It turns out a decent number of Washingtonians will respond to an ad to start a “godless congregation.” The hard part comes when you ask the atheists to do anything churchy.
“Stand up! Stand up!” Sanderson Jones, a bushy-bearded British comic, urged about 60 people in a Penn Quarter basement theater, trying to kick off the evening with a rock music singalong. Eventually, most people stood, but a few minutes later, the über-bouncy Jones had the same issue when he tried to get people wearing T-shirts about skepticism and science to wave their hands in the air to Freddie Mercury’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” (Again, many eventually did.)
Over the next 90 minutes, the group of strangers — most appearing to be younger than 40 — watched an atheist poet perform a piece on his concept of life after death, listened to daily tricks Jones uses to promote gratitude (some are quirky, such as saying thank you to himself for whatever he sees, be it grout in bricks or an exit sign) and slowly, slowly put their arms around one another’s shoulders while a small band performed a jazzy version of “Lean on Me.”
The sometimes-awkward service Wednesday night was billed as the first Washington meeting of the Sunday Assembly, a series of gatherings Jones and a female comic friend of his launched a year ago in London for people interested in, as he puts it, “the best parts of religion — with awesome songs!”
Jones and Pippa Evans have drawn hugely disproportionate buzz for the endeavor. This is partly because they’re attractive comedians, but mostly because they’re speaking to an increasingly secular society still hungry for two commodities that organized religion purports to provide: wonder and community.
Now the pair is racing through 40 cities in North America, Europe and Australia over a little more than a month’s time, hoping to replicate their success in London, where as many as 400 people meet monthly on such topics as remembrance, working together and happiness.
The Sunday Assembly, which this weekend is in Chicago, San Diego and Los Angeles, comes as secular America is becoming more organized in what you might call its spiritual searchings. Groups promoting nontheistic values have been around for centuries, including Ethical Culture and Freethinkers. But in the past decade, such ideas have become more institutionalized, with Sunday school programs for children, weekly meetings for reflection and atheist summer camps.
In an interview before the event, Evans said the idea for the Sunday Assembly came to her in part after her wedding. She and her husband had the guests sing “When I’m Sixty-Four” by the Beatles, “and we realized we’d never seen everyone we know sing together” — and the spiritual power that came with singing together. And it reminded her of going to church as a girl — something she stopped doing as an adult.
What some experts see in the Sunday Assembly is a characteristic that doesn’t typically jump to mind when you hear the word “atheist”: fun.
“They emphasize participation, singing, having a good time. I think the D.C. area is ripe for it,” said John Shook, an adjunct professor at the University of Buffalo who heads the education departments for two national secular groups, the Center for Inquiry and the American Humanist Association.
Shook did a reading at the event, which took place in the basement of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. “No one knows where this is going — that’s the genius of it! It’s new!”
Yet Jones’s challenge in getting the group to stand points up an obvious question: What besides nonbelief would unite these people?
Many of the popular atheist voices, including Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have been united by being anti-religious, often angrily so. The rights of the nonbeliever have been a major theme, particularly in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of people say they believe in God and only about half say they’d consider voting for an atheist.
Jones and Evans are the anti-angry atheists. In fact, they wiped from their initial publicity material the phrase “atheist church” and have been busy since then trying to strike any language or labels that might seem negative. One of Wednesday night’s speakers had to do a last-minute edit of his talk after Jones checked to be sure there was nothing that was “anti-religious.”
The question of how exactly to be an enthusiastic, life-embracing atheist apparently quickly divided the New York branch of the Sunday Assembly (the only branch that was already in the United States) — this fall after Jones told the group “numerous times to avoid the word ‘atheist’ in our promotional tools and whenever else we could, not to book atheist-activist speakers, to steer clear of specifically courting an atheist audience, and to avoid doing our Sunday Assembly in a bar ‘at all costs,’ ” one of the New York group members wrote on the group’s Facebook page late last month.
It was hard to tell how many people at the D.C. event were buying in. Several left after a lighthearted mixer game that involved something that looked a little like playing patty-cake with a stranger. One man dozed; another knitted from a seat in the back.
On Wednesday, Jones poked fun at the issue, in particular after the crowd groaned when he said there would be a moment of “silent reflection.”
“If you want to make a bunch of skeptics and atheists freak out, tell them to shut their mouths for a minute and be with their thoughts!” he said with a laugh.
Soon after the groans, the nonbelievers fell into silence, eyes closed.
And when it was over, they set a date for their second meeting.