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Last weekend I spent a pleasant hour in a dark, sweaty hovel where a shirtless man and his accomplice induced a crowd to scream, clap, rave, meditate and sing karaoke. These things happen in Scotland, albeit with greater frequency during the Edinburgh festival. But Wonder & Joy is no ordinary show. It is the creation of Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two comedians whose Sunday Assembly, a self-styled “godless congregation”, opened in January in London and has since spread globally.
Sunday Assembly goes by the motto “live better, help often, wonder more”. It is an organised celebration of humanity without the threat of eternal hellfire. The monthly gatherings feature talks from scientists and philosophers, readings from novels and the collective singing of pop songs, such as Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”. The first events in a former church in north London proved so popular that the company moved to a 1,200-person venue. There are now assemblies in Bristol, Melbourne and New York. “We accidentally became a movement,” Jones writes on their website.
Like Martin Luther, the duo in charge of Sunday Assembly has kept parts of organised religion that its congregation likes and changed parts they are less keen on. Evans attended church up until the age of 12. “I stopped believing in God but I missed church,” she tells me. Unlike so-called militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins she is “not really interested in not believing in God”. Instead she wanted to know whether “you could make a community but without a common belief system”.
The first insight Jones and Evans had was that attendance should be fun. Granted, what I saw in Edinburgh is not for everyone. At one point Jones, who looks like a hipster Christ, bear-hugged my friend, and together they pogo-jumped their way through a “mini-rave” to a soundtrack of throbbing dance music. If the minister had done that at my school, he would have been arrested.
Most of Sunday Assembly’s entertainment is more serious than raving. But it does provide for an exciting few hours before any immersive theatre opens. Nor is it so precious that it turns away people who simply want, in Evans’s words, “a Sunday morning knees-up”. This point seems to have been lost by UK churches, though not in the Kansas megachurch I visited last year, which had a stomping house rock band.
Another message that Jones and Evans have taken from the megachurch movement is that many churchgoers attend for reasons of self-improvement. Without obvious irony, Jones recommends that new assembly organisers read The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, the hugely popular American preacher who combines Christian teaching with self-help philosophy. Evans says that some of the assembly attendees come for a moral “recharge”. She jokes that whereas some Christians wear wristbands sporting the question “What would Jesus do?”, the godless congregation would have some asking, “What is it I know I should do but seems a lot of effort right now?”
I suspect there is more to it than a desire to be nicer. At least among my ludicrously fortunate demographic, I meet a lot of people consciously trying to upgrade themselves. Several friends monitor their sleep patterns and fitness regimes through smartphone apps. Then there are the philosophy classes, wellness holidays and book clubs. Sunday Assembly – and the Sunday Sermon offered by Alain de Botton’s School of Life – fits with a general desire to lead busy, happiness-enhancing lives.
Nevertheless, Evans is surely also right that her assembly also serves a desire for community. Humans are social animals and plenty of research shows that the quality of our relationships is crucial to our wellbeing. Over the past few decades there has been an erosion of some of the institutions that have provided a source of fellowship, for example churches in Britain, political parties and trade unions. It makes sense that an organisation such as the Sunday Assembly can fill the gap left by their decline.
But it is too simplistic to think of it as a straight swap. Non-believers, of all people, are probably not looking for another set of strict rules, or the dogma sometimes peddled by religions, political parties or unions. Free thinkers want to be free. We are also used to online social networks that allow us to pick and choose our interactions. Therefore the communities that thrive today ask less of people than earlier versions. This might also make them less durable.
In the mid-19th century Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, proposed a “religion of humanity” based on three pillars: altruism, order and progress. Unlike my Edinburgh experience, it did not include a karaoke version of “Walking on Sunshine”. Ultimately, Comte’s experiment failed, at least in practical terms – he kept too many of the aspects of religion that people disliked. Even George Eliot felt it too dour. It will be interesting to see whether this kooky contemporary experiment can go one better and strike that fine balance between being of the flock and one’s own shepherd.
John McDermott is an FT commentator