Sermon: The Atheist Church

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 February 2013

I never realised that people watch BBC London news.
I thought that Regional News is something to have on while waiting for the thing you want to watch to start.
Or, that it is essentially background noise until the weather and travel news – though in that role it has been somewhat superseded by the internet.
I didn’t realise that lots of people, actually, well, watch it.

So I was somewhat taken aback at the number of friends and Alyth members who contacted me on Monday of last week to say they thought they had seen me on TV – on BBC London News, noch.
Was it really me they saw coming out of a church?
At a service run by and for atheists?
What was I doing there?

Because, entirely by coincidence, a report on London’s new ‘atheist church’ had indeed included film of two rabbis – a colleague and me – on an undercover operation to find out more about this new institution, “The Sunday Assembly”.

Meeting monthly in an old church between Islington and Hackney, the first meeting of the Sunday Assembly in January had been attended by 200 people, and had got a small amount of press coverage – enough that both the BBC and I had heard of it.

The second meeting – which we attended – was standing room only.
The leaders, two comedians (of which more later), aspire to be the creators of a new movement, one with the admirable slogan “live better, help often, wonder more” – an attempt to harness some of the qualities of religion in an expressly atheist space.
The monthly event is loosely modelled on what they remember Church as being like – with collective singing (though with Queen and Stevie Wonder songs in place of hymns), a talk in place of a sermon, a period of silence and so on.
In many ways it was a fascinating experience.
I sang.  Wholeheartedly.  Though, as you know, that is what I do.
I laughed.  Quite a lot.
I also learnt something.  The highlight was a talk by an incredibly clever and articulate particle physicist called Dr Harry Cliff, who somehow managed to explain the existence of the universe in a clear way.  Which is something.
Watching as a communal professional, there were touches which showed real thought – being welcomed in by someone on the door- for example.  We know how important that is.

There was potential there – as in similar organisations such as Alain de Botton’s School of Life.  The calendar of religion – as de Botton puts it – provides ‘appointments with ideas’.  The Sunday Assembly seeks to do the same – to provide a similar frame for those who feel unable to be within organised religion.

But, ultimately, the event reminded me why what we do, together in this space, is so important.  It reaffirmed for me why I am so happy in religious life, why what I do really matters.  The differences between that and this crystallised the specialness of this.

Each of the ideas it provoked is probably a sermon – or four – in itself, but let me give you a very speedy overview of my impressions.

The first thing to note was that it was led by comedians.
And comedy and religion – they are not the same thing.
Comedy takes you on a journey in order to surprise – it takes you somewhere and then jars, shocks, pulls you out.  Prayer, though is about being within the flow of an experience together – not shattering it for effect.
Comedy takes you somewhere uncomfortable for laughs.  Religion is about being willing to be in the uncomfortable spaces not for effect but because they are where big questions get asked.
Religion, in other words, is serious.  Not, I hope, over-serious, not overly earnest, not heavy upon us – the Big Bang I just came from proves that – but wholehearted.

The Sunday Assembly does not take itself seriously enough – does not recognise or embrace its own power.
There was a moment in the event that for me undermined the whole experience.  At a moment in the service which was dedicated to Wonder, we sang a song by Stevie Wonder.  It was funny – but it didn’t do anything.
It was childish, when what the moment demanded was that we be child-like – in awe of that which is around us.

Underlying this was the lack of humility in the room – the sort of humility that religion allows us to embrace.  The Sunday Assembly, and events like it, are essentially self-referential – this is about me.
But a fundamental part of religious life is what we would call bittul hayeish – the negation of the self – the awareness that what matters most is not me.
That comes from the possibility of otherness, of transcendence – whether as reality or as metaphor, the possibility of something greater beyond ourselves.  The openness to genuine wonder.  The liturgy that we have, the rituals we share, the texts we study, even the spaces that we build – they remind us that we are not the centre of the universe.

What these also do, of course, is to give us a frame through which we can think about who we are and how we are, without which we run the risk of descending into relativism – incapable of making judgements, incapable of privileging any aspect of our lives over any other.
The Sunday Assembly suffered from this too – their slogan – ‘live better’, but there was no sense of what betterness is like – because there was no shared frame through which to discuss it.
‘Wonder more’ but it is wonder without form, without purpose.  An amazing talk from an incredible man but then… no outcome, no sense of ‘ought’.

What differentiates what we do in this space is that it has that content.  Yes it is about learning, yes it is about laughter and singing and joy – but it is also about transforming ourselves.  It is the difference, as de Botton notes, between a talk and a sermon – one is concerned with imparting information, the other with – pompous as it might sound – changing our lives.  Not in every moment, and not, I hope, in a pompous, preachy kind of way – but underneath what we do is purpose.

In truth, though, none of these are the reason that I won’t be going back.
The reason I won’t return to the Sunday Assembly is that I don’t need to.
And I don’t believe anyone else does either.

The creators of the Sunday Assembly make the claim that they can learn from religion.  That they can take some of the qualities that we have for themselves.
It is an idea explored before them by Alain de Botton, whose book, Religion for Atheists, I really recommend.
I am not offended by this.  I do not object, in de Botton’s words, to being used like a buffet.

But it does make a fundamental mistake about religion.
If they really understood religion, they would not seek to plunder religion for its qualities but to live within it.

That they do not do so reflects a lack of understanding of religious life – it reflects an idea, evidently held by all but two of us that Sunday morning, that religion is fundamentally about dogma, that religion requires you to believe.
The idea that religion demands of all those who choose to enter through its door that they buy in fully to the totality of the tradition without questioning, struggling, or saying no.
That there is a binary, yes/no-ness to religion – believer-non-believer, in or out.  That it is impossible to be both religious and a-theistic.

But that is patently not true.  Not ideologically and not in practice.
A survey of scientists conducted by Rice University in America found that 1 in 5 of scientists who self identified as atheist in the US are also actively involved in a religious community.
They recognise that religion is far more complex and interesting than these new institutions would have us believe.
Though all religions are essentially theistic, our communities contain multiple voices, multiple ideologies, a full spectrum of belief, and of doubt.
What is shared is a common literature and practice, a common liturgical poetry, and above all a willingness to be open – to the possibility of otherness and to one another.  To say – it is not all about me.
The only reason that anyone in that church hall that Sunday morning could not find a place inside organised religion is not lack of belief but lack of imagination.

So, to all those who surprised me by asking: Was it really me? What was it like?
The answer was yes, it was me.
And what was it like – it was funny, it was clever in parts.  I laughed and I sang.
But it was not enough.  It lacked the humility and openness, the seriousness and sense of purpose that real religion can bring.
It made me remember how special what we have is.
Something not to be featured on the regional news, but to be proclaimed to the heavens.