With more and more people identifying as non-religious, secular congregations are finding ways to help us live better, together — but is this even a new thing?
*originally written between June 2017 to December 2017.
It’s just gone 11am on a bright Sunday morning in June, and I’m in a hall in central London, with 300 strangers singing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Very Superstitious’ at the top of my lungs. No, this is not an intoxicated continuation from the night before, nor a sober morning rave. Everyone has arrived, bright eyed and bushy tailed for a session at the Sunday Assembly.
Housed in Conway Hall, a striking old building in Holborn, central London, the Sunday Assembly describes itself as ‘a secular congregation that celebrates life’. It is, essentially, a non-religious service with a format that emulates a Christian Sunday service. However, instead of singing hymns, they sing pop songs. Instead of listening to sermons, they listen to talks from speakers who are life coaches, artists and human rights workers. Instead of reading passages from the Bible, they hear from poets and spoken word artists. Instead of listening to a priest, they listen to Sanderson Jones — a comedian and the co-founder of Sunday Assembly (albeit with an appearance unlike how I’d imagined Jesus to look — tall and bearded, with long hair and a throaty laugh). Instead of worshipping a God, they worship at the altar of David Bowie. The only thing that has not been modified is the donation buckets, which do their rounds in much the same way.
Sunday Assembly is the first secular congregation of its kind sweeping predominantly across the UK, the US and Australia, with an increasing presence in other countries too. Founded five years ago, it currently has 70 outlets in eight countries and is designed to help bring back the sense of community that once flourished when being religiously affiliated was more widespread. But is this really a new phenomenon? If religion has historically helped people make sense of their lives, is there really a more effective secular alternative?
A crisis of faith
It can be argued that nothing has mobilised humanity into civilisation quite like religion has. Religion has motivated people to build huge cathedrals, to take on arduous pilgrimages and, most importantly, to create the things that organise societies today such as government and law, literacy and morality, the family structure, marriage and the arts.
In April 2016 an article in National Geographic magazine declared ‘the world’s newest major religion is no religion’. In it, it stated that “around the world, when asked about their feelings on religion, more and more people are responding with a ‘meh’.” Though Christianity is still the world’s largest religious group, by 2060, the total number of religiously unaffiliated people (atheists, agnostics, or those who don’t identify with any religion in particular) is expected to rise to 1.2 billion.
I set out to explore why becoming religiously unaffiliated in the West has become so much of a big deal for some people, and what (if anything) is replacing it. What does this mass migration away from organised religion mean? Could be that it just doesn’t feel relevant to people anymore, or has just become out of touch with the trials and tribulations of modern life?
Recent reports from a number of research outlets have shown a clear indication of the growing popularity for the religious unaffiliated. Pew Research Center, a global think tank on people’s changing attitudes, has driven a huge amount of its research focus into the state of religious values in the US, UK and Australia. It has found that non-religion is now the fastest-growing ‘religious’ group in these countries, and have aptly nicknamed them ‘the Nones’ (to refer to those who tick ‘None’ on diversity forms). Currently, nearly half (48%) of American people refer to themselves as atheist or agnostic, 53% of the British public also do, and this rises to 62% in Australia. At a forum event on the Future of World Religions, researcher Alan Cooperman, talks about the “secularising West and the rapidly growing rest”, showcasing that this phenomenon is somewhat contained to those countries.
Yet also across those countries, not only is secularism on the rise, but so too are levels of loneliness, depression and suicide. In June 2014, the Office for National Statistics named Britain the loneliest capital of Europe ,and this year, Fortune magazine declared that “chronic loneliness is a modern day epidemic”.
Loneliness is defined as ‘perceived social isolation’. It is also the understanding that humans are inherently social beings, and evolutionary studies show that forming bonds were key to our survival. In addition, it is now estimated that 1 in 6 people experience a common mental health problem. I wondered whether this cocktail of collective issues had any effect in the creation of secular communities and congregations like Sunday Assembly.
Josh Bullock, a sociologist and academic researcher, has just finished a PhD on secular congregations. He spent 4 years studying, observing and interviewing people of the Sunday Assembly. He puts its popularity down to the combination of more and more people living and moving to cities as opposed to smaller towns, an increasingly secular population, and the widespread use of the internet that has seen many communities move online, diminishing the physical proximity people spend with others IRL.
“I think the Sunday Assembly has come around at just the right time,” he says. “The message is about community, which wouldn’t have worked in the 90’s or even the noughties because the narrative coming out from New Atheist’s such as Richard Dawkins was saying that religion is evil. I think we’ve moved past that way of thinking now to what the non-religious can do instead.”
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as “a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order”.
If we think about religion as a system of norms and values but remove the belief in the ‘superhuman order’, all we are left with is organised community. This is what the Sunday Assembly does. In a world that is becoming increasingly secular, they have recognised the importance of community, and one that offers the ultimate solution to a first world problem — that people must feel like individuals, but also feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves.
The post-Christian memory
In an online article on Zocalo Magazine, contributor Richard Flory, a researcher at the USC Centre for Religion, discusses how religion strengthens community in three ways. The first is about spiritual and psychological support. “Since religion deals in “ultimate” matters, it helps people make sense of their lives, as well as their role in their families and in their communities.” The second is about grouping together of ‘like-types’, bonded by shared values or beliefs which allows them to identify with one another. The last one explains that religious communities take responsibility for those less advantaged.
By using these three principles, we can understand the Sunday Assembly as a secular congregation that mimics religion, specifically borrowing from Christian rituals. Bullock calls this ‘the post-Christian memory’. Though much of the media coverage about the Sunday Assembly has called it an ‘atheist church’, Bullock thinks it is not entirely secular. “What the Sunday Assembly does is essentially borrow from the Christian memory. So they’re taking these rituals which have worked for thousands of years, and then secularising them. Thus, it’s becoming post-Christian.”
Specifically, he says, it mirrors a certain type of Christianity — the happy clappy Evangelical type which is big on music and singing. This contributes to the Sunday Assembly’s overwhelmingly positive approach. “They still have a moment of reflection where they bow their head, they sit in lines, they stand up to sing….if you didn’t know what it was, you’d be forgiven for saying you thought it was a church service.”
Nearly everyone that Bullock interviewed were people from small towns who had moved to London. They were people that missed the sense of community that they had growing up which is tougher to find in a metropolitan city comprised of nearly nine million people. “There is almost like a romanticism to it, a nostalgia going back to what they enjoyed, drinking tea on a Sunday and going to the pub.”
The grouping together of like-types was a particularly interesting point of research for Bullock. “You’d have to be blind not to notice the demographics,” he says. “They have the slogan that they are inclusive and open to all which might be the case, but looking around it’s not that diverse and they don’t reflect the wider london they situate in.”
To describe the demographics, Bullock put together a profile he calls ‘Jane’. Jane is a Waitrose shopper, a Magic FM listener, a Guardian reader. “Jane is the sociological ideal type that represents the majority of the people who I’ve met and spoken to at the Sunday Assembly,” he says. “In terms of her ethnicity she’s white, she’s British, she’s middle class, she’s from a Christian religious background but now no longer believes, and she has somewhat humanist values.”
The Sunday Assembly congregation usually has more female attendees than male, but this isn’t usually the case in a lot of religious groups. “There’s definitely a paradox in that mainly all studies I know show that men are more non religious than women,” he says, which is why his profile type is a woman.
Bullock has pinned it down to four things which help to decipher the reasoning behind the Sunday Assembly’s homogenous demographic. The first, he explains is that the congregation reflects the preachers — Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, both ex-comedians who hold a celebrity-like status at the Sunday Assembly. Both are white, middle class and in their mid 30’s. The second, is how people hear about it. “They’re not hearing about it from posters in the job centre, they’re hearing about it on TimeOut or Radio4,” he says. “Of course once you hear about it you tell your friends, you know ‘birds of a feather flock together’, and your friends will probably be like you.”
The third is that most people who used to attend church are white, which plays into the post-Christian memory. But Bullock thinks that it is also down to the song choice — and nostalgia plays a key part. “If you have all these people going and they start singing Drake, they’re probably going to leave because they’re gonna find it boring,” he says. “But give them a bit of Queen and it’s the best thing ever, it’s reliving good memories for them.”
The content of the assembly is also quite intellectual. Bullock likens some of it to TED talks, therefore attracting academic types. “Lot’s of them are like ‘oh this is really great we’ve learnt something today’, but then on the other hand if you’re not that way inclined you’re not gonna take much from it.”
One of the biggest indicators is the time commitment. “Even meeting on a Sunday morning is quite a luxury, only certain people have that free time, others work,” he says. “If you do everything — the tea and chats after, then lunch, then the pub, it’s giving up a whole free day.”
The Sunday Assembly has created community (and communities) using the strength of religion, in this case the lack of. The Sunday Assembly is not necessarily a cult, nor merely just a community meetup. Each assembly, across each of its outlets, follows the same format. It begins with singing, an introduction to the theme from its host, a performance from a poet, a guest speaker, more singing, community notices, a moment of reflection (two minutes of silence and head-bowing), passing round the donation buckets, a speech from a member of the congregation always titled “(insert name) Is Trying Their Best”, finished up with more singing, tea and cake, then lunch followed by a trip to a nearby pub. Each session has a different theme and its songs are curated accordingly (Davy Jones’ ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ for the ‘Home’ themed session), and people are always greeted at the door with a rambunctious high five from a dedicated volunteer.
Though the Conway Hall setup is both theatrical and impressive, it doesn’t quite err on the side of concert. “Part of the charm of Sunday Assembly is that things do go wrong,” Bullock says. “Sometimes the power doesn’t work, people will mess their speeches up, others will sing the wrong words.”
But what exactly compels people to turn up in the first place? “When I was in Holland attending one of the assemblies, somebody there told me: ‘you don’t go to the Sunday Assembly if you’re happy, you go there because you’ve got an itch that needs scratching’.”
People of Sunday Assembly
I attended the Sunday Assembly every fortnight from the beginning of June 2017 until the end of November 2017. I attended one on imposter syndrome, one on ‘Home’, another on how to perceive gender, how to think like a toddler, how to say ‘yes to life’. Though it is a fortnightly event, over time I grew a deep respect for the regulars who consistently get up early on a Sunday to attend.
I met Andy Maclean the second time I went to Sunday Assembly. I didn’t find him, rather, he found me. He sat himself down beside me and opened up the conversation with such ease that I assumed he was a seasoned Sunday Assembly goer. “I’ve actually only been coming here less than a year,” he said. “It’s good fun, and something to do on a Sunday”.
He’s never been religious, but enjoys attending the Sunday Assembly. “I like their mission of trying to live a full life,” he says. “I personally struggle a lot with self doubt, and I think just coming to a place like Sunday Assembly is one layer of just reminding yourself of what’s possible”.
Maclean is 42 years old and works in foreign exchange for Investec. Hailing from New Zealand, it’s understandable that he draws his energy and sense of community and belonging from friends and organisations, as his own family is so far away. But I quickly get the impression he is what you could call a ‘joiner’. “In many ways coming to Sunday Assembly is more appealing to me, it’s much more social, much more about connection and I assume probably gives me some stability.” His affiliation and involvement in various community groups seems to have no end — The Sunday Assembly, Yes Tribe, Escape the City. His recent work at the latter has found him starting up his own community — a paddling school called ‘LittlePaddle’.
Maclean’s had a tough time. He left his job after eight years at Investec in 2014 and spent some time away travelling alone. He returned to Investec earlier this year, after a three-year doing many different things to help him get back on track, because back in April 2012, Maclean’s wife committed suicide.
“The end of 2011, was a really crazy time for me, for us,” he says. “I no doubt took my eye off the relationship.” Him and his wife had been married just over a year and Maclean felt that they were rushing the relationship, already talking about having kids and finding a home to buy. He decided they would take a trip together just after Christmas of 2011. Maclean had just finished his MBA and just wanted a chance to relax, but the trip turned out to be a disaster.
“I was just getting pissed all the time, not paying attention to her,” he said. “Then from there it just sort of spiralled really. In her dying letter she accused me of sabotaging the relationship, and I think there’s some truth to that.”
That winter had been a hard time for Maclean and his wife, and he decided that rather than having kids they should address the problems in their marriage, but she didn’t feel the same way. “It just wasn’t going well, and I thought well, what to do about this? I decided let’s just take a break, let’s just have a bit of time out from each other and see where we land. That hit her really hard.”
It was in February 2012 when they decided to have some space from one another, and two months later she was dead. Neither him, nor her family or her friends had seen it coming, but it was particularly poignant for Maclean because during that time, he had been working with the Samaritans receiving training on how to look out for signs of suicide. “It’s a really hard pill to swallow when the most important person in your life has committed suicide, and you’ve just trained in the training that helps people in this situation.”
Since then Maclean’s battled with depression and alcoholism. “I live alone, have done ever since my wife died and haven’t really adapted to a form of home life, but I’m sure it’ll happen with time.” He is still single, though he finds comfort in his work and his communities.
For Bullock, one of the key things that stood out from his research on the Sunday Assembly was that everyone he spoke to was dealing with some kind of emotional crises at the time. “On first glance they all look happy, everyone’s singing and dancing, but deep down a lot of them are fundamentally unhappy with some aspect of their lives,” he says. He thinks that they find attending the Sunday Assembly therapeutic and see it as a vehicle to live better — without necessarily being a radical act. “They seek comfort but they can’t attend a church because it would be hypocritical to their beliefs.”
Bullock thinks of the Sunday Assembly as a kind of halfway house. “It is fulfilling the needs of people who are seeking the emotional benefits that come with being part of a community,” he says. “But it’s not an atheist thing so there’s no real deviance or stigma to it.”
Though his concept of the post-Christian memory applies to the Sunday Assembly’s format and majority demographics, there are many like Maclean who attend having never been Christian, or even just religious. “It might be strange for some who have negative aversions to religion and attend the Sunday Assembly because it might bring up bad memories for them,” he says. Of the non-religious Sunday Assembly attendees that I spoke to, many of them said they felt this discomfort triggered specifically by things like the donation buckets, but Bullock thinks this doesn’t quite cover it.
“There’s a very particular kind of social capital which operates in congregations different to any other groupings. Need a job? Someone in the congregation will help you. It’s that kind of support,” he says. “So for the people who’ve never had religion, they might’ve seen their friends go to church when they were growing up and now want a sense of that kind of belonging by attending the Sunday Assembly.”
However the retention of people is something that the Conway Hall branch of Sunday Assembly particularly struggle with. Each time I attended, though there was always a core group, it seemed like half the room were always there for the first time, maybe curious about the novelty of the idea.
According to Bullock, it takes about a year to truly embed yourself in the community. “I think it’s the people who attend alone that end up being more involved, the people who ‘graduate’,” he says. He thinks that although the Sunday ritual is key, it’s really the smaller hobby and interest-based groups where people belonging. There is a choir group, a knitting group, theatre group, vinyl group, reading group, poetry group, naturists group, wild swimming group.
These clubs are also another indicator of Bullock’s ‘Jane’ profile. Because they are run by the attendees themselves (though they do receive a little help from the core organisation team), all the groups reflect typically middle-class activities. “You won’t have a football group of lads who just wanna go to the pub and watch the game together,” he says. “That has the ability to ostracise some people because if you’re not middle class and you go there and realise these are all people doing very different things to you, you’re not gonna stick around.”
Claire Ferraro is one of these Sunday Assembly ‘graduates’. I met her at the Article Club, where a small group of Sunday Assembly attendees gather in the mezzanine of the Royal National Theatre in Southbank, London to discuss their thoughts on previously agreed texts, then of course adjourn to the pub. Ferraro has recently taken ownership of the Article Club and has relaunched it after her predecessor. Each club is run by the people of Sunday Assembly and there is no stipend or remuneration.
She has been attending the Sunday Assembly for nearly three years now. Ferraro grew up in Buckinghamshire, and moved to London five years ago. “London is inevitably this kind of place where you feel like you have lots of friends but they’re all dotted around,” she says. “I often see individuals but I rarely see a group together, and I think I was really missing that sense of being in a group.”
It took Ferraro, like many, a few months of dipping in and out to start to really feel involved in the Sunday Assembly. “It’s been a slow burn. I like the big assembly and the tea and chats after, but it felt quite transient and you’d see different people every week every time,” she says. “I definitely feel a greater sense of connection as a consequence of getting more involved in the community groups.”
Ferraro also plays the saxophone in the Sunday Assembly band, admittedly one of the most importants cogs in the machine of the congregation. “Personally the best bit about Sunday Assembly is the band and the songs, that sense of community you get singing next to somebody you’ve never met before.”
Unlike Maclean, Ferraro plays into Bullock’s idea of the post-Christian memory. She comes from a Catholic background, and at university was part of the Christian union as well as also having dipped her toes in Evangelical Christianity. “I think because I wanted a community and I was new at university, it felt comforting to be part of something I was familiar with,” she says. “It was only after a few months that I realised my worldview and my ethical stance was quite different in contrast to the people I was surrounding myself with.”
“I think ever since I’ve stopped going to church I’ve been looking for something to fill that gap, and that’s what Sunday Assembly has done for me.” Ferraro explains that for her, attending the Sunday Assembly has given her structure to her weekend and month. She also admits that if it wasn’t for Sunday Assembly, she probably would’ve left London a long time ago.
Because she came from a Catholic background, Ferraro was a little nervous telling her parents that she started attending the Sunday Assembly. “It was a bit scary, it was almost like coming out! But I think they were just happy I had found something to belong to.”
Ferraro is 31 years old and has worked and trained as a doctor, but recently left her job to take leave from London to Bristol and become a GP. She already feels a sense of home in Bristol as she recently went to attend the Sunday Assembly there as a way to suss out if she’d have a community when she eventually moves over.
But for all that it gives her, Ferraro would like to see Sunday Assembly do more. “As a doctor I come across so many different types of people and I would love to see the Sunday Assembly become more diverse and attract people from different backgrounds.” She also thinks it could benefit from aligning itself to a more historical school of thought. “It’s not a new idea to generate a community without religion. I think there would be benefits to describing the Sunday Assembly in a way that understands that it’s part of a long history that goes before five years ago,” she says. “I would like to learn more about humanism and I think that Sunday Assembly would be quite a good forum to learn about it. We’re already humanist without labelling it as that.”
For Bullock, part of the bind that religion has is about the group suffering and the memory of it. “It’s like we’ve been through this together, this is your history, which the Sunday Assembly doesn’t have. They’re gonna need to build new rituals to make it binding, to make it stick.”
However the Sunday Assembly seems to keep a fair distance from humanist thought and principles. “They’re like Liam and Noel Gallagher, they like each other deep down, there’s love there but they don’t wanna work with each other right now,” he says. “When you’re at the assembly they’ll never mention humanism though they are humanist in their principles. They just don’t talk about it.”
One of the attempts to create an equivalent of a doctrine for the Sunday Assembly, is something Bullock mentions they call ‘secular spirituality’. “I do wonder if it’s something that they’re going to ramp up as something that would create a bind,” he says. “Like we’re spiritual but not religious, come and join if you feel the same.”
To thine own self be true
It is hard not to notice the grand building that Sunday Assembly central London is housed in. During the assembly, a beam that frames the ceiling of the stage is emblazoned with the words: ‘TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE’. I began to wonder about the significance of the space, and what Conway Hall really is about.
After some initial research, I spent one Wednesday afternoon perusing Conway Hall. First opened in 1929 as South Place Chapel, it is now known by Conway Hall after Moncure Daniel Conway, an anti-slavery, feminist and freethought advocate. It is owned by the Conway Hall Ethical Society and thought to be the not only the oldest surviving freethought organisation in the world, but the only remaining one in the UK. I learn that Conway Hall is the home for secular humanism, and I go on a mission to learn both what humanism is, and what exactly is an ethical society. In a piece on the Sunday Assembly, Guardian journalist Andrew Brown calls Conway Hall “a temple of atheism in central London”.
I started this mission in the library of Conway Hall. Though small, its collection has items that date back beyond the 1600’s, showing that humanist thought has been around a long time. The library is the largest and most comprehensive humanist resource of its kind. Walking around Conway Hall has the same feeling that you get walking around an empty church — it posses the same sense of formality whilst oozing with history, simultaneously echoing the footsteps of every person that has walked these halls before. I find it quite fitting that the Sunday Assembly is hosted there, and want to get to the root of how they found themselves here — and what, if any, are their links with humanism. I became curious about humanism, wondering whether the Sunday Assembly is a modern version of the humanist thought, disguised as church, or actually built from the post-Christian memory. If Sunday Assembly is the church, is humanism is the ideology that it stems from?
I returned to Conway Hall on Monday morning to meet Jim Walsh, its current CEO. From him, I learnt that, at its core, humanism is a philosophy and a way of life that is ethical and compassionate to our fellow humans, without the cause or need for a belief in the supernatural (phenomena), and most importantly, in an afterlife. Humanism reframes moral outlook by putting human beings at the centre of it, and doesn’t use the idea of an afterlife as free reign to act recklessly in this one.
When I asked Walsh how he would explain humanism, he directs me to the writings of Harold Blackham, where he states that ‘humanism is about the world, not about the word’.
“I take directive in that. So if someone asks me alright Jim, are you a humanist I would say yes. But what does it mean to be a humanist?” he says. “It means to realise that you have this one life, and to live it ethically, across all the strata of the world from culture to politics and science.”
Walsh has been the CEO of Conway Hall for six years. Like the Sunday Assembly, Conway Hall Ethical Society operates as an independent charity. When he started in 2011 he wanted to create a clear role and purpose for Conway Hall. “Our objective is to advance the study and education of humanist ethical principles. Everything we do in this building is for that goal.” I find irony in the fact that the Sunday Assembly does no such thing yet they are housed there.
Walsh works with the organisation Humanists UK to host a teacher conference every year. In the UK, there is no standardised form of religious education. This means that in every school across the country, religious education is being taught differently, and ‘religious literacy’ has become an issue of consternation with some suggesting that schools are breaking the law if they don’t provide it. With rising pressures in schools and non-traditional subjects being axed, it’s easy to see why secularism has been left on the back foot.
“Teachers across the UK aren’t confident in terms of how to teach secularism and what it might mean,” he says. “So what we do every year is we bring them in, tell them what humanism is and give them the actual teacher training resources. Then hopefully they can begin to feel comfortable about incorporating humanism into their teaching”.
Is it possible that one of the reasons why the Sunday Assembly has become so popular is because it has made the humanist ideology relevant for people in the modern age? Walsh understands this struggle.
“When I interview people for jobs to work here, a classic question I always have to ask is, right: ‘tell me the difference between — a humanist, a secularist, and someone who works for an ethical society or is a member of an ethical society,” he says. “At that moment, you always see them squirm, because that’s not easy. So I can understand why teachers kind of shy away from it.”
It seems that many people are confused about the values, belief systems and lifestyles that sit under the umbrella of secularism. This is why Walsh’s work at Conway Hall is so key — to educate people about the myriad of ways, forms and formats of secularism. People of faith turn to religion to help them make sense of the ‘ultimate matters’ of life (such as death, marriage, purpose, love), but with more people are identifying as non-religious, it makes sense to help those without belief find a space where they can also do the same.
“There is no doctrine to humanism. There isn’t a list of commandments that you know if you sign up to these ten things that will make you a humanist,” he says. “Humanism is about learning to think for yourself,” he says.
Walsh is pleased that the Sunday Assembly chose Conway Hall as their home. It initially begun in a church in Islington, North London, but they soon had to move on. “It can be seen as just a dry hire, they just use the space and get on with it,” he says. “But what I do with them and other secular groups is that I help market their cause”. At a recent assembly where the theme was ‘Gendered Intelligence’, Walsh worked with the Sunday Assembly to turn the toilets in the building gender neutral. “We want to make sure we’re also a safe space for LGBT communities too”. It seems that by hosting the Sunday Assembly, it helps Conway Hall also stay relevant and close to the everyday issues of a changing society. But according to Walsh, this has always been the case in one way or another.
“I think there is a great affinity for anyone on the outside of society ‘norms’ to have an affinity with humanism,” he says. “Because humanists are also on the outside of society’s norms in terms of religion, and also how religion at times, and in different ways, has persecuted those who are on the outside means that there will always be a friendly welcome from a humanist organisation.”
For now at least, Conway Hall has become a fitting home for the Sunday Assembly, hosted in a place that has historically been a safe space for those critical of thought, identity and faith. “The Sunday Assembly is great at what it does and I want to support it. If it grows out of Conway Hall, then I’m fine with that,” Walsh says. “A lot of organisations have had their birth here and then got larger and gone on to do great things in the world.”
“We’re like atheists, but with ethics”
I was curious to learn more about humanism, to meet humanists, and to understand how they put their humanist ideology into practice in their day to day lives. On a balmy Friday evening in August, I made my way to Islington Assembly Hall in London for the drinks reception of the International Humanist Conference 2017. During the day there was a meetup of Young Humanists, and I ended up chatting to a couple of them over drinks. This is where I met Hannah Timson, a 23 year old theology student who is also the newly appointed president of Humanist Students. The conversation flowed from how Jeremy Corbyn’s new cult-like celebrity status is a form of populism, to how the legalisation of weed in Colorado, US has created a healthy economy that is bursting with young people.
“I bet you came to this to learn about humanism, but humanists talk about everything but humanism!” Hannah says. And she was right — I spent the rest of the weekend at the conference learning about everything but humanism.
The next day the delegation isn’t quite so young. Saturday was the official conference day, with the theme for this year being Populism, Extremism and threats to Humanism. It was held at The Royal Society in central London and the conference delegation was overwhelming white, male and barely under 35 years of age.
Over the course of the day I met humanists working to provide secular pastoral support in prisons; humanists advocating for religious freedom across the world; humanists working to make humanist marriage ceremonies legal.
I learnt that Humanism, though encompassing a variety of purposes, differs greatly in its main purpose across the international sphere. Humanist Scotland deals with ceremonies, Humanists UK with religious education, as well as a number of other humanist branches across the world primarily working to provide safety and legal counsel to those imprisoned for not having a faith. They are distinctly different jobs.
I later joined the delegation dinner held at Kingsway Hall Hotel, and spend most of it sat opposite Gordon MacRae, the Chief Executive of Humanist Scotland. He enlightened me about humanism in Scotland — how normal it is, how widespread, how big their celebrant network is, how humanist weddings are legal in Scotland. He later connected me with a couple of celebrants in Scotland to attend humanist ceremonies.
I asked him how he would define humanists and he says “we’re like atheists, but with ethics.”
We talked at length about humanism, and I bring up Sunday Assembly — but MacRae knows all about it. “The thing is, us humanists get together and discuss all manner of things but it’s very insular — we’re just talking to each other,” he says. “I wish Humanists UK had thought of doing something like Sunday Assembly years ago.”
Be more Wendy
I travelled to Exeter University to find out how humanism translates to young people, given that, on average, 20% more people in the under 30 bracket now identity as non-religious. It was Fresher’s week and I joined Timson and the Humanist Students crew at their stand in the Grand Hall for the Fresher’s fair to see how they recruit new students to humanism.
Exeter Humanist Students Society describes itself as a group that ‘celebrates human reason and rational thinking for atheist, agnostic and non-religious students’. Their stall was a small table wedged between the Evangelical Christian society and the Muslim society. For something that describes itself as definitively not a religion, it certainly looked badly placed there. I quickly realised this is part of the humanist struggle — nobody actually really knows what it is. Most students who came over were intrigued, though confused humanism with religious naturalism. However others came with heavier matters, and it’s clear that Humanist Students also provide a secondary kind of support offering.
“One of the guys who came up to us at Fresher’s Fair, hasn’t even told his family that he doesn’t believe in God anymore,” Timson tells me. “That must be a bloody difficult if everything every day is about religion, to do all the rituals and not have any heart in it. For me that’s what’s important, that’s why I do it, that’s why I shout about humanism.”
As they’re packing up, her partner at the Fresher’s stall Luke, fiddles with a £10 note. He looks at me and says “I’m really annoyed they put Jane Austen on it.” I gear up for the anticipated sexist statement. “It’s not because she’s a woman — I think it’s really great she’s on there — but because they removed Charles Darwin, the only atheist person on all our currency”. It’s moments like this where I realise that faith really is so embedded in our society, and that to ‘borrow’ from Christian memory makes sense.
After the fair, we head off to a local Wetherspoon, George’s Meeting House, which fittingly, used to be an old church. As we walk there Timson tells me all about the churches of Exeter and the next morning, I make a point of visiting Exeter Cathedral.
Timson is an incredibly articulate, intelligent girl who posses a maturity beyond her years. Though born and bred in Hackney, London, she always felt that her interests were a little incongruous to the environment she grew up in. She sings opera, loves the theatre, and is a big fan of fairytales and children’s stories. It seems she’s always been comfortable being a misfit, and being around misfits.
“I am drawn to very socially awkward people, not because I’m socially awkward, but I’ve always been kind of an outsider,” she says. “You find that the sort of people are attracted to humanism are somewhat misfits because they’ve been sidelined by society.”
Being one of the few females in a community is also something that Timson has been very familiar with. “Growing up I was the only female scout. I did not want to sit and make peace corners with the Guides, I wanted to climb trees! I wanted to make a difference.” I ask her how does she feel being the only female on the Humanists Students team.
“When I look at humanism and the reason that most people are older, and male, is that the language is too academic,” she says. “Women generally tend to be more social and emotional beings, which I think is why humanism perhaps needs to take a different direction in order to incorporate different kinds of people. I don’t really wanna be the only woman, but humanism right now is very objective, it’s abstract. It’s not getting together to have food and chat.”
Timson thinks this is why humanism has a tough time recruiting people, and why things like the Sunday Assembly are so popular. She feels that people don’t join humanism because they shy away from some of the most important day to day conversations. There are humanist social gatherings — something she mentions is the Think & Drink, and humanist brunches, but it doesn’t quite have the same level of stickiness. “It doesn’t bring people together as a community and you don’t really get to know each other at a deeper level.” I joined Timson and the Humanists Students Society for their annual atheist pub quiz, and aside from a few atheist themed questions, the experience is not at all ‘sticky’.
Coming from an Evangelical Christian background, I asked her what she thinks of Sunday Assembly, and their appropriation of this format. “The issue I have with a lot of the churches particularly these big Evangelical ones [or those that mimic it] is that it’s theatre,” she says. “Theatre is designed to manipulate you and make you feel a certain way. It allows people to be transported to a place where they can suspend disbelief in something.”
When Hannah was 17 years old, she was picked to spend a summer in the US amongst the religious Amish community as part of the Channel 4 documentary, Living with the Amish. “The opportunity came probably at the best time it could’ve come to be honest,” she says. “I just applied for it on Facebook. I think I’m pretty sure they were looking for somebody who was quite religious, and at the time I was a very Evangelical happy clappy Christian, played in the worship band, went to church five times a week.”
Before then, she’d been off track for about a year and was starting to doubt her faith. She recalls the story of how her mother had been praying to God to find something for her that would not only keep her busy all summer, but also restore her faith.
“I find it quite funny because the experience actually made me lose my faith,” she says. “I knew I hadn’t been well, but I thought I was just being lazy.” She was later diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid condition which initially her doctor thought had been depression. “I just kind of spaced out of life for a little bit.”
Timson knew she’d completely lost her faith around six months after she returned from her Amish experience. “It took me going there to see that the entire thing was insane, that it didn’t match up with my worldview, and yet I had grown up believing this.”
A lot of the filming for the documentary had to be done in secret, and Timson still regularly hosts events (titled Amish to Atheist) where she talks about how her Amish experience pushed her to lose her faith. “It was one of those experiences that was sort of half like a dream. I’m still friends with one of the guys who was there with me and we regularly meet up to remind each other that it actually happened!”
During my time with her, Timson references fairytales several times, and I asked her why they interest her so much. “You can learn a lot about human behaviour and the way that we observe the universe through fairytales,” she says. She tells me about an essay she wrote recently, one that she clearly has thought deeply about. Her favourite quote is ‘to die would be an awfully big adventure’, which is said by Peter in the story of Peter Pan.
But Hannah’s interest in the story of Peter Pan very much aligns with her philosophy as a humanist. Her essay was actually focused on being more like Wendy, not Peter. “Peter is the eternal child, whereas Wendy chooses to leave Neverland to grow up, and she has children and she dies,” she says. “Christianity, I would say idolises the little boy that is Peter Pan, and so my essay was all about the relationship between genesis and the story of Peter Pan. It made a lot of sense to me because Peter is like Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, never escaping never getting out, constantly stuck in a rut of we are, this is perfection, life is perfect, we will never die, I will never grow up. But humanism, humanism grows up.”
A few weeks after I last see her, she decides to get the quote tattooed on her arm.
Rituals and ceremony
Later on in the summer, I travelled to Scotland to join a couple of humanist celebrants. Humanist ceremonies are very popular in Scotland, and Humanists Scotland has its own branch outside of Humanists UK. I tried to attend a humanist funeral, but for obvious reasons it wasn’t deemed appropriate. I instead joined a humanist wedding and a humanist naming ceremony, the latter the equivalent of a Christian christening/baptism.
The motto of the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) is to “celebrate the one life we have”. There are over a hundred HSS registered celebrants in Scotland alone. Not every celebrant in Scotland is female, and not all of them are called Caroline, but these are the two that I met.
I wrestled through the Fringe crowds to the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel to attend the humanist wedding of Lorna and Richie Symms. It was hosted by Caroline Pearson, a raven-haired lady in her 50’s.
Though Scotland is one of the few places where you can have a legal humanist wedding, the Richie’s wedding ceremony was not. For practical reasons they had to get married in a registry office a year earlier on the day, but this was the ceremony they had been waiting for. Both previously married, divorced and with children, the ceremony included a traditional Scottish handfasting to represent the blending of families. All vows were written by themselves and it was a small, intimate and joyful event that felt completely personal.
Pearson is registered celebrant for all three types of humanist ceremonies (wedding, funeral, naming), but she tends to do more funerals and weddings than naming ceremonies. “I love my funeral work, it’s just such a privilege to work with families during that time,” she says. “Perversely, they’re actually very similar to a wedding in some ways because it’s all about love and drawing on people’s memories.”
All humanist ceremonies are designed by the participants themselves, aided by the celebrant. There aren’t many protocols that one has to follow like most religious ceremonies, and this means that each humanist ceremony can be quite different, and completely customised for its participants.
Pearson used to work as a photographer, and from covering a few humanist weddings she decided this was something she wanted to do. She didn’t identify as a humanist until her 30’s, but she grew up Catholic which instilled in her the importance of formal celebrations. “Rituals help people make sense of the journey we’re on,” she says. “People are designed to love each other and they should have an opportunity to celebrate that whether they have faith or not.”
I asked Pearson what it means to her to be a humanist. “Humanism is about something to believe in. As opposed to just atheism, it’s a catalogue of things that are rather than things that aren’t.”
Pearson tells about all manner of the types of ceremonies she’s done before. One story she tells is about a little boy who loved stones, so for his naming ceremony each person wrote their name on stones which he collected in a jar as a memento for the event. Another was a same-sex marriage which was combined with naming ceremonies for the children of each person coming together as one family. “People can also rename themselves later in life and have a naming ceremony for that,” she says. “Whether it’s to shake off past baggage or because they’re changing their gender identity, there are myriad ways that people can make their humanist ceremony mean something for them.”
Same-sex ceremonies are a particular favourite for Pearson to facilitate. “Some of what a same-sex marriage is acknowledgement and saying we’ve waited til the law changed and now we’re doing this,” she says. “Those are particularly joyful because you know they’ve struggled to get to that point and for me it’s always that bit more poignant.”
“My favourite thing about what I do is people coming out from a humanist ceremony and saying wow, that was so cool, so different, and really personal,” she says. “I think that’s what we humanist celebrants do really well, but I would also like to see the church up it’s game so that people of faith can have something of similar quality.”
The next day I travelled by train from Edinburgh to Uphall, where I met Caroline Lambie, a tall, slim, fast-talking woman in her 30’s. It’s early Sunday afternoon and she’s driving me to the naming ceremony of Emily, a nine-month old baby from parents Caroline and Barry Rust. The naming ceremony was held in the function room of The Club in Broxburn. Like Pearson, Lambie is a trained celebrant in all three types of ceremonies but her favourite is to faciliate naming ceremonies.
The function room was kitted out like a formal dinner except adorned in pale pink, with dressed chairs, round tables, balloons, confetti and little square chocolates printed with Emily’s picture and date of birth on. There was even a bouncy castle in the corner to keep the other children entertained. Around 30 people turned up to the ceremony, dressed in their best clothes. Emily, the baby, is kitted out in a long white dress, not unlike one you’d see a baby wearing at their Christening in a church.
“It’s about having that extra something, an opportunity to celebrate a new life,” she tells me. It’s clear that Lambie just loves working with children. She briefed me on the family, and told me that the ceremony was initiated by the mother. The father didn’t see much point to it, and it was clear looking around the room that everyone was a bit nervous.
The whole ceremony lasts for half an hour. Lambie begins with an introduction, explaining herself, Humanists Scotland and what humanism is. Lambie had worked with the parents to pick a piece of literature that could be read out for the ceremony. Lambie usually has a stack of options to choose from, and this one is a popular choice. She does a reading of Dr Seuss’s ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go!’, a very fitting selection to start off Emily’s life.
In humanist naming ceremonies, instead of choosing Godparents they choose Guideparents. Lambie uses paint to get the child and the Guideparents to stamp their handprints on coloured paper. This forms part of their certificate, binding their role to guide the child through her life.
The ceremony ends with a well wishing, read aloud by all members of the family and attendees of the celebration. “Lots of people, because they haven’t been to naming ceremonies, are a bit unsure of how to act,” Lambie told me. But by the end, the mood has lifted and everyone has relaxed and it has brought an occasion to the birth of a child which might not have otherwise been formally celebrated.
On Remembrance Sunday, a ceremony for the fallen soldiers is taking place in Fitzrovia Chapel in central London. The ceremony has been organise by Defence Humanists, the military group of Humanists UK.
Andy Wasley is one of these members. “You don’t have to believe in God or an afterlife to understand that it’s important to remember the sacrifice that people have made for the freedoms that we enjoy,” he says. “I think some people have an impression of a humanist Remembrance ceremony as being something wildly out there, or different from religious Remembrance services, but actually at its core it’s the same, it’s about gathering together and sharing our thoughts about what it means to live in a society that is sustained by people who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to sustain it.”
Wasley is 35 years old and lives in London, but is originally from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He has been serving in the RAF as a Reserves Officer since he was 19 years old, but has recently started working as a freelance travel photographer in his spare time. He found humanism through Defence Humanists UK back in 2013, and hasn’t looked back since.
“It’s always a privilege and a special opportunity for those of us who don’t have religious beliefs to gather and to share in each other’s company,” he says. “For me it’s a comfort to know that I can go to a ceremony that speaks my values where I don’t have to bow my head in prayer.”
Wasley has spent several years of his life in the past suffering quite badly from depression, and it was one of the reasons that saw him leave his Christian faith. “I found the idea of relying upon an invisible friend who never put a hand on my shoulder, never hugged me or comforted me was empty and made me feel more helpless I think than going through CBT. I realised that my recovery came from within me, it came from identifying patterns of thoughts that I could interrupt, and prayer did not help to interrupt those thoughts. If anything I think it might have reinforced them because it externalized my problems and felt like I could rely upon something else to deal with them. It was that that killed religious belief dead for me. I had any need for it.”
Aside from having a genetic predisposition to depression, Wasley’s had a tormented relationship with his mother. “I beat depression through good science and incredible support from a good therapist, not from a vicar or a prayer. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone without belief now, and I am definitely happier for it.”
Whilst serving an eight month stint in the Middle East with the RAF, Wasley met a man who, not only later became a good friend of his, but was the general secretary of Defence Humanists. “That was the kind of the gateway to humanism for me. It felt like coming home.”
I asked him if he has ever been religious. “There was a time when I thought that I was inclined to become a vicar,” he says. “I met a Catholic chaplain a few months ago who said he still thought I had a calling, which I reject completely of course.”
Wasley met his husband Tom back in 2011 through the online dating website OKCupid. He had actually signed up to the site to research its marketing methodologies when he received his first message. It was from Tom. “We met up, I tried to teach him radar theory which surprisingly didn’t deter him, and that was that. It was pretty clear from when we first met that this was going to be our journey.”
On the 3rd of September 2016, Andy and Tom celebrated their love with a humanist wedding ceremony held at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. “It was funny and uplifting and full of love,” he says. “As with all humanist ceremonies we had a chance to write it ourselves, which was fantastic because it meant that it was 100% our values and our ceremony.”
Where religions use their books, humanists look to literature. Andy & Tom’s wedding ceremony design included readings from the poem The Owl & the Pussycat by Edward Lear, and the essay “On Friendship” by Michel de Montaigne. “Montaigne is my favourite writer and so we had a excerpt from his essay on friendship, in which he expressed his love for his friend Etienne de Barci with the phrase ‘if you press me to say why I loved him so much, I feel I can give no answer other than because it was him, because it was me’, which to me captures my relationship with Tom perfectly. It just is. I don’t think if we’d gone to a church we’d ever have a chance to make it that personal.”
Though his husband Tom doesn’t identify as a humanist, he believes Tom has innately humanist values — and that he is not the only one. “I invited many family and friends to our humanist wedding, and I would say for most of them there it was the natural setting for them. So I think even people who don’t identify with humanism share those values.”
Wasley used to do some work with Stonewall, the LGBT equality charity, and though there were others working in the charity that both had faith and identified as LGBT, he just can’t subscribe to that view. “Religions have caused colossal damage to people like me. Not just gay people but also trans people, women, people of different races all over the world through the centuries,” he says. “I concede that there are religious people of minorities, sexual minorities or gender minorities who for whom religion squares perfectly with their worldview, but personally I find it very hard.”
The options for a religious ceremony are quite limited if you are having a same sex wedding. “If you’re a Catholic, you’re not going to have a same sex wedding in your church. If you’re from a traditional Orthodox Jewish background, you’re not going to have a gay wedding in your synagogue. But you can have a humanist wedding anywhere, so I think that’s a great attraction for people, because it’s a ceremony that doesn’t judge you,” he says. “It’s a ceremony that is still very much about who you are, but it doesn’t need the blessing of an authority for whom your very existence might be troubling.”
Retreat to the future
If humanists do conferences, Sunday Assembly does retreats. I travelled to Stretford Public Hall in Manchester to participate in the Sunday Assembly’s Retreat to the Future. Like many old buildings, it has an air of grandeur and a stillness that sets the scene. Their church is the town hall.
The weekend covers a whole host of exercises that begin to outline a person’s strengths and achievements, and is designed to help attendees kickstart a project that they have always wanted to do. It is a retreat for those privileged enough to reach the top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to ‘self-actualise’. It is an in depth look at each individual’s crisis through peer-to-peer therapy groups, and in true Sunday Assembly style, the sessions are broken up with lots of Bon Jovi and Bowie. I have never done so much sober singing in my entire life.
At the end of the first day I sat with Sanderson Jones, the co-founder, facilitator and resident preacher of Sunday Assembly. “If you go and think about what makes up the secular congregation, it’s fucking bonkers all the different parts. It’s so sophisticated and there’s so much to learn,” he says. “We often speak about the translation work, about how to translate all these wisdom traditions into something which everyone can do.”
Sanderson explains the Sunday Assembly as just one way of doing congregation. “Because there aren’t that many other secular congregations out there, people think ‘oh yeah they all have to sing pop songs’ and it’s like no, this is just a particular type of congregation.” He describes the Sunday Assembly as the Starbucks of coffee shops. They are a type of secular congregation, not the format itself.
He tells me about the TEDx talk he did recently in Brighton on a concept he created that he named ‘lifefulness’. The theme of the conference was utopias, and I wondered whether the Sunday Assembly is working so well now because the demographic of its congregation may think of their future as dystopian, rather than utopian.
“Lifefulness is to congregation as mindfulness is to meditation,” Sanderson explains to me. “In 1979 John Kabat-Zinn adapted Buddhist Vipassana meditation in a way that made it secular, inclusive and evidence based. He called this mindfulness. In 2013 Pippa Evans and I launched Sunday Assembly and started adapting the congregational community in a way that made secular, inclusive and evidence based. That’s lifefulness.”
Sanderson is committed to the idea of ‘lifefulness’ spreading further and wider than the Sunday Assembly. It is essentially an intellectualised form of the Sunday Assembly’s motto of learning to live a full life. Though Sunday Assembly has no doctrine, it is the crystallising of the ‘secular spirituality’ that Bullock had mentioned to me before. The Sunday Assembly are trying to find a bind that solidifies their philosophy into a single, simple idea.
I asked him whether he thinks the Sunday Assembly is a reappropriation of humanist principles. “A humanist view of the world is a key part of my motivation. But I want to use that in a way that as many people as possible can be in the room at the same time,” he says. “I am a humanist with a small ‘h’.” It’s clear that Sanderson thinks humanism is inaccessible, and maybe he’s right.
The Sunday Assembly’s retreats are currently touring different cities around the world, and they will continue to do so in the near future. It is comparable to the work of Christian missionaries, except instead of spreading the message of Jesus, Sanderson spreads the message of ‘lifefulness’. I’m not sure if I quite retreated to my future by the end of the weekend, but it made me think about Sunday Assembly’s future. If ‘lifefulness’ is more accessible than humanist ideology, will it create a bind for them in the future?
Bullock’s not so sure. “Currently you’ve got a group of people who are all similar ages, they have the same names, so many James’s and Kate’s and they’ve all grown up with varying degrees of religion,”he says. “They have similar life experiences, a lot of them went to university. So the bind right now is when they’re in a room together, they can talk to each other because they reflect each other.”
Bullock tells me that the Sunday Assembly are soon making their way into the Religious Education GCSE curriculum in the UK. “They’re described as a source of wisdom for non religious people,” he says. This is certainly a step forward in educating people about the branches of secularism, and may be a more effective way than Conway Hall’s humanist teacher conferences. But Bullock insists that the post-Christian memory is the strongest bind, and without that they might struggle to stay relevant for a newer, younger, more non-religious generation. “Like I said it’s people who’ve had a degree of Christianity in their lives before and are missing this. There won’t be the common story that everybody went to church and now they don’t.”
Even if the Sunday Assembly is going to be discussed in schools, Bullock thinks that might not quite cut it. “I wonder if the kids of the next generation won’t wanna go because it’s something mum and dad did on a sunday, I don’t wanna go to that. It’s a bit naff.”
He thinks the Sunday Assembly may go down the route into ritual making, ceremony hosting, or secular chaplaincy, but for now it’s successful at getting people in the doors. “I think that the religion or lack of religion is still a draw in the template,” he says. “Because what it does, what religion used to do so well and what it also does well, is it has answers for existential questions.”
For all the benefits the Sunday Assembly provides for its attendees, Bullock would like to see it do more in the future. “They do lots of these community cleanup projects, food banks, helped out for Grenfell Tower aid and stuff like that, but I’d like them to help the people in society that need it most,” he says. “Not just middle class types who are having existential crisis.”
Even if some people are not religious, our way of looking at the world has been framed by religion. In his book, Religion for Atheists, philosopher Alain de Botton says “the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.” Humanism, and Sunday Assembly are such efforts in moving along the narrative of the non-religious.
For now, the Sunday Assembly is the non-committal humanist congregation for the Millennial age. Will there be more secular congregations like the Sunday Assembly in the future? I’m not sure, but it’s clear to some degree that this is a step forward in building community and rituals for a growing non-religious population.
And, for whatever it’s worth, getting up early on a Sunday morning no longer seems too much of an effort after all.