Sunday Assembly and the Growth of Popular Humanism

The “Sunday Assembly” movement is attracting a lot of attention in the national media, and from Unitarians on various social media. One posting recently on the UK Unitarian face book group had (as of 23 October) attracted over 280 comments on the implications for British Unitarianism and how we should respond. There has also been negative comment on the humanist blogosphere about the association with religious terminology. Described by some in the media as the “Atheist Church”. it has certainly broken through into public consciousness, including a two page colour feature in London
“Time Out” with the title “Move over, Jehovah” (8-14 October 2013).

Sunday Assembly was founded in London by Radio 4 comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They describe the movement as a “godless congregation that celebrates life”. Their vision is to establish a Sunday Assembly “in every town and village that wants one”. They want to take the best bits of church, but with no religion and adding science with the motto “Live better, help often, wonder more”. In October 2013 they launched a 40 dates 40 nights roadshow in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.

I attended their “Global Mega Party” at Conway Hall on 20 October 2013 to see what all the fuss is about. The hall was packed on a Sunday morning; there were probably more people present than at all the Unitarian churches in London that morning. For the first time they had an organized childrens’ programme; but it had to be cancelled as the three children present stayed in the gathering. So attracting parents is similar to the challenge most Unitarian congregations face. It was a mainly young crowd which was an achievement at 11.00am on a Sunday morning.
The Assembly opened by loud trumpet based music from the gallery followed by rousing communal singing of “Don’t Stop me Now” by Queen and “Common People” by Pulp. After two poems we had what reminded me of a personal evangelical testimony from Carrie Armstrong who spoke of how she had overcome severe and debilitating illness. We sang Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and then heard the particle physicist Harry Cliff on the Higgs Boson – which he called the “God particle” and joked how out of place this term was! An “indiegogo” website crowd sourcing campaign was launched with a professionally made video to raise £500,000 to make their dream reality. Sanderson rounded off. I can see his attraction to the media; with his skills as performer, and also how they have created a “Jesus” like persona which I think even he finds strange. The event reminded me most of an opening ceremony at a Unitarian General Assembly and they even had some technical problems with the wifi. Actually it was not as slick and organised as I expected and that may be part of the attraction.

Sanderson actually mentioned Unitarians in his closing remarks that the Sunday Assembly, like Unitarians, had been criticised for ignoring the transcendent. The Sunday Assembly website also addresses the difference between them and Unitarianism which is seen as welcoming people of all faiths and asserts that Unitarians see all faiths as equal compared to their viewpoint that “there is no God so how should we live now”. Whilst this is an inadequate description of British Unitarianism and Free Christianity it does highlight the distinction between the two movements. They do, however, welcome people of all faiths. Apparently Sanderson researched Unitarian congregations and concluded that atheists found some of the issues raised hard to talk about. More recently Sunday Assemblies have been described as a “fun alternative to the meetings held by Humanist[s] and Unitarians”. “Why on earth aren't people clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down at those gatherings?" he wondered in an interview with ABC News.

The rise of this form of what I call popular humanism is part of a growing movement. The well known philosopher and writer Alain de Botton has published “Religion for Atheists” and has established the School of Life in a high street shop in Bloomsbury providing a range of activities and courses
designed to provide “good ideas for everyday life”. This includes classes, with
charges of up £40 for an evening event and £150 for an all-day intensive,
various therapies and a very popular book publishing programme. They too run
“Sunday Sermons” at Conway Hall but with hour long speeches with prominent
intellectuals. He has been somewhat critical of Sunday Assembly. According to
Time Out his response was that it “is a blatant rip-off of what we do and we’re
sad to see its so-called “creators” attempt to take the credit”. Ouch!

I have alsobeen interested to learn of the latest project by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) on spirituality. At the opening debate, which I attended on 16 October 2013, the Director of the programme, Jonathan Rowson, was described as “brave” to tackle the subject of what he sees as an amorphous spiritual pluralism. It seems that 70% of the British population is neither strictly religious nor strictly non-religious. That an Enlightenment institution such as the RSA is prepared to explore spirituality is another sign of the times.

What should be the Unitarian response to this debate? Unitarians should be prepared to contribute in these discussions; we have a long history on engagement with issues of meaning and relevance in a changing world and a global access to a range of networks across faith and indeed within humanism. We should not be churlish about the success of other movements. Scott Wells, the UU blogger, has warned:

“The Sunday Assembly will have its own problems. It lacks generations of accumulated wealth churches have. Lacks the experience of managing crisis, and developing leaders. And popular movements often rise and fall as fast as they rise. But what they do is their accomplishment or failure. Some Unitarian Universalists might offer help, but the Sunday Assembly is its own thing and displays of jealously don’t help.”

We should also ask what can we learn from this wider movement? Can it help us define more clearly what it is we uniquely have to offer the world? Are some of the aggressive growth techniques and what seems like a franchise model and the very professional media techniques used something we can explore and be prepared to pay for? Should we? Can we share in the joy and celebrate along with them? Some unitarians will already be involved in Sunday Assemblies. Unitarian premises may be approached to host Assemblies or other gatherings and congregations may quickly have to work out their response. Ironically just be talking about Unitarians as an alternative they have given us wide exposure which some people might pursue.

Acting as if Sunday Assembly does not exist is in fact a decision in itself. Nationally and often locally we are happy to work alongside the Quakers, Liberal and Reform Judaism and other liberal religious groups and indeed the British Humanist Association. Surely we should be prepared to see Sunday Assembly as an ally in building a better world. Greater understanding of the changing pattern of religion and belief in Great Britain is certainly a key issue for us as we look to the future and reflecting on the apparent early “success” of Sunday Assembly should contribute to our learning.

Further information
Sunday Assembly
School of Life
Royal Society of Arts (RSA)

Derek McAuley is Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free
Christian Churches

A version of this article appeared in The Inquirer (issue 7830, 9 November 2013)