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Dublin: 14 °C Wednesday 1 October, 2014

Column: Atheist gatherings take the positive aspects of church like the sense of community and self-reflection

The Sunday Assembly, which takes place this Sunday is a gathering of a godless congregation of over 100 people, with ages ranging from 7 to 70.

Deirdre McMahon

SAMUEL BECKETT ONCE wrote a letter in response to a young boy who had written to say that he was living in the author’s old childhood home. After remising about the house, Beckett signs off by saying “If you ever meet my ghost wandering the house or grounds, give it my regards”.

The letter currently resides among many other quirky treasures in The Little Museum of Dublin on Stephen’s Green. Other items of interest include James Joyce’s death mask, a mobile altar from the early 1900s, a Harry Clark stain glass window retrieved from a skip and a collection of 24-carat gold plated Monster Munch.

Celebration of life

Although accustomed to housing the unusual, on the night of 1 November The Little Museum was inhabited by something even more rare; a Church for Atheists called The Sunday Assembly whose aim is to bring together a godless congregation in celebration of life. It seems fitting to hold this secular convention among the artifacts of such confirmed non-believers as Beckett and Joyce.

The Sunday Assembly aims to take the positive aspects of church, such as a sense of community and a place for self-reflection and use them to create a new space for atheist gatherings. Founded in January by two stand-up comedians from London, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Johnson say were astounded by the success of their first gathering that attracted a few hundred attendants to a de-consecrated church in North London.

They now intend to roll out The Sunday Assembly worldwide with the Dublin date being just one of their 40 Days and 40 Nights global road show. Their motto: live better, help often, wonder more.

November 1st was a cold, crisp night in Dublin with more than a hint of winter in the air. The Little Museum of Dublin offered an inviting façade, with its bright Georgian windows looking out on to the darkness of Stephen’s Green. There is an air of trepidation and nervous smiles are exchanged as people huddle their way up the steps to the big, green door. Expectations were high after an email from the founder, Sanderson Johnson, declaring this night would be: “a ton of fun and pretty damn historic too! You will want to say you were there!”

Godless congregation

The gathering has attracted a godless congregation of over 100 people, with ages ranging from 7 to 70. Gary, 28 from Dublin, has come because: “I heard about it and was interested to see what it would be like. Plus it’s something to do for free on Friday night!” Others express a similar curiosity to see what an atheist church-like gathering would entail. One of the answers turns out to be singing, lots of singing.

Mr. Jones, with his lanky frame, long straggly blond hair and thick beard bears an uncomfortably strong resemblance to Jesus, something to which he jokingly makes reference. As he entered we all stood to sing The Beatles ‘I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends’, with lyrics helpfully provided on a big screen. This seems to have had the desired effect of lowering inhibitions in a room of strangers and giving a sense of unity.

However, it was quickly followed by another sing-a-long, this time U2′s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ which was less of a success. The song, solely rolled out for the Irish assembly, happened to contain the unfortunate lyrics: “I believe in Kingdom come”, to which someone shouted out panto-style: “Oh no we don’t!”

Mr. Jones, who seems to have based his performance on those of a Southern Baptist preacher, fizzes with zeal as he bids the crowd to join in hand clapping, singing and general wonderment at the magnificence of simply being alive. “There’s darkness before we’re alive and darkness after, but in between is this beautiful thing called life and I think we should all enjoy it together”. All cynicism is to be checked at the door.

The Sunday Assembly

Guest speakers of the night included Dr. Shane Bergin who spoke about the wonder of physics and Dublin poet Colm Keegan. He wrote a poem especially for the event to encourage people to recapture a sense of wonder about life. “You’re alive for roughly two and a half billion seconds…and you should make every one of them matter”. The Sunday Assembly is about positivity and, according to Mr. Keegan, “The world is full of people asking ‘why?’ You should surround yourself with those who ask ‘why not?’”

However, Mr. Keegan also had some issues with the night’s proceedings, specifically how closely it resembled a mass service. “I had a bit of a problem with things like: ‘Everyone stand up now! Everyone sit down now!’ I mean, that’s what I hated about church, people telling me what to do!”

Blasphemy

Aisling O’Brien was there as the sole representative of Atheist Ireland. Many other members were away in Galway for the Convention on the Constitution where Michael Nugent, Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, continued the on-going fight to get blasphemy removed from the constitution of Ireland.

Ms. O’Brien had similar misgivings to Mr. Keegan. “For me, I was just preached to for the night and that was a total turn off”. Ms. O’Brien, who organises gatherings for atheists and agnostics on MeetUp, didn’t enjoy the lack of a communal dialogue. “I think there is a need for an atheist community. And that’s why we have MeetUps so we can get to know one another. It’s not about bringing everyone together and saying ‘Hallelujah!’ It’s a quick-fix way to create a feeling of community; a blunt tool to use”.

Mr. Jones said they purposefully use the church service format as their priority is to reconnect people with a sense of wonder about life “and you see people that have that feeling of wonder being connected with God, so we just take the same techniques and use them to connect with other things”.

When confronted with Ms. O’Brien’s complaint about the one-way nature of the dialogue, Mr. Jones responds: “Does Lady Gaga offer a Q & A session? No! She offers an emotional experience.” That’s what he claims The Sunday Assembly also aims to do: “We’re creating an experience designed to appeal to people’s heads and hearts”.

Struck a chord

Mr. Jones admits their particular style of atheism-light won’t appeal to all. “Everyone likes different things, there’s never going to be one thing for everyone”. However, there were people at the event for whom it struck a chord.

Christina is a former evangelical Christian from rural Ohio who has recently moved to Dublin. As a pastor’s daughter in a small town, she claimed she found it difficult to talk about her religious misgivings in her youth. “Where I’m from no one would ever use the ‘A’ word!”

Her lack of faith began at a young age: “I didn’t have the words to express myself as a kid, but I always remember having this sinking feeling about religion. In my church at home, they preach that a woman’s place is in the home. Only men can pray in front of the congregation and young boys would be brought up to pray. I would sit there thinking ‘Why are a young boy’s words considered more important than mine?”

Atheism

It was only when Christina left for college and began to read atheist literature online that she realised she was a confirmed non-believer. She claims “becoming an atheist made me feel free for the first time”. However, she also admitted that leaving behind religion created a void in her life. “Since I became an atheist and left church my life has changed. I miss having people that would take me under their wing. Tonight has given me a sense of community that I had been missing, it’s just so nice to be surrounded with people like me”.

In the room above where The Sunday Assembly took place lies the 19th century mobile altar, a remnant of a more religious time, slowly collecting dust. Above it hangs the cracked Harry Clarke stain glass window depicting the eve of St Agnes. Once considered a hallowed object, it now hangs in a fractured state, being admired for craftsmanship more so than what it depicts. Perhaps the time is coming for religion to be viewed as a relic from a bygone era?

The day is fast approaching when Ireland is due to exit the bailout, December 15th, which happens to be the same day as Dublin’s 2nd Sunday Assembly. One of the main the ethos’ of the Assembly is that we all come from nothing and go back to nothing, but hopefully Ireland’s final exit will lead to something better than what we came from. Their overriding message of life affirming positivity is something we could all use more of. With the departure of the troika imminent, let’s hope Ireland can remain as positive as the Sunday Assembly while facing up to a future with no high power to watch over us.

Deirdre Mc Mahon is free lance writer from Dublin who writes on popular culture. She contributes to state.ie and reviews movies for Film Ireland.

Read: Column: Why it’s time to get rid of Ireland’s blasphemy laws>

Column: Religion should be taken out of schools. Leave it at home>

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