how grounded and confident his daughters appeared.

Announcements were followed by the closing address summarising the event: the need for community, develop more happiness, help others, improve overall well-being and how volunteering can achieve these aims. It was also stressed that feeling obliged do something under duress becomes negative so, for those who can’t give time or money, being considerate, offering kind words, and other small gestures, were also valid contributions to creating a better world.

We ended with The Rembrandts song I’ll be there for you, followed by free refreshments and opportunities to make new friends.

I came away with a very positive impression and with definite increased happinesses! Some local Christians who also attended spoke of their enjoyment of this celebration of life. The lack of dogma and coercion, the acknowledgement of our own strengths and limitations, the engaging of my brain, the kindness, the feeling of community, the open expressions of joy, the democratic nature of the event and the lack of manipulation, impacted on my thoughts, prompting reflection on my own future action.

Time will tell whether these gatherings can survive beyond the novelty of the initial experience. Perhaps they may need to transform themselves into solid communities with opportunities for community action, offering different possibilities of involvement, whilst still allowing the joy of attending. But for now I would urge everyone, no matter whether non-believer or believer, to attend a local Assembly and, as their motto says, “live better, help often, wonder more”!

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