Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Moving from Negative to Positive

By its very definition, atheism is a negative force.  It is about rebuttal of an idea, not an idea in itself.  The very word even has its sworn enemy, godliness, taking up most the letters.  The prefix “a” in atheism is derived from the Ancient Greek prefix meaning without – atheos – without gods.
For much of its early life, atheism had a big enough agenda poking out the eyes of theistic belief.  Faith was, and still is, so ingrained in humanity that we have been busy enough.  But in the end, it is all very well being correct in our criticisms.  Eventually we have to face the big dilemma.  Faiths arose for a reason.  We poor, vulnerable humans crave them to help with our need for solace for suffering, consolation in the face of death, moral guidance, powerful ritual and a sense of community.  This is the challenge.  We have won the intellectual war on God/s.  We have diminished the power of the sacred, particularly in the West.  What can we throw up as alternatives?
The Melbourne Sunday Assembly - a godless congregation in full flight
Sometimes alternatives are not needed.  The moral guidance from the bible is both uncertain and archaic and has easily been replaced by secular state based laws.  There are some uncertainties about these secular answers which are thrashed out not in church but on talk back radio and QandA.  We have Utilitarian alternatives but they are not needed for most people.  The secular state now is the cauldron in which moral issues such as gay and lesbian marriage are cooked and discussed. 
But there is a need for secular and civil ceremony.  We have replaced the religions in the rites of passage industry by mimicking the religious versions.  Civil weddings are chosen by the overwhelming majority of Aussies.  And secular funerals are common. There is a discussion to be had one day about whether these secular ceremonies are as successful as the sacred.  One could debate that the absence of community singing and the sense that an awe inspiring God is involved diminishes their power.  Maybe that is the case but I will leave that debate for another time. 
My point is that what I wrote at the start about atheism being only about negative repudiation is not an entirely correct picture.  The civil ceremonies show that we atheists sometimes fail to recognise that we have already dramatically changed the moral, ceremonial and cognitive world in the West.  So it is just not true to say that atheists are only negative even though our name implies otherwise. 
What about community ceremonies other than rites of passage?  A rite of passage is a ceremony of change.  Birth, adulthood, graduation, marriage, school reunions, retirement and death are the rites of change.  But what of the weekly communal gathering that, although losing steam in the West, still offers a basis for a community to gather and re emphasise common bonds and perform non verbal rituals together?  This we have lost with the loss of faith. 
But no longer.  A movement has arisen in Britain that is creeping around the globe.  The Sunday Assembly, a group for unbelievers to connect with like-minded individuals, is expanding from the UK to the USA and Oz.  The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Their motto has three pillars live better, help often, wonder more. They are a place where unbelievers can gather, sing and commune with like or indeed, different minds.
The Sunday Assembly started when two comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, realised that they wanted to do something that had all the best bits of church, but without the religion, and with awesome pop songs added.
The first version of this was in January 6th 2013, and though they weren’t expecting many people, the entire place was full. At the next Assembly there were 300. Then they had to go to two services a day.  And now it is going global.  Now there are 28 Assemblies across the world.
It is almost every Australian capital city and is growing.  Sydney is really humming (see and like Melbourne has its assembly on the last Sunday of the month. 
This isn’t the first attempt at such a project.  Humanism is a movement which embraces human logic and consciously rejects god and faith.  The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world union of 117 Humanist, rationalist, organisations in 38 countries.  Humanism has foundations in Ancient Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment.  As a movement, it has not really grabbed humans by the ontological short and curlies but is battling on.
In the USA, Unitarianism started in the liberal protestant churches in the 19th century and now has godless and creedless aspects to its faith.  It might have a few hundred thousand adherents worldwide.   
Apart from that, we godless write boring books and tedious blogs.  Our community is virtual and celebrated in the comments that follow blogs like this one.  We need something more human.
The Sunday Assemblies are new but cool.  Community singing is encouraged.  This interests me as singing is a polarizing issue.  Some love it and others wince.  The British are much better at it than Aussies, probably from the football culture that bought us “Ooh ah, Cantona” and hooliganism.  I saw a final of the women’s hockey when the British girls sang God Save our Gracious Queen beautifully whereas our girls sang an inhibited, tuneless version of AAF.  The two cultures, though similar are starkly different on this issue.  I sing in gospel choir in a Baptist Church with a bunch of secular people so this issue of song and faith entrances me.  
Kate Murray - the current Grand Poo Bah of the Melbourne Sunday Assembly
 Kate Murray the current Organiser of Sunday Assembly Melbourne has a very sophisticated vision of the issues of ritual.  “The singing is the best part of our Assemblies.  We have a rock back and sing the best songs that everyone knows.”  They use the best of the rock genre.  Kate is pregnant and her child will be welcomed with a naming ceremony at the Assembly.  There is clear evidence of the rise of godless community where ages and stages are lived out and celebrated.
What is your view?
Do we need communities for the godless?
Will the competition from the net, the media and sport crowd out these new Sunday Assemblies?
Can we survive and thrive without direct human contact and ritual?

Over to you….