In 2011 writer Alain de Botton graced our shelves with a text entitled Religion for Atheists. The argument was that the debate of whether or not what a religion says is true or not wasn't really that interesting. Although he agrees, most certainly, that the argument for God was thoroughly unconvincing what was important was that churches they provided community and consolation, they provided structured events through ritual, they offer meditative retreats and so forth. Perhaps, de Botton, atheists should have their own churches (a Temple de la Raison? I'm sure I've heard that somewhere before). Patrick McCabe's insightful review in Eureka Street notes that criticism came from prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Rose. McCabe notes:
These criticisms demonstrate the gap between de Botton and other atheists. Dawkins and Rose's outlook is missionary, while de Botton's is pastoral. Dawkins and his ilk want to save souls from religion, and promote the good news of atheism. De Botton is more concerned with the spiritual needs of the existing flock.
Whether not they were inspired by de Botton, a pair of jokers (by which I mean comedians) in the U.K., started an atheist church in early 2013 called "The Sunday Assembly", with the motto "Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More". The organisation is picking up regular media coverage, in diverse sources such as The Australian and Salon. With rumours that it could possibly start in Melbourne, I took the opportunity to meet a co-organiser Pippa White to see what I could do to help.
The first international meeting of the Assembly was thus convened on Sunday April 21st, 2013, with some seventy people at the at the South Melbourne Commons, with much enthusiasm and good humour. A band, clearly with a sense of humour played The Monkees "I'm A Believer" and Bon Jovi's "Living on A Prayer". The main speaker was Luke Ryan talking about his wonderful experiences with cancer with Kealey Nutt providing a person story of what leads a person to a place like the Assembly, and I was provided an opportunity to speak on Why I Love Philosophy.
As usual all my doubts and concerns come to the fore, strangely coupled with enthusiasm with the project. Certainly at this stage it's a lot of fun. Atheists, and particularly young atheists, are amused at the idea of a "church" for atheists and indeed have some indeed seemed to give off the vibe that this is a parody. Of course, such parodies have existed before, the most successful being The Church of the Sub-Genius, popularised by literary giants such as Robert Anton Wilson and cartoonist Robert Crumb. But I suspect whilst the organisers appreciate the humour, this is not meant as a just a joke.
Which will bring new challenges to the Church. How will they differentiate to other churches and religions which are also syncretically inclusive of atheists (the Unitarian-Universalists being a more prominent example)? Will it the requisite creed be atheists-only, or will there be some wriggle-room for those who just aren't sure what they believe? Will their polity be congregational, episcopal, connexionalist, or presbyterial? What will the organisation have to say about the important social issues of our day? Will the organisation incorporate? Does it have a sufficient base of human and financial resources to keep going? After an initial flurry these are always the questions that such organisations need to ask if they are to continue.